December 5 2018: proper Poolie

Shildon and Arsenal are my first and second teams. The third team, though on no account to be confused with the Stiffs, is Hartlepool United.

It goes back to school magazine days when, having been turned down by several biggish North-East names for a piece on the life of a professional football, I turned to Pools’ Welsh-under 23 goalkeeper Ken Simpkins – who also played several times as centre forward – and who agreed at once.

Ken’s still in the the town and will be 75 later this month. I was a Poolie.

Tonight they’re at home in the Durham Challenge Cup to Ryton and Crawcrook Albion from the Ebac Northern League second division, interest barely helped by the fact that neither Hartlepool’s daily or weekly paper includes the fixture and it’s not even on the club website until teatime.

The Corner Flag, the supporters’ association bar outside the ground, hasn’t a single customer. At the home fans turnstile – the vistors’ gate inexplicably being closed – I follow in a Fulham scout who’s arranged a freebie. Cheapskate, he’s probably there to watch someone from Ryton.

These days the Victoria Park ground answers to the Super 6 Stadium, though that seems a bit optimistic. Two or three would be a marked improvement.

The executive boxes are shut, the Drunken Monkey bar and the Cheeky Money kids’ counter are shut, the Maidens Suite unoccupied – though it would be improper, of course, to speculate upon the reasons for last of those.

Pools again have their problems, not least that a game lasts 90 minutes. “If it was only 80 we’d be about fifth in the league and still in the Cup,” someone says.

They’re also looking for a new manager, the locals quite fancying a nostalgic return by Neil Warnock, who played for Hartlepool in the early 1970s and was 70 last Saturday. “The only problem,” they concedee, “is that he hasn’t yet been sacked by Cardiff.”

The crowd’s put at 55, though even fewer may have paid. Some of the travellers had been among the 8,000 at Sunderland’s Checkatrade tie last night, miffed that there was neither programme nor team sheet.

Hartlepool give out team sheets at the gate. In both divisions of the Ebac Northern League, FA rules decree fines for clubs who fail to produce a programme.

Ryton give a good account of themselves, defend well, equalise amid considerable excitement but finally lose 3-1 – Pool’s goals scored by trialists from Burton Albion, Stoke City and the Boro.

It’s a shame: old  loyalties notwithstanding, I always want the Northern League team to win.



December 4 2018: Synners’ stadium blazes

The stand at Billingham Synthonia’s much loved former home has been badly damaged by fire – though hopes of a return to the Central Avenue stadium seemed already to have been extinguished.

“It doesn’t really change anything. The old place had already been vandalised internally and it’s a complete mess,” says long serving club secretary Graham Craggs.

“I think we’ve known for a long time that there was little or no chance of the Synners playing again at Central Avenue.”

The club left the former ICI-owned stadium two years ago, now plays at the former Norton and Stockton Ancients’ ground on the other side of the A19 and has just signed an agreement to return there next season.

Synners have recently held a meeting with local MP Alex Cunningham, who’d been contacted by several people concerned at the ground situation. Encouraged, they hope for a second meeting soon in the hope of finding a new home back in Billingham.

The Central Avenue stadium was opened by Lord Derby, treasurer of the National Playing Fields Association, on September 6 1958. An international athletics event was followed by a 2-2 draw between Synners and Bishop Auckland, watched by FA secretary Sir Stanley Rous.

Internally as well as externally impressive, it was maintained over many years by a team of dedicated and (almost always) cheerful volunteers – some of them no longer with us.

While the club continues to seek a new home in Billingham, it’s expected that the Central Avenue site will be redeveloped for housing.

December 3 2018: Dirty doings

Where there’s muck, we were recalling the other day that Charlie Hogg, who played in both West Auckland’s World Cup finals in 1909 and 1911, carried ubiquitously the nickname “Dirty.”

It reminds Neil McKay of the 1982 film A Captain’s Tale, recalling those World Cup exploits and principally starring Dennis Waterman, in which Dirty Hogg was played by a relatively unknown called Tim Healy.

The following year he was cast as Denis in Auf Wiedersehen Pet and, having been given a Northern League stage, never looked back.

Mind, the Northern League always was cultured. Long before Jack Drum Arts’ splendid piece of theatre to mark our 125th anniversary there was a touring play, Northern Glory, to commemorate the centenary in 1989.

Among the cast was 23-year-old Jan Graveson, a miner’s daughter from Easington, who’d been British tap dancing champion at the age of 12 and who (somewhat improbably) played Bob Paisley.  Within a year of Northern Glory she was playing Disa O’Brien, a homeless young mum in EastEnders – anyone remember? – and has since popped up in all manner of things including Heather in Byker Grove from 1994-96.

More recently she starred alongside Ray Winstone in the psychological thriller Everything.

Jan’s Wikipedia page records that she now has homes in London, Chicago and Mumbai, all of which seem an awfully long way from Easington, but she’d never have forgotten the time that she played Bob Paisley and won.

Neil McKay, incidentally, was so taken by The Captain’s Tale back in 1982 that he bought one of those new-fangled video cassette players. That it was shortly before the World Cup finals was, of course, coincidental.

*It’s a real sadness to learn of the death of John Weeks, long-serving chairman of the Peterborough-based United Counties League. During many a leagues meeting with the FA, the Northern League in every sense isolated, John proved a lone supporter.

Afterwards there’d be words of comfort or encouragement, as appropriate, best summed in that cod-Latin phrase containing the word illegitimis. Sometimes he’d ring just to compare notes, always there’d be a fraternal reunion at the Vase final lunch. He was a terrific football man.

December 2 2018: Stonewalling

One of the lads at yesterday’s Vase match beteen Avro and West Auckland had taken in a game at Wembley the previous evening.

It was a Middlesex County League first division match – step eight, I think – between Stonewall and Wilberforce Wanderers and on this occasion supported by the FA.

Stonewall represent the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community – “the most successful LGBT football club in the world,” says its promotional material – though, like 99.9% of other clubs, it’s open to all regardless of age, race, gender, religion or sexuality.

For Friday night’s match the Wembley arch was illuminated with the “rainbow laces” logo. Admission was carefully checked, the gent’s in the Bobby Moore suite – horrors! – was labelled gender neutral.

My mate was a bit surprised. “The FA spent ages agonising over whether the Vase final could continue at Wembley and now they’re staging a Middlesex County League match at goodness knows how much expense.”

Saturday’s Vase programmes, presumably at FA insistence, carried full page ads promoting Stonewall and inclusivity. The sports sections of today’s Sunday Times and Sunday Telegraph – and presumably other national papers –  have four-page wraparounds, subscribed by the Premier League, espousing Stonewall and the rainbow laces cause.

I’m not remotely homophobic. Many mates and colleagues have been gay; many more may have been but I neither know nor care because it makes not a jot of difference.

Stonewall runs just three teams, none higher than what is effectively the Middlesex League second division. At a time when the grassroots game is almost begging for investment, there are community-based clubs running 30 teams whose outlook would be transformed by just a small fraction of that investment.

Every success to Stonewall in high-profile efforts to address discrimination, but hasn’t all this grown a bit disproportionate? Can discrimination work both ways?

*The blog may previously have told the story of how I came to be invited to the FA’s 150th anniversary dinner, a hugely posh affair attended by Prince William, Sepp Blatter and many others among the great and good.

The invitation was emailed and was, shall we say, a bit of a surprise. Was it, I replied, in my capacity as Northern League chairman or as a fairly well known member of HM press corps?

The FA replied that it was the former, subsequently to prove an even bigger surprise because I was the only steps 5/6 official there.

It was only later that I discovered that the then chairman of Stonewall was also called Mike Amos. Had the lady at the FA made a pretty easy mistake in sending out emails? It seemed very likely.

I don’t know if my namesake was finally invited as well. If he wasn’t. he missed a very good night.


December 1 2018: Avrodisiacs

In an absurdly constricted third round of the FA Vase – the last 64 of a national competition – West Auckland are at Avro, in Oldham. They’re a step below West but, like their visitors, are enjoying a lengthy winning sequence.

Among those in a generally good natured crowd is North West Counties League committee member Stuart Taylor, last encountered a few years back on a perishing cold and insidiously icy day at Glossop.

The match – against Dunston, I think – was called off while we were en route. Happily, Stuart was also an official of the local branch of the Campaign for Real Ale and gave us a guided tour of Glossop’s best boozers instead.

What’s that phrase about clouds and silver linings?

West are missing both strikers – Nathan Fisher out with an iffy ligament and Amar Purewal with what’s described as sickness and diarrhoea (and one wishes it wasn’t, because it’s probably misspelt.)

It means the first start in a year for Paul Connor, 40 in January, a player best remembered at Rochdale – just down the road – and previously with West manager Gary Forrest at Shildon. Gary’s absent, too, something to do with looking up sky scrapers in New York.

“We still have enough to win,” forecasts long-serving West general manager Stewart Alderson.

Avro, as probably we’ve noted before, were effectively a works team for the company which built Avro Lancaster bombers, and other warplanes, thereabouts.

On a 3G pitch – is there really 4G or is that just a smarty-phone? – the teams spend the first 80 minutes pounding vainly at one another’s dams. Connor’s subbed after 75 minutes – “I feel like the tin man,” he tweets later – and an Avro player’s sent off after 90 when war threatens to break out afresh

Between the two incidents, West have scored twice, the first an absolute beauty from Steve Snaith. Tom Price’s second is class, too. Harmony returns immediately after the final whistle.

West join Hebburn, Newcastle Benfield and Sunderland RCA – so much for trixy-whatnot-phobia, eh Colin? – in the fourth round and could even now be favourites. Who knows, the FA might even loosen the geograophical straitjacket a bit though, of course, you wouldn’t want to bet on it.

Stuart Taylor gives us a lift back to the nearest MetroLink station. It’s been a very good day.

November 30 2018: Christmas past

One of the first laws of journalism is that if there’s nothing happening in the present – nothing’s anyone’s going to tell you about, at any rate – then write about the past.

So as Christmas nears, here are 12 snippets from festive issues of the league magazine over the past 30 years. Unless we get some football soon, there may be more of the same.

*Faced with heavy debts, Bedlington Terriers announced that they were leaving the Northern League to join the South East Northumberland League but then changed their minds after reaching an agreement with creditors (1989).

*Work on Stockton FC’s new £800,000 stadium in the Tilery area of the town was due to start, appropriately, on April 1. It didn’t happen, of course (1993).

*Durham City secretary Peter Cartwright’s ashes were scattered on the Ferens Park centre circle while the PA played Dolly Parton singing Islands in the Stream, his favourite song. (1997).

*South Shields chairman John Rundle warned his struggling team that if they were relegated he’d fold the club. “I just can’t face the thought of a step backwards,” he said after five points from 14 games. They finished bottom of the first division, but continued. (1999).

*Billingham Synthonia stalwart Peter Lax, infamous for his malapropisms and hoary jokes, won the “Game for a laugh” category at The Northern Echo’s inaugural Local Heroes awards. He told them that Synners were hoping to develop a new clubhouse and put the ground up as cholesterol. (2000).

*Referee Jackie Traynor – more recently assistant manager at Esh Winning – was so keen to be in good fettle for an FA Cup tie at Bedlington that he went to bed early, leaving a note that he wasn’t to be disturbed. Suffice that Mrs Traynor, who’d been on a night out, had other ideas when she came home. Jackie slept beneath a duvet on the sofa (2002).

*17-year-old Whitley Bay striker  Lee Kerr made football history by behing the first player to score in FA Youth Cup, FA Cup and FA Vase in the same season. A media frenzy followed (2004).

*Norton and Stockton Ancients striker Chris Wrathmall scored the league’s 125,000 goal – yes, someone was counting – and received a league salver. “It’s the first time I’ve won anything since £200 on the Lottery a couple of years back,” he said. (2006).

*Grounds at Tow Law, Consett and Stanley United featured on BBC2’s The Culture Show alongside a piece on an American buying a Rubens masterpiece and a French author said to be into neo-naturalism. (2005).

*The league arranged for Gateshead Salvation Army band to play carols before the Dunston v Ryton match, gave out free mince pies and had a bucket collection for the Sally Ann (2009).

*The FA Amateur Cup was returning to the North-East – on display in Crook Town’s clubhouse – as part of the Northern League’s 125th anniversary celebrations. The headline, inevitably, was “Football’s coming home.” (2013.)

*Ground hopper and former Esh Winning secretary Lee Stewart had completed the set of all 44 Northern League venues by November 10, finishing at Thornaby v Birtley. Many trips were made with his New Zealand-born girl friend, Katie. He’d seen almost 300 games the season before (2015.)


November 29 2018: down, Tiger

Last Friday’s blog told of a chat with former England winger Dave Thomas, grandson of David “Ticer” Thomas who was in the West Auckland team which won the first World Cup in 1909.

A different account of the same meeting has been sent to The Northern Echo, from where diligent sports desk man Craig Stoddart emails a question: “Ticer? Do you mean Tiger?”

Certainly not. “The nickname somehow missed my father but everyone called me Ticer, too,” confirms ‘young’ Dave – now 68, registered blind and back in Teesdale.

Contrary to popular belief, the soubriquet owes its long life to cricket, not football. “My granddad played cricket for Bishop Auckland, a good spinner, He got Ticer because he always seemed to entice batsmen into playing daft shots and getting them out.”

Dave played Mid-Durham Senior League cricket for Lands, on Cockfield Fell, before signing professional football forms for Burnley as a 17-year-old (and didn’t take much ticing at all.)

“I loved my cricket but was nowhere near as good as my granddad must have been. I was probably a bit better at football.”

These shelves have two books on West Auckland’s adventures in Italy in 1909 and 1911. The slimmer of the two is the late and much lamented John Wotherspoon’s account – “The truth about the first World Cup” – the other Martin Connolly’s more detailed research, published in 2014.

Martin, an Irishman, had been West’s sub-postmaster and also wrote a book about Mary Ann Cotton, the village’s femme fatale. (Femme fatale is a euphemism, meaning husband poisoner.)

Big John, a senior executive with Sir Thomas Lipton’s successor company and a good friend to the club, mischievously perpetuates the belief that West’s invitation to the 1909 tournament, addressed to WAFC, had been intended for Woolwich Arsenal.

Martin has none of it. though still suspects a mix-up. He thinks they meant to invite the Bishops.

He also recounts the story of how Ticer Thomas came by his nickname. though he fails to mention why lads like Tucker Gill and Drol Moore were so nicknamed.

Perhaps the best remembered is Charlie Hogg, one of only three men to represent West in both tournaments and known universally as Dirty Hogg – but that was probably just because he’d had a hard shift down the pit.