August 10 2018: mates’ rates

Yesterday’s blog carried a picture of Nathan and Jamie Cobain, who’ll be on opposite sides when Washington meet West Auckland in the FA Cup on Saturday.

Clearly the guys must have lots of friends because the usual number of Grass Routes visitors almost doubled. So what of Louis Goldsack of Guisborough Town, scorer at Penrith a couple of seasons ago of one of the finest goals I’ve seen on a Northern League pitch.

He must have hundreds of mates….

Guisborough’s ever-informative press release reports that Louis, still just 19, is off on a four-year sports scholarship to the US while, coincidentally, former Town chairman John Newton – “I know I should get out more” – sends a list of the clubs’ leading scorers and appearance makers.

The local legendary Mark Davis tops both – 587 games, 342 goals – with Neil Hodgson (355) second in the appearances chart and David Onions, who seems to commute between Guisborough and Marske with the regularity of the Isle of Wioght ferry between Cowes and the mainland, second top scorer with 104.

Young Goldsack had scored 18 in 51 before the start of this season, but there may never be another like Penrith.

Then there’s Jamie Clarke, old Blackbeard the Pirate, who must have played for Guisborough Town because he played for just about everyone else in his quest for 1,000 senior matches.

I’m not sure if he made it, but Martin Birtle spots him on the front page of today’s Northern Echo in an advert for Redcar Races’ best dressed man day.

Blackbeard, it transpires, was second last year. What, and no dottle down his good suit? Visitor figures for the blog posted on Saturday morning are always the lowest of the week – but Jamie has friends everywhere….


August 9 2018: parental guidance


                                        Fraternity: Jamie and Nathan Cobain

On the subject of dads and lads – yesterday’s blog – Dave Bussey reports a case of potentially divided loyalties ahead of Saturday’s FA Cup match between Washington and West Auckland.

Jamie Cobain plays for West; Nathan, his brother, is with Washington. Their parents, Sandra and Damian, watch them alternately – or together when only one team is playing.

“They’ll have a real dilemma on Saturday,” says Dave, to whom thanks for the photograph “but at least they’ll know that one of the lads will be in the next round.”

*The Ebac Northern League always prides itself on being a family, of course, a claim wonderfully underlined by a letter to The Northern Echo from Billingham Town fan Johnny Drummond.

Last season was a bit traumatic for Town, not helped when the chairman, chief executive, secretary and programme editor – all the same person – upped and offed.

Now the chairman’s former senior police officer Paul Beddow, the secretary’s Ray Morton – who was an inspector – and, early days, the team’s top of the second division on goal difference.

Johnny, a relatively recent convert, now loves the place – quirks and all. It reminds him, he says, of Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights.

“Of course it’s just a game of football, but the spirit and friendship between fans, staff, players and chairman makes my Saturday.

“I feel like I’m having a family Sunday dinner, surrounded by friends and kin. It’s lovely.”

He loves the quirkiness, too, like the match in which the PA guy failed to announce the only goal. There was a subsequent announcement, though. “Sorry,” he said, “I’d gone to the loo.”

August 8 2018: paternity suit?

Do dads still watch their lads? If they do, are they regarded as an antediluvian embarrassment or a welcome filial fan club?

A generation ago, Shildon players like Neil Hoban and Neil Emerson were often cheered on by their fathers. Before them, long serving goalkeeper Bryan Dale frequently brought his father (and sometimes his mum, too.)

More recently at Dean Street, Lewis Wing – man of the match for Boro on Tuesday – is said often to have been watched by his dad.

These days it seems a great rarity, however, and even in 2018 most players do presumably know who their fathers are.

The question’s asked because tonight I duck the football to watch my elder son play cricket for Richmond Mavericks at Thornton Watlass, a delightful North Yorkshire village near Bedale where the field’s the village green, the road runs 15 yards inside the boundary and the pub’s immediately beyond it.

It’s the Wensleydale Evening League second division, a joyous and greatly sporting competition in which the lad’s on the verge of becoming leading wicket taker for the second successive season.

He has reason, however – and one which the jinxed gentlemen of Tow Law Town would understand – for not wholly welcoming the father figure on the boundary. I’ve never seen him take so mucb as a wicket: trying too hard, he supposes.

Thornton Watlass have a bowler described by the visitors as an old man. He’s probably 20 years younger than poor Adam’s old man, but tonight the lad bags two more wickets almost certainly to secure the accolade.

While I’m spending an idyllic August evening at the cricket, some of the travelling fraternity have headed to Cockfield’s famous old Hazel Grove football ground in west Durham to watch West Auckland Tuns in the Wearside League.

Though Cockfield United’s heyday was in the 1920s, when they reached the FA Amateur Cup final, they also had a very good Auckland and District League side in the 1990s.

On one occasion, a bitterly cold day just after Christmas, they played Whickham in the Durham Challenge Cup. I’d fallen into conversation with an elderly local of about 75 who at half-time made his excuses and left.

“I have to put some coal on for my dad,” he said. Now that’s what you call filial loyalty.

August 7 2018: sod’s Law

Oh crumbs. Yesterday’s blog not only reported that a goal for Tow Law in tonight’s game at Birtley Town would be the Lawyers’ 6,000th in the Northern League – only the second club to reach that milestone – but noted club secretary Steve Moralee’s misgivings at my planned attendance.

Jinx, and not of the high sort, is mentioned. So let’s talk about Birtley instead.

A Birtley club were founder Northern League members in 1889, played on the opening day but left at the end of the season. The latest incarnation returned to the NL in 2007 and were relegated at the end of 2015-16, my last season as league chairman.

Had that eventuality not long seemed likely, there’d probably have been a recommendation to relegate them for failing to meet ground crieria. It’s fair to say that we found our dealings wih the club very frustrating.

So it’s great to be back there tonight, the club’s first home game since promotion back to the second division, and to see the place transformed. The welcome from club secretary Colin Beat is warm, the clubhouse – for so long a semi-derelict cabin that held little but empty promises – wholly and magnificently transformed.

Then look at the programme (which in former times you usually couldn’t.) On the inside front cover there’s a list of the 19 junior teams under Town’s banner, on the back the logos of no fewer than 27 sponsors, from Slimming World to the Lotus Leaf Chinese restaurant.

The crowd’s 137, more than twice last year’s average, and most of them comfortably in shirt sleeves. Among them is Mick McGuigan, Tow Law’s centre forward in the early 1970s, culimnating in the League Cup final win over Ashington in 1974.

“I must have scored a canny few of those 5,999 myself,” says Mick.

Ah yes, the match. Tow Law goalie David Bowns, only signed the previous evening, undergoes lengthy treatment half way through the first half, makes a splendid save from a free kick and then hobbles off, replaced by sub defender Paul Oxley.

It’s goalless at that point, 1-0 to Birtley at half-time and 5-0 at the finish. Joe Barwick, a lively No 9, hits a hat-trick.

Near the end, Steve Moralee shoves his match folder into my hands. “It’s an injunction,” he says.

The Lawyers try again at Ryton and Crawcrook Albion on Saturday. I’m not going, honest.


August 6 2018:Lawyers’ landmark

A little bit of Northern League history may be made at the Birtley v Tow Law match on Tuesday evening  – the Lawyers’ first goal, if indeed they score at all, will be the club’s 6,000th in the league. They’d be only the second club to reach that milestone.

Their first came on September 22 1894 in a 2-2 draw before “a large company” at South Bank. It was the Lawyers’ league debut on the fourth Saturday of the season but, sadly, the scorer isn’t recorded.

With a break in membership from 1900-1920, they’ve now played 3.171 games, won 1,304, drawn 601 and lost 1,266. Should they win 20-0 on Tuesday, an outcome which some may suppose improbable, they’ll have a positive all-time goal difference,

The highest number of goals scored – with thanks once again to that remarkable stats man Keith Greener of Chester-le-Street – is, perhaps unsurprisingly, Bishop Auckland’s 6,517 in 2,883 games and with a positive goal difference of getting on 2,000.

Shildon are third (2,897 games, 5,740 goals), followed in the top ten by Willington (2,817/5,012), West Auckland (2,811/4,836), Billingham Synthonia (2,589/4,781), Crook Town (2,553/4,780), Durham City (2,235/3,974), Whitley Bay (1,803/3,501), Consett (1,875/3,401) and Ashington (1,851/3,371.)

After all those games, Crook have a positive goal difference of precisely four. Willington’s is minus 1,012, West Auckland’s minus 707.

There may, however, be a slight problem for Tow Law on Tuesday – which is that I plan to be there. “If you’re going we won’t score if we play all night,” opines Lawyers’ secretary Steve Moralee, the familiar theory that the former league chairman is a universal jinx.

Six thousand-to-one shot, there may be more of all this tomorrow.


August 5 2018: Cat among the pigeons

Not the anticipated start to the season, yesterday’s blog recorded new Sunderland RCA goalie coach Lenny French’s heart scare shortly before kick-off against Benfield and the much better news that he should be fine.

Shildon fan and Grass Routes reader Paul Mulley empathised more than most. His dad suffered two heart attacks a few weeks back, was rushed to the James Cook hospital in Middlesbrough, underwent surgery and two hours later was sitting up watching the World Cup on telev ision.

After two days he went home. “I hope that Lenny has as speedy a recovery as my dad had,” says Paul, among very many well wishers.

The blog also tried to recall a Chester-le-Street match in which Chester had inadvertently scored a “fluke” goal and then deliberately put one in at the other end, but was wrong in supposing that Lenny was the Chester goalie.

It was Ian Aitken, September 28 2002 in a home FA Cup tie against Harrogate RA  and with £7,500 at stake. Both Paul Wilson and Chester-le-Street stats guru Keith Greener recall that Chester were winning 1-0 when the referee awarded a drop ball on the halfway line and asked Chester’s Steven Leadbitter to hit it back to the visiting keeper.

The “back pass” was struck too hard, the keeper was off his line, the goal had to stand. “Harrogate went mad,” long serving former Northern League secretary and Chester fan Tony Golightly observed at the time.

After the re-start, says Keith, Colin Wake got the ball and played it back to Aitken who, from six yards, turned and whacked it into his own net. Thereafter a remarkable match changed quickly. 2-0 up, Chester were 5-2 down at half-time but fought back to 5-5.

The replay was 2-2 after 90 minutes, but then the RA hit five in extra-time. “Despite the loss and the possibility of winning £7,500 the majority of us thought then, and still do, that the team made the correct decision,” says Keith.

Paul admits that he had to refresh his memory via google – “but I can recall without assistance the longevity, the loyalty and the goalkeeping expertise of Lenny “the Cat” French”.

*Elsewhere in the Cup on that late September day 16 years ago, the best Northern League result was Dunston’s 2-0 win against Burscough – who’d conceded just two Unibond League goals all season. Guisborough drew 3-3 with Guiseley (wasn’t there a story around the replay?), Billy Town lost 2-0 at Accrington Stanley and Tow Law’s 7-3 home defeat to Hyde United prompted team manager “Doc” Graeme Forster to brand his team “gutless and spineless.”  He was good at pyrotechnics, was the Doc.

*Yesterday’s blog was also aghast at the state of the litter-choked verges of the approach road – Saint-Nazaire Way, no less – into Ryhope from the Co Durham end. The post has now appeared on the Ryhope Community Facebook page and caused ructions, as they say in those parts – hence today’s header. More of that next time.

August 4 2018: shadow over the sun

So the travels, some might suppose the travails, begin again – just £6 35 return (with a codger’s card) from Darlington to Seaham and then a sun-blessed walk along the coast to Sunderland RCA’s ground at Ryhope.

Part of it’s on Lord Byron Walk, reflecting the poet’s Seaham connectons, and on such an August afternoon even the most cloth eared might wax lyrical.

Across the border from Co Durham to Sunderland, however, it becomes Saint-Nazaire Way, presumably acknowledging a town twinning connection.

It’s impossible to recall grass verges more wholly or more foully choked with litter. Is this what Sunderland means by entente cordiale? If the French visit they should rip up the agreement and scatter the bits outside the Civic Centre.

And if this is an example of Ryhope’s community pride, little wonder that the two Ebac Northern League clubs in the overgrown village struggle so greatly for support.

Still, things get better immediately on reaching Meadow Park. Mr Keith Stoker spots me coming and gets the beers in. “Don’t put it in the blog, everyone will want one,” he says.

In the clubhouse, like we’d never been away, the conversation earnestly turns to whether it’s lucky to be sh*t on by a seagull. The consensus is that no it’s not and that they’re thieving vermin. They’d love it along Saint-Nazaire Way.

On so glorious an afternoon, however, things then become overshadowed.

Lenny French, RCA’s new goalkeeping coach, has been taking part in the warm-up, returned to the dressing room and complained of chest pains.

The PA asks if anyone has a bottle of aspirin, the ambulance and paramedics are there commendably quickly. By 4pm, they’re on their way to the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle.

Though it’s not needed for its primary purpose, RCA’s defibrillator is used to help with medical assessment. The Northern League insists that all clubs must have one by the end of 2020. That’s why.

No one quite knows what’s happening. Folk reassure one another that it’s amazing what the docs can do these days.

Lenny’s 47 and greatly well known and well liked around the Northern League, chiefly from his time at Chester-le-Street but also at Ryton, Washington, Ryhope CW and probably others, “The sort of true sportsman you really only expect to find in Roy of the Rovers,” someone says.

Memories turn to a Chester-le-Street match in which Chester scored some sort of flukey goal and Lenny, lovely bloke, allowed the equaliser. Details are distant. The Chester lads will remember.

RCA are playing Newcastle Benfield, who win with a second half goal – Paul Brayson, almost inevitably.

I’m still homeward at 7 23pm when there’s a text message from Colin Wilson at the RCA. Lenny has had surgery to address blod clots, is sitting up in bed, talking and answering text messages of his own. He expects to be home in 48 hours.

Great news. Truly, it’s amazing what they can do.