June 10 2017: racing uncertainty

Those who know of Mansfield only from Tow Law Town in 1967 or Consett 30 years later – the former indelible, the latter pretty forgettable – may have missed events on election night.

Alan Meale, the town’s Labour MP for 30 years, lost in a 6.5 per cent swing to the Tories – the result so great a shock that the returning officer announced that he’d won, anyway.

“An Oscars moment,” they called it – and it was the first time since that coal-black, blood red constituency was formed in 1885 that it had gone to the Conservatives.

Alan Meale’s a Co Durham lad – from Leeholme, near Bishop Auckland – had been treasurer of the all-party football committee and secretary of the greyhound committee. In 1993 he was appointed vice-prfesident of the National Association for the Protection of Punters, in which capacity I’d been down to Mansfield to interview him.

Punters were getting a very raw deal, he said, though it seemed to me that chiefly they needed protecting from themselves – or in the case of Catterick Races this afternoon, from the incessant rain.

I’m neither a racing nor a betting man, but there certainly wasn’t going to be any cricket.

My mate Kit and his partner Christine are there, too. Kit’s a pretty serious gambler, Christine acts much more on instinct. “I like the ones in pink,” she says. “If it’s pink and No 7 it’s a certainty.”

Similarly insightful, I struggle to find anything with a Northern League connection. Totally Magic might sum it up but World Power seems a bit of an exaggeration, even for me.

The day’s predictably unsuccessful, though a tenner on Mr Globetrotter – I’d been talking to our kidder only that morning; he’s never at home – brings short odds consolation.

At Mansfield v Consett, incidentally, more than a thousand support-you-evermore travelling fans had gathered behind the Field Mill goal to watch the gallant Steelmen lose 4-0. The crowd at their next home game was 25 – but you could have put good money on that.

June 9 2017: Bible stories (honest)

Shakespeare enthusiasts will recall that it was Antonio in The Merchant of Venice who supposed that the devil can cite scripture for his own purpose. This particular Beelzebub seeks to cite it by way of addressing another blog.

We’d said a few days back that Queen of the South (Matthew 12:42) was the only football team mentioned in the Bible. As has previously been said of the Good Book, it ain’t necessarily so.

Keith Stoker reckons it depends upon which of the many translations you read. The New International Version (UK) translates Jeremiah 50:25 as “The Lord has opened his arsenal….”

Good old Arsenal.

John Briggs forwards the Guardian Knowledge page on such divine matters, with biblical references aplenty.

There’s “bury”, of course, and “reading” (Acts 8:28) and a couple of palaces, too. In one of the translations, Isiaiah 41:7 even attempts a double: “”The craftsman encourages the goldsmith, and he who smites with the hammer spurs on him who strikes the anvil.”

Those of us brought up on the King James version (and who still prefer it) might quote (again  via Keith Stoker) Matthew 7:15 – “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, for inwardly they are ravening wolves.”

Jeremiah 48:12 might also refer to Molineux: “”Therefore, behold, the days come….when I shall send unto him wanderers.”

No mention anywhere of black cats or magpies – but that’s enough from the Book of Amos, anyway.


June 8 2017

For about the 30th successive year, I’m invited to the Over 40s League annual presentations, in Sunderland. It’s a remarkable success story.

Formed with five or six clubs, it now has 72 across five divisions, flourishing while almost all 11-a-side football flounders.

There are concerns, nonetheless, one of them that from July the entire player registration process will be absorbed into the FA’s computerised Whole Game System.

Old dogs, new tricks? “We still have lads who think a PC is Dixon of Dock Green,” says Wilf Harrison, the league chairman.

Wilf’s also a bit worried that some of the younger lads – those not much over 40 – are losing their commitment. “They prefer going away with their girl friends for the  weekend,” he says – sometimes, adds Wilf, even with their wives.

Inevitably there are familiar Northern League faces. Franc Deverdics – Dunston mainly? – picks up an award for 317 goals in 300 Over 40s games, Chris Arnott is the season’s top scorer with 52, Tony Healer picks up a trophy, too.

Veteran referee Ashley Cooper, nicknamed Rain Man by the Northern League magazine because everywhere he went it tossed down, becomes the first Over 40s match official to win Ref of the Year twice – average mark of more than 90 from 33 games.

Former Premiership man Ken Redfearn, 73, is also still reffing – “but minus a few gall stones,” he says. We share the presentations – and both leave clinking.

*This weekend’s Non League paper plans a big piece investigating the Northern League’s remarkable success these past two decades. They ring for a chat. That may be considered the old, old story, too.

Basically, as Brian Mulligan likes to point out, you can only play the cards you’re dealt – our cards marked by geographical, economic and social factors which others seemed not to comprehend. I still like to think we played them pretty well, though.

The likelihood at the end of 2017-18 is that the FA, affected like others by tall poppies syndrome, will simply tip over the table.

It’s a 20-minute chat, full of familiar words and phrases like “homogenisation”, “iniqitous” – compulsory promotion – and devil takes the hindmost.

Expect about 20 words of it in the NLP this Sunday.

June 7 2017: what’s going on at Durham FA?

Wetherspoons breakfasts are almost becoming an early favourite: before 8 30 I’m in the Wicket Gate at Chester-le-Street with Ebac chairman John Elliott, who’s in full English mode.

John has a couple of times met Tim Martin, founder of the ever-lengthening pub chain. J D Wetherspoon, so the story goes, was the teacher who told Martin he’d never make anything of himself.  “A fellow Brexiteer,” says John.

Breakfast precedes a 9 30 meeting with Durham FA, next to the county cricket ground and two days ahead of Rod Stewart. Though I’ve always got on very well with Durham FA – as with all the county FAs in our patch – they may have football’s most impoverished biscuit barrel. A proper breakfast seems advisable.

Ebac Northern League folk will soon be seeing more of DFA secretary John Topping, who’s also an FA Council member. He’s chairman of Jarrow, newly promoted from the Wearside League – “26 teams,” he says proudly.

John Elliott’s Jag has one of those clever navigational gizmos to which instructions may be addressed. “Navigation: previous destination,” he tells it.

“Navigation: tourist information,” says the gizmo. Thus distracted, he very kindly runs me home. It seems to have been a very positive meeting: no more scraping the barrel, DFA might next time run to a hob-nob.

*More or less accurately suggesting that Queen of the South was the only football team mentioned in the Bible, the blog the other day then blotted its good copy book by giving a wrong reference.

Matthew 13:42, as Keith Bell points out, is about fiery furnaces and weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. I meant Matthew 12:42 – “The Queen of the South shall rise up in the judgement with this generation….”

Keith’s long in Canada but remains a Newcastle United fan. “There have been several players in my recollection,” he says, “who would have provided excellent resource for the late-lamented Consett Iron Company’s furnaces.”


June 6 2017: Vin Garbutt dies


Vin Garbutt, of whom the English Folk Song and Dance Society once said that he should be prescribed on the National Health, died this morning. He was 69.

Usually identified as a folk singer, winner of the BBC Best Live Act award in 2001, he was in truth a brilliant all-round entertainer and a hugely funny man.

Teesside University gave him an honorary degree. That’s the lad, gowned and mortared, above.

He was born in South Bank, his father a sergeant major and his mother an Irish Catholic. “Until things got a bit greener, I always thought that a catalytic converter was an Irish missionary,” he liked to say.

His hair resembled Samson’s before that unfortunate business with Dalilah, his jumpers could have been bequeathed by the late Bobby Thompson, his crack was a cross between the Little Waster and the Big Yin.

I’d last chatted to him at Darlington Folk Club just before Christmas, when he was clearly unwell. “Anyone got a defibrillator?” he asked the audience, and it was audiences which reinvigorated him. “It’s the adrenaline, performing is fantastic,” he said.

He’d had heart problems for years, told the Darlington crowd of an appointment with his consultant at the James Cook Hospital in Middlesbrough.

The doc pondered Vin’s notes. “There’s a folk singer lives around here with the same name as you,” he said.

“If you don’t get a move on there won’t be much longer,” said Vin.

He’d been told that a diseased valve would be replaced by the equivalent bit of a pig, was finally given a mechanical replacement when major surgery was carried out in April. “The pig might have been disgruntled,” he wrote on his Facebook page.

Vin wrote almost all his own songs. At Darlington they begged him to do the one – a true story – about a ship which, 20-or-so years earlier had run aground off the East Cleveland coast, where he lived. Inevitably it was looted, the cargo chiefly leisure shirts and boys pants with a Super Mario motif.

There were T-shirts for the husbands

Sweat shirts for the wives

And every kid in Skinningrove had underpants for life.

That he performed a great deal better than he looked recalls also the death in 1997 of Denis Weatherley, my old headmaster at Bishop Auckland Grammar School and himself a singer of international renown.

In later life we became friends. A few months before he died I bumped into him in Darlington, noted that he seemed pretty gaunt and remarked – as you do – how well he looked.

“Mike, there are three ages of man,” said Denis. “Youth, middle age and ‘By God you do look well’.”

He died a few months later while performing Swing Low Sweet Chariot with his son’s choir. They’d just reached the chorus about coming for to carry me home.

It was a poignant but perhaps a perfect way to go – and it was a reminder of another of those Latin maxims about which we’ve been writing. Carpe diem: seize the day.




June 5 2017: Juve been framed

Noting that one of the medals is for sale – guide price between £4,000-£6,000 – yesterday’s blog recalled the first of West Auckland’s two World Cup triumphs, in 1909.

Immediately it stirred memories of the centenary of that extraordinary event, an Italian adventure – make that misadventure – based at the Holiday Inncompetent.

For a year, West had been planning a return trip to Turin – where the Sir Thomas Lipton trophy was contested – and a return match with Juventus, who they’d beaten 6-1 in the second final, in 1911. The FA backed the adventure with £10,000; Lipton’s successor company put £5,000 into the pot.

The 1,100 mile pre-season coach journey took 28 hours. No one from Juventus was at the South Turin Holiday Inn to greet the weary travellers – come to think, hardly anyone from the Holiday Inn was, either.

“Having been expecting the best of both worlds,” I wrote in The Northern Echo, “West Auckland ended up unwilling extras in Juve Been Framed, beggars at a rich man’s feast.”

Both hotel bar and restaurant were closed, the patio out of bounds, its umbrellas subsided.  Even in the hotel trade, apparently, the Italians like to take August off. Those staff who were there demanded temporary confiscation of West’s passports – a precaution which was to prove sadly prudent. The promised swimming pool didn’t exist.

The match against a Juventus side was the following day, Saturday, at the youth training ground about 30 miles away in the mountains. West were wearing their new club ties, best bib and tucker. Juve weren’t even wearing their best jeans.

Not only was there still no official welcome, no hospitality of any sort – not even a half-time cuppa – but West chairman Jim Palfreyman’s wife was even declined entry to the ground until she paid 10 euros admission.

It wasn’t what you’d call a red carpet, not even a proggy mat.

West had brought pennants and gifts. Juventus asked for the exchange to be delayed until half-time, clearly so that they might rustle something up. They handed over a blank plaque and two books on Iralian wild flowers.

“What am I supposed to do with these?” asked general manager Stuart Alderson.

“Look at the pictures like you always do,” said Jim.

Juve won 7-1. After much seeking to discover what happened next, our boys were directed to a hotel in the town where the two teams sat outside, either side of the entrance.

West wondered about refreshment. After a while a few crisps and some pop arrived for the players but nothing at all for the rest of the party (or the poor league chairman, either.)

A little later, a bell rang in the hotel. The Juventus group went in for dinner; the West lads were left outside with their crisps and pop before taking the coach back to the Holiday Inn.

“It was like they didn’t want us there in the first place,” said Stuart. “To be honest, I don’t think many of them knew why we were there. It was one of the biggest disappointments of my life.”

The team then went out on the town. We went to bed. At 6 30am we were woken by the fire alarm, activated by drunken horse play with dry powder extinguishers. The fire brigade arrived at about 10mph – “I could have passed them on me bike” said one of the West committee – followed by armed carbinieri.

The hotel demanded 2,000 euros to make good the damage before passports would be returned, the coach left late on the long, long return journey.

We’d been promised a weekend never to forget. How right they were.

June 4 2017: World Cup medal for sale

One of West Auckland’s World Cup medals goes under the hammer on June 13, the guide price between £4,000-£6,000.

It was won by Alf Gubbins – not many footballers with names like that these days – said to have been a railway shunter from Shildon.

Gubbins, nicknamed Tot, was in the side which lifted the inaugural Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy in 1909, alongside men like Charlie Hogg – known as Dirty Hogg, and probably not just because he worked down the pit – and David Thomas, whose grandson of the same name was to become a yet more famous footballer.

News of the medal sale, for which thanks to Garry Gibson, sends me searching for Martin Connolly’s wonderfully researched book The Miners’ Triumph, published in 2014.

Martin was born in Belfast, is said on the back cover to have researeched in psychology, theology, Judaism and the Holocaust – but his other two books were both about West Auckland.

One’s simply a potted village history, the other – sub-titled “the North-East Borgia?” – is about Mary Ann Cotton, the mass murderess of those parts.

Unable to find much information in the local papers of the time, Martin sourced the Italian press and had the relevant bits translated at Durham University.

Thus he is able to discount the familiar thoery that West Auckland’s invitation to the four-team “World Cup” was intended for Woolwich Arsenal – who had the same initials.

La Stampa reported (correctly, then as now) that West Auckland “belonged to the most important federation in north England”, though Martin’s convinced that they really meant to invite the Bishops.

West, after all, were in their first Northern League season – tenth out of 12 – and were mostly a group of miners described in the Italian papers as “scrawny” and “rather small and undersized”. They showed them, though.

The story of the two triumphs in Turin in 1909 and 1911 is well known – Martin Connolly able to reveal that in 1909 Alf Gubbins came home to a new baby. Perhaps because of the demands of fatherhood, he didn’t play in 1911.

The auction’s at Anderson and Garland in Newcastle. The book may still be available on Amazon. Failing that, my own copy could also be for sale. The guide price is £4,000-£6,000.

*Only Don Clarke realised – I hadn’t – that yesterday’s blog, in which four different languages featured, was posted on the Feast of Pentecost – when folks all “spoke in tongues.”

Several readers, however, have pointed out that it’s not just “Chairman: Mike Amos” on the back of the new Northern :League ground passes which may be in error. After just a year as chairman, Glenn Youngman finds himself “President.” Where that leaves poor George Courtney is uncertain.