Sunday, 8 May 2016


Later than advertised....

My football season ended at Hillheads, a sea fret blowing in, the air so cold you could see your breath. May on the North Sea coast. The PA played Fly Like An Eagle by the Steve Miller Band and Durham City, needing a draw to stay up, played with all the urgency of a teenage boy walking to a double physics lesson. The pitch was bumpy, the crowd distracted by radio reports from Villa Park and the Stadium of Light. Bay won 4-0, the final goal bringing my total in matches featuring Northern league teams to 120 for the season. Four goals per game at a cost of £174 and not a single 0-0.  High sixes all-round, as they say in Alston.

The blog now goes into summer recess. Thanks again for all kind comments, retweets, FB postings, web links and the like. They are very much appreciated.

Words of thanks to all the people I've watched football with this season and whose company, generosity of spirit and detailed knowledge of the playing careers of obscure 1980s footballers has played such a big part in my enjoyment of it: Ian, Gary, Phil, Steve, David, Michael, Andy, Naggs, Jimmy, Kev, John, Duncan, the Two Petes, Martin and the Professor.

In honour of Boro's promotion here's a slightly wistful piece about Juninho's second departure from Teesside.

In mid-afternoon the players' tunnel at The Riverside Stadium, Middlesbrough is shaded by the West Stand. Last Saturday Boro's Brazilian midfielder, Juninho did what he always does before running onto the field. The 27 year old dipped one knee, touched the turf by the touchline with his right hand and then crossed himself before passing from the shadow into the sunlight. It may be the last time home fans see that characteristic gesture. Juninho's loan spell from Atletico Madrid, the club he left Teesside for in a £12 million deal in 1997, comes to an end at Goodison Park at the weekend. No one, including the 1994 Brazilian Footballer of the Year, knows if the club plan to make the move permanent, or not.  

In his last full season at Middlesbrough Juninho scored 15 times in 47 appearances and  Optma rated him the most effective player in the Premiership, way ahead of  his nearest rivals Gianfranco Zola and Eric Cantona. He was named Premiership Player of the Year and finished second to his friend Zola in the Football Writers' version of the award. The response to what could have been his last game in this country was  muted to say the least, a lap of honour in a half empty stadium, hardly a headline in the national press.

Juninho plainly wants to stay in England. A cynic might say he has little to go back to. Atletico are heading for their first relegation in 60 years, government appointees now administer the financial running of the club,  there is a nasty fascist element in the crowd . Despite the fact that Jesus Gil is facing charges of fraud the former-Mayor of Marbella has recently returned to the club as president.  A man who enjoys turbulence so much he might have done better in  white water canoeing than football, Gil announced his comeback in characteristic fashion, "My name is Jesus, not Jesus Christ, but I will try to perform a miracle". Past performance suggests this is less likely to involve loaves and fishes than the sacking of the odd manager or twelve. No wonder the little man from Sao Paulo says he feels "comfortable" on Teesside.

The supporters are more ambivalent than might be expected about the future of the player they voted  the greatest in the club's history three years ago. The chant of "Sign On Juninho" (a phrase that seems less open to misinterpretation when shouted than it does in print) may have echoed round the
Riverside Stadium  on Saturday, but a  poll published  in club fanzine Fly Me To The Moon found 40% of respondents thought  Boro shouldn't pay the £5.9 million asking price. 

Many feel the Brazilian has not recovered from the destruction wrought on his ankle by Celta Vigo defender Michel Salgado in 1998.  Atletico appear to agree. When Juninho signed a five year contract at the Estadio Vicente Calderon the Spaniards said that anyone who wanted to lure him away would have to pay £36 million. Now he is on offer for less than a sixth of that sum.

 The Teesside club too seem to share the doubts. Since his return in September Juninho has been used sparingly. Explaining why he had kept the Brazilian on the bench for much of  March and April,   Robson was adamant that player simply wasn't creating enough to justify being given a free role.

 Fans, forever programmed for conspiracy (And why not? Down the years Middlesbrough have displayed an  aptitude for upsetting their greatest stars - Wilf Mannion and Brian Clough are two others the club has fallen out at one time or other- that rivals that of Alfred Hitchcock), have suspected more convoluted motives. Some feel that the ridicule that poured down on the manager's head after he substituted Juninho against Wimbledon  hardened his heart against the Brazilian. Others that in a tactic favoured in carpet bazaars across the Middle East the club are deliberately attempting to force down Atletico's asking price by feigning a lack of interest in the product.

Times have changed, of course, and not just for the Brazilian. Juninho's arrival to the accompaniment of a samba band from Stockton-on Tees and the whirring of cameras from around the world in 1995 was more than just a triumph for Bryan Robson and Middlesbrough, it was a coup for the Premiership. These days we are blase about top foreign players signing for English clubs. Back then it was regarded as an inexplicable phenomenon on a par with the Mary Celeste or Kenny Cunningham's hairstyle. 

Saturday, 30 April 2016


If you're around Teesside next Friday evening I'll be at Middlesbrough Central Library with Daniel Gray, Robert Nichols and - hopefully - Richard Piers Rayner, waffling about the 1966 World Cup. Kick off is 7pm. More details about tickets and that at:

Fingers crossed for the long postponed trip to Northallerton Town.

Meantime here's a piece about Hughie Gallacher that appeared in The Northern Correspondent a while back.

‘Often times, Saturday afternoons, he’s been in The Strawberry till half-past-two, that drunk the fans have had to carry him to the players’ entrance. But fifteen minutes later he’s run out on that field right as rain and played a blinder. Hey, lad,’ my next door neighbour says, clapping his hands with glee, ‘Wee Hughie - there’s never been a one like him since. There’s never been a one like him ever.’

My next door neighbour is talking about the Newcastle United centre-forward Hughie Gallacher. My next door neighbour is 74-years-old. Gallacher left Saint James’ Park for Chelsea in 1930 and retired in 1939. My next door neighbour is too young ever to have seen him play, but that hardly matters. As Joseph Heller said ‘Some events are so memorable even those who were not there can recall them vividly.’

A pitman from Bellshill in the North Lanarkshire coalfields, Gallacher stood five feet five, had size six feet and could cover 50 yards as quick as a Powderhall sprinter. Short, skilful, explosive, Wee Hughie was an ungovernable force of nature. As a teenage prodigy he’d banged in nine goals at Queen of the South, another 91 at Airdrieonians. Turned twenty he’d lashed in five for the Scottish League against the Irish League and a fortnight later got a couple more as the full Scotland side beat England at Hampden Park in front of 110,000 roaring fans.

Maddened by his impudence, defenders kicked chunks out of Gallacher. By the time he hit is formidable peak his shins were a mass of scar tissue and bruised lumps, the relief map of a world of pain. Half-times he sat in the dressing room chain-smoking Woodbines, blood oozing up through the eyeholes of his boots. He kicked back too. He stuck his elbows in. He stamped on feet. He raked shins and calves, gouged eyes. ‘He was the greatest centre forward I ever saw,’ the England goalkeeper Frank Swift said, ‘but he had more tricks than a bucketful of monkeys’.

Gallacher appropriated his style from the gangster movies of the Roaring Twenties. He dressed like Jimmy Cagney in The Public Enemy. Sometimes he behaved like him too. He had an apparently unquenchable thirst for conflict. As a teenager he incensed his Ulster Orangeman father by supporting Celtic and marrying a Catholic, Anne McIlvaney. He sent team mates into fits of rage by berating them for their failures. He drank heavily, fought often. In Belfast he was shot at by a sniper. Asked who might have wanted to kill their star striker the Scottish FA committeemen shrugged – who wouldn’t?

Hughie Gallacher was a gallon of trouble in a half-pint pot, but his talent could not be ignored. Shortly before Christmas, 1925, Newcastle United signed him from Airdrie - where fans threatened to burn down the ground in protest - for a fee of £6,500, just £50 below the world record. Four days later he made his debut, scoring twice. He hit fifteen goals in his first nine games and finished the season top scorer.

Newcastle made him captain for the 1926/27 season. St James’ Park was packed for every game. The team was strong and workmanlike, Gallacher made it brilliant. He was to the Magpies what another febrile little man Diego Maradona was to Argentina in 1986. He inspired his club mates, fired up the crowd, terrorised and riled the opposition. He played in 41 games, scored 39 times. United won the League.

Adored by the fans and flush with backhanders from his signing on fees Gallacher swaggered and staggered around Tyneside dressed in broad-brimmed fedora hats, double-breasted suits and spats. Photos show a flat-featured man with crinkly hair, his chin tucked in like a boxer’s. He has narrowed eyes, a wide, vulpine grin - a smile as much of challenge as of merriment. Against Spurs we see him heading the ball goalwards, one foot planted firmly on the ground; his limbs swing one way, his body the other, giving the impression of a silent film star making a swift getaway.

He’d deserted his Scottish wife long since and took up with Hannah Anderson, teenage daughter of a Newcastle publican. It was love, but her family disapproved. Gallacher was arrested after fight with her brother in the shadow of the High Level Bridge.

And so it went on: brilliance and bother. At the start of the next season Wee Hughie was suspended for two months after shoving referee Bert Fogg into a bath after a game at Huddersfield. Without him United’s season stalled. They did not retain the title. They have not won it since.

In 1929 he was called before the FA to answer charges that he had been ‘drunk and disorderly’ during a pre-season fixture in Hungary. Gallacher’s drinking before matches might have become the stuff of Tyneside folklore, but it dulled his edge and upset his paymasters. In 1930 Newcastle manager Andy Cunningham decided the Scots’ performances no longer justified the problems he caused. Tyneside’s idol was sold to Chelsea for £10,000.

In London the Scot carried on much as before, scoring twice in his first match, getting arrested for fighting with Fulham fans, enraging the board of directors by threatening strike action over wages and being pulled drunk from the gutter the night before a match with Derby County. By now Gallacher's life had started to unravel. Desperate to marry Hannah he begged his wife for a divorce. True to her faith, Annie refused. Gallacher pursued the matter through the courts. Legal fees and high living ate up his money (in those days of football’s maximum wage he earned around £500 a year), By the time the decree absolute came through he had been declared bankrupt. When Derby County bought him from Chelsea for £2,750 his signing-on fee was paid straight to the court.  

After that it was a slow descent through the divisions, the transfer fees and bonuses a little less fat each time. Gallacher joined Notts County in 1936, Grimsby Town in 1937 and a year later returned to Tyneside to play for Gateshead, then struggling at the bottom of Football league Division Three (North). He was happy to be back and people were glad to have him. 20,000 packed into Redheugh Park to watch his debut. He was 34-years of age by then, but he could still play. One of those who lined up against him recalled Wee Hughie, ‘leaping five feet in the air and twisting like a corkscrew to get a header in on goal’. He scored 18 times for Gateshead in 31 appearances, and then the War came and his career in football was over.

Gallacher found work as a labourer. For a time he wrote articles in the local press, but his outspoken views incensed the Newcastle board and he was banned from the St James’ Park press-box. In 1951 Hannah died of a heart attack, leaving Wee Hughie with three sons to bring up alone.

In 1957 he was living with the boys in Sheriff Hill, Gateshead, working as a cobbler. One May evening he returned home from the pub. His youngest son Matthew, aged fourteen, had inherited his father’s feisty attitude. He greeted his dad with a cheeky remark. Gallacher snapped, picked up an ashtray and threw it at him. It struck the boy on the side of the head drawing blood. Matthew ran out into the street. His father tried to follow, bumped into his eldest son and fought with him on the pavement. Neighbours called the police. Gallacher was arrested and charged with assault.

Matthew went to live with an aunt in a nearby street. Hughie returned home. His friends assured him that everything would work out, former team mates offered to vouch for his character in court. Nothing anyone said made any difference. The fire had gone out in Hughie Gallacher. Filled with dread, he wandered the streets, glassy-eyed, dishevelled, muttering and remonstrating with himself.

He was due to appear before Gateshead Magistrates on June 12th. On the morning of June 11th he wrote a letter to the court apologising for all the problems he’d caused. Then he walked up to the railway line at Belle Vue Bank. For a while he stood on a footbridge from which, looking north, he could see the floodlights of Saint James’ Park where 68,000 had turned out to cheer him when he returned with Chelsea. Then, with tears running down his face, Gallacher descended the wooden steps, vaulted a low fence, scrambled up the embankment and waited for the 12.08 northbound express.

Saturday, 23 April 2016


The washing out of a long planned trip to Northallerton has left me with nothing much to report footballistically (as Arsene Wenger might say) except...

At Brunton Park two weeks back a bloke along the barrier in The Paddock bellowed 'Get it in the middle for Christ's sake!' every time Carlisle crossed the half-way line, and, when the Cumbrians responded by hoofing the ball into the penalty area, groaned 'Fucking route one again, Jesus.'

He reminded me of the gnarly old bird at Ironworks Road who yelled 'Stop interfering and let them get on with the game, man' every time the ref signalled a foul and 'Did you leave your bloody whistle in the dressing room, referee?' whenever he didn't.

It's not just match officials who need to 'show a bit of consistency...'

Lunch with David Roberts, author of The Bromley Boys followed by Benfield v Guisborough for me today. And it looks like it won't rain...

A story told me by another Dave Roberts - the Teesside version - coincidentally features in this piece about former Boro boss and local radio commentary legend, Malcolm Allison. I met Big Mal once in a pub near Durham. We'd been filming interviews for a documentary about the England national team. I was surprised how short he was. In football bigness isn't about physical stature - there are large players and managers who aren't Big and medium sized ones that are. And Big Mal was definitely Big, however small he was.

In October 1982 when the Dartford-born Malcolm Allison took charge at Ayresome Park he was pretty much the apotheosis of cockney swank. Fedora hats, big cigars, champagne and snaps of him wallowing in the communal baths at Selhurst Park with the Crystal Palace team and soft-porn star Fiona Richmond had established the personality known as Big Mal as an internationally renowned flash wideboy. Even Terry 'El Tel' Venables, a Palace player at the time of the Richmond incident (he sensibly ducked out of that particular photo opportunity), looked modest and dull when set beside him.

Eighteen years ago the arrival of Allison, who had recently won the Portuguese double with Sporting Lisbon, caused a mssive stir on Teesside. The club was in huge trouble. Bottom of the Second Division with crowds rarely breaking five figures they had moved from flirting with financial ruin to groping with it in the coat pile. In such desperate times Allison was hailed as the Messiah and toured round town on an open-topped bus. He averted relegation.

That summer the public responded to Big Mal's appeals and turned up by the hundred to help re-decorate Ayresome Park. They were joined by a number of players. How times have changed.

Allison's response to all this excitement was suitably mysterious. He employed Lenny Heppel - owner of  Fandango's, a Hexham nightclub and father-in-law of Bryan 'Pop' Robson - as a body movement coach and ordered thousands of badges bearing the motto "I was there at the beginning" to be distributed with season tickets at the start of his first term. Later he suggested that the Ayresome Park pitch be dyed orange and that the club should close down. He was sacked after 18 months. 
The story of Allison's life is a cautionary tale about the media and the dangers of self parody. Despite the trauma of having his playing career cut short by TB, Allison’s early years were full of promise. He was one of a generation of young British players awakened to a brave new world by Ferenc Puskas’s Hungary – a team that were to football what Elvis would be to popular music. The youthful Allison, whether he was talking tactics in Cassetari’s Cafe with Frank O’Farrell, John Bond and Noel Cantwell, coaching Cambridge University, or introducing the sweeper system to Bath City, was then the very epitome of an earnest young radical, brimming over with ideas. He wanted players to eat properly, to attain high fitness levels, to switch formations at the click of his fingers. He was fascinated by continental methods, willing to embrace techniques from the coaches of other sports. He brought all his thoughts together in a cerebral, serious book, Soccer for Thinkers, which was hailed as visionary. Bill Shankly came to seek his opinion. It seemed that everything and anything was possible.

Then, after the title success at Maine Road, came the 1970 World Cup and a seat behind a desk in ITV’s studios next to Derek Dougan, Paddy Crerand and Bob McNab. In a matter of weeks the cerebral Allison became a loudmouthed champagne-swigging, cigar-chewing TV personality, Big Mal was born. 

In many ways Allison’s career mimicked that of Brian Clough. Clough’s playing days ended suddenly, too. He became famous as a coach and then as an outspoken TV personality, and, like Allison, had a problematic relationship with alcohol. The difference was that after Leeds United Clough consciously stepped out of the limelight and went back to focus on football. Big Mal never did. A fly-on-the-wall documentary team even captured his departure from Maine Road after his disastrous second spell at City.
“Having won four major trophies in three years, Allison did not win a single thing in English football after the birth of Big Mal,” David Tossell his biographer wrote. “It seems to be more than coincidence.”
Despite his sacking by Boro,  Allison stayed on Teesside, managing Northern League Willington for several months (he succeeded Alan 'If the fans want entertainment they can go to the circus' Durban). For a while he worked in the commentary box for local radio as an expert summariser. Unfortunately his language was sometimes too salty for comfort. After an incident during a derby match with Newcastle in which Big Mal made use of what the late Brian Close memorable called 'the conjugative verb' it was decreed that he could continue in his job only if he was given a special microphone button. The button had to be pressed to make the microphone live, an arrangement it was thought that would prevent any more on air outbursts.
The button proved troublesome however. By them Big Mal was getting on in years and his co-ordination was poor. Quite often by the time he'd pressed the button he was already half-way through a sentence.
Big Mal hit on a simple solution to the problem. Once the game started he put the button on his seat and sat on it. Listeners no longer missed the start of his comments. Unfortunately they didn't miss the swearing either.

Saturday, 2 April 2016


Last week I went to North Shields with the Two Petes. One of the Petes supports Newcastle, the other Middlesbrough. We stood next to the Ashington dug out.

Midway through the first half one of the Ashington coaching staff, annoyed by the amount of time the Robins midfielders were being allowed on the ball, bellowed, 'He's had four touches and you're twenty fucking yards away'.

'Sounds like a metaphor for life,' Boro Pete said gravely.

Which reminded me of this bit from the WSC book Always Next Year published fifteen years ago.

Saturday afternoon. Four burly men with voices that rumbled like cement mixers and made eavesdropping compulsory even for those several streets away stepped out of the concrete bunker that houses Potters Sporting Club in the Dundas Arcade. The weather seemed to be working overtime to confirm Mrs Emerson's notorious description of Teesside as ' a dark and terrible place'. Sharp rain fell from a sky the colour of tarmac and the wind cried 'Murder'. The quartet set off on the long, grim march to the Riverside Stadium.

I was a few yards behind them. The collective mood matched the elements. The previous week Peter Taylor's Leicester City had slaughtered Boro at the Riverside. The home team's performance was so hopelessly shambolic that even a language as rich and diverse as English could not fully do justice to it, though the bloke behind me tried, yelling so hard and ceaselessly at the back of my head that when I got home and looked in the mirror I resembled a member of  Motley Crue.

At one point in the second period the visitors had strung together close to a dozen passes in Middlesbrough's half. Muzzy Izzet and Robbie Savage have many qualities but I think it is fair to say that it takes opponents of rare incompetence to make them look like Cruyff and Beckenbauer.

'Fuckyerbastardshitfuckinchristonanfuckinstickborojesus,'  the bloke behind me howled.

Even that was more coherent than Bryan Robson's tactics

The memory of the crushing defeat lingered like a marital argument. Today's visitors were Bradford City, a team who hadn't won away from home since the last days of Byzantium. That fact only made home fans more apprehensive. If you were looking to end a losing streak Boro were the team to play. Always. Or so it seemed.

As we crossed the road by the Ayresome pub with its stained glass windows of those secular saints Graeme Souness and Bernie Slaven, one of the men said, 'If we get beat off Bradford today and Robson doesn't resign I'm going straight to the Transporter and chucking myself off.'

'You'll have to get in a queue,' his mate said.

'Aye,' another added, 'They'll have a ticketing machine like the DSS.'

'Number 976, a position is now available to deal with your suicide claim.'

And on we walked into the darkness of the afternoon.