Wednesday, 31 December 2014


1950s And Before

“You can say what you like, but he wouldn’t have been able to do that with the old leather football”. Can’t help absent-mindedly scanning the Premiership table looking for Preston North End, still thinks of Wolves as one of Europe’s top sides, has a niggling feeling that there really ought to be two League teams in Bradford and calls Crystal Palace “The Glaziers”. Refers to players “breasting” the ball down and calls scarves and hats “team favours”. Would still take his rattle to games but police confiscated it in 1987 telling him “That thing would be lethal if you clocked someone with it” Admits that the maximum wage was a pernicious and unjust system, yet can’t help thinking that its abolition has ruined the game. Raised on Matthews and Finney he likes to see wingers taking full-backs on, but insists that “That Ronaldo wouldn’t have fancied it so much after Frank Brennan had put him into the stands with his first tackle (because that’s what he’d have done, you know?)”. Laments the passing of the good old-fashioned shoulder charge and the inception of mass goal celebrations. Greets the sight of a player rolling about in agony on the turf with a cry of “Tell his Mam to give him a jelly”. “Roy Keane? He’s a right Shirley Temple.”



“He wouldn’t have been spinning round on the ball like that if Dickie Rooks had been marking him”. Insists on taking a thermos of tea with him to matches despite the fact that throughout the 1980s police confiscated it from him “because you could throw it at someone” Can recall the exact qualification criteria for entry into the Inter-City Fairs Cup (“And you see that was how Newcastle came to be playing in it that year”). Still talks about Hartlepools, occasionally calls Everton “The Toffeemen”, thinks of Sheffield Wednesday as a top flight side and gets cross at the very mention of Antonio Rattin. At the back of his mind there is a feeling that the European Championship is a competition only countries from behind the Iron Curtain take seriously. Talks of “London’s fashionable King’s Road” and can name all the Miss World’s George Best slept with. Mists over at the mention of that golden summer day at Wembley. Still has his Star Player cards and “even after all these years if you sniff Colin Suggitt you can still smell the bubblegum”. Associates Saturday morning with Sam Leitch and would like to see The Home Internationals revived. “They’re in Division Two, or whatever stupid name they’re calling it these days”.



“You wonder what these modern players would have made of Cloughie”. Believes that the proper way to wear a football scarf is tied round your wrist, but whenever he does it the kids wail “like, stop being soooo embarrassing, Dad”. Cackles merrily at the very mention of The Watney’s Cup and the Daily Express five-a-sides and can tell you every team that won the Anglo-Italian without even looking in the stash of Jimmy Hill’s Football Weeklys he has in the loft. “Call that a dive? You should have seen Frannie Lee”. Never sees a big centre-half without repeating the old Jim Holton chant “Six feet two, eyes of blue…” Has the theme from Sportsnight with Coleman as his ringtone and says, “His application for re-election was rejected” when a workmate is made redundant. Can’t help wondering why goalkeepers all wear gloves when “Jimmy Montgomery pulled off that incredible double save with his bare hands”. Has those Shoot! League Ladders somewhere but has just bought five more sets on eBay just in case. Occasionally yells “Interesting…Very interesting!” for no apparent reason and has been heard to ask, “Whatever happened to the teleprinter?” more than once and grits his teeth any time anyone says ‘an assist’.


Is no stranger to the word Simod and will always think of it as The Littlewoods Cup. Secretly resents the fact that police no longer search him when he enters the away end at grounds. Used to rage against The Saint and Greavesie, but now he’s seen what was to follow can’t help getting a bit wistful for all those gags about Scottish goalkeepers. Still regards Oxo as a drink. Bitterly remarks “Where were this lot in 1988?” when he can’t get a wagonwheel because the man in front of him is demanding to know why there’s no sun-dried tomato paninis left. Recalls being made to remove the laces from his Doc Martens by police at Ipswich and views it as a reproof to “all these middleclass tossers who have turned up since 1990”. Don’t get him started on Toni Schumacher. Can sing Half Man Half Biscuit’s “All I want For Christmas Is The Dukla Prague Away Kit” all the way through, still has an inflatable banana and a box full of photocopied fanzines with names like Brian Moore’s Head and And Smith Must Score. Used to complain about the fact that you couldn’t hear the PA in grounds and tell people it was “a health and safety issues” but now rather regrets it as he listens to “The Power” by Snap at deafening volume for the 3,000th time. ‘He wouldn’t have lasted two seconds with Mick Harford’.



“They make all this fuss about Soccer AM but it’s not a patch on Fantasy Football”. Views the season ticket renewal notice as the real harbinger of summer. Wears replica Peru shirt with his nickname on the back in honour of his club’s brief liaison with a left-winger from Lima when watching away games in the pub. Can’t help wondering if the Cup-Winners Cup wouldn’t be worth reviving. Thinks 606 has never been the same since Danny Baker left. Has “Three Lions” as a ring tone. Still associates the words “dentists chair” with “that” Gazza goal against Scotland.  Will always hate Andreas Moller and occasionally wonders what happened to Maidstone United. Likely to start chortling if someone says, “Barry Venison’s mullet” or mentions John Barnes’ jackets. Views a mobile as an essential match day accessory and spends much of the game yelling, “Can you hear me? We just scored. Are you there? I can’t hear anything. I said, “We just scored”. Is still looking for Mark Draper (Notts County) to complete the 1992 Panini sticker album. “He plays in that position the legendary Teddy Sheringham once made his own”.



“So Gary Lineker wasn’t always a TV presenter then?” Looks blank if somebody mentions terracing or turnstiles and tends to base his assessment of players on how they perform in Pro Evolution Soccer 6 Platinum. Doesn’t really support a team as such, but takes a passionate interest in whoever Zlatan is playing for at the time. Owns replica shirts from a variety of Spanish and Italian clubs that were bought while on holiday in Portugal because “Y’know, I just sort of liked the colours, really”. Knows the precise difference between a Predator Absolute TRX and an AZT90 Lazer FG. Totally believes the stats and ratings on the Shoot Out Premier League trading cards. “No, look Craig Bellamy has got more stars than Hernan Crespo, so he must be better”. Thinks the “Easy” chant is nearly as funny as the bubble captions in Match! Wishes Tim Lovejoy lived next door and considers the visit to the megastore the key part of the match day experience. Doesn’t actually believe that football was invented by SkyTV but thinks it was “pretty boring” before they took over. Enjoys going to a game, but secretly wishes it was all a bit more like one of those cool Nike adverts. “What d’you mean, Gabby Yorath’s dad?”




Saturday, 20 December 2014


The only thing my father liked about football was the crowd. He shared their pessimism. He enjoyed the sense of impending doom. He did his best to add to it.

The last time I went to a game with my father was in 1987, Middlesbrough versus Blackburn. It was Boxing Day. Both teams were battling for promotion from the old second division and Rovers had just signed Steve Archibald on loan from Barcelona. There were long queues at the turnstiles. The air was filled with expectation and a noxious festive fog of slim panatela smoke, after-shave fumes and the smell of new leather gloves.  Several of those around us were wearing knitwear so garish their only possible explanation was that a child had swallowed the contents of a kaleidoscope and then thrown up down the front of them. A man nearby was biting the tops off liqueur chocolates, swigging down the contents and nonchalantly tossing the chocolate bottles over his shoulder. Somewhere amidst this colourful and odiferous throng my father recognized a welder he worked with at Cleveland Bridge, Port Clarence. He was a big bloke with the drooping moustache of a gunfighter in a spaghetti western and a Raffles king-size clamped in one corner of his mouth. My Dad said, ‘I’ll ask him what’s happening. Find out where we’ll get in.’

My Dad tapped the bloke on the shoulder. He turned round, eyes narrowed, smoke streaming from his nostrils. ‘I didn’t think it would be as busy as this,’ my Dad said cheerfully.

The welder studied him a moment, ‘Well,’ he said, eventually ‘It’s bound to be isn’t it? If even buggers like you are turning up.’

With that he turned and walked away. Far from being upset by this exchange my Dad was greatly amused, ‘See the respect I command?’ he said.

We finally got into the Chicken Run in time to see Steve Archibald warming-up. And I’ve never seen anyone who looked more in need of warming up than Archibald. He was one of the most Scottish-looking men in history. Despite having spent several years in Spain his skin was still so pale it was practically luminous. He carried himself perpetually hunched as if walking into a gale force wind, always had his shirt sleeves pulled down over his hands and his head twitched about as if he was searching the pitch for a paraffin heater. I had a few mates who supported Spurs and they reckoned he was one of the sharpest strikers they’d ever seen. I’m not sure if that’s true, but he was certainly the coldest looking.

Archibald had scored 24 goals for Barca in 55 appearances. His reputation was such that every time the ball went near him you could feel the tension in the crowd rising; the anticipation of genius. In the end though nothing came of it. The game ended 1-1.

As we filed out a man to our left said, ‘There was this fucking bloke stood behind me, right? Fucking bloke. Every two fucking minutes he goes, ‘This could be dangerous’. Every two fucking minutes. Whole fucking game.’

And my Dad looked at me and winked.



Happy Christmas





Wednesday, 17 December 2014


Last night I was at Gillford Park, Carlisle watching Celtic Nation v Benfield. Gillford Park is one of those grounds you can see from miles around but can only get to by a single, bewildering route that -if you are approaching from the railway station - involves walking right past the glowing floodlit rectangle and then hooking back on yourself across unlit parkland, presumably to throw off anyone tailing you.

It was pouring down. On London Road, near a drive-thru Pizza Hut, a car sped through a massive puddle, splashing me so thoroughly that if it had been a Laurel & Hardy film I'd have taken my cap off and found a fish under it.

Over the past few seasons the home side, buoyed by the financial investment of US-based Glaswegian carwash millionaire Frank Lynch, have barrelled up the pyramid, regularly attracting crowds of over 600 to their ground on the eastside of The Great Border City. There was talk of the Conference, even of the League. Alas, like Michael Knighton's plans to transform Carlisle United into a European superclub, the dreams crumbled like so many Carr's water biscuits. Another financially boosted side, Spennymoor pipped Nation to the top spot in Northern League Division 1 last season to earn promotion into the Unibond. This summer Lynch withdrew his backing claiming he couldn't run the club from Florida. Manager Willie McStay and many of the - by NL standards - highly paid players scurried away. The gloryseekers too have evaporated. Crowds at Gillford Park this season have wobbled around the hundred mark.

Part of my reason for going to Gillford Park was to see Benfield's veteran striker Paul Brayson. Brayson began his career at St James' Park back at the height of Keegan mania before moving on to Swansea, Cardiff and an assortment of other League and Conference sides. He is 37 now, but - as the blokes at Seaham remarked of the equally elderly legend Paul Walker when I was writing The Far Corner - 'He still has all the moves'. Brayson is a small, sturdy man capable of creating yards of space for himself with a barely perceptible twitch of his shoulders. So far this season he has scored 18 times for a Benfield side that has struggled to get out of the bottom half of the table. In the top flight of the Northern League only John Campbell of Jarrow Roofing and Consett's Michael Mackay can match him.

In Cumbria in the teeming rain, I sat in a main stand that smelled of petrol, behind two blokes who smoked electronic cigarettes and cleared their throats with such thoroughness they must have sucked the dirt out from beneath their toenails. On a pitch so marshy it was a surprise not to see a heron playing at centre-back, Brayson rarely touched the ball, expending most of his energy complaining at the referee. Benfield were 2-0 down at half-time. The gents toilet in the main stand is next to the away dressing room. Through the wall you could hear the clatter of studs and the manager yelling: 'We've missed three fucking chances. Three golden fucking chances in the first fifteen fucking minutes. The game kicked off at 7.45 not 8 o-fucking- clock.....'

I watch the restart, then begin the 45 minute walk back to the station to get the last train east. The rain keeps falling. By the time I get on the train even my pants are wet. My mobile buzzes. The game at Gillford Park has ended. Benfield have score five in the second half. Brayson outstanding. Go and see him while you can. It is worth a fiver of anybody's money - even your own.

On the train journey to Carlisle I read the latest issue (15) of The Blizzard. It's something of a North East special with excellent pieces by Jonathan Wilson on a sentimental walk from Roker to Wearmouth and George Caulkin on the grim situation at St James' Park. There's also a photo-feature on ex-Darlo target Tino Asprilla in which he dons the coat he wore when he arrived at Newcastle United in a snowstorm, and Scott Murray's account of the 1974 FA Cup Final (Geordies may need to read that from behind the sofa). Best of all is an edited extract from Michael Walker's new book on North East football  Up There.

I worked with Michael at The Guardian for many years and I am admittedly biased towards him since he looked after me at France '98, not only buying me meals when he found out the paper weren't paying me any expenses, but also intervening with the office manager to secure me a pay rise. Despite that I can honestly say that if I'd never met the author, or if he'd done me a grave injustice, I'd still heartily recommend Up There. It's brilliantly written, thoroughly researched, warm, passionate and funny.

You'll find Up There in local bookshops and on Amazon.

The Blizzard is available here:

Saturday, 13 December 2014


The week it was announced that Steve McClaren would succeed Sven Goran Eriksson as England manager I was giving a talk at the Lit & Phil in Newcastle. Asked how I felt about the appointment I quoted Mark E Smith on Lard, ‘Success was the only fucking way we were ever going to get rid of him.’

McClaren’s spell in charge of Boro had been – by Teesside standards – a massive success, and yet…


You may think the new England boss Steve McClaren is barely interesting enough to justify the term enigma, but there is certainly one thing that is intriguing about the Yorkshireman – the reaction he has produced on Teesside. The rubicund 45‑year‑old is far and away the most successful manager in Middlesbrough’s history. He led Boro to their first major trophy, to their highest League position since the Second World War, a European final and two FA Cup semi-finals, yet despite that I have not met a single Boro fan who mourns his departure.

It’s not that there is much animosity towards him either, you understand. That would make the whole thing altogether explicable. As it is not even his most vociferous critics can quite put their fingers on what it is that so grates about a man who has had the Future England Manager label stuck on him ever since he walked through the doors of the Riverside Stadium for the first time.

True, he annoyed fans with his early flirtation with the Leeds job – a boyhood dream, of course. McClaren was born in York in 1961 and it’s hard to see anyone with his orthodox sensibility rejecting Billy Bremner et al in favour of chanting along with the Bootham Crescent Nutter Squad. And the moment when he got all giddy over the chance to succeed Sir Bobby Robson at St James’ Park still rankles. Certainly his Blairite pronouncement that “we must educate the fans” got up a lot of pipes because, as one veteran remarked at the time: “I’ve been watching football for 40 years and nobody is going to teach me that turgid crap is bloody fantastic entertainment.” His habit of saying “tremendous” after the limpest display was irritating, right enough, as was his insistence on “taking positives” from thrashings.

It has to be said as well that under his guidance Boro played a lot of desperately dull football that no amount of last-minute 4-3 UEFA Cup wins can quite erase. And that possibly is the crux of it.

“Big Mac” (as the tabloids dubbed him hopefully) comes tagged as a moderniser, a technocrat in the European style. At Middlesbrough he brought in a psychologist as his assistant and introduced vibrating warm-down chairs. On the field, however, things were altogether more predictable. To many fans McClaren’s main tactical innovation during his five-year reign appeared to be to instruct his team to spend the first 20 minutes of any match “taking the sting out of the game”, even at the Riverside. As such his was probably the only side in history who have set out to “silence the crowd” when they were playing at home.

Taken all in all, though, the reaction McClaren produced most was not anger, but apathy. Fans who were prepared to celebrate Bruce Rioch, Lennie Lawrence and Bryan Robson chanted his name so rarely that when they did – during an away game at Blackburn – people made a note of it.

There is nothing particularly the matter with McClaren. He isn’t boorish, bullying, a whiner, a moaner, or a bug-eyed mad man. He’s not an embarrassment. People simply didn’t warm to him. Maybe it was the caution of his pronouncements. In the countdown to taking the England job, rumour had it that he was taking lessons in presentation skills from an ITN newscaster. That seemed likely – after all, for most of his time at Boro he sounded like he was reading from an autocue. The politician’s smile, the measured tone of voice, the overriding sense that he was a man in transit, bound for something bigger and better.

McClaren is neither a bad man nor a bad manager. He is just a – what? Well, the word that springs to mind is “nonentity”. This is surely a very harsh judgment on a man who was assistant manager at Manchester United when they won the treble, but it has to be said that, like a dream, McClaren seems to fade inexorably from your mind the moment he’s gone. His rise from lower-division scuffler to the pinnacle of English management has been so seamless and free of incident it recalls the famous dismissal of David Frost as a man who “rose without trace”. I can’t shake the feeling that he’s employed PR Guru Max Clifford to ignite a few juicy scandals for him rather than defuse them.


The England boss is said to look like a coach driver*. But with his Fifties quiff, rosy cheeks and goofy grin he also calls to mind one of the minor characters from the holiday camp sitcom, Hi-De-Hi. He looks like the sort of bland, smiley Yellowcoat who would turn up occasionally to help the plot along (“You better come quick, Ted, the knobbly knees contest has turned nasty”), but not get any funny lines to deliver. Regular viewers would recognise him as part of the show but struggle to recall a single word he had said. In four years’ time England fans may feel exactly the same way.

*Mainly by me.



Wednesday, 10 December 2014


In 1998 Malcom Macdonald launched campaign to reintroduce street football into Britain. Nothing much seemed to come of the scheme, but at least I got a column out of it.

It is well know that the great footballers of yesteryear honed their skills as children playing 200-a-side matches in cobbled alleyways where the goalposts were piles of nutty slack, the half-time whistle was a cry of 'Away, man Bobby your tea's getting cold' and the ball was a turnip, or better still a pig's bladder. For as Wilf Mannion says in his autobiography, 'If you could control a pig's bladder you were a ruddy genius'. Or a pig, obviously.

Whatever the impact on ball skills, formative years spent playing street football also took their psychological toll. Men who learned their craft in an environment of rugged house-proud women in hairnets and tubby police constables who sent them packing with a clip round the ear developed behaviour patterns that no amount of later training could shake. For example, right up until the 1960s it was common for the British centre-half to react to a sliced clearance into the crowd by yelling 'Cripes that's going to hit Mrs Potts' front door and she's only just finished washing it, too!' before racing off the field to hide behind the nearest outhouse. Often he was followed by both sets of players. Little wonder the England team struggled in the post-War years.

This caveat aside, most would agree that the standard of football in England in the decades before and after the Second World War was markedly superior to that which is offered today. This is why Maclom Macdonald's newly launched campaign has been broadly welcomed. Amongst the doubters are some who see it as a retrograde step, and others who view it as by no means retrograde enough.

Falling into the latter camp with a loud bang and a cry of 'How buggeration!' is veteran North East football writer George Clarts. Clarts has in mind a far more radical programme than that proposed by Supermac. He has called on the FA to purchase the Beamish North of England Open Air Museum and turn it into a centre of excellence for England's junior footballers, who could learn their craft as their forbearers did, amongst the rattle of trams and consumptive chests.

According to Clarts, team spirit would be fostered by having the players sleep eight to a bed, except on the nights when the air raid siren sounded and they all went down into the cellar for a good old fashioned singsong, periodically interrupted by loud explosions and the appearance of a man with a sooty face and dishevelled hair yelling, 'Blimey, Dean Street just bought it.'

Training would involve a good deal of running - errands mainly - and the accuracy of shooting and passing would be ensured by hanging a line of freshly laundered sheets down the sides of the pitch, each line guarded by a team of powerfully built old ladies armed with rolling pins.

'You see,' Clarts explais, 'It was a totally different world back then. There's no use having the street, if you don't have all the rest. Would it be successful? I don't see why not. Look at who we had in them days. There was Mathews and Finney, Carter and Mortensen, Mannion and Lawton, Flannagan and Allen, Flanders and Swann, Wee Bobby Twatt and his Troublesome Trousers,'

'But you've got to realise, it was about more than just a bunch of scabby-kneed, jinking bairns, their heads kept warm by the freshly baked stotties their mams stuck under their caps before they shooed them outside of a frosty morning saying, 'Go out their and play football till sunset and mind you work on your range of short and long passing, and none of that ruddy stepover nonsense or your father will hear of it'. No, it was about the whole environment in which the players were brought up.'

'And that's why I'm calling on the FA to do the right thing and bring back rickets. Bring back rickets, and the sooner the better.'

Saturday, 6 December 2014


This was written long before Carlos Tevez and the snood controversy, provoked by a trip to see Boro v Coventry at The Riverside. At Harlepool last night no outfield players was wearing gloves, though the air was so cold even the Professor's 'smart socks' couldn't prevent his feet going numb. Amazingly two Poolies chose to mark the occasion by running on the pitch at half-time and dropping their trousers. Given the icey temperatures there wasn't much to see. Even Ha'Angus the Monkey's inflatable banana seemed to have shrunk.

During the 1930s Chilton Colliery met Stockton in a Northern League match. Despite protests that it was too cold for football, the referee ordered play to go ahead. In the 83rd minute the official was finally forced to concede defeat to the freezing temperatures and abandon the match. His decision came too late for the one of the players who had earlier collapsed with exposure.

Two decades later a game between Bishop Auckland and Shildon went ahead despite the fact that there was so much snow on the pitch that Bishop’s keeper Harry Sharratt (seen above in action at St James Park against Crook in the 1954 Amateur Cup Final first replay) was able to amuse himself during the first half by building a snowman on his goal line.

It was surely nostalgia for such displays of good, old fashioned senseless British pluck that provoked Alan Curbishley’s December 2000 outburst about players clothing. “When you wear woolly hats, gloves and all sorts you cannot play properly,” the Charlton boss thundered. And quite right too.

Older readers will recall a time when even goalkeepers didn’t dare wear gloves. Thirty years ago any child who tried to slip a pair on when taking up a position between the sticks would find the PE teacher sneering, “Oh dear does the nasty ball sting diddums lickle fingers?” The games master would then go on sarcastically to posit a future in which a generation of namby pamby stars would refuse to head the ball unless they were wearing a crash helmet, insist that the floodlights be fitted with heat bulbs and strap hot water bottles to their torsos on frosty afternoons (To judge by his body shape an approach already adopted by Phil Stamp).

The man who changed such attitudes to hand protection was seventies German goalie Sepp Maier. As an argument for legislation against the slow encroachment of gloves onto the field of play Curbishley could not do better than to cite the example of Maier. The Bayern Munich custodian started off with perfectly normal mitts but gradually expanded them until by the end of his career they looked like a pair of enormous flat-fish. Indeed naturalists believe that the noise of Maier clapping his hands to encourage his team mates is the nearest we will ever come to hearing the sound of manta rays mating.

Maier’s vast gloves were re-enforced with wire. In thousands of years time archaeologists will discover their skeletal, metal remains and conclude that during the latter part of the 20th Century a species of huge handed Homo Sapiens roamed Northern Europe until they all starved to death one Bank Holiday weekend because their mighty salami-like fingers were incapable of successfully punching their pin numbers into ATMs.

As if gloves were not bad enough, some overseas players are flagrantly wearing vests under their shirts. For managers of the old school, raised in the harsh environment of, well, the old school such developments must set alarm bells ringing. They know where it will lead. One minute it’s keeping his vest on during games, the next it’s a note from mother excusing him from showers because he’s going through “that shy awkward phase”.

At least vests are worn to keep warm, though. That cannot be the main purpose of gloves. If it were why would so many players wear them in combination with sleeveless shirts? When you are cold you cover up. And tuck your shirt in.

No, footballers’ gloves are a role-play thing. The mix of bare arms and black leather  makes the even the most soft-hearted winger feel like they are in a cyberpunk movie or a motorcycle gang. They think they look cool and tough. Keep an eye out and you may even see the odd bustling midfielder throttling up an imaginery Harley with his right hand before accelerating off into the opposition half.  

Gloves are just fashion masquerading as utility. They are a fad like cycling shorts. Half-a-dozen years ago there was not a striker in the land who did not don a pair of these form-hugging garments. They were so ubiquitous the FA even had to legislate on their colour. The lycra trunks were supposed to guard against hamstring strains, though the main effect may well have been psychological. They suggested dynamic bursts of speed even where none existed, the football equivalent of the go-faster stripe. And where are they now? Mouldering in the back of the changing room lockers with the peroxide bottles and those strips of elastoplast players used to stick across their hooters to increase oxygen intake. My guess is that if Curbishley bides his time the gloves will join them there before too long. 


Wednesday, 3 December 2014


Woke up the other morning thinking of the first football I ever owned, an Ayresome Angel. It was white with red lettering, lasted for years, then burst on a rose bush in the Valley Gardens, Marske. I bought the football at Jack Hatfield's...

Back in the 1960s shopkeepers in Britain took a particular delight in telling you they didn’t have what you wanted. You’d ask them for something and they’d shake their heads, all the while giving you the affronted yet superior look of a Salvation Army general refusing whisky from a drunk Catholic.

Jack Hatfield’s Sports Shop in Borough Road, Middlesbrough was different. In Hatfield’s they didn’t have what you wanted, they had something far better than that: they had what you needed, you just didn't know it yet.

Jack Hatfield had opened his sports shop in 1912. Hatfield was from Stokesley. He was a national and local hero. In the Stockholm Olympics of that year he’d won two individual silver medals in the swimming pool and a bronze in the relay. For a man from the North Riding of Yorkshire that was a phenomenal effort. Because Hatfield’s main rivals were Australians and Americans, men who trained in the warm azure waters of the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea. By contrast, Jack Hatfield trained in a pond in an ironstone quarry in Gribdale called The Blue Lagoon. The Blue Lagoon wasn’t a lagoon, obviously, but it was otherwise aptly named. The water in it really was blue. It wasn’t the cerulean blue of the Aegean, admittedly. It was a sort of opaque, milky blue. It looked quite a lot like anti-freeze. And indeed it may have been.

After training in the Blue Lagoon, Jack Hatfield went over to Sweden and finished second in the 400m freestyle and the 1,500m freestyle. And, as my Granddad often said, ‘If the swimming pool in Stockholm had had dead dogs and dumped bedsteads in it he’d likely have won both.’

Off the back of his triumph Jack Hatfield set up his sports shop and he did a roaring trade. By the time I started going Jack himself was dead and the shop was staffed by an assortment of his sons and nephews.  

My first encounter with the staff at Jack Hatfield’s came remotely, but it set the tone. I was at infant school. My mother had promised to go into town and buy me a Boro shirt. The atmosphere in Hatfield’s was always frenzied. The brothers were fantastic salesmen. They shouted and yelled and rushed about, scaling ladders and rugby passing shoeboxes and tennis racquets to one another over the heads of customers. It was like being in a Marx Brothers movie. Perhaps it was this that bamboozled my mother, because instead of buying me a plain red Middlesbrough shirt she came back instead with the red-and-white stripes of Stoke City. The Stoke City shirt differed from that of Sunderland by dint of having white collar and cuffs instead of red. This subtlety was lost on my contemporaries and for years I would be saluted with a cry of ‘Ay, ay, it’s Colin Suggett.’

My mother had also purchased me a pair of shin pads. These were of ancient vintage – I have some vague idea they were endorsed by Charles Buchan - and stuffed with horsehair, to which, judging by the weight of them, the horse was still attached. When I put them down my socks they made my shins so thick I had to run with my feet wide apart like Frankenstein’s monster.


Within a few years I had become seriously addicted to Subbuteo table football. The teams came in green cardboard boxes and there were hundreds of different ones to choose from.  The teams were quite expensive. I had to save up. All the while I was saving I was studying the Subbuteo catalogue - which had pictures of all the teams in it - and deciding which to buy.

When I’d made my choice I’d go to Jack Hatfield’s. Hatfield’s had the biggest range of Subbuteo teams on Teesside. I’d go in through the door with my money in my hand. ‘I would like to buy a Subbuteo team, please.’ I’d say, ‘I would like to Ajax of Amsterdam, winners of the European Cup.’

The salesman in Jack Hatfield’s would consult his racks of teams. He’d shake his head. He’d say, ‘Ah, now, I don’t have Ajax of Amsterdam, but I tell you what I do have...’

And five minutes later I’d leave Jack Hatfield’s Sports Shop with a big smile on my face and a brown paper bag containing a team. It was not the XI of Cruyff and Neeskens that had revolutionised the game, but something far, far better than that. It was a 00 scale version of Alloa Athletic.




Friday, 28 November 2014


Hearing Sol Campbell bleating on about the unfairness of the Mansion Tax, listening to wealthy ex-players and bumptious commentators who've rarely paid to get into a game in their lives berating fans for not shelling out hard earned cash to watch pointless Champions League matches...Arsene Wenger once said  the Premiership made him feel he was living in 'Farci-land'. I can't recall what Princess-and-the-Pea-style irritation provoked the Frenchman to utter these words, but they have stuck with me. Today they seem more pertinent than ever. Top level football is increasingly like the eighteenth century Bourbon Monarchy, its preening royals and their sycophantic courtiers so dislocated from reality it is a form of madness..... Well, I'm not going to watch twenty-two Marie Antoinettes play today, or any other.  I'm going to see Benfield against Penrith via Victoria Park. I'm hoping to get tickets for next week's Hartlepool v Blyth FA Cup tie. Pools don't sell tickets on line and the ticket office staff are apparently far too busy to answer the phone, even on a wet Thursday morning. I'm not complaining, In fact I'm kind of pleased. It reminds me of the old days.

The following piece is from the dawn of the new century, when Farci-Land was in its infancy.

“You don’t get the build-up of atmosphere that you used to,” I said to a journalist from the Daily Mail one Saturday afternoon at the Riverside Stadium sometime around the turn of the century. We looked around the ground. It was ten minutes to three, another capacity crowd, yet, aside from the strip occupied by the away fans, 90 per cent of the red seats remained empty. “The fact that everybody’s buying their tickets in advance has something to do with it,” the Mail man said. “People know they’ll get in so they only turn up 15 minutes before kick off.”

I told him a Newcastle fan had recently remarked to me that we would be the last generation of fans who would remember what it was like to queue up at the turnstiles and pay cash. He nodded. “For a big game you had to start early,” he said. “You might be standing on the terraces an hour before kick-off, the space filling up around you.”

“And once you were in,” I added, “there was nothing else to do except stand and make a noise. People got impatient for kick-off. You could feel the agitation mounting, especially when the play­ers had gone in after the kickabout.” We stood for a moment in silence, looking at the open spaces, the people who would fill them down below us in the concourse eating, drinking, betting, chatting, listening to the incisive opinions of Rodney Marsh on Sky, then the man from the Mail be­gan to laugh.

“Listen to us,” he said, “we sound like a right pair of old fogies.” True enough, I suppose. Football, like pop music, has a nasty habit of suddenly and unexpectedly turning us into our parents. One minute you’re young and vibrant, the next you’re sat in a corner drinking milk stout, muttering “David Beck­ham? Ray Wilkins, now he could play a bit” and won­dering why they don’t write songs like Orgasm Addict any more. No matter how hard you try, it’s a trap which is hard to avoid. Cunning nature has concealed it too cleverly. You pick your way cautiously along studying the ground for signs of a covered pit and the next thing you know a net has dropped over your head.

A month or so ago someone played the Power Game theme to me on CD. This was the music Middlesbrough used to run out to. It was quite a shock to hear it. Not least because it turned out to be the kind of brassy, funky Hawaii 5-0 sort of a thing that seemed far too exotic to announce the arrival of Arthur Hors­field. I realised that, despite the fact that I had been present at the playing of this tune hundreds of times, I had only ever heard the first few bars of it, the rest had been drowned out by the noise of the crowd.

I mentioned this to the person who’d played it to me.

“What kind of crowd would it take to drown the sound of a modern stadium PA?” he said.

“I’m no expert, but my guess would be 250,000 and all with the lung capacity of Luc­iano Pavarotti. Last season I was at the Stad­ium of Light and that Republica song they play was so loud I practically had to cover my ears.”

“Maybe you should just have turned your hearing aid down,” he said.

What else should I expect? After all, there are university lecturers who are too young to remember the 1978 World Cup. It’s not that I sound like an old fogey, I am one.

However, I think in this case there might just be a bit more to it than can be put down simply to the toll the ageing process takes on our objectivity. (Let’s face it, I would, wouldn’t I?) For just as the arrival of Elvis Presley and the abolition of National Service opened up what had previously been a hairline fissure between parents and children into a gaping generation gap, so dramatic changes in football in the Nineties have cre­ated a group of fans grown old before their time.

For over a century the experience of going to football – turnstiles, terraces, and rudimentary toilet facilities – altered hardly at all. My grandfather’s first visit to Ayresome Park in 1912 was little different from my own 55 years later. Only the names of the players, the entry fee and the percentage of the crowd wearing flat caps had changed.

This is no longer true. Every once in a while, in a misguided attempt to put something back into the community, I go and talk to teenagers in the local comprehensive school. For them, things I wrote eight years ago require detailed historical explanation. Fif­teen-year-old fans of Premiership clubs cannot re­member standing or barely-functioning PA systems, or the days when live football on TV was an exciting novelty. The idea that there might have been a time when animal mascots did not cavort on the touchline to the sounds of Chumbawumba is as hard for them to imagine as the Blitz is for me. Nor do most of them attend games with any regularity. (Admittedly the town I now live in is so solidly bourgeois the local adult education night classes includes one entitled “Buying and owning a second home in France”, but even so).

The cost and scarcity of tickets to places like St James’ Park means that for many young fans going to matches takes on the kind novelty value that once sur­rounded a trip to the circus, a pantomime or Bonfire Night. The expectation this brings puts far greater pressure on football to deliver easily recognisable thrills than has ever before been the case. Rules have been tinkered with, defending has become ever more haphazard, goals have started to rain in like the seventies never happened. Arsene Wenger for one seems like a man who would happily dispense with the goalkeeper, if it meant he could deploy another tricksy ball-playing midfielder.

Last weekend I was talking to a rugby union fan. Like me he was in his late thirties. “The commercialisation of the game has changed it,” he said. “With TV and more paying spectators the emphasis is on entertainment. There’s no doubt rugby’s better to watch nowadays, but the funny thing is I sometimes find myself pining for a grim attritional forward battle that’s settled by a penalty. The sort of thing only a sup­porter with a really genuine understanding of the game would appreciate, you know?”

I didn’t actually, but I suspect one day I might.


Tuesday, 25 November 2014


I spend most of what is laughably called my career sitting in a room on my own. Occasionally I get to go and spend time with other sports writers. This is always a treat. Because sportswriters are good company: they like talking,have an endless supply of funny stories, untoward gossip and cynical jokes. Probably the happiest time of my life was the three weeks I spent at the 1998 World Cup. Just thinking of it makes me laugh out loud at nothing in particular. Any road, this is about sort of watching Middlesbrough v Sevilla in the Uefa Cup Final.


I am sitting in the media centre at the Philips Stadion, Eindhoven. It is 22.10 local time and the place is deserted except for me, a couple of Cockney picture editors and the Dutch waiter. High up in a corner above the door a big TV screen is showing pictures of the game that is going on 50 yards away. Middlesbrough are trailing 1-0 to Sevilla. A free-kick from Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink flies a few inches over the bar. The picture editor sitting next to me groans. “Jesus,” he says, “We don’t want extra time. Be a bloody nightmare.” He glances across at the Dutch waiter.
The Dutch waiter has white hair and a handlebar moustache. He has a key chain attached to his belt. The key opens a big fridge that stands against the same wall as the TV set. It is filled with bottles of Carlsberg. All day long journalists and photographers have been pulling on the door of the fridge trying to get at the beer inside. They have made imploring motions to the waiter indicating the advanced stages of dehydration but he has remained impassive. The fridge will stay locked until the final whistle. Then the waiter with the handlebar moustache will open it and quickly jump aside to avoid being crushed in the rush for free lager.
Images are popping up constantly on the screen of the picture editor’s computer, sent by wi-fi from photographers at pitch-side to be cropped and sorted and shipped out to the desks in London. “Tell the boys they’re going big on Boro anguish,” the picture editor growls down his mobile.

Within seconds the screen is reverberating with computerised thunks of incoming mail – Boro fans with their heads in their hands, chins sunk, faces glum. Steve McClaren biting his nails. “Oh nice,” the picture editor says. He selects a few, works on them, presses send. Picks up his mobile. “Got some lovely Boro anguish, for you, Jonno. Should be with you now. Speak later.”

Viduka’s shot is saved. The picture editor groans again. It’s all getting a bit tense. He has spent half an hour working on Boro anguish but if a goal goes in he will have to chuck it all out and start on Boro hope, or possibly Boro elation.

When Sevilla’s second goes in he punches the air, then turns to me apologetically because he knows I am a Boro fan. “No offence, mate,” he says. None taken. I am only in here because I am writing a colour piece and I have to file it midway through the second half. I am attending the greatest match in my club’s history and I am watching it on TV. But why complain? I got here free, sat in the ground for the first 45 minutes and got paid. And compared to this guy my working day is a doddle. Deadlines are flying towards him through cyberspace like a virtual meteor storm. He can’t be doing with uncertainty. He’d like results to be pre- arranged even more than the chairmen of the G‑14.

“Are there no sandwiches?” he asks the waiter. “There is still the buffet,” the waiter replies. “Oh, yeah the buffet,” the picture editor says scornfully. The buffet has been the cause of much caustic mirth during the evening. It offers hungry pressmen a selection of chicken satay, prawn crackers and sauerkraut. “What’s the vegetarian option?” a man from Five Live asks. “Cabbage and fucking crisps,” comes the reply.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, there’s the accommodation. Eindhoven has so few hotels that many of the reporters are staying in Düsseldorf. The official press party that came out with the team, meanwhile, have been housed at the local Centre Parc, a kind of eco-Butlins. “I’ve been woken up at six every morning by kids running past my window screaming because they’ve seen the big waterslide,” a reporter from one of the tabloids says. “Apparently it’s half-term in Holland,” somebody adds, yawning.

After the final whistle, when the fridge is open and the waiter is rushing about collecting empties, and Boro anguish is flying into and out of the picture editor’s computer as fast as he can process it, the tabloid man from the Centre Parc comes scurrying in with a happy smile. “Loved it when that fourth goal went in,” he says and he gives me a consoling pat because we have known each other for many a year and he is a nice guy. “McClaren’s first game in charge of Boro against Arsenal ends in a 4-0 defeat and now his last game with them ends the same way. It’s my opening par, isn’t it?”

Down the end of the room the Spanish press pack are hugging one another and yelping. The guy opposite us is dabbing the tears from his eyes, his colleague is blowing his nose, his shoulders shaking with convulsive sobs. When he catches sight of them the tabloid reporter affects disgust. “Fuck’s that about?” he says. If Boro had won maybe I'd have reacted the same way, but I don't think so. This is the media centre. It is not a place for emotion. You have to keep things in perspective here. After all, as the poet has written: “And when that last great scorer comes to mark against your name/It matters not who won, or lost/But whether you met your deadline.”



Saturday, 22 November 2014


Written in response to Mick McCarthy's appointment as Sunderland boss. I dust it off today because of recent events at Wigan involving Dave Whelan (who sounds so much like Hilda baker these days you half expect him to say 'He was sat sitting there, legs akimbo, proffering me his vital curriculum') and 'A Good Football Man' . Both chairman and manager appear to have worldviews that belong in a 1970s sitcom, incidentally.

There were excited scenes this week when the predictions of the PR wing of the Big Club were proved correct and A Football Man was unveiled as the Big Club's new manager. A Football Man succeeds A Man the Fans Could Never Really Relate To who left the club 10 days ago by mutual sacking.

Speaking for the first time from his freshly designated parking place, A Football Man, whose appointment has been an open secret with local bookmakers ever since his name appeared in the frame after he threw his hat into the ring following a six-month sabbatical to pursue unemployment and other opportunities outside the game, said he was delighted with his new role.
"Everyone knows that the Big Club is a real football club," he said. "The whole place lives, breathes and sweats football. It's 110% wall-to-wall solid football through and through from the carpet tiles to the tea lady's hair and the heavens beyond, and you can't beat that in mine or anyone else's book.

"Make no mistake, the job here is massive but that is what attracted me to the salary. The players' heads are down, their tails are between their legs and the crowd is on their backs. I don't make promises but one thing I will promise is that I will bring back effort, pride, character and high-stake card schools to this football club.

"It's a pressure-cooker situation. But I love a pressure cooker. I love a battle. I love a Chinese-style steamer pan. I love being up the creek in a hole with my back to the wall and a corner to turn and a mountain to climb. People who know me will tell you that I relish a challenge."

"He relishes a challenge," A Man Who Knows Him said. Asked what he thought The Man He Knows would bring to the challenge he relishes, A Man Who Knows Him added: "Football Man is a great motivator. He knows when to put his arm round your shoulder and when to kick your backside and when to put his arm round your backside and kick your shoulder and sometimes both at once, if he deems it necessary so to do."

"I don't suffer fools gladly, and that applies to myself as much as anybody," Football Man continued, "but I come in with no preconceived ideas - except about bringing back hanging to protect Britain's kiddies, obviously. All the players will start with a clean sheet but if they blot their copybook I will mark their card and they will be on their bikes showing me a clean pair of heels before their feet touch the ground".

This was believed to be a veiled reference to Want-away Striker, who earlier in the week issued a come-and-get-me plea in an attempt to end his English nightmare.

However, last night Want-away Striker moved to distance himself from himself, saying: "You shouldn't believe everything I say in the newspapers. Most of it is just paper talk and the rest is an old story I rehashed from mistranslated quotes that I made up a long time ago. What is happening Signor Capello? Did you lose my mobile number? No, I never said that."

Supporters of the Big Club had never warmed to A Man The Fans Could Never Really Relate To, but they were ecstatic about the appointment of Football Man. One excited season-ticket holder, who had once met a reporter at a party and given him his telephone number in case he ever wanted any plumbing done, said: "Although he has never actually won anything Football Man is a 24-carat winner. He will put a spring back in the face of this football club and smiles in a few bellies. Ever since he walked through the door there has been a buzz about the place, which is probably because he brought his beehives with him."

A widely respected former player, who now works for local radio in between pubs, concurred: "Except when it is all about results, the game is all about confidence. Football Man will get the dressing room behind him and he will get the dressing room bubbling again. And everyone in football knows that if you have a bubbling dressing room behind you and pulling in the same direction when it comes to turning things around, then that is half the battle. But half a battle does not win a war when you are in the trenches and Football Man will know that better than anyone, even me probably."

In all the elation surrounding Football Man's appointment one voice sounded a note of caution, however. An Embittered Ex-pro commented: "I wish him well, but nothing is as good as it was in my day and there are far too many foreigners. Did I tell you about that time Nozzer, Snozzer and me got in the bath with Miss Felixstowe Maplin's 1972?"

Wednesday, 19 November 2014


After Harry Redknapp had criticised Adel Taarabt for being three stone overweight, a friend of mine said, 'Have you seen him? There's nothing on him. The way Redknapp was going on I was expecting somebody who looked like Mido.' These days players have the same body fat percentage as muesli. As my friend said, 'If he thinks Taarabt's tubby, what would he have made of Alan Foggon?'

When the corpulent Edwardian newspaper baron Lord Northcliffe encountered the skinny Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw in the West End one evening, he remarked: "Good God Shaw, you look like there is a famine in the land." The Irishman studied the considerable bulge of the Daily Mail proprietor's stomach and replied: "And your Lordship looks like the cause of it."

For some reason this exchange popped into my head when I read that Mido is on the verge of signing for Hull City. The last time I saw the Egypt striker he was playing for Middlesbrough and packing more padding than a Stanley Cup goaltender.

"He holds the ball up well," was the verdict of the bloke behind me. He was right, though it has to be said that Mido's ability in that area was greatly aided by the crater that rapidly developed around him whenever he stood still.

For Tigers fans of a certain vintage the sight of Mido's billowing waistline will bring back happy memories of the legendary Billy Whitehurst, a belligerent centre-forward with a stomach my friend Steve claimed "could host the Super Bowl". Steve is a Newcastle fan. In 1985 the Magpies broke their transfer record to sign Whitehurst from Hull. He failed to score in his first eleven games. The thought of him wearing the Mags' number nine jersey made Steve so hot under the collar it's a wonder his shirt never caught fire.
'Whitehurst is built like a brick shithouse and plays like one too,' Steve said, 'He turns as quick as an oil tanker. He has the first touch of a jack-hammer. Jesus Christ, what a line-up: Beardsley, Gascoigne and Billy bloody Whitehurst - Peter, Paul and Lardy.' 

Steve was not alone in his opinion. Whitehurst was reviled by supporters at St James' Park. When asked why he thought that was, the Yorkshire striker's reply was disarmingly frank, 'Because I were shit,' he said. He left for Oxford after flicking the Vs at his own supporters during a League Cup tie.
Big Billy was such a size that when he played against Leeds fans at Elland Road taunted him with chants of "Have you ever seen your dick?" Whitehurst, I should say, denied being overweight. "I weren't fat ... the kit was too small," he once explained after relating how Reading fans had sung "Ninety pies an hour" at him during his brief spell with the Royals. Since a typical Whitehurst anecdote begins: "I'd had an argument with this bloke who'd come at me with a big spanner. I'd got it off him and done him over the head and then his kneecap and fucked off," I reckon it is probably wisest not to argue the point.

Saturday, 15 November 2014



When I wrote The Far Corner a lot of people expected Carlisle United to feature in it. Carlisle is not in the North East,, but because BBC TV have always lumped our region in with Cumbria, it kind of feels as if it is. We shared Tom Kilgour and George House. Our news is their news, and vice versa.
There's also been a traditional link between football in the two regions. Penrith have been members of the Northern League - off and on - since 1948. Whitehaven and Celtic Nation (formerly Gifford Park) are also currently playing in the NL, while Carlisle United and Workington were both once fixtures in the semi-pro North Eastern League alongside the likes of Blyth Spartans, North Shields, Gateshead and Spennymoor United.

Well anyway, I'm going to Brunton Park today to stand in the paddock, so after all the self-justification here's a thing from the Guardian about Olga the Fox

On Saturday I took a German sportswriter to witness one of the more eccentric ceremonies of British sporting culture – the placing of Olga the stuffed fox on the centre spot at Brunton Park. My overseas visitor was suitably impressed, if a little baffled.

"It's because of John Peel," I explained. "John Peel?" he said. "I did not know he was from Carlisle."
"He wasn't actually from Carlisle," I said, "but he was from Cumbria and he was the most famous English huntsman of all times." The German was aghast. "He hunted animals, and.... killed them?" he said. "Yes," I said cheerily. "There's a song about it and everything."

It was only at this point, as I studied his shocked face that it dawned on me that the John Peel he was thinking of was not the man in his coat so gay that people kenned at the break of day, but the late and much‑beloved Liverpool‑supporting music-loving radio presenter. I realised that I had conjured a nightmare vision in the sportswriter's mind of those famously relaxed yet enthusiastic tones introducing his Radio One show with the words: "Later we've got a session by the Gang of Four and new singles from the Fall and Scritti Politti, but before that I'm going to set my dogs on this otter."

I did consider explaining the misunderstanding, obviously. But as Mickey Rourke famously observed: "Sometimes you just gotta roll the potato."

Olga the Fox was a much-loved feature of Carlisle's glory years of the 1970s when the Cumbrians briefly headed the English league with a team starring Joe Laidlaw, a busy, barrel‑chested inside-forward whose facial hair was so luxurious he looked permanently like he was on his way to a fancy dress party as Dr Zaius from Planet of the Apes. In those days a portly man in a blue-and-white suit who was known locally as Twinkletoes carried Olga out to the centre circle.

Strangely, this elegant routine was later dropped and Olga was stored away in an office with claims that a curse would be visited on anyone who moved her. Recently, however, she was brought back after a clamour by a public who plainly felt that any amount of pestilence, plague or famine will comfortably be offset by the chance to watch a stuffed animal sitting on the pitch for five minutes. And, let's face it, when you've survived Michael Knighton it's bound to give you a sense of resilience. The big hope for many of us is that the revival of Olga will inspire Bristol City to bring back the man in the smock with the dancing cockerel.

Carlisle is not the only sports club whose fans like to see a dead animal on the playing surface, I should add. In El Salvador the pelting of visiting goalkeepers with dead cats is routine, while fans of the Detroit Redwings of the NHL have been celebrating big wins by hurling octopi on to the ice for reasons that are too complex to go into here since the 1950s. In a game in 1995 Redwing supporters chucked 36 octopi over the Perspex barriers, the biggest of which weighed 30 pounds. The following season some Lake Michigan loon topped that by lobbing a 50-pounder on to the rink. Sadly, a few years ago NHL authorities banned Redwings staff from twirling the recovered octopi above their heads, a piece of interference which I feel certain was denounced as "political correctness gone mad" by callers to whatever the local equivalent of the Victoria Derbyshire Show is.

Though I dare say they'd be more disturbed by a giant squid, the sight of Olga has caused a certain disquiet among some visiting fans. When a friend of mine came up earlier in the season with Charlton Athletic he told me that the visiting Londoners had seen the parading of Olga as a sign of how primitive the north of England is. A personal view is that the Cumbrians don't really do enough in this direction. I think they should accentuate the primitive for psychological purposes. If I was in charge at Brunton Park I wouldn't have Olga brought on to the pitch – as she is these days – by somebody in a Disney-fied, child-friendly fox costume, but by a shaven-headed albino in silken robes covered in runic symbols, who'd follow the placing of the dead beast in the centre circle by daubing a broken crucifix on the forehead of rambunctious defender and local cult hero Richard Keogh in fresh blood. I'm sure this would unnerve opponents even more than the All Blacks' Haka.

*Hattee-hattee hattee-ho amongst other things, apparently.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014


I posted this a month or so ago, then cunningly contrived to delete it. So let’s pretend it’s a coda to the World Cup pieces.

This piece originally appeared in When Saturday Comes in October 2002. A week later I was at the Riverside for the Leeds game. The reception the North Korean players got from the crowd was warm and genuinely touching. Pak Do-Ik even recreated his goal in front of the North Stand.

The Game of Their Lives is a wonderful film that deserves wider distribution. If you get a chance to see it, then you should.

On Friday October 25 a worker from a North Korean textbook factory will return to the scene of his greatest triumph. Pak Do Ik has not been back to Middlesbrough since his goal set up what remains arguably the greatest shock in World Cup history, his country’s 1-0 win over Italy in 1966.

Ayresome Park is now a housing estate.  A communal garden stands on the Hol­gate End, where support for the North Korean out­siders was so vociferous it fused the press-box lights (“They’ve never cheered Middlesbrough like this for years,” bellowed BBC commentator Frank Bough who’d worked at ICI Billingham and played a couple of games for Synthonia). The area to the left of what was once the Holgate End penalty spot is somebody’s front lawn. But if you look very carefully you will see in among the neatly clipped grass the bronze cast of the imprint of a football boot – a sculpture by the artist Neville Gabie – that marks the spot from which North Korea’s No 7 struck his shot.

Pak Do Ik, along with the six other surviving mem­bers of that North Korea team, are coming to England for the first time since Eusebio’s barnstorming display at Goodison Park in the quarter-final removed them from the tournament. Daniel Gordon and Nicholas Bonner have spent the past five years making a wonderfully entertaining and moving documentary, The Game Of Their Lives, which tells the story of the North Korea team at the World Cup. They are the first West­erners to have been given permission to meet and film the players who caused such a sensation 36 years ago and then, apparently, disappeared without trace.

David Lacey, Bernard Gent and a clutch of the Mid­dlesbrough fans who idolised them also contribute, as do a couple of the vanquished Italians. Gianni Rivera, looking like Marcello Mastroianni's more successful elder brother, is still pleasingly grumpy about the whole business, dis­dainfully dismissing the North Koreans as an in­ferior team, though his former team-mate Sandro Mazzola is altogether more engaging, merrily chuckling as he recalls the Italians’ arrival back home to a hail of rotten fruit: “I didn’t get hit by anything. I was quick in those days!”

The film effectively juxtaposes archive commentary from the BBC and previously unseen footage shot by the North Korean documentary crew that accompanied the team throughout the World Cup, with film shot in the People’s Democratic Republic over the past few years. The latter varies from the spectacular, to the grim, to the downright eerie. Anyone who wonders what a team from east Asia would make of training at Central Avenue, Billingham should take a look at the playing surface of the pitch at the Ryongsong Cigarette Factory, a corrugated mud-patch on which we see The Tobacconists doing battle with The Paper Rollers under the watchful if slightly rheumy eye of Pak Do Ik’s old col­league, Yang Song Guk.

Most of the spookiness comes courtesy of Kim Il Sung, The Great Leader – a man so revered in North Korea that he remains head of state despite having been dead for eight years. At one point in the film the players in their medal-be­decked baggy suits and over-sized military uniforms gather in the shadow of an en­ormous statue of Kim Il Sung and recall their meeting with him before they left for England. Suddenly one of them, the half-back Rim Jung Song, blurts out “I wish he was still alive!” and bursts into tears, sending several other team members into convulsive sobs. It is a mom­ent at once touch­ing and yet unnerving, like watching an elderly German weeping over his fallen comrades.

Kim Il Sung loomed large in thoughts of the players throughout the World Cup. Recalling a period of self-doubt before the qualifying game against Australia, centre-half Rim Jung Song says: “Then I remembered what The Great Leader had said to us, ‘In order to be a good footballer you must run swiftly and pass the ball accurately.’” This suggests that had the bottom ever fallen out of the dictatorship market The Great Leader could have found gainful employment as an Asian Trev­or Brooking, yet such is the belief in his wisdom among North Koreans that this bland comment was enough to re-fire Rim Jung Song’s belief in himself. The team thrashed Australia 9-2 on aggregate.

Those games highlighted some of the problems surrounding the North Korean team. Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, the north had been com­pletely isolated. Since Australia and North Korea did not officially recognise each other, both games were played in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh.

Similar troubles attended the trip to Britain. The foreign office thought of refusing visas, but that might have lead FIFA to move the World Cup, so instead they came up with a series of diplomatic compromises. The team would be called “North Kor­ea”, never the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea; the flag could be flown, but na­tional anthems would be played only before the first match and the final – neither of which was expected to involve Pak Do Ik and his fellows.


And so the North Koreans arrived at London Airport and then trundled northwards on Bri­tish Rail singing their patriotic songs (“Carrying the nation’s honour on our shoulders” runs one) and signing autographs for ladies with beehive hair-dos and bird-wing spectacles. In Middlesbrough, the mayor, mindful of the fact that many locals might be mistrustful of the visitors with whom this country had so recently been at war (“We were the en­emy,” Pak Do Ik observes candidly) made a whole-heart­ed effort to ensure the North Kor­eans were given a warm welcome. It succeeded beyond all hopes. “It remains a riddle to me,” says Rim Jung Song. “The people of Middlesbrough supported us all the way through – I still don’t know why.”

One Boro fan who watched the games offers an ex­planation: “They were small for a start, which was a novelty. They were like a team of jockeys. But they mov­ed the ball around. They played good football.” The size thing (the average height of the team was just 5ft 5in) was indeed a factor. In their first game against the Soviet Union the North Koreans were knock­ed flying by their much larger opponents who, to use a technical term, kicked the shit out of them. As David Lacey says, it was the sight of small men being bullied that really awakened the sympathy of the crowd.

After that, North Korea became the home side at Ayre­some Park and 3,000 people travelled from Teesside to Liverpool to watch them take on Portugal, where they amazingly took a 3-0 lead after 24 minutes, only to succumb 5-3 thanks to the brilliance of Eusebio. “His shooting was so accurate and so powerful. I was just not good enough to save it,” recalls the goal­keeper Ri Chan Myong, with an honesty some Premiership net-minders might learn from.

In the end, though, the result was hardly the point: “The English people took us to their hearts and vice versa,” says Pak Do Ik. “I learned that football is not about winning. Wherever we go… playing football can improve diplomatic relations and promote peace.” The North Koreans’ trip back to England this autumn should prove his point.