Saturday, 30 August 2014


Today I'm going to Newcastle Benfield v Kendal Town in the FA Cup, so here is something about the grand old trophy.

The following singular encounter occurred at Dr Pit Welfare Park one winter's evening long, long ago.

The night was cold, vapour lingered in the air like ectoplasm. The FA Cup, glowing yet with eldritch glory, stood proudly by the entrance to a social club, splendid against the backdrop of the AXA Insurance banner and signs advising of the forthcoming appearance of a Wishbone Ash tribute act. Drawn by its silver gleam were half-a-dozen fans, a television crew, reporters and a flock of those gurning urchins who seem to follow TV cameras about as lapwings trail the plough.

Nothing was noteworthy until a journalist moved to place an empty Styrofoam cup down next to the famous trophy.
“Don’t put that there!” The voice came again from the shadows. The tone was deep and sonorous, so orotund and mellifluous it made Mel Torme sound like Janette Krankie.  “It will leave a ring upon the velvet that can never be removed."
Seconds later the owner of the voice stepped into the white dazzle of the floodlights. He was six feet in height with sleek dark hair greying elegantly at the temples, skin the colour of fine cognac, of Cuban tobacco. He wore a Chesterfield overcoat. A scarf of deepest blue silk chimed with his eyes and the AXA banner. Fans of eighties US soap operas could not but be reminded of Cecil Colby from Dynasty.  

"Who are you, then?" the journalist asked.
"I," the tall stranger explained gravely, "I am....... The Keeper of the Cup." 
"Is that a full-time position, then?" Someone asked.

The Keeper nodded. It seemed that he and the Cup were as one, inseparable as Ian Wright's vowels. "When I am finished here we shall drive to Swansea," he told us.
'It's a long way,' one of our party volunteered.

The Keeper nodded wisely, "Probably I shall break my journey - in the vicinity of Worcester. At a Travelodge".

Sensing perhaps that this sounded a little less than glamorous he added, "I value the anonymity of such places. I arrive after dark, park near the front entrance and slip swiftly inside with my overnight bag and, of course....." he nodded affectionately in the direction of his glimmering ward.

" I carry it in a plain wooden box," he said, “no one knows it is there”.  Then, leaning towards us, he lowered his rich voice to a conspiratorial whisper, "On occasion I have walked through vast crowds bearing the Cup and not a single person has had the slightest inkling that it was among them".

He straightened then and spoke no more, but gazed upon us with a seraphic smile until embarrassed we shuffled away.


Wednesday, 27 August 2014


An extract from My Favourite Year and a photo of me with the other contributors. Sitting between one man who was played in a film by Hugh Grant and another who was played by Colin Firth, I look like I've come from a painting and decorating job, My Favourite Year came out more than twenty years ago, so it is probably about time I thanked Simon Chapman for the Portsmouth story. Thank you, Simon.


Because I was broke and living in London, I only went to away games. I travelled on my own. This made me a prime target for Lone Lunatics (Teesside Branch). In America a Lone Lunatic would likely come armed with a 9mm automatic and a celebrity’s address. In England he is armed with either: a) a pair of tattooed forearms and a garish necklace of lovebites, or b) a copy of The Big Boy’s Book of Every Football Fact in the World. Ever which he has memorized from cover to cover, and a carrier bag.
Lone Lunatic A stalks his prey on station platforms. He relies on his intimidating appearance to cow you into becoming his companion for the day. As you watch him lurching towards you, you will yourself to run, but you are powerless to move – mesmerized by the rhythmic swish of his knuckles on the tarmac.

Loonie B prefers to strike when you are cornered in a railway carriage window seat. He slips in beside you, sniffing and giving off an odour of burgers and Biactol. He has cut off your line of retreat. You are trapped. Shoving him out of the way is impossible – he is wearing so much man-made fibre the static he produces could power an arc welder; touching him would be like jabbing a wet finger in a plug socket. He rummages in his carrier bag and pulls out his packed lunch. This consists of Wonderloaf and meatpaste sandwiches. Meatpaste is made from the off-cuts rejected by dog food manufacturers because they smell too bad.

Once at your destination Lone Lunatic B leads you on a five-mile trek to a pub where you can drink cask conditioned ale so authentic it has splinters in it. Why do you go with him? Why don’t you flee? Because he has broken your spirit. He has subjected you to the merciless mental torture of interrupting everything you say in order to correct you: actually it was after seventeen and a half minutes; actually it was John Mahoney; actually it was St Andrew’s.

Lone Lunatic A on the other hand drags you into the roughest pub he can find within 100 yards of the home end and unzips his jacket to reveal a t-shirt that says ‘Birds, Booze and Boro’.

 ‘Lot of Portsmouth Fans in here,’ you whisper nervously.

'Oh aye,' the Loonie booms in response, 'I had a fucking good barney when I come in last year.'

Friday, 22 August 2014


Today I am going to The Riverside Stadium to see Boro play Sheffield Wednesday with some Alaskans. In a spirit of semi-relevance here is a piece about watching the Owls hammer Hartlepool at Victoria Park with some stuff about gymnastic wing-casual and serial club-hopper Peter Beagrie seamlessly stitched into it.

On Saturday I had two visitors from the continent. They'd already seen Buckingham Palace, Edinburgh Castle and Bath, so there seemed no other way to complete their tour of Britain's cultural highlights than to take them to the Victoria Ground to see Hartlepool play Sheffield Wednesday.

Looking at the away team in the programme shortly before kick-off, as the man behind us warmed up for an afternoon of hearty complaining with a few light moans about the number of old age pensioners he'd had to queue behind in Morrisons, my eyes alighted on a name from the past. "Neil Mellor," I exclaimed to my friends, "Hah! Neil Mellor. He came through the Liverpool youth system. He was supposed to be the next Robbie Fowler. The new Ian Rush. Hah!" I added for emphasis, because when you are a middle-aged bloke the collapse of a younger man's career is a source of delight that only the words "at this stage, I don't feel there's any need to carry out a full prostate examination" can really match.

My joy survived until five minutes into the game, by which time Mellor had already established such dominance over the home centre-backs he appeared to be twice as big as both of them put together. The on-loan striker brushed opponents aside like they were matchwood, surged forward as unstoppably as a tidal bore, set up one goal, blasted home another. He looked like some Hyborian Age-version of Emile Heskey: Conan the Targetman. The new Ian Rush be buggered, this was the new Hotshot Hamish.

We often hear commentators say they have "put the mockers" on a player by praising him, but what we had at the Victoria Ground was an equally common, though altogether less remarked upon, sporting phenomenon – the reverse mockers. Just as it happens that if you talk up a player you can be guaranteed that he will promptly display the first touch of a steam hammer and the balance of a Daily Mail editorial on asylum seekers, so if you talk a player down he will surely rise up to contradict you (unless he's playing for England, clearly).

I have to say that I am something of an expert in the field, having been schooled in the craft by my grandfather, a man whose snorting derision was so frequently confounded by subsequent events that if I'd been paid a pound every time he'd wisely observed "What's he doing? He'll never score from here" only to see the ball ballooning the back of the net a split second later, I'd be richer than a Sharjah bookmaker.

Down the years – or so it appears to me – dozens of sportsmen have revived their careers purely in order to spite me. The one who humiliated me most was winger Peter Beagrie, arguably the first player to do acrobatics as a goal celebration and thus a source of anguish to club physiotherapists and insurance brokers everywhere.

Back in the mid-90s I used to go to Roker Park with my old next-door neighbour and his son. I always enjoyed it because if Sunderland won my old neighbour bought us beer in the pub on the way home and if they lost, well, as a Middlesbrough fan, it cheered me up, obviously. One Saturday Sunderland had signed Beagrie on loan from Everton. When he made his debut, we were stood in the Fulwell end. "This lad played for the Boro, didn't he?" my next-door neighbour's son said. "What's he like then?"

"He's got a soul boy haircut and a thin moustache and generally looks like somebody who would give disco dancing demonstration in a home for the elderly," I said, "Bags of trickery, but there isn't an end-product," I continued wisely. "Flatters to deceive. You think he's brilliant, until you realise nothing ever comes of it all. It's physical blather. He's the Don King of ball control. His talent is like an elaborate toupee – an artifice that works hard to conceal nothing and ultimately fools nobody."

After such a trashing there was clearly only one way things could go. And they did. Five minutes into the game Beagrie zipped past the full-back and whipped in a cross that Don Goodman headed into the net. Ten minutes later he blasted a shot against a post from 25 yards. Midway through the second half he banged a volley straight into the top corner from even farther out.

As the ball zipped down the netting my next-door neighbour and his son turned to me with raised eyebrows. "No end-product," they said. "Nothing ever comes of it …"

"Oh yes," I said, "he's doing it now, but that's only to make me look a total idiot. Wait till I'm at Ayresome Park and you're here on your own. See what he does then." Beagrie was back at Goodison inside three months, but the damage had been done.

At least at the Victoria Ground on Saturday the unfamiliarity of their surroundings had disoriented my friends sufficiently to get away with it. "Which is the forward you said is so hopeless he couldn't find the ground if you pushed him out of a tree?" one of them asked as Mellor romped into the penalty area once again. "Sadly," I replied, "he appears not to be playing." Which was true in some ways, at least.



Wednesday, 20 August 2014


The joke on Tyneside ran:
Kenny Dalglish goes into a pub.
It's heaving.
Dalglish says to the barman, 'Why so busy?'
'It's happy hour,' the barman replies.
' I better leave, then,' says Kenny Dalglish.

The Scot's time at Newcastle was running out and he was even more surly than usual when the following incident occurred.


People who know Kenny Dalglish say that in private he is a warm and witty man. This is surely true, though anybody who knew him only through his post-match press conferences during his spell as manager of Newcastle would struggle to believe it. When Dalglish entered the pressroom at St James’ Park it felt like you had been sucked into a haunted Romanian cave. Watching him sit down I was reminded not so much of the brilliant forward I had admired as a teenager, but of the Groke from Tove Jansson’s Moomin books - a creature so chilly the ground freezes beneath her whenever she stops moving. Dalglish did not like journalists. And frankly who can blame him. They are always likely to twist your answers, quote you out of context, or compare you to some scary beast from Scandinavian children’s fiction.

On one particular occasion Dalglish was in an even more glacial mood than usual. His Newcastle side had just drawn with a newly promoted Charlton team that had been reduced to ten men for most of the match. Sitting on the podium afterwards the Scot wore an expression so bitter any Frenchman present would have been tempted to squeeze it on his crepes.
A senior reporter from County Durham asked the first question. “How disappointed are you with that result, Kenny?

Dalglish offered no response staring straight ahead like a man driving down a long dark tunnel. “How disappointed are you with that result, Kenny?” the reporter asked again, more loudly. Still Dalglish sat in silence.

“Are you going to answer my question?” The reporter shouted.

Dalglish sniffed, cleared his throat and slowly turned to look at him, “I didn’t hear a question,” he said with studied sourness, “I heard a statement”.

The reporter was a pitman's son from round Seaham way. He was big-hearted and generous, but he was not one to take insults lightly. He had once - so it was said - pinned Cambridge United boss John Beck to the wall in this same stadium and berated him about his negative tactics and time-wasting, 'People paid hard-earned money to watch that. You should be bloody ashamed of yourself.'

Now the reporter rose, He sucked in air until his chest swelled.  He cast his eye in the direction of some sycophantic members of the local media, the one's who laughed at the gaffer's every quip and turned on those who questioned him like the bully retinue of a brutal king.

The reporter's lip curled. 'I am not like these poor buggers, reliant on you for my livelihood,' he bellowed, 'I work for the nationals. I have been a journalist for forty years. And you can rest a-bloody-ssured that I know the difference between a statement and a question, and that is a bloody question. How disappointed are you with that result?”

Dalglish's peevish expression did not alter, “You’re trying to trip me up. You say,' How disappointed am I? What if I’m not disappointed at all?”

“Then,” the reporter roared, “Begin your carefully considered response to my inquiry with the words “ Actually I am not in the least bit bloody disappointed”….”

To the outside world this may not seem like much, but I can assure you that when you have heard the Japan manager answer a question about his team’s failure to beat Argentina with the words 'We did not score a goal and in football if you do not score a goal you cannot win the game.' And then listened to it being translated into four different languages, it’s the kind of frenzied excitement that lodges in your mind.

Sunday, 17 August 2014


Back in the summer of 1989 I was living in a flat in the Old Kent Road. One evening I started thinking about the stories my Grandfather, Harry Fixter used to tell me when I was a boy. Born in 1904, he grew up in Essex Street, Middlesbrough in one of those terraced houses with front doors that open straight onto the pavement and a step is a sign of affluence. His father was a tugboat man who ran off with another woman. His mother was a hand-painter at Linthorpe Pottery who ended her days in St Luke's Asylum. He had two brothers, redheads like him and several cousins of uncompromising fierceness. He was a dandy and a reckless troublemaker who could reduce a room full of strangers to helpless laughter simply by shrugging his shoulders. I sat down at the little manual typewriter I wrote on in those days and banged this out. It became the first in a series of three articles that ran in When Saturday Comes that autumn. Some of the stories are exaggerated, a couple are made up. The most unbelievable of them are the ones that are true.



‘The ball was heavier in them days,’ my grandfather would say waggling his false front teeth up and down reflectively, ‘It was like a bloody cannonball,’ he’d say, and laugh.
‘It soaked up water like a camel’s hump. The mud stuck to it an’ all. On a wet day that ball weighed more than King Farouk’s Christmas pudding. I’ve seen Jack Carr at Ayresome Park get under a kick out from the opposition keeper and the ball would drive him into the ground like a steam-hammer driving home a rivet.’
'He'd be sunk in the ground up to his neck. They had a gang of navvies on hand just to dig him out. They weren't allowed on until half or full-time, mind.'
‘Sometimes he’d spend 85minutes of the game like that; on the edge of the penalty area with only his head visible above the mud. And he still made a contribution.’
‘And that pitch was muddy. There none of this drainage, or underground heating, or astrakhan surfaces or all that jesse-ing about. That pitch was like the Somme. And if we were playing Sunderland so was the game.’
‘Aye, it was like the Somme on the third day that pitch. Boro brought down this new winger from Scotland. Ten minutes into his first game he fell into a crater by the left touchline. They never recovered the body. But nobody kicked up a stink. Players were tough in those days. Death was a way of life to them.’
‘The goalkeepers were the toughest of the lot. They didn’t get protection from the referees like they do now. I remember Dixie Deans shoulder-charging Tim Williamson that hard he sent him straight through the back of the net and up out the roof of the Holgate End. He landed, third bounce, on a tramp steamer that was sailing down the Tees. When he woke up he was in Trinidad. And the ref just waved play on.’
The players were stronger, too. They had to be to run about in those boots. They weren’t like these modern things. They’re just sand shoes. In those days players made their own. Billy Pease had a pair he’d knocked up out of old off-cuts of stHis left boot was sunk by a U-boat during the Dunkirk evacuation.’
‘And there was none of this moaning about wages. Andrew Wilson would have played for the Boro for no more than a couple of smacks on the back of the head with a five-pound lumphammer. And when times were bad, he’d have settled for one.’

‘Times were hard, then. But there was no hooligans. My cousin Davy once run on the pitch and laid out Leslie Compton, mind. But that was under extreme provocation. There wasn’t a jury in the land would have convicted him. Except for the one that did.’




Saturday, 16 August 2014


Today I’m off to Dean Street for Shildon v Crook Town in the FA Cup - a Match of the Month feature will appear the September issue of  When Saturday Comes. I’ll be working with photographer Peter Robinson. The first time Peter and I did a story together was ten years back when we went to the Stadium of Light. It was coming up Christmas. Sunderland had been relegated from the Premiership two season before after a shambolic campaign that briefly brought the dourly mad Howard Wilkinson back into League management and ended with them bottom of the table on a record low 19 points. Former Republic of Ireland boss Mick McCarthy was brought in as manager. He was handicapped by the fact the club were an estimated £30 million in the hole, but got them to the play-offs in his first season. McCarthy was popular enough, but chairman Bob Murray was so poisonously disliked it made your eyes water. Debts were mounting. The Irish millionaires had yet to step in. Gloom was general.

Photographs by Peter Robinson



Sunderland v Burnley

18th December 2004

It’s probably the seventy or so years that have elapsed since one of the region’s teams could justifiably lay claim to being the best in the country that leads football fans in the North-East to spend their lives permanently teetering on the brink of exasperation. It doesn’t take much to tip them over the edge. Santa hats may predominate at the Sunderland Stadium of Light, but the mood is as much restive as festive. When yet another pass is pinged out of midfield and across the touchline a bloke sitting in the row behind me in the East Stand groans loudly, “I’ve paid £23 for a bucket of shite!” The big scoreboard above the North Stand shows that 6 minutes and 28 seconds have been played.

The Black Cats are third in the Coca Cola Championship but that doesn’t seem to have convinced anyone. The first time I came here was five years ago. Sunderland were on the verge of returning to the Premiership and the roar that greeted the team was so loud it reverberated inside my head like static. Today the vast stadium is half full, the air so cold you feel as if your face is shrinking. When the Lancastrians behind the goal give a rendition of “Shall we sing a song for you” nobody even bothers to ridicule them.  

Fifty years ago this would have been the match of the day. Sunderland, still trailing the Bank of England club tag, had Billy Bingham, Don Revie and Len Shackleton; Burnley were on the way to building a team that would win the Championship in 1959-60. Things have moved on dramatically since then. Burnley ceased to punch above their weight a couple of decades ago and after their endless fiscal troubles Sunderland look more like the Bank of Credit and Commerce International club.

Their recent fall could hardly have been more dramatic if it had been presided over by Asil Nadir and Nick Leeson. One minute they were riding high in the Premiership and held up as an exemplar of financial probity, the next they were struggling to win a game and hurtling towards bankruptcy.

What precipitated this tumble is still a subject for heart-searching amongst fans travelling to the game. On the Metro from Heworth a middle-aged man in a Timberland coat says, “When we were second in The Premiership that was the time to strengthen. We should have bought big then, instead of waiting”.

A woman with red tinsel in her hair wonders whether it would have made any difference given Sunderland’s ill fortune with players, “Look at that Stewart Downing,” she says, “We had him on loan and he was alright, but never a world beater. Goes back to Middlesbrough and he’s on the verge of England.”

 “Kevin Kilbane,” a lad standing nearby adds. It is a name that a few years ago was rarely heard from anyone in red and white stripes without an expletive attached to the front of it. Kilbane was reckoned by many to have been the worst player ever to have worn a Sunderland shirt ('A right bull's knacker' is my next door neighbour's estimation), his place in the side proof positive that Peter Reid was a total idiot. Now he's a regular with Everton, third in The Premiership. It's a mystery.

A pity too, because while the bigger English clubs have rushed to embrace the globalized capitalism of the shopping mall and sell their ‘product’ worldwide, Sunderland – who three years ago had the third highest average attendance in the country - have moved in the opposite direction. They have done their best to tap into the old-fashioned parochialism that was once the well-spring of the professional game. Though there are mocked up flags on the upper tier of the North Stand at the Stadium of Light advertising various worldwide Sunderland supporters clubs, there is no attempt to distance the team from the local community, or the region it serves, or to identify it as an international brand. While up the road Freddy Shepherd’s every use of the term Geordie serves only to illustrate the truth of Dr Johnson’s observation that patriotism is the last bastion of the scoundrel, there is something genuine and heartfelt about Sunderland’s efforts to connect.

In contrast to some other new stadiums, there is a real attempt here to link the modern with the past. The snack bars in the concourse are named after players from the 1973 FA Cup winning team. You can get chips at Monty’s Magic, or a drink at The Little General’s (named in honour of Bobby Kerr). Panels on the walls are illustrated with photos and memorabilia relating to the player along with their career stats. Another panel explains the symbolism of the club crest. The supporters’ association shop in the concourse under the East Stand has framed photos of Charlie Hurley and cigarette cards of Raich Carter, Charlie Buchan, Bobby Gurney and Patsy Gallacher.

The name of the ground was subject to much mockery, but at least there is some imagination behind it. It’s not bland and – unlike The Riverside - it’s way too long to have a corporate tag stuck in front of it. Whatever you may think of the concept it’s surely better than the Emirates Stadium.



The announcer tells us that the City of Sunderland Education Directorate is sponsoring today’s game. He then lists all the things you may not do in The Sunderland Stadium of Light – smoke, drink, or indulge in “persistent standing”.

“Racist abuse and racist chanting is not tolerated in The Sunderland Stadium of Light,” he says, “If you wish to report incidents of racist abuse call the hotline”.

“What if I haven’t got a phone?” the bloke two seats along from me croaks forlornly.

“Five minutes to kick off. Five minutes to kick off,” the announcer says in an attempt to drum up some urgency, before the strains of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet announce the imminent arrival of the players.

 The crowd settle down in mute acceptance. Well, almost mute. The man behind me describes and explains every incident as if to a blind man or somebody who has never seen a football match before. “The referee had to reach for a yellow card there,” he says, “because though there was no malice in the tackle it was plainly a deliberate attempt to stop a promising breakaway”.

He continues like this throughout the match. He is like those members of the crowd in a Roy of the Rovers comic strip who bring us up to date with events with flurries of exposition. I half expect that at some point he will say, “And at 3-0 down with just five minutes to play Melchester need a miracle and Roy Race is just the man to provide it”. Instead he says, “Bridges’ first touch lets him down once again”.

Michael Bridges is on loan from Bolton. He stands peculiarly erect and stiff backed even when in full flight. A white polo neck worn under his jersey looks like cravat adding further to the impression of an aristocrat imperiously surveying his estate. Bridges was once the young local hero. My recollection is of a cheeky dark-haired urchin after the style of Jack Wilde in Oliver! poaching goals and grinning merrily. Four years of Elland Road and persistent injuries have dulled his athleticism, however,  his skill shows only in flashes, he smiles rarely and without exuberance. 

“Nice touch and vision to set up Julio Arca’s goal but otherwise Bridges’ performance has done little to vindicate making the move from the Reebok Stadium a permanent one” the man behind me opines accurately and to nobody in particular.

The Burnley coach is Steve Cotterill. Cotterill was at Sunderland as assistant to Howard Wilkinson for five months during the 2002/2003 season. Like Wilkinson he has hundreds of coaching badges (if he wore them all his tracksuit top would look like something Elton John would reject as far too busy), but that didn’t help much. Sunderland played 20 games under their tutelage and won just two of them.

You have to wonder what they teach them at the Football Association. The last team of Cotterill’s I saw was Cheltenham. The incisive and previously unknown tactic he employed with them was to have a centre-forward the size of a small house and get the defence to bang balls up to him in the hope of getting a knockdown. At Burney they have only the diminutive Robbie Blake (13 goals so far, subject to a £1 million bid from Wigan) up front, so Cotterill seems to have borrowed from Sir Clive Woodward and instructed his men to kick for touch in a bid to gain territorial advantage. They equalise inside two minutes.

The goals emerge as if by accident from the random pattern of the game. Normally the furious pace of second division football might be blamed for the woeful inaccuracy of the passing, but the tempo of the match is decidedly sluggish. Only Arca - sturdy, scurrying, the sort of man you know would play with his socks rolled down round his ankles if he was allowed - seems to want to increase the tempo, getting the ball and darting forward, looking to play wall passes with his team mates.

It is the Argentine who starts the move that leads to Sunderland’s winner, Bridges recapturing a memory and nudging in a cross from the left. After that Mick McCarthy’s team back off, allowing Burnley so much space in midfield that Micah Hyde starts to look vaguely like Michel Platini. He sprays the ball from left to right and back again, elegantly but with little real purpose. Blake is neat and tidy but falls over too much for the crowd’s liking. Sunderland occasionally break through the energetic Liam Lawrence but nothing comes of it.

“I still reckon we’ll go up,” a man in a Schott jacket says as the Metro pulls into Pelaw station. The doors open and he steps out, “Aye,” says his mate from inside the train, “and come straight back down again” and the doors close and on we go.*



*The prediction proved singularly accurate. Sunderland were promoted and the following season finished bottom of the Premiership with a new record low number of points: 15.








Friday, 15 August 2014


Northern League ground hopping weekend in the late winter (or April as it's known elsewhere) of 1994, Pete Dodman took the opening photos for a planned coffee table book on non-League toilets. Sadly no publisher willing to back this splendid project could be found and this is as far as he got. Seeing these images of the now demolished facilities at Dean Street and Evenwood Welfare Ground, I think you will agree that it is society's loss.


Tuesday, 12 August 2014


Repetitive Saying Syndrome, certain fans' habit of yelling the same phrase over and over again during the course of a game/season/lifetime came up for discussion the other week. I recalled a ginger-haired giant who attended The Riverside with his elderly mother and could barely get two minutes into any game without rising to his feet and howling, 'Jesus Christ, Boro!'  Brian mentioned a bloke who sat just along from him and cried out, 'Play like you mean it!' several times per match, and another who greeted Marvin Emnes every touch by groaning . 'Here we go, bloody dickie dancer.' Chris had fond memories of an old man at St James' Park in the late-sixties who always positioned himself near the touchline so he could shout 'Your fatha should have had a wank' at full-back Frank Clarke. Saddest of all these voices was the one of the man who used to attend Boro away games in the early-1990s. His plaintive call, 'Get us a goal, lads, and we'll sing you home' haunts me still.

Anyroad, here's something about fans that appeared in Red Square on the first day of the new season. Thanks to Mick Hydes and Ian Cusak for the opening story.

At a midweek Northern League match at a Northallerton years before many of you were born, a dozen or so garrulous away fans from Ashington were approached by the home team’s secretary and asked to stop singing because, “There are people in the clubhouse trying to watch Inspector Morse”.

At the time I thought this a terrible thing. I am older now and as the new season dawns no longer so certain. The fact is that once you pass fifty you become less tolerant of other people. Their foibles start to annoy you more and more.  And more.

My enjoyment of any game these days is disrupted by all sorts of things I didn’t used to notice: people who arrive late, people who leave early, people who drink beer when they apparently only have a bladder the size of a ping-pong ball and therefore have to keep getting up every quarter of an hour to go to the gents. They all get my goat.

I travel to any game now knowing that I am bound to be regularly disturbed by some bloke, so wide, vast and lacking in neck that if he sprayed himself green he’d be a dead-ringer for Thunderbird 2, who apparently suffers from a medical condition that means he has to eat a hot dog and chips every twenty minutes or lapse into a coma.

This fellow’s twice-per-half trip back from the burger bar is invariably accompanied by the following commentary:  “Mind your backs. Scuse, pal. Can you just lift your bag up, pet? Oops! Sorry. Hey, calm down, mate. It’ll wipe off with a damp cloth. It’s only ketchup. Coming through. Watch your leg. YEEEEEEEEEEEES! GET IN THE NET! There’s no need to get so narky, chief. You’ll be able to see it on The Football League Show later. Hey, luv, d’you mind if I get those chips out of your hair, only I’m starving”.

And then there are those fans who insist on phoning their mates up on a mobile whenever there’s a goal? Having first held the phone aloft to capture the crowd noise, these merry communicators then embark on a conversation that runs: “Gary? It’s me. Are you there? I can’t hear a thing.  Smithy’s just scored. Header. Are you there? I said, SMITHY’S SCORED. Did you hear that? Are you there? I can’t hear you. Can you hear me? I’m ringing off now, mate.……. Bob? It’s me. Are you there? One nil to the might reds! Hahahahahaha. Can you hear me? I can’t hear you”.

In a nutshell then, what I’m saying is this: Welcome to the new season, now sit down and shut up.


Saturday, 9 August 2014


A trip to see Carlisle v Luton today. Going to Brunton Park in August brings back more memories of Boro’s pre-season friendlies in The Great Border City. Including this one from 2005 enjoyed in the company of Robert Nichols and others.

A couple of weeks ago we took our daughter to see Middlesbrough play for the first time. It was a pre-season friendly at Carlisle. The sun beat down, the scent of fabric conditioner wafted from a thousand freshly laundered replica tops, the crowd were languid and happy. In fact, it wasn't a bit like a football match at all.

Then five minutes before kick-off a man came and stood behind us. Having surveyed the scene, he began bellowing in a voice that sounded like an explosion in a gravel pit. My partner, Catherine, groaned. I knew why. Years ago at Ayresome Park we had stood near a bloke like this. Every time he yelled it made Catherine's glasses vibrate. By the final whistle she had blisters on the bridge of her nose.

It was not the same man, I should add. There are lots of men on Teesside who sound as if they've just come off shift from modelling in a foghorn factory. I had an uncle who was the same. People said it was from the effort of shouting over the roar of heavy machinery, though after a while of listening to him you started to think maybe his co-workers had invented heavy machinery expressly to drown out his shouting. When he came in my Granny's house and began talking, the windows rattled and the tea tray shuddered. Sometimes by the time he'd finished an anecdote the milk in the jug would have turned to butter.

"Now, here's a thing," my uncle would boom. "The other day I was sat in the Commercial having a quiet pint. I've just finished saying to our lass how these steel workers who're out on strike are a bunch of lazy, workshy shirkers, when suddenly this barstool comes flying out of nowhere and hits me on the head."

"Were you hurt?" we'd ask. "No," he'd roar back, "luckily for me it glanced off our lass on the way through and that drew the sting out of it."

The bloke behind me at Brunton Park had been cast from the same bell brass. "February 9th 1985 v Notts County. Three thousand, three hundred and sixty-four in Ayresome. The lowest ebb in the club's history," he shouted, apparently to somebody standing nearby, possibly in Dumfries. "I was there. In the Chicken Run. Where were this lot, eh?"

It would have been fruitless to point out to the man that at least half of them weren't born. He'd have swotted it aside it with an angry wave of his fist and a bellowed, "What's that got to do with owt? I started going to Ayresome Park in 1937. And I'm only 44 now."

Boro's relative affluence these days has produced resentment in older supporters. The man was irritated by the crowd the same way old club comedians get upset about Cambridge Footlight types who are given their own TV show without ever having to face a second house at the Glasgow Empire.

In truth, though, he'd probably been moaning long before that. The clue was in the fact he had been standing in the Chicken Run. The men in the Chicken Run were complaining long and loudly decades before Middlesbrough had an all-seater stadium and Uefa Cup football. Before the War, when the Boro and England captain George Hardwick trapped the ball and looked up, somebody from the Chicken Run would invariably bark, "Stop showing off, bighead."

At one time every ground in Britain had a Chicken Run, an area of standing that ran along the touchline beneath the posh seats of the grandstand. In a lot of grounds it's called the Paddock. The denizens of the Chicken Run section are victims of a particularly vicious strain of the natural law known as My Dad's Sports Car Theorem. My Dad's Sports Car Theorem is named in honour of the man who invented it (my Dad). It runs thus: "When you are young you cannot afford a sports car. When you are middle-aged you can afford a sports car but you can't buy one because the kids won't fit in it and there's no place for a roof box. When you are old, the kids have left home, you can afford a sports car, but there's no point getting one because your eyesight and reactions are shot to buggery."

The men in the Chicken Run are too old to stand behind the goal because of all the pushing and shoving but they can't afford a seat. They have surrendered the vibrancy of youth without compensatory affluence of middle age. No wonder they are bitter and angry. At Brunton Park the Chicken Run man bellowed out a question: "I tell you what, right, in that game against Notts County a former England youth international made his last start in a Boro shirt. Who was it, eh? Eh?"

And, like the answering call of a howler monkey, from far across the terrace a bloke boomed back, "Mick Fucking Buckley*."

"Aye, that's it," the Chicken Run man said, his immense voice trailing pitifully away. The disappointment of not being able to pour scornful and noisy retribution upon our feckless, fair-weather heads was too much for him. He never said another word.


*Mick Buckley played for England at Youth and U-23 level and scored the winning goal against West Germany in the final of the 1972 ‘Mini-World Cup’. He was a skilful and abrasive midfielder for Everton and Sunderland, before pitching up at Ayresome Park toward the end of his career. He also played for Hartlepool and Carlisle. He died in 2013 aged 59 after a long struggle with alcoholism.


Wednesday, 6 August 2014


I first saw Adam Johnson play in a pre-season friendly at Carlisle when he was seventeen or so. He reminded me of a friend of mine from primary school who wore a duffel coat all-year round and lived on a diet of Heinz tomato soup and Jacobs crackers. I wrote this about him in 2010 inspired by a conversation with Bob Fischer.


There's an episode of Porridge in which the inmates receive a letter from the recently released Lukewarm. Lukewarm has returned to his native Teesside and encountered prejudice because of his homosexuality. Godber expresses surprise at the news, "I thought people were more tolerant these days," he says. "Not in Middlesbrough they're not," Fletcher counters. "They are a hard uncompromising bunch of men in Middlesbrough. As is attested to by their football team."

I recalled this scene the other day when a friend told me that when he met Adam Johnson, "I drew his attention to the fact he bears a strong facial resemblance to kd lang". The winger was apparently unimpressed. "He denied it vehemently," my friend said. "To be honest, he got a bit huffy."

Times have moved on since Godber and Fletcher were banged up in HMP Slade, yet despite the widespread acceptance in dressing rooms across the land of man-bags and moisturisers, it is fair to say that telling a north-east footballer he looks like a gay female singing star is never going to help establish a rapport.

Whether Johnson resembles the woman who sang Constant Craving, or not, I will leave for others to judge. What is certain is that he looks like a player from a bygone age. With his pallid slenderness he has the aura of the romantic hero from one of those chaste yet romantic blockbusters that tantalise teenage girls: "She was drawn to him passionately, yet knew that if she was to give herself to him, even once, then she would be pulled irrevocably into his twilight world. She too would become ... a winger."

They've more or less disappeared these days, but back in the 1960s English football could always find room for boys such as Johnson. Spectral waifs who looked permanently goosebumped by a chill wind, cuffs grasped in fists and shoulders hunched against the climate like the chesty lad who has foolishly persuaded his mother not to send a note to the PE master seeking permission to keep his vest on during games.

Teeth chattering, they glided over the ground, controlling the ball with feet that moved so loosely it was as if they were attached to their hips not by bone, muscle and sinew, but by lengths of velvet cord. They were so pale it was as if they have never ventured out in daylight, or spent the afternoon lying under a sun-bed with the dial set to "suck". The sun reflected off their cheekbones giving them a luminous quality so that, even on a bright afternoon, you seemed to be watching them under floodlights, in black and white.

Take a peek at film of George Best back in the day when he looked like the fifth Beatle rather than some chubby geezer who played session marimbas on the second Eagles album. Or Peter Marinello, Peter Knowles, Ian Storey-Moore or Tony Green (scoring on Match of the Day for Blackpool, David Coleman burbling, "No wonder they say this boy is worth £100,000", and sounding to modern ears like Dr Evil demanding a million dollars in return for sparing the world from destruction). All of them lads who guarded their mercurial image and seemed to live for the day they provoked the rampantly romantic Barry Davies to squawk ecstatically: "Oh, my word, and you have to admire the sheer impudence of the boy!"

Not that the pale winger was above getting involved physically. Indeed he was always likely to get his marching orders after lashing out a boot when an opponent felled him for the third time, then towered over him growling: "What's up, pet, dropped a false eyelash?" On other occasions he would react to the cynicism and brutality of a defender by subjecting him to a humiliating demonstration of ball artistry. And then spitting straight in his face from 10 paces.

The pallid slim ones largely disappeared in the 1980s, though a few kept the flame burning thereafter. Gary Crosby, who succeeded the scurrying Franz Carr – a member of that large society of speeding wingers whose only problem is that no football pitch is ever quite long enough for them – at Nottingham Forest was one who springs to mind. Steve McManaman another.

These days the role of the winger has changed. The last time I watched the left-footed Johnson play, he was cutting in from the right. Wingers who cut inside are the latest football fashion. At one time you played left-footed players on the left and right-footed players on the right as if it was the natural order of the universe. But since Spain won the European Championship using a system that, like some world-saving McGuffin in Dr Who, reversed the polarity of the widemen, cutting inside is de rigeuer. It's even revived the career of Steed Malbranque, an entity previously so lifeless strangers in County Durham were attaching floral tributes to it.

Soon the wing-backs will be cutting inside too, and the area around the D of the penalty area will resemble a Dark Age battle with two walls of men shoving each other, apparently unaware that there is acres of room simply to go round. In fact this is probably how rugby union started.

Saturday, 2 August 2014


A column about the German international Christian Ziege who enjoyed a brief and successful spell at Middlesbrough, then buggered off and was more or less crap everywhere he went. And serve him bloody well right.

At Euro 2000 a German journalist told me that Ziege was unpopular with fans of the national team. "They sing very bad things about him" the reporter said. What sort of things? I asked. "Well, his surname means goat," the German said, "And they sing "Put the goat in the zoo!" This gave me the impression that when it came to abusing players the German fans had a lot to learn.

Over the past few weeks Middlesbrough have apparently been chasing Alain Boksic of Lazio, Dani of Barcelona and Marco Delvecchio of Roma. Yesterday they bought Noel Whelan from Coventry City.  

When I heard the news I recalled that moment twenty-five years ago when the headline on the back page of the Middlesbrough Evening Gazette read “Boro Sign Liverpool Striking Ace” and my young heart pounded at the thought of who it might be. Could it be Heighway, Toshack, or  Callaghan?. No, it was Phil Boersma.

Mind you, on Teesside for the past fortnight fans have been less concerned with the buying of players as with the selling of one, last season’s most influential figure, Christian Ziege.

Ziege arrived at The Riverside after a two-season spell at Milan that was on the dark side of disastrous. Coach Alberto Zaccheroni played him out of position, if at all and German team boss Erich Ribbeck dropped him first from his starting line-up and then from his squad. In one of the former-Bayern Munich star’s final games at the San Siro 70,000 fans booed his every touch after his mistake had gifted a goal to visitors Bari. Asked why he had chosen Middlesbrough Ziege was disarmingly frank, “The only person who came to see me and make me an offer was Bryan Robson”.

The Berlin-born wing-back is by all accounts a sensitive man, the product no doubt of the schoolroom teasing that results from having the surname “Goat”. Freed from the nastiness of Milan he promised that he would “blossom” and so he did.  He lashed in free-kicks from twenty-five yards and delivered crosses of such pinpoint accuracy that an inanimate object could have scored from them. And indeed Brian Deane frequently did so. In September Ziege was recalled to the German team and celebrated by becoming the first Boro player to score a hat trick in an international match since Wilf Mannion in 1947.

You might think that this would have been a cause of some joy on Teesside. Perhaps. But if it was, it was a joy tinged with unease. Middlesbrough fans have learned their lesson in recent years. You gather a bloke up after everyone else has dumped him, dust him down and cook him a square meal and the next thing you know he is back on his feet and running off with a Champions’ League contender. Or Aston Villa. 

Judging by their rhetoric players like to think of themselves as warriors. To my mind they are actually more like fin de siecle courtesans. They keep themselves in top condition for occasional bouts of strenuous physical activity and should they catch the eye of someone more wealthy or powerful than their current keeper you can bet they’ll be off quicker than you can say, “His family couldn’t settle in the area”.
The only consolation for supporters of those clubs never likely to be considered members of football’s aristocracy is that these days even money and position are no longer enough to hold the wandering attentions of the stars. This summer Figo has jilted Barcelona, Redondo has blown-out Real, Petit and Overmars have eighty-sixed Arsene and Beckham is flirting with the filthy rich of Europe in manner so outrageous it must have sent United’s new chairman Peter Kenyon scuttling to the toilets for a quick blub.

That at least is the slant that is usually put on transfers. Society is a mite hypocritical about these things, of course. Double standards prevail. Club presidents such as Sergio Cragnotti at Lazio have no sooner had their fun with one set of players than they are jettisoning them in favour of a new bunch, but no one calls them names. It’s the age old story: If a player runs around they say he’s a traitor; if a club chairman snags everything that moves they call him ambitious. 

This will be small comfort to Boro fans if Ziege leaves. Because no matter how hard you try, you just can’t help believing that this time it will be different. “Coming to Middlesbrough has been a liberation for me” Ziege said twelve months ago. He sounded like he meant it. Maybe he did.

Last week, though, he was telling reporters in Germany, “I’d like to go to Liverpool. Playing in Europe is important to me”. Middlesbrough have picked him up and turned him around and he has rewarded them by listening to the sweet-talk of Gallic smoothie Gerard Houllier. This isn’t a career in football. It’s a world wide hit for The Human League.