Sunday, 28 September 2014


Looking through an old tin trunk I used to have out in the shed I came across a padded envelope filled with programmes, tickets, notebooks and other stuff I accumulated while writing The Far Corner. Among them was another reminder of Evenwood Town.

I was at Dunston UTS v Spennymoor Town yesterday and I'm sure I saw someone wearing an Evenwood scarf, perhaps in ironic protest at past events.


Saturday, 27 September 2014




The following piece about the Northern League appeared in When Saturday Comes in March 1997. I wrote it after a trip to 'The East Durham Triangle' with Mike Amos. According to Mike 'The East Durham Triangle' is a chilly coalfield version of one around Bermuda. 'It is a strange and terrible place. Football clubs just disappear there' he says. He has plenty of evidence to support the idea: Eppleton, Easington, Murton and Horden have all fallen out of the Northern League in recent times, while the likes of Blackhall Colliery have sunk without trace. Since the same area has churned out a steady stream of top class players - Colin Bell probably the best - the whole thing is, as Toyah so rightly said: a mystery, a mystery, a big question mark in history. 

In 1997 the Northern League was probably at its lowest ebb - crowds were poor, vandalism and arson were rife, eccentric millionaire Brooks Mileson had yet to appear with his sponsorship money and the beginning of the run of NL Wembley appearance in FA Vase finals was still a year away. To make things worse every clubhouse served nothing but the sort of tanker-delivered sta-brite beer that's so stuffed with chemicals it makes your piss glow in the dark.

Things have improved a lot in the seventeen years since, though not for either of the teams featured. At the end of the season Ferryhill were suspended from the Northern League - the move to Spennymoor dog track having come to nothing (the dog track is now a housing estate). They reformed shortly afterwards and entered the Wearside League but continued to struggle and went under altogether in 2006. Shotton Comrades were relegated from the Northern League to the Wearside League at the end of the 2004-5 season. After just four games of the next season lacking cash and enthusiasm for the never ending uphill battle they jacked it in altogether - another victim of the East Durham Triangle.




Shotton Colliery Recreation Ground on a damp Saturday in January. Shotton Comrades are taking on Ferryhill Athletic. Beyond the perimeter fence on one side of the pitch is a small airfield. Every fifteen minutes or so light planes take off to drop sky divers. During dull moments of play you can watch the parachutists spiralling slowly earthward through the drizzle.
Comrades are relative newcomers to the Federation Brewery Northern League. They joined thirteen seasons ago and have yet to get out of the second division. They have no club house – half-time and post-match refreshments are served in a log cabin that wouldn’t look out of place in Last of the Mohicans and matches on the parks pitches adjoining the ground often attract more spectators.

Compared to Ferryhill Athletic, Shotton Comrades are high flyers. They won the Craven Cup last season and are in the top half of the table; their kit is new and fashionably baggy. Ferryhill’s by contrast is tight and skimpy. The red shirts have faded and the two white bars on the chest make it look as though someone has erased the name of a previous sponsor using a giant bottle of tippex.

Shotton’s players pass the ball to one another and create chance after chance. Ferryhill’s only tactic is to whack the ball down the field and wait for it to come back again. They are a team who always seem to be kicking uphill and into the wind - even though the pitch is flat and the day calm. Ferryhill have won the Northern League title three times and once attracted a crowd of 13,000 for an Amateur Cup tie with Bishop Auckland. That was all a long time ago. Last year Ferryhill, crippled with debt, sold their Darlington Road stadium and moved in with Brandon United. Brandon’s ground is on an exposed hillside above a post-war estate that once overlooked the Durham village's three collieries. The clubhouse is a slit-windowed bunker - a defence post against the destructive miscreants who plague the area - and so filled with cigarette smoke it might double as a kippering shed. On my last visit they had to withdraw the brandy from the raffle prizes because, the ticket seller said cheerfully, ‘it had floaters in it.’

Brandon Welfare Ground is the sort of location that might inspire Mike Leigh or Ken Loach. It hasn’t had a similar effect on Ferryhill. Athletic have accumulated just five points all season (though such is the startling ineptitude of Alnwick Town that even this tally is enough to keep them off the bottom).

The effect on Brandon’s pitch of having weekly matches played on it has not been good either. Now Ferryhill are proposing another move, to Spennymoor Greyhound Stadium. The owner of the dog track clearly has the notion of a multi-sportsplex in mind. Ferryhill Athletic will play in the middle, greyhounds will race round the outside of them and on the outside of the greyhounds will be a harness racing circuit. Compared to Sir John Hall’s grand schemes for the Geordie Nation this may not seem like much, but there is a pleasant regionalism about it. All that needs adding to the plan are a few pigeon lofts and a row of fives-and-threes tables and Spennymoor dog track will form a microcosm of Durham’s sporting sub-culture.

Despite the range of attractions on offer, the move to Spennymoor Greyhound Stadium, should it happen, may not prove popular with Ferryhill’s dwindling band of fans. Once at Evenwood Town I heard a Ferryhill man say: “I’ve only one thing against Adolf Hitler and that’s that he didn’t bomb Spennymoor.” In the long list of the Führer’s crimes this may seem a small one, but it illustrates the fierce parochialism that once served the Northern League so well.

The Fifties were the heyday of the Northern League. Big crowds watched successful teams. The Sixties weren’t too bad either. Crook won the Amateur Cup in 1962 and 1964, North Shields in 1969, and then . . . something happened.

It’s hard to put your finger on exactly what. The collapse of heavy industry and the subsequent destruction of many of the communities served by Northern League clubs undoubtedly played its part. At one time money was deducted each week from the pay packets of steel workers in Consett to go towards the upkeep of the football club. The same was true in most pit villages. The locals took an interest in their team partly because they were subsidizing it. The importance of deep-rooted community spirit in non-League football is easily assessed by looking at the difficulty of fostering football in Northern East new towns. Peterlee’s Northern League team draws an average of around 25 fans from the town’s 25,000 inhabitants, Washington hardly fairs any better, while Newton Aycliffe (population 27,000) has barely a team above parks level [Newton Aycliffe FC entered to Northern League in 2009. Gates are a couple of hundred.].

And then there’s the non-League Pyramid. The effect of the Pyramid has been twofold. Firstly, the better supported and more successful clubs, amongst them Bishop Auckland, Whitley Bay and Blyth Spartans, have moved up into the Unibond [Bishops and Whitley have since returned to the NL]. Whitby Town, currently the only club in the NL who pull in regular crowds of more than 300, seem sure to follow [They did]. Secondly, the Pyramid has imposed arbitrary ground standards which many clubs struggle to meet. Shotton with their 20 or so fans must still provide covered seating for 100 and covered standing for the same number. Peterlee recently attempted to circumvent this rule by handing out umbrellas to supporters. Lancaster Gate was unimpressed.

The way people follow football has changed too. 'At one time football fans went to a match every Saturday,' Mike Amos, chairman of the Northern League says, 'They might support Newcastle, but if Newcastle were playing away they'd go to Blyth, North Shields or Whitley Bay. That's no longer true. In the 1960s, if Sunderland weren't at home you'd see an increase in attendances at non-League games across County Durham - nowadays it barely makes a difference.'

The affection for football in the region has narrowed to the love of one club. Given the financial commitment involved in following top level football perhaps that's understandable.

Television doesn't help either. 'I was at a League Cup match at Evenwood last Wednesday,' Amos says, pausing to watch as Shotton's centre-forward balloons a half-volley over the bar in a manner that suggests his right boot is shaped like a golfer's sand-wedge.  'Freezing night. There was 25 hardy souls out at the pitch side, and twice as many sat in the clubhouse in front of Manchester United v Barcelona.'

Squeezed between falling crowds and the need for ground improvements many clubs have got into financial problems. Some have disappeared altogether, amongst them Langley Park (honorary president: Bobby Robson) and South Bank, the oldest club in the North East. Were it not for the enthusiasm and hard work of the people who run them, many others would have gone, too.

Looking round Durham City’s lovely old ground, Ferens Park, a few years ago my friend Pete remarked that it was a lot like being in church. “Not many people,” he said, “And those there are mostly over sixty. When they die you wonder who’ll come.” Apart from the fact that in church your rarely hear anyone shout, “Where’s your flag, linesman, wedged up your arse?” Pete’s analogy was pretty accurate. The congregation seemed in terminal decline.

Thankfully, there are now some cause for hope. Clubs like Crook and Ashington, both of whom almost went out of business a few years ago, have shown that it is possible to generate crowds by building links with the community, particularly local schools. On the field, too, there has been success. Four NL clubs – Bedlington Terriers, Guisborough, Whitby and Durham – made it through to the last 16 of the FA Vase. The first three have made it as far as the quarter-final, though the Terriers face a home replay. There is a feeling that a Northern League team could make a Wembley appearance for the first time since 1969; even cautious talk of an all-Northern League Final, a special train to carry the supporters, a big day out.

Not that anyone one involved with the Northern League is anticipating a quick fix. When Consett travelled to Mansfield for the first round of the FA Cup this season they took 800 loyal fans with them. At the following week’s home fixture the gate was 29.

At Shotton Colliery Recreation Ground, Comrades finally score after wasting a ten gallon hat-full of opportunities. They don’t add to it. At the final whistle a woman whose son was playing for Ferryhill jokes with some Shotton fans about how the game turned out harder for them than they imagined. “You thought you’d hammer us into the ground, but you never,” she says. If the Northern League is ever looking for a motto, it might well serve.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014


In the piece about Wilf Mannion I mentioned Bobby Baxter. Here's some stuff about him and some good old-fashioned manly fun...

Back in the 1930s Bobby Baxter was the Boro captain. A Scottish international central defender, Baxter liked to play the ball out from the back. He had style and a certain nonchalance. Imagine a chunky Alan Hansen with a matinee idol side-parting and you more or less have him. Middlesbrough's Aberdonian goalkeeper David Cumming didn't approve of his compatriot’s considered approach and would often be heard at Ayresome Park bawling, "Baxter! Baxter! Get that fucking ball away".

Baxter was the senior dressing room figure at the Boro when Wilf Mannion arrived. The pair didn't always get along. Annoyed by the fact that the junior player called him ‘Bobby’ instead of ‘Mr Baxter’ the defender gave the Golden Boy a hard time.

In a mightily entertaining interview in Paul Thompson's book Talking Middlesbrough the Boro full-back George Hardwick recalls: "One time Baxter was lying on the massage table naked, and he told Wilf to get [talcum] powder. There was a big container of it in the dressing room. Wilf took it over to the table, Baxter raised his legs and said, 'My arse is kinda fiery, powder my arse.' So Wilf powders and powders. Suddenly Baxter farted and Wilf disappeared in a cloud of powder".

As Hardwick says later: "I used to come away from that place with a bellyache; not from the exertion, from the laughter."

There were no TVs, or computers, in those days. People had to make their own entertainment.


David Cumming, the keeper, had a bit part in my childhood. One day in the late-1960s my father took me to the steelworks at Port Clarence. I was about seven. In one of the welding bays (‘don’t look directly at the sparks – they’ll blind you’) I shook hands with a short thickset man who – in the playful manner of the times - crushed my fingers until the bones jounced.

After the man had let me try on his welding visor, we said goodbye and walked away amidst the crash and flash of the fabrication yards. My dad said, ‘You know who that was? That was your granddad’s cousin, Davie. You just shook the hand that felled Leslie Compton.’

Leslie Compton was the Arsenal centre-half, brother of Dennis ‘The Brylcreme Boy’. He was tough and strapping and given to the sort of challenges that back then were called ‘uncompromising’ but nowadays would carry a jail term. When Arsenal played Middlesbrough at Ayresome Park on Boxing Day 1946, Leslie Compton irritated David Cumming. When the visitors got a corner and Cumming collected it Compton kicked him. The Scot had taken rough treatment all game. He cracked. He punched Compton in the face, watched him fall, took off his jersey, handed it to Johnny Spuhler and walked off the field and down the tunnel.

As Compton staggered to his feet a group of men vaulted the advertising hoardings at the Holgate and surrounded him. The Arsenal defender was knocked to the floor again. The police came on. The men were arrested. One of them was Davie Fixter.

My grandfather took great satisfaction from this incident. The very mention of it would make him laugh until his false teeth rattled. 'Banned him from Ayresome for five years,' he chortled, 'And the magistrate said if he misbehaved again they'd reduce it to one.'

His elder sister, Molly was less impressed. Questioned about the Compton affair in the 1980s she denied her cousin had been involved in the violence saying, ‘He only went on the field to try and restrain the others’.

Back in the 1980s I used to visit the London Library in St James’ Square once a week. They had bound copies of The Times going back to the mid-19th Century. I decided to see what the newspaper of record had to say about the incident. Nothing at all, it turned out. In 1946 The Times did not report professional football, and working class men hitting one another was not really news, even when one of them was an England international.

Things are not like that anymore, nor have been for some while. On the morning after Eric Cantona had grabbed the headlines in by doing a passable imitation of Bruce Lee at Selhurst Park,  I appeared on a BBC Radio Newcastle phone-in. Amongst condemnation of the Frenchman's behaviour one contribution stood out like Jonathan Pearce in a trappist monastery. A woman who identified herself as a pensioner from Scotswood delivered the following verdict: 'I've heard what you're all saying about this business in London,' she said, 'and to be honest, I cannot understand it. I mean, in my day if two big, strapping lads wanted to have a bit of a set-to, we just said 'Good luck and may the best man win.'
Mark Jensen, editor of The Mag, was sitting next to me and whispered, 'It's Biffa Bacon's Nan.' Maybe so, but the Scotswood pensioner was not alone in her view. It was a generational thing.

On the same Tyneside phone-in a year or so after the Cantona incident the topic of discussion was  Tony Bank's suggestion that national anthems should not be played before international football matches because they might incite violence. I remarked that they used to play "God Save The Queen" at the cinema before the film started but that that never lead to any trouble. A few minutes later a retired shipyard worker called in. "I don't agree with what that fella was saying about playing the national anthem at the pictures," he said,  "Back in the 1930s in Jarrow it used to cause all sorts of bother. Some of the communists wouldn't stand up for it, you see? And other lads was patriotic and would be shouting for them to get to their feet. When they would not, they'd wade into them for it and all hell would break loose," he let out a great wheezy chuckle at this happy recollection, before concluding, 'Now, I'm not saying anything against the youngsters today, mind, but back then we had some lads that really could fight.' 



Tuesday, 23 September 2014


....Down the tunnel we did not take, towards the line we never crossed, into the goal mouth.

Or whatever it was TS Eliot wrote.

The latest issue of the excellent Northern Ventures arrived yesterday. I was sorry to read that the old stand at Evenwood Welfare Park has been demolished. Here it is during the 1994 Northern League groundhop.

Saturday, 20 September 2014


Alan Pardew with two games left to save his job, Tim Sherwood spotted at Jesmond Dene House hotel by the window-cleaner's cousin.... You know how it goes. But in case you don't, or you forgot, here's something I wrote in 1997, with a bits from other stuff I wrote in 2001 and 2006 seamlessly crow-barred into it. The views expressed are entirely my own and have nothing whatsoever to do with Phil Stamp the Berwick Hills Beckenbauer.
'Well, you know what’s behind that, don’t you?' A football journalist said to me a few years back when I expressed puzzlement at the prolonged absence of a Premiership footballer from the first team squad.

'Everyday at training, right, he’d boot half-a-dozen new balls over the wall. His brother and a couple of mates were waiting on the other side. Bunged them in the back of the car and drove off. Flogged them to this lad down the market. When the club realised what was going on they secretly suspended him.'

The story must be true, the reporter assured me. It had come from an impeccable source, his wife's hairdresser 'And her auntie lives in the same street as the player’s family and she says they’re a right fucking bunch of tearaways.'
That's how things work in the North East. The place vibrates with football gossip. Whenever a major event occurs you can guarantee that within a split seconds thousands of people all over the region will be narrowing their eyes, lowering their voices and looking both ways before muttering. 'Aye well, what I heard was...'
The biggest source of any rumour is the social club. The North East social club is basically the Internet with more beer and less Star Wars. It is the primary source of 90% of all football tittle-tattle.

Actually strike the word 'primary'. Because it is a well known truth that nobody wants football gossip from a primary source. They don't want it from a secondary source either. No, in order to be a fully authentic and believable football rumours must come along a route as long and circuitous as a Garth Crook's question.
When Kevin Keegan suddenly quit Newcastle after his first spell as manager one of my top sources was a bloke I met on the bank of the South Tyne when I was walking the dog. This man had a savage Jack Russell terrier and a brother whose nephew had been at school with Bobby Moncur's milkman. Sadly his rumour about Special K's departure was the same as the one another Premiership manager had just called a press conference to deny - without actually saying what he was denying, obviously.
Luckily the next day the insurance salesman called round about my home and contents cover. The insurance rep is a genius of football rumours quite capable of taking even the most mundane threads of information and weaving them into a baroque fantasy; the Cup fever dream of HP Lovecraft after a heavy supper of cheese and laudanum.
Sure enough the insurance man brought forth his riches. Every element of the classic football rumour was in place: the labyrinthine trek from source to teller ( bear in mind the body-waxer's brother-in-law was once manservant to the Bishop of Montevideo...) and the subtle yet glittering detail, (...and it turned out the nudie lass in the wardrobe was the daughter of that fella who did the Tudor crisp commercials...).
He has moved with the times too. Mindful that the fact that many clubs are now Plcs and that hostile takeovers are often preceded by the spreading of foul gossip about senior figures within a company to force share prices down, he concluded his peroration on the Keegan affair with the disclaimer, 'Though, naturally, that might be just what certain elements in the City want us to think....'
I nodded wisely. A few months before something rather alarming had been brought to my attention. I was talking to a writer from the Financial Times. I told him that the woman who worked in the local fish shop was from Wallsend and that she was related to Manchester United skipper Steve Bruce. She'd just seen him at a family gathering and he had told her that United were about to sign Alan Shearer.
The journalist listened. He said that since [at that time] United were a public company, if we were to buy shares in them based on this knowledge and those shares rose in value following the purchase of Shearer, then we would be guilty of insider trading and could face jail.
Thankfully Shearer went to Newcastle instead. But it gave me a nasty glimpse of the future: a world where a fan can end up in the slammer just for for listening to the woman in the fish shop. 

Wednesday, 17 September 2014


George Best and Super Gran at Appleby Park, North Shields c.1984. The photo has only vague relevance to the following piece about the insidious effects of nostalgia, but somehow I just knew you wanted to see it. Thanks to Dan Jackson for sending it me.

Occasionally  you see a player grow old before your eyes. One minute he’s a lean, mean predatory machine, the next his feet won’t go where his brain is telling them and he’s standing in the penalty area with the puzzled look in his eyes of a man whose just opened a cupboard and suddenly can’t  remember what exactly it is he’s looking for.

Sport has a habit of making competitors age prematurely. It can have the same effect of fans too. though the effects are more psychological than physical. Quicker than anything else except pop music, sport turns us into our parents.

It happened with my mate John the other day. One minute he was talking perfectly normally, then suddenly he metaphorically wrinkled before my eyes. He said, 'They don't bustle anymore, do they, centre-forwards?'
'What?' I said.
'Strikers. You used to get the burly number nines - Billy Ashcroft, Billy Whitehurst, that mad bloke from Sunderland, Mick Harford.'
My dad once worked with a bloke who'd played junior football with Mick Harford. He said that even thinking about it gave him double vision. He said. 'Mick Harford seemed to have twenty elbows'. I didn't say any of this to John though. He wouldn't have heard me even if I had.
'They were uncompromising,' he said, 'They took no prisoners. You knew you'd been in a game. Big George Reilly! He worked as a bricklayer when he retired. A hod-carrier bit part of his ear off. You don't see players like that any more. Football has gone soft.'
'Oh for Christ's sake, get a grip of yourself' I said, 'You'll be saying there aren't the characters in the game anymore next.'
'Well,' John said, 'Now you bring that up...'

I shouldn't have been surprised really. I have seen it all before. John has just turned 40. That is the danger time. Before that you are full of youthful zest, but as you enter your fifth decade doubts start to set in. The players begin to look irritatingly young and slender and their names are harder to remember. You start to think about getting a seat nearer the exits so you can nip away before the final whistle and avoid the traffic. By 45 you have become your Dad.

Like alcoholism, nostalgia takes hold slowly. You start off with a few low-strength remarks about the wonders of Stanley Bowles and end up in dark basements pointing at images of Lionel Messi and saying 'He wouldn't have lasted five seconds with Stuart Boam'.

Football turns us into our parents and our parents into our grandparents. I was alerted to all this when I was very young. When I was a child I used to go to Ayresome Park with my granddad. My granddad had been watching Middlesbrough since before the Great War and was totally unimpressed with anything he had seen on a football pitch since 1926.

Every so often a friend and his dad would join us. Once when my friend and I were talking about Tony Currie or some other wonder player we had seen that lunchtime on Football Preview my friend’s dad said to my granddad, “These two wouldn’t think Tony Currie was such a great player if they’d seen Wilf Mannion play, would they, eh?”

My granddad face contorted into an expression of disgust such as you might imagine appearing on the face of Sam Allardyce if someone offered him a signed photo of Mike Ashley. He snorted with derision, “Wilf Mannion?” He said, “Wilf bloody Mannion! That long-haired fancy dan. George Elliott, now he was a footballer.”

Forewarned by this incident, I have worked hard at avoiding the traps that plunge a supporter suddenly from youth to middle-age. I have resisted the temptation to look back fondly at yesteryear and laughed at the rosy glow that has come to surround the Tom Selleck-moustaches and mutton-chop sideburns of Irvine Nattrass, John Tudor,  and Co, and I have never failed to greet the appearance of Rodney Marsh on my TV screen by yelling 'Get lost you boring old fart!'
I have stuck with it, too. Though every once in a while I can't help pining for Billy Woof. 




Saturday, 13 September 2014


I started going to St James' Park with my friend Steve when Gordon McKeag was running things. Back then the chants of 'Sack the Board' were to the Gallowgate End what Hail Marys are to St Peter's - it was an act of both faith and penitence.

Much has changed at St James' in the thirty years since then, but the relationship between Newcastle supporters and the club's owners has remained more or less constant throughout.

The last time I saw my friend Steve was shortly after the announcement that Joe Kinnear had left Newcastle. I quoted Dorothy Parker's response to the news that Calvin Coolidge had died: How could they tell?

Steve let out a mirthless laugh. 'Some things in life you can always rely on: the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, and Newcastle United is run by bastards.'

This week it was suggested that Mike Ashley was looking to sell Newcastle and buy Glasgow Rangers. Ashley denied the notion and banned the Daily Telegraph from St James' Park. I wrote this during some earlier Ashley-inspired furore.

I was thinking of getting my hair cut next week, but in light of recent events of St James’ Park I think I’ll just let it grow for a while. When left to its own devices my hair twines itself into a feathery silver bouffant giving me the look of someone who ought to be hosting a daytime TV quiz show. Still, the occasional witty cry of “Let's play Mr & Mrs” as I pass the smokers standing outside the local pubs will likely be better than the alternative.

You see, my barber is a Newcastle season ticket-holder. Like all Geordies he is keen on talking. The minute I sit down, he whisks the nylon cape around me, pumps the chair lever, fires up his clippers and starts in telling me what – in the prevailing view of his social club – has been going on at the Toon of late. And he doesn’t stop snipping and shaving until he’s finished. At times of high drama – and they come thick and fast in Newcastle, let’s be honest – you need a buffer zone of extra hair to fill the time. Otherwise, you’re going to go in and ask for a number three at the back and sides and tidy-up on top and come out looking like Pierluigi Collina.


I discovered this the hard way the week after the Hall-and-Shepherd-Fake-Sheikh fiasco. There were times during those two-and-a-half hours when I seriously wondered if I was going to keep my ears, I can tell you.


There is another barber in the town. But I abandoned him after a previous incident. The other barber is a Newcastle season ticket-holder too, but he is altogether more febrile and less focused. I was sitting in his chair the day Kevin Keegan signed Alan Shearer. When a passing market trader yelled the extraordinary news through the door, the barber leaped in the air, flung down his comb and rushed out into the street singing that ancient Geordie hymn of praise and deliverance, “Whack your lass with a Christmas tree ay-oh, ay-oh.'

In his euphoria the barber had apparently forgotten that for the past five years he had ridiculed the Blackburn and England striker as “Billy Bigpockets”. “You think he’s avaricious, then?” I asked him once. “I wouldn’t know about that,” he replied as he squirted water on my head, “But he’s a greedy bastard”.

I waited for the barber to return from his celebrations, but he never did. The next time I saw him was later that evening on the local news chanting outside St James’ Park. I went away with my hair half cut and hanging asymmetrically across my brow. When I got on the bus to go home the man behind me started whistling “Don’t You Want Me Baby”. I have not been back to that barber since.

The peculiar antics of Mike Ashley have kept my hair in squaddie-like shape ever since his arrival in the North-East. During that time the rotund retail maverick has moved from being a seldom seen recluse to somebody who appears on national TV downing a pint and watching the football wearing the sort of blank yet benign expression adopted by the Queen when attending a break-dancing display by disadvantaged youngsters. In the meanwhile he has gradually edged away from being widely celebrated as a black-and-white saviour, to the current position in which he seems to have achieved the impossible – making Newcastle fans speak with wistful chuckles of the glorious, happy stewardships of Gordon McKeag and Lord Westwood.

I exaggerate, of course. Though I couldn’t help noticing that a few weeks ago my taxi driver – a wild-haired Yeti from the West Durham boondocks - referred to the former-chairman known locally as Mr McGreed as “a total shitehawk”. I feel the dropping of the words “and utter fucking' from the middle of that description points to a growing rehabilitation of the egregious solicitor.

I doubt, however, that Lord Westwood (AKA The Pirate) will ever again stride past The Strawberry without people yelling, “Where’s your parrot, you thieving twat” at him. And since he has been dead for some considerable time that’s probably just as well.


On my last visit to the barber’s at the end of July I was unkempt and in need of a severe trimming, so I asked him what he made of Newcastle’s lack of activity in the transfer market. “Ashley’s supposed to have all this money, “ I said, “But he hasn’t spent any.”

“Aye, well, we’ve weighed it up from all angles, haven’t we?” the barber said his scissors clicking demonically, “I mean, from what you hear the bloke’s been hit by the fall of share values on Wall Street. There’s been the Northern Rock business…” he continued in this vein until the floor around me was ankle deep in hair, “…and the general global economic downturn, which is all mitigating circumstances, obviously. Credit to the fella for making his fortune of his own bat, and maybe we don’t see the bigger picture and everything, but at the end of the day the conclusion we’ve come to is,” he paused for a moment to stare over my head and look me in the eye via the mirror, “that he’s a right bull's knacker.'

"Is that short enough, for you?”

Tuesday, 9 September 2014


One afternoon in October 1996 the phone rang. It was the sports editor of the Daily Telegraph. He said. 'You're a Boro fan. You know Wilf Mannion?'

I said I was and I did.

'Good,' he said, ''You can interview him for us. Focus on the Sunderland versus Boro matches. It's the last North-East derby at Roker Park next week. 600 words. Three o'clock Monday.'

Of course when I said I knew Wilf Mannion I didn't mean I actually knew him - I meant that I knew of him.

I spoke to Andy Smith at Middlesbrough Supporters South. He told me to phone an old man in Redcar named Albert Lanny who acted as Wilf's manager. He said, 'He'll probably want paying. He doesn't do anything unless he gets paid.'

I'd never worked for the Daily Telegraph before. In fact I'd barely worked for any newspaper. I had no idea if they'd pay for an interview. I could have asked, I suppose, but I didn't want to look like some naïve idiot. I thought I'd just pay Wilf myself and say no more about it.

Luckily my Mum phoned up at this point. When I mentioned Albert Lanny she said, 'Oh I knew him when he was a little boy. I was at the Convent with his elder sister. We used to go round for tea. They were Italians. Very glamorous. They made ice cream. They were smart - a cut above Pacitto's and Rea's. Ask about his sister for me.'

I phoned Albert. When he raised the subject of payment, I said, 'My mother was asking after your Maria. They were at St Mary's together. Pam Fixter. She knew you. Red hair. From Marske.'

Albert said he thought he remembered my mother and we had about ten minutes of fruitlessly trying to fathom out whether he did or not. By the time we'd finished he seemed to have forgotten about the money, or had decided that since I had some vague family connection via the Catholic Church he would waive the fee. We arranged a time for me to go to his house in Redcar and interview the great man.

Three days later I spent an interesting few hours with Wilf Mannion, though not much of what he said made it into the Daily Telegraph.

By this time Wilf was well into his seventies. He was good company, but his memory was not entirely reliable (as we shall see) and there was a prickly edge to him. He'd had a rough time in World War Two and a tough time after he'd finished playing. He'd come to feel himself undervalued, forgotten. Other players of his era - Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney, Tommy Lawton - were better remembered, more prosperous, celebrated. Many older sports people are rude about the current generation of idols, Wilf was no different, but he was equally dismissive of his contemporaries - as if by diminishing them he would make himself seem bigger.

Wilf was born in South Bank, always one of the poorest and hardest parts of Teesside. He'd learned to play on waste ground using a pig's bladder as a ball. When he'd gone to work at South Bank steelworks as a fourteen-year-old he'd been drafted straight into one of the departmental teams. Inter-departmental football in a steelworks is not a game for the faint of heart.

 'The first match I played, I got the ball, beat a couple of defenders and scored,' Wilf said, 'I was young and the opposition thought I was being cheeky. Their captain come up to me. He said, 'If you do that again I'll break both your fucking legs'.

'The captain of my team heard. He said, 'How, you, leave him alone. He's only a little lad.' And the bloke turned to him and said, 'Shut your mouth, or I'll break both your fucking legs an' all'

When Wilf had begun playing for Middlesbrough they'd had a famous forward line - all five were internationals. I started off by asking him about that. I said, 'When you first came into the Boro team you were playing with centre-forward George Camsell.'

Wilf's pale eyes sharpened, 'Aye, he said, 'And I'll tell you something about George Camsell - he was ruddy useless. He couldn't trap a sack of cement.'

I'd been raised by my Grandfather to regard Camsell as King Arthur in football boots.  I blurted out, 'He scored 345 goals!'

Wilf sneered, 'Oh aye,' he said shooing away the idea with a wave of his hand, 'He could score goals alright.'

And so it went on. Wilf had little time for any of the players of his era. Matthews was one-dimensional, Lawton a Lancastrian Camsell. When I raised the topic of Len Shackleton he shook his head. 'Shackleton wasn't a footballer - he was a ruddy circus act.'

The only player who escaped his scorn was his fellow England inside-forward, the Sunderland skipper Raich Carter. When I asked about Carter, Wilf sniffed, 'Carter,' he said, then, after a moment of thought, 'Aye, Carter was alright.'

From this I concluded that Raich Carter must have been a bloody genius.

In the 1930s Sunderland and Middlesbrough were two of the best teams in the country. They rarely finished outside the top eight. Sunderland claimed the last League title won by a North-East club and Boro edged closer and closer to emulating them only for Hitler to intervene. I asked Wilf about that time and the games against Sunderland at Roker Park. Did he have any particular memories of those occasions, anything that had stuck in his mind?

Wilf thought for a while. He smiled. 'Aye,' he said, 'I recall one time going up there. It must have been about 1938. I was only a young lad. I was sat on the coach next to Bob Baxter. We come down into Seaburn. There was this pub there on the corner on the seafront. Big place. There was a mob of people drinking outside. I looked across and in among them was Patsy Gallacher. He was totally ruddy pissed. I said to Bob Baxter, 'There's Patsy Gallacher and he's pissed'. Bob nods his head, 'Aye, most likely,' he says.

Wilf smiled again. 'Aye,' he said with a happy sigh, 'I'll always remember that.'

I imagined the headline above my piece in The Telegraph: 'Patsy Gallacher was Pissed - Recalls North-East Legend'.

In the end I cobbled together enough material from the cassette recording to write my piece, finessing some of it, as we say.. Here it is. It's not particularly original and there's barely anything about the derby, but there's a postscript that's worth sticking round for.


Wilf Mannion was gifted with such sublime skills that his England team-mate Tommy Finney once said: 'It was as if he'd been sent down from heaven.' Tonight, as part of the entertainment before Roker Park's last North-East derby, the angel returns to planet football to play a five minutes-each-way game. At 78 he can be forgiven if his wings are a bit creaky.

Mannion has warm memories of Tees-Wear derbies, particularly those of the immediate pre-war years. Then, with Sunderland champions in 1935-36 and FA Cup winners in 1937 and Middlesbrough rarely finishing outside the top half-dozen places, the games had an added edge.

He said, 'Sunderland had some wonderful players, Raich Carter, of course, the Scot Patsy Gallacher, Bob Gurney, but nobody frightened us in those days. That Middlesbrough team was fantastic. If it hadn't been for the war we were bound to have won something. Had to.'

Mannion believes this was the golden era of the English game, 'The football in the Thirties was just out of this world,' he recalls, 'The ball was kept on the ground and we just wove patterns with it. It was beautiful. Beautiful.'

Off the field things were distinctly less pretty. 'Players were treated very differently then, In 1938 England were sending a team to South Africa for the summer. The Boro manager, Wilf Gillow, called me aside one day after training. He said, 'We've received a letter informing us you have been selected for this South Africa trip. However, you won't be going because I feel you need to rest.''

Mannion waited for the words 'we will, of course, compensate you for the loss of earnings.' They never came.

'But you couldn't say anything. You couldn't answer back. I mean if you even forgot to call the manager 'mister' you'd be up before the directors.'

Mannion and his fellow professionals were treated as third class citizens by the men who ran the game, often quite literally.

He recalled an incident after the Great Britain versus The Rest of the World game in which he scored twice in a 6-1 win. 'I got on the train home. It was full, so I sat on my case out in the corridor. A journalist came up and said: 'What are you doing out here? It's empty in first and second.' But you see, we were only covered for third class travel.'

After the war Mannion returned to Middlesbrough, but grew progressively more disillusioned with life at Ayresome Park. When his contract expired during the summer of 1948, he decided to leave. The dispute which followed would be a forerunner of those involving George Eastham and, much later, Jean-Marc Bosman.

Mannion said :'I wanted away, Middlesbrough wanted to keep me. I heard Everton offered £27,000 and Glasgow Celtic £30,000 plus two Scottish internationals, but the directors wouldn't let me go at any price.' The transfer record had been set the previous February when Sunderland paid £20,000 for Len Shackleton.

The terms of Mannion's contract made it impossible for him to leave without permission. 'It was a slave contract. It was the one my parents had signed when the club took me on as a boy. I was too young to sign myself. They didn't know anything about that sort of thing. They just signed me away.'

In protest Mannion refused to play. Unsupported by the PFA, h stayed on solo strike for four months. Eventually news came through that his case would be debated in parliament. It was too late for Mannion. With his first child newly born and his wife chronically ill he was desperate for money. He went back to Ayresome Park.

Mannion played for Middlesbrough until 1955, when, with the club relegated into the old second division he announced his retirement at the age of 36.

Any alleged bitterness caused by these events has long since dissolved. In a recent poll one in four Middlesbrough supporters - most too young to have seen him play - named him as the club's greatest player.

'It's marvellous.' Mannion said, 'It's there forever. You couldn't ask for anything better, could you?'

The day after the piece appeared Nick Varley, author of the excellent Wilf Mannion biography Golden Boy, phoned. I'd met Nick when he was researching Golden Boy. He'd come out to talk to me and we'd taken the dog for a walk. He said, 'I see Wilf told you that story about The Rest of the World match, about the third class travel.'

'Yeah,' I said, 'Amazing story.'

'It would be,' Nick said, 'If it was true.'

Nick said he'd talked to Tom Finney about it. Finney said that Wilf had got it wrong: the players stayed on after the game, there was a gala dinner, they ate seven course meal and drank champagne. 'I've seen photos,' Nick said.

I was taken aback, then a thought occurred to me. I said, 'Hang on a minute, the same story is in your book.'

Nick laughed. He said, 'I know. It was a bit of dilemma. You see, I was writing Wilf's story and that was how he told it. That is genuinely what he thinks happened. In the end I decided to leave it as it was.'

The story of Wilf sitting on the suitcase was a fabrication - stitched together from the many slights and injustices the Golden Boy had endured. It was a fable, I suppose, containing a moral truth.

Saturday, 6 September 2014



Paul Gascoigne once told reporters ‘I don’t make predictions, and I never will’. Writing about football means making predictions all the time. I don’t get many right. Sadly one of those I did was about Gascoigne himself in this piece from a 1996 issue of When Saturday Comes.

A few years after writing it I interviewed Evan Bryson who ran Redheugh Boys Club, where Gascoigne’s erratic career began. Evan - who died in 2011 - was a lovely man. Retired after years working in a carpet factory, he was devoted to helping the community he’d grown up in.

I asked Evan if he’d known Gascoigne well. ‘I got to know him a bit, aye,’ he said, ‘Because when he was ten, eleven, his Dad would bring him along for the evening training sessions. Then he’d go off down to the social club and quite often he’d forget to come back and get him. He was a little lad, it was dark and it was a long walk home, so I’d give him a lift back in the car.’

Gascoigne’s behaviour has been abhorrent on far too many occasions. Yet there is still something about him of that little boy, left behind, reliant on the kindness of strangers.

To my mind Gascoigne is the best player England produced since Bobby Charlton, the only one of genuine world class. His close control and dribbling were a thing of genius, his passing was incisive, he struck a free kick as well as anybody and yet….

When talking of the Geordie midfielder, Brian Glanville was fond of borrowing Charles Saint-Beuve's comment about the state of mid-19th Century French literature: ‘When asked to name the greatest writer of the present day, I am forced to reply, ‘Victor Hugo, alas!’

 (Gazza takes charge at Kettering. Photograph courtesy of Peter Robinson)

When Channel 4 broadcast the documentary Gazza’s Coming Home last month, it seemed it might herald a change in the media’s perception of Britain’s most written about footballer. Gascoigne, it appeared, had reached a crossroads in his life and for once hadn’t responded by dashing headlong down the route signposted “Total Disaster – This Way”. He was fully fit, newly married, playing well for club and country. Most importantly of all he had become a Dad.

In the mythology of football the appearance of a baby in a player’s life is almost always the cue for an epiphany. Paul Ince, we are reminded, is a calmer, wiser, altogether more rounded fellow since the birth of his son four years ago; a late-night call from a weeping child marked the turning point for Paul Merson.

It is a touching notion, that of the burly wastrel redeemed by the innocent babe. It must be a believable one, too – after all, it is the cornerstone of Christianity. The image of Gazza wrestling with the pampers certainly struck a chord with the press. A flood of sympathetic articles appeared in its wake. We were assured that, while not exactly a New Man, Gazza was clearly a new man.

Childishness of a different stamp also loomed large in Gazza’s Coming Home, and while none of it came from Gascoigne junior it may well have an equal bearing on the events that were to follow. Before the 1988 Cup Final clash with Liverpool a Wimbledon player was asked about the atmosphere at Plough Lane. “It’s brilliant,” he responded, “It’s just like being at school with all your mates.”

A similarly gleeful affirmation was heard from Gazza when he was asked if being a footballer meant that you never had to grow up. Like the Edwardian gentlemen who wept over Peter Pan, it seems most players view adulthood with fear and loathing. Their ideal is a land of japes and banter. The dormitories of Billy Bunter and Winker Watson with the addition of sex and lager.

All of which wouldn’t matter a jot were it not for the fact that outside the comfy confines of footieworld certain players find themselves facing problems considerably more serious than running out of tuck during a midnight feast.

Sadly for Gascoigne, he is one of them. This having-a-child-teaches-a-player-responsibility theory is a convenient one for football since it requires no effort whatsoever on the part of the people who run the game and frankly very little from the player himself either. Within a week of the programme’s broadcast Gazza was back in the news again, this time for assaulting his wife and kicking Winston Bogarde. It is hard to think of a figure in history who has pissed away as much public goodwill as Paul Gascoigne. Whenever things seem to be going swimmingly for him something turns up and bursts his waterwings. At first it seemed like misfortune, but after a while you begin to wonder. People in football are fond of remarking that ‘you make your own luck in this game’. As someone once observed of the equally self-destructive Scott Fitzgerald, there were times when you suspect a fear of disaster has become a longing for it.

Gascoigne has often produced his best football in the most terrible circumstances and he did so again, scoring with a superb free kick against Aberdeen. While other talented players of the recent past have buckled under pressure, Gascoigne has thrived in the kind of emotional chaos that would have precluded most people from going into work at all.

It might be tempting, therefore,to see him as the footballing equivalent of the Nick Nolte character in New York Stories – an artist who needs turmoil to create his best work and so determinedly creates it – except that it’s hard to see Gascoigne as a skilful manipulator of events. More it seems that when times are bad, Gascoigne retreats into football.

But why are times so often so bad for Gazza? Partly it goes back to his childhood and a cast of characters who at times seem to have lurched from the pages of Viz.

The problem is compounded by the system in which British players operate. Team spirit and camaraderie are viewed as essentials and so the atmosphere does indeed become like a school: discipline comes from above, not from within; the judgement of the peer group becomes paramount; excessive behaviour is viewed as a good laugh; and if it gets out of hand the class groups together to protect the guilty. “This may well make them stronger as a unit,” the pundits comment after what is usually termed ‘an incident’. Often they are right. If it correspondingly weakens them as individuals no-one seems too bothered.

The biggest difference between a school and a football team is that teachers, unlike managers, aren’t reliant on the genius of one or two wayward pupils to keep them in a job. When faced with a brilliant player who is in psychological distress the thought must cross the manager’s mind that any treatment could result in the loss of the very spark that makes the player great. A lot of money is invested in top footballers. They tend to be indulged.

The worst fear for Gazza’s apologists is that he will end up like the British footballer with whom he is most frequently compared, George Best: writing an autobiography every few years and being held up as a beacon of fun and individualism from a happy, irresponsible age that has long since gone. He will be a character, one whose comic misdeeds can be sniggeringly retold by pathetic middle-aged men on TV specials.

The worry for the rest of us is that he will finish his days like another mercurial Tyneside hero, the Scot, Hughie Gallacher, whose dazzling skills brightened an inner darkness which would, when his career ended, quickly engulf him.

At some point people within football need to face up to the fact  there are far worse things that can happen to boys than merely growing up.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014


For no particular reason I can think of here is a piece about the joys of half-time entertainment that appeared in When Saturday Comes about ten years ago.


It is fair to say that half-time entertainment at the top end of football is no longer what it was. The reason is simple - nobody watches any more. Nowadays there are far too many things to distract supporters down in the concourses. And who would not drink half-frozen lager and watch highlights of the first half - even if it was 0-0 - when the alternative is trying to get your head around the sight of 10 teams of squealing children playing five games of football simultaneously across the width of the pitch?

Perhaps it is not such a great loss. Since the apparent abolition of police dog display teams and regimental bands, half-time entertainment can be subdivided into two distinct categories: the penalty prize and the other shit.  The latter usually involves: inflatables, celebrities (or would be celebrities) and tubby, pissed fans whose mates are in the stands nudging one another and going, “Film it on your phone, Geggo, film it on your phone”. 

Inflatable entertainment can be dealt with swiftly (and should be, preferably with a hat-pin). Inflatables were abandoned by football fans over a decade ago, but ever hip to what the new breed dig the game’s rulers continue to use them at every opportunity. The feeling amongst the power-suits seems to be that anything that is large, bouncy and filled with gas is enormous fun. This will come as news to anyone who has ever watched Eamon Holmes. Inflatable half-time entertainment arrives in many shapes and sizes from the bull at Hereford to the giant dice currently being rolled about in Premiership penalty areas as part of some inexplicable ritual presumably connected with sponsorship money.

Perhaps the exemplar of inflatable entertainment were Sky’s sumo wrestlers - a pair of giants in nappies who bumbled around the turf seeking out new and ever more adventurous homo-erotic poses. Buggery is something Rupert Murdoch is set firmly against. His company soon pulled the plug on the sumos. Or indeed out of them.



Celebrity appearances at The Riverside Stadium down the years have included a folk singing family from Billingham and actor and comedian Su Pollard. Pollard made the fatal mistake of standing in the centre circle and yelling “Hi-de-hi!” The massed response was predictably Anglo-Saxon. And it was the same the second time she did it, too.

The tubby pissed fan events come in myriad form. Some TPFs come on in suits and take penalties against a reserve team goalkeeper who invariably looks like John Burridge, (possibly because he is) for reasons the PA announcer refuses to divulge. Others, in pairs, take part in a trivia quiz, or, in a troupe, indulge in a humiliating aerobics routine lead by a women in a leotard and spandex leggings who used to be on breakfast television.  

The ultimate example of the tubby pissed fan genre, though, was Hartlepool United’s infamous deckchair challenge. Sponsored by DFDS Seaways this involved TPFs setting off from the halfway line and dribbling around deckchairs before scoring into an empty net. Three attempts were allowed and the fastest time counted. Incredibly one large bloke not only failed to find the net at all, he also succeeded in falling over several times. Invited back for another go the following week he repeated his abject performance, missing out on a luxury cruise to Norway, but becoming a minor local celebrity.  

Which brings us to the only half-time entertainment of any merit - the ubiquitous junior penalty prize, popularised on ITV in the 1970s. This is quick, elegant and offers the opportunity – rare in this day and age - to verbally abuse small children without getting arrested.

Across the country the pattern of the penalty prize is much the same and so is the reaction of the crowd. Kids from schools in rugged working class neighbourhoods are cheered to the rafters, while those from the affluent suburbs had ridicule heaped upon there bourgeois heads. The reaction of the children to the situation is never without interest. On one occasion at Ayresome Park a boy, possibly from a school in Hartlepool (rugged, but, well, frankly and unashamedly in Hartlepool and therefore the subject of derision) having experienced a torrid build up to his penalty from the denizens of the Holgate End blasted his kick into the top corner of the net and then celebrated by lifting up his school jersey to reveal a Sunderland top beneath. This took some guts and, had life been fair, triumph would have been his reward. Unfortunately life isn’t fair. The penalty shoot-out ended all square. It went to sudden death. The boy was forced to confront the Holgate End again. This time he missed. I bet he still wakes up screaming.

Monday, 1 September 2014


James Alexander Gordon died last month. I interviewed him for When Saturday Comes back in the early 1990s. That interview formed the basis for this short tribute to the great man which appeared in the excellent Newcastle Benfield v Guisborough Town programme a fortnight ago.

For three decades or so James Alexander Gordon, who died earlier this month, was as much a part of the Saturday tea-time ritual as the breezy Sports Report music, cakes from Hill’s the Bakers and your Dad popping out to get the sports gazette and coming back mysteriously smelling of ale.

James Alexander Gordon’s voice was clear and resonant with a hint of tweedy Edinburgh. Immaculately intonated, clear and definitive, it was the sort of voice that suggested plus-fours and scotch broth.

James Alexander Gordon – anything other than the full name just doesn’t seem right – was the first person I ever interviewed. That was way back in 1992 when he’d been reading the football scores – in those days on Radio Two – for eighteen years.

In real life James Alexander Gordon didn’t speak with quite the same deliberate inflection. His accent was noticeably more Scottish, too. He told me that it was what had got him his job in the first place.

‘Radio Two was just starting up and they wanted to get away from the stuffy BBC style. They decided they wanted a Scotsman on the network. I was working behind the scenes as a researcher at that time. They took me on for a week’s trial. There were some people who were not keen. They felt there would be listeners in other parts of the country who couldn’t understand what I was saying.’

It says something for the pace of social change that an organization that once found James Alexander Gordon barely comprehensible now gives gainful employment to Robbie Savage.

In 1973 James Alexander Gordon first started using his cultured tones to disseminate across the globe the joy, misery and numb agony that is a 0-1 home defeat to Wolverhampton Wanderers.

‘Jimmy Kingsbury, the presentation editor, was reading them in those days. One afternoon he said to me, ‘I think you ought to do the scores’. I looked at him as if he was mad. I thought ‘I can’t do that’

Kingsbury gave him several days of intensive training. ‘He said that the person listening to me should know what the result was going to be almost before I gave it to them. If it was a 4-1 home win the listener should know that without hearing the numbers’.

The result? That dreadful limbo when you knew your team had lost, but hadn’t quite had the miserable fact confirmed.

Asked if he ever felt the groans of the nation upon his neck James Alexander Gordon laughed.

‘Of course you have got your fanatical supporters. But the person I’m aiming at is the little old lady somewhere in County Durham who is checking off her pools coupon. And I read the scores clearly and with that inflection to help her get it right.’

It seems an image typical of the man and of the time. Now most people get the results via the Internet or SMS and old ladies in Durham do the lottery.

James Alexander Gordon told me that he often got requests for tapes, not just from aspiring broadcasters but from more unusual sources too. ‘I send them quite regularly to a university linguistics department in Sweden. They use them to teach students English.’

Now this charming man is sadly gone and it is comforting to think that in Malmo or Gothenburg there are people who – through his guidance - speak our native tongue in a manner that lets you know what they want before, they, actually, say it.