Wednesday, 29 October 2014


June, 1996. A warm morning in rural Tynedale. I was out in the garden furrowing up the potatoes when a swanky blue coach came to a juddering halt in the narrow lane outside our cottage. Terry the farmer was driving his sheep up to the shearing sheds. Collies barked, quad-bikes snarled. As the coach idled amongst the bleating flock, I noticed a shaven-headed man looking absent-mindedly at me out of the window. It was only when the sheep had gone and the coach had driven away I realised the shaven-headed man was Zinedine Zidane.

“Can you believe this?” David Thompson, headmaster of Haydon Bridge High School is saying. He has a mobile phone in one trouser pocket and a walkie-talkie in the other. The walkie-talkie occasionally bursts into life with a noise like a 60-a-day smoker waking up after a heavy session. When it does, David Thompson ignores it. It is not his walkie-talkie. He has been given it to look after by one of the Euro security men who are currently scouring the back of the cricket pavilion for Islamic terrorists.

Behind Thompson, on the school playing field, the French squad are amusing themselves by whacking volleys at a TV1 cameraman perched on top of a scaffolding gantry; over in the corner Aimé Jacquet is being interviewed by Canal+, whose production team seems to consist entirely of leather-clad blondes who look as if they might once have been married to Rod Stewart; another camera crew is rushing about taking shots of black-faced sheep, border terriers and kids wearing Newcastle United shirts with the name Ginola on the back.

A tricoleur flaps above the sports hall, now converted into an international media centre, the car park is full of tinted windowed transit vans with satellite dishes on the top, men in raybans and moustaches lounging up against the sides of them watching make-up women powder-puffing the bronzed cheeks of the TV football correspondents.

“Isn’t it fantastic?” David Thompson says, “Can you believe it?” It is the first Sunday of Euro ’96 and three miles away from my house they are broadcasting live to France. Can you believe it? Well, yes. Though only after a considerable effort.

Maybe this will seem small beer to those of you who live in Britain’s more cosmopolitan cities. A few foreign camera crews, so what? But Haydon Bridge is in western Northumberland, the heart of a region which has been described, by no less of an authority than David Bellamy, as “England’s Last Wilderness”.

The appearance of the French football team might not raise an eyebrow in London, Birmingham or Manchester, but in an area where local paper, The Hexham Courant, once ran a front page story headlined Drunk Man Held Up Daffodil it is enough to set people bouncing in their chairs with child-like glee.

In the week before the French arrive and set up base at the George Hotel in Chollerford, signs go up in local newsagents: “Nous vendons les magasins Francaise”. L’Equipe and France Football vie for shelf space with Farmer’s Weekly and the Westmorland Gazette; red, white and blue bunting appears everywhere, road signs directing French journalists are tied to lamp posts and a TV broadcasting station is set up in a car park next to the ruins of a Roman fort.

Not everyone is pleased, of course. Tynedale is farming country and the sight of the tricoleur is a red rag to cattlemen still fuming about EU livestock export bans. Rumour has it that the large poster naming the French squad had to be removed from the sports hall/media centre at the High School because an irate pupil had written “Anglais!!” after the name of Strasbourg defender Franck Leboeuf.

In the main, though, people are delighted. If you live in rural England most of the time you have to go to the world, so it’s nice if once in a while the world comes to you.

On the playing field the school caretaker is holding forth to a small crowd of people. When I last saw the caretaker he was steaming drunk and struggling to stand upright in the queue at Hexham's premier nitespot, Dontino's. Now he is a kind of informal technical liaison with Jacquet's management team. He is has talked to them extensively about their needs and, along the way, become quite an expert on the squad. “The big lad’s up for a place in the starting line-up,” he says indicating Jocelyn Angloma. “But that fella,” he points to Christophe Dugarry who is undergoing a fitness test, “He’s not going to be ready in time. It’s just a formality is that. It's for the media.”

“When are you going to announce your team for the Romania match, then?” someone asks him, a touch sarcastically.

The caretaker pauses, scratches his cheek, “’Bout an hour before kick-off. I want to keep the opposition guessing.”

Like Tynedale itself, having unexpectedly found himself at the centre of attention the bloke is determined to get the most out of it.

Friday, 24 October 2014


I'm off down to Teesside in a minute to do an event at Middlesbrough Library with the very excellent Daniel Gray and equally superb John Nicholson. In a bit of a rush, so here's a clip about something that happened at The Cornerhouse, what seems like a lifetime ago. It's filleted from a piece I wrote for Arena in March 1996.

The Tuesday after The Signing I am doing a reading in a Middlesbrough pub. Afterwards people come up to me and say, 'Well, what do you think of that, like, eh? Eh?' and then laugh hysterically. Everybody is delirious, ecstatic. Everybody except one man. He is a steelworker from Eston. He has taken voluntary redundancy, sold his house and bought a bungalow on the Costa del Sol. 'Me and our lass are emigrating on Monday,' he says bitterly, 'I've had a season ticket for 27 fucking years. Every fucking season till this one. Twenty-fucking-seven years. It's insult on top of fucking injury this is. Twenty-seven fucking years. I can't believe it. I can't believe they would fucking do this to me.'

I say, 'Are you sure about that?'

He shakes his head, 'No,'  he says, 'It's fucking typical of the bastards.'

Wednesday, 22 October 2014


I just received a new biography of Jimmy Adamson by Dave Thomas - The Man Who Turned Down England. I haven’t got around to reading it yet, but the introduction by Sir Bobby Charlton says that the Charltons and the Adamsons lived a few doors apart in Laburnum Terrace, Ashington. How many streets in Britain, Sir Bobby wonders, produced three English Footballers of the Year? Fair question. The Charltons later moved to Beatrice Street. Here’s something about the mum, Cissie written shortly after her death in 1996.


The names of football’s great and good are routinely prefixed with the word ‘legendary’, as if it is the most natural thing in the world to suggest that, say, Sir Stanley Matthews is a partly fictional creation. The press coverage of Cissie Charlton’s death on March 26th followed this familiar pattern. In some ways this was fitting since the most well-known aspect of Cissie’s life, the hours spent patiently teaching her second son Bobby the skills of the game, was entirely the product of overheated journalistic imaginations.

That a story concocted, according to Bobby Charlton, “because it made good copy” should come to be the most famous facet of Cissie Charlton’s extraordinary life is one sad by-product of our capacity for mythologizing.

Cissie Charlton was born Elizabeth Milburn on 11th November, 1912. Her grandfather, Jack ‘Warhorse’ Milburn, was a renowned player in the local leagues and sported the receding forehead that would later become a familial trademark; her father Jack ‘Tanner’ Milburn kept goal for Ashington during the club’s brief spell in the Football League. ‘Tanner’ was also bald – Cissie would later thump a Scotsman who called Bobby a “Baldy cunt” during an international match because, “[while] I know it is irrational I have always been sensitive about my four sons’ lack of hair . . . I have never been able to shake off the feeling that somehow the failure was mine; that I was responsible.” Thankfully Billy Bremner’s father intervened before the situation could get out of hand.

Her four brothers all played professionally, Jack, George and Jim for Leeds, Stan for Leicester; her cousin was ‘Wor Jackie’ Milburn (another set of cousins, the Cobbledicks, kept away from football, doubtless put off by the barracking they knew the announcement of their name would provoke); her two elder sons were Jack and Bobby.

Between them the Charlton-Milburn clan, in which Cissie played the role of sturdy pivot, amassed 154 international caps and fourteen winners’ medals in major competitions. Other footballing families might have produced more players, none can match the quality.

Cissie Charlton’s place at the centre of such a family alone would have marked her out, but there was more to her than just that. She was born into the kind of North-Eastern hardship that would have daunted even the hardiest of Catherine Cookson heroines; endured a miserable time as a maid in Watford; survived a mastectomy and the shock of the Munich aircrash a few months later; nursed a husband with pneumoconiosis; and at 73 she still had the energy left to coach a local infant football team.

Cissie married Bob Charlton in 1934 after he had won the money to buy a wedding ring in a boxing booth at Town Moor Hoppings. Bob – often a shadowy figure in the Charlton story – seems to have been a tough and kind-hearted man whose amiable roughness casts him as Freddie Frinton to Cissie’s Thora Hird. Once, when Manchester United had put the couple up in a ritzy London hotel, Bob overcame his embarrassment at the unfamiliarity of the surroundings by drinking too much and his wife stayed up all night for fear he would wake and use the wastepaper bin as a chamber pot.

The Charlton’s first child, Jack, was born the year after the couple wed. Whatever footballing talent their first son had was clearly of a particularly subtle variety: when Cissie was approached by a scout fifteen years later and asked if her son would consider going for a trial with Leeds, she thought he must have got the wrong woman. Bobby, born two years later, was a different matter.

There has been a lot of talk in the press about a rift in the family, most of it centring on Bobby’s relationship, or lack of one, with his mother and brothers. In truth, Bobby – even pre-Munich - always was separate – introspective and self-contained where his parents and siblings were outspoken and gregarious. (Jack inherited his taste for plain speaking from his mother. In the fifties, unhappy that Bobby was not being selected for Manchester United as often as she thought he should be, Cissie bearded Matt Busby and asked if her son was being cold-shouldered because he wasn’t a Catholic. After he’d picked his jaw off the floor, Busby put her straight.)

In the nurture versus nature debate, those who are on the side of the latter can happily point to Cissie’s antecedents as proof of her formative influence on her two eldest sons. Husband Bob had no such footballing pedigree - he was a boxer. Indeed, he showed so little interest in the game that he had gone to his shift down a pit shaft just before the kick-off of the 1966 World Cup Semi-Final (the BBC intervened on his behalf and brought him up to watch the game on the mine manager’s TV set).

The nurturers have a more difficult time of it, and it is here the legend comes in. One of the most famous photos of Cissie shows her kicking a ball to a baggy-panted Bobby. They are flanked by sooty brick, she is wearing a pinafore dress; the pair are watched by her two younger sons, Gordon and Tommy, both in knee-length shorts. It is an arresting image, one which seems to sum up the popular view of the Charlton’s story: football mad mum coaches talented son to fame and glory in the back streets of Ashington.

Sadly this inspirational tale is completely made up. Though not by either of the two main protagonists. Cissie never claimed to have taught her sons to play football and Bobby went out of his way to deny the myth. In his 1968 autobiography, This Game of Soccer, he expends only three paragraphs before telling the reader: “The story has evolved . . . that it was my mother who taught me all I know. Apparently, being a Milburn, she knew more about football than most men and spent all her time teaching me the tricks of the trade! That’s how the story goes but there is no truth in it whatsoever.”

Yet despite Bobby’s protests, the story has now been repeated so often it has come to be taken as fact, it has cropped up in book after book and featured in practically all the obituaries last month. Does it matter? After all, it’s harmless enough and does discredit to nobody.

A while ago a friend and I were talking about Arie Haan’s goal against Italy in the 1978 World Cup. He said: “The thing with that goal is, every time anyone talks about it Haan shoots from further out. First it’s thirty yards, then thirty-five, then thirty-eight, then, well, I mean, it was practically forty give or take a few inches. And it goes on like that until when you do finally see the goal again it’s an anti-climax. Compared to what you’ve heard about it, it’s practically a tap-in.”

And that's the trouble with myths. Stood next to them the truth often looks small. Luckily Cissie Charlton lived a big enough life not to be too seriously over-shadowed by hers.

Saturday, 18 October 2014


Today I'm off to watch Newcastle Benfield play Marske United. Marske is the village most of my family come from. My mother and father were born there, my maternal grandmother and great grandparents, too. My great-grandfather, Chappy Keeling was a miner at New Marske ironstone mines (that's him in the centre of the row, seated). He died of TB when he was 32. Chappy's brother Joe made his own false teeth out of steel plate. One afternoon, returning from the pub, he thought to freshen his breath by rinsing them in a horse trough and lost them. Later he claimed that one of the Marchioness of Zetland's carriage mares was wearing them. My grandfather Harry Fixter moved to Marske after marrying Winifred Keeling in the early 1930s. He drank in the Top House.

'Groin strain!' My grandfather would snort as he closed one eye ruminatively and started into the distance with the other as if through an invisible telescope, 'They didn't get groin strain in them days,' he'd say, and chuckle.

'George Elliot was as tough as a tortoise sandwich. He followed a scientific fitness programme. Every day he climbed a sixty foot ladder, 100 times, with a 50lb bucket of rivets in either hand. It wasn't called calisthenics. It wasn't called weight-training. It was called a day's bloody work, and he was glad to get it. And he never had a groin strain in his life. Mind after his 45 minutes against Sunderland he never had a groin neither.

Aye it was a man's game in them days. There was no tactics. Most of those lads couldn't even have spelled 4-3-3 never mind played in it. The nearest Jock Marshall ever got to a coach was when he caught the bus to Ormesby. But his tackles were as hard as a Jack Dempsey left hook. When he hit a winger it made a noise like a tugboat boiler exploding. And Marshall didn't wear shinpads. He just filled his socks with quick-dry concrete.

Jock Marshall's shoulder charge could put an opponent in hospital. Literally - straight through the back of the Holgate and into Boro General. During the week he worked for a demolition company as a wrecking ball. But compared to Pudden Carr he was a right Shirley Temple.

They didn't need tactics, did they? Because they were that skilful. Billy Birrell was so clever he once sold the opposition full back a dummy and knocked in a hat-trick while the bloke was searching for him in the South Stand. And he was quick too. The only living thing I've ever seen move faster than Billy Birrell was that dray horse when our George fired the steam hose up its arse. By heck, you should have seen it shift. It went off down Parly Road like a TT racer. The beer went west but nobody moaned. There was plenty of ale to go round in them days. Jim Baxter hadn't moved to the North East yet.

And the players were respected. When Andrew 'Wingy' Wilson walked down the street, he didn't get mobbed. People treated him like a gentleman. They addressed him as 'Mr Wingy Wilson. He was called Wingy on account of he'd lost an arm in the Great War. The fans at Ayresome have always had a sense of humour.

This was in the days of the maximum wage. Poverty gave those players a sense of purpose. They lived in the same streets as the supporters. We lived two doors down from Jiddler Murray and if he didn't get carried off unconscious at least three times during a match our Joe would be straight round his house on Sunday morning to land him a fourpenny one. There was a spirit of community, see?
Jiddler Murray didn't mind either. He understood. It cost a shilling to get in at Ayresome Park. You could a get a new suit, two tickets to the opera and a pie and peas supper for six for that. 'We've paid good money and we've a right to complain,' our Joe said.

Not that we ever did pay, mind. When we got to the turnstile Joe would grab the gateman by the ears and me, George and Davy would crawl in underneath. But Jiddler Murray didn't know that.'

Wednesday, 15 October 2014


From When Saturday Comes, a review of Tom Maxwell’s mightily entertaining book about Berwick Rangers, the most northerly of all North East clubs.

Ninety per cent of all players in the club's history have come from another country, they play in a stadium that is overlooked by grain silos and has "a sound system comparable to a Walkman in a bowl of soup", one of their all-time-greats is the son of a shepherd, they are not allowed to play in their county cup competition for political reasons and they won their first ever football match by a margin of "one goal and two tries to nil".

All in all it is probably safe to say that Berwick Rangers are a singular football team. Indeed, the fact that they are an English club that plays in Scotland is probably one of the least remarkable things about them. Though as Tom Maxwell points out in this lively account of Rangers' many trials and tribulations, playing in a foreign land does place them in a small band of clubs that also includes Monaco, Wellington Phoenix and the Puerto Rico Islanders.

Since that first unusual victory over the Royal Oak back in Victorian times the Shielfield Park side's history has never quite risen to the chequered, more it has been the standard plain-cloth of lower-league football the world over. There's been a narrow scrape here, a close call there and such infrequent flickers of glory that every mention on national TV – even if it's a joke by Nick Hancock – is squirrelled away by fans like a toothsome nut.

Aside from the Scottish Second Division title in 1979, a campaign masterminded by player-manager Dave Smith – compared to Bobby Moore and David Beckham by one excited local football reporter – and a famous 21-game unbeaten run under boss Jim Jefferies (working as an insurance broker in Coldstream at the time) that earned the club a feature on Saint and Greavsie, Berwick's greatest moment was probably  the victory over those other, slightly better known, Rangers back in 1967. The player-manager of the Borderers at that time was Jock Wallace. Wallace - who'd end up at Ibrox - had an army background. A Scottish journalist once told me ‘as a young man, Jock was parachuted into the jungle and in many ways he never left it’. Whatever, Wallace was a coach of such ferocious discipline even his one act of kindness – allowing the players a slug of Scotch to warm them up before matches on cold days – has the bitter whiff of the battlefield about it.

Berwick's geographical location in an isolated corner of Northumberland, the clannish nature of Border society and the fact that the town has changed hands between England and Scotland 13 times give it a uniquely mixed-up character. This is perhaps best exemplified by the complex local accent, familiar to many via the TV appearances of Trevor Steven – who sold programmes at Shielfield as a teenager. Maxwell brings this unique region to life via personal recollections and interviews with fans and former players.

Sadly, or maybe not, there's nothing that really explains why the fans sing "I want to be a Berwick Ranger/Only live for sex and danger", unless perhaps it's the account of the career of John "Yogi" Hughes, whose reputation as a dressing-room joker seems to rest mainly on his habit of biting his team-mates as they relaxed in the post-match bath.


Wednesday, 8 October 2014


Kenny Twigg made his debut for Bishop Auckland when he was seventeen. 'There was a flu epidemic in Durham, half the team went down with it.' His first game was against Shildon. The Railwaymen were Bishops' biggest rivals in the Northern League, they had won the title four times in the previous five years. The game at Dean Street brought Kenny up against the legendary full-back Alf 'Wacker' Wild.

'People say Alf Wild was terrifying. And it's true that when he tackled you, you knew you'd been tackled. But I tell you something about him. I was pretty quick. First time I got the ball I pushed it round him and I was away, got my cross in. He trotted over, 'You're a young lad and you're new to this,' He said, 'So I'm going to let you off that one. Next time you do it, I'll break your bloody leg', So, you see, Alf Wild was rough, but he gave you fair warning.'

“People forget,’ Kenny Twigg said, ‘That in the 1938/39 season Bishops not only won the Amateur Cup and the Northern League title, we also won the Durham Challenge Cup. In my book that last one was the greatest achievement. The Durham Challenge Cup was harder to win than the Amateur Cup. The standard of football in County Durham was tremendous. There were hundreds of sides. Everyone was desperate to do well - especially against the big clubs like us. It was fierce.’

Sometimes literally.

‘We played a tie one time up by Stanley. Middle of winter. Ruddy freezing. Wind going right through you. The ground was packed. There was 2-3000 in there. The home side scored early. From then on we were all over them. Chance after chance. You could feel the tension rising. Five minutes from time Matty Slee goes down in their penalty area. The ref points to the spot. Straight away the crowd comes hurtling onto the pitch, screaming blue murder. We ran for our lives. The officials came charging off with us. We piled into the dressing room, barricaded the door. They were trying to kick it down. Took an hour for the police to calm things. Our team coach had to have an escort out of town. There was a replay. The police told us to have it on the morning and not publicise it in the newspapers. We played the match virtually in secret, beat them in front of two sets of committee men and the tea ladies.’

I said, I thought crowd trouble was something that only started in the 1970s.

‘Oh you’d be surprised what went on back then,’ Kenny Twigg said with a chuckle, ‘especially out there. In Wild West Durham in those days anything could happen.’

Who knows what triumphs Bishops treble winning team might have gone onto if the war had not intervened. Kenny Twigg joined up. He kept fit playing wartime football. At Ayresome Park he lined up against George Hardwick. Captain of Middlesbrough and England, Gorgeous George was the Clark Gable of the game. After the match Kenny Twigg came out of the changing rooms to find his wife in a flustered state. ‘When I asked what the matter was she said, ‘Ooh I've just seen George Hardwick in his RAF uniform and my legs have all gone to jelly.’

(After he finished playing Kenny Twigg coached Billingham Sythonia. That's him on the left in the snazzy belted coat. The season was 1950/51. 'We finished second. We only conceded 24 goals, which is still a Northern League record.')

After the War Ken Twigg left Bishop Auckland. He'd been offered terms by various League clubs, including Chester, but 'I had a good job and in those days, with the maximum wage, you could earn a better living working and playing part-time than you could as a full-time pro'. So he went to play for Spennymoor United. Spennymoor played in The North Eastern League. While the Northern League was - ostensibly at least - amateur, the North Eastern League was professional. Founded in 1906 it ran until the late-1950s. In the 1940s Blyth Spartans, North Shields, South Shields, Consett, Stockton, Ashington and Horden played in it. So did Workington and the reserve teams of Sunderland, Middlesbrough, Hartlepool, Darlington, Gateshead and Carlisle.

‘The first year I was at Brewery Field we won the title,’ Kenny Twigg said, ‘that was remarkable really, when you see the teams we were up against.’

I asked him how the standard’s compared with the Northern League. His reply has stuck with me ever since. ‘There was no comparison,’ Kenny Twigg said, ‘The North Eastern League was so much better – it was professional! Now, a professional - I don’t care what job he does - he always knows more about his trade than any amateur. He lives his work.’

‘I’ll give you an example. Spennymoor had this veteran centre forward, Alf White – he’d been born in the town. He was knocking on forty by then, but he’d spent four seasons at Derby County, played 150 odd games for Bournemouth in Division Three (South), been at Wrexham. He was still a hell of a player. The first game I played for Moors I got the ball on the touchline, in our half, facing towards our goal. There was an opponent on my back, so I did what I’d have done at Bishops in the same situation: I played safe, kicked the ball into touch. Next second there’s Alf White yelling in my face, what the ruddy hell was a playing at giving possession away?

‘Why didn’t you pass to me?’ he said.

I said, ‘I had my back turned. I didn’t know where you were.’

He said, ‘If you were me, where would you have been?’

I said, ‘I don’t know, I suppose on this same touchline looking for a pass up the line.’

Alf White scowled. He said, ‘There you bloody go then. Next time, play the ball where you think I’ll be, because that’s where you’ll bloody well find me.’

‘That was the difference,’ Ken Twigg said. ‘The pros understood the game. The amateurs, the amateurs just played it.’


Saturday, 4 October 2014



Ken Twigg is one of the people mentioned in the acknowledgments in The Far Corner, the only one who was a footballer of any repute. I spent a happy afternoon with Ken in the winter of 1994, looking at his scrapbooks, listening to his tales, eating his biscuits. I wish I’d taped the conversation. I wish I’d taken some photographs. Ken loaned me books. He told me lots of stories. A couple of them turned up in The Far Corner, a few others filtered out in newspaper and magazine articles down the years, most are being written up here for the first time.

Ken died in 2009. He was 92. Older spectators at Northern League grounds will often come up to me and say, ‘So you knew Kenny Twigg, then?’ Whenever people speak of him they do so with a smile. He was a top-class player and a really nice man.
(Bishop Auckland FA Amateur Cup Winners, 1939. Kenny Twigg front row, far left, Bob Paisley to the right of the goalkeeper)


‘If you’re doing a book about North East football you’ll need to talk to Kenny Twigg,’ my Dad said. Kenny Twigg was a welding engineer. He and my Dad had worked together at Dorman Long. Kenny Twigg was born in Hetton-le-Hole. In 1939 he played right-wing in the Bishop Auckland team that won the FA Amateur Cup.

‘Back in the sixties the firm built that bridge in Runcorn. I used to drive over with Kenny Twigg,’ My Dad said. ‘The Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool had a very good restaurant. I’d have my dinner there. I’d say to Kenny to come along too, But he’d say, no, he couldn’t. He had this old mate from Hetton who lived on Merseyside. ‘I’m off to see, Bob Paisley,’ Kenny Twigg would say.

My Dad had no idea who Bob Paisley was. Few people did back then. Bob Paisley was Anfield staff. He stood in Bill Shankly’s mighty shadow – likely wearing a cardigan and carpet slippers.

Bob Paisley had played in the Bishop Auckland team with Kenny Twigg. He was one of the stars. Bishops used to send a smart car to pick up from Hetton and transport him to the game. 'He didn't have much finesse,' Kenny Twigg recalled, 'But he was fit and bloody strong.'

When Shankly resigned and Liverpool gave his job to Bob Paisley, my Dad phoned up Kenny Twigg. He said, ‘Is this new Liverpool manager your mate?’

Ken Twigg said it was.

‘It'll be tough job, following Shankly,’ My Dad said

‘If anyone can do it, Bob can,’ said Kenny Twigg

Kenny Twigg was retired. He lived in a neat bungalow in Hartburn, one of the leafier bits of Stockton-on-Tees. I got the train and then a bus. When I arrived, Kenny Twigg was sitting at the kitchen table, a stack of three leather-bound scrapbooks in the center. His wife brought tea and biscuits. ‘Before we get started I’ll use the facilities,’ Kenny Twigg said.

When he was gone his wife patted me on the arm, nodded towards the books, ‘I do hope he’s not going to bore you, pet.’

Kenny Twigg came back. He poured tea. He asked after my father. He told me proudly of some complex engineering problem they’d overcome when building a bridge together in Newport. I nodded wisely.

Kenny Twigg took down the top scrapbook and opened it. The book was neat and tidy. The clippings straight and sharp. The captions, written in clear block capitals, gave the date, the place, the names. I recognised the style. My father’s photo albums from his National Service days were just like this - the utilitarian aesthetic of the drawing office.

‘Now,’ Kenny Twigg said, tapping his finger on a faded postcard-sized team photo ‘This is the best side I ever played in – Willington Juniors.’

‘Five of these lads turned pro,’ Kenny Twigg said. The best known of them was George Storey who played for Brentford several seasons, returned to Durham when his playing days were over and went back down the pit.

‘All the boys were good players, all of them,’ Kenny Twigg said, ‘but the star of the team was this boy, Billy Pears. Everybody called him ‘Biker’. He was centre forward. Strong. Quick. Fearless. Brilliant. He kept Tommy Lawton out of the England Schoolboys side. Newcastle had him on their books’

‘What happened, I asked

‘Accident at the pithead,’ Kenny Twigg said. ‘A steel joist fell on him, broke his spine. He had to wear a steel girdle after.’

We both grimaced. Heavy industry was like a warzone. The big pit disasters lived in the public memory, but men were maimed every day. Steel erectors had the lowest life expectancy in Britain. In the big works danger lurked round every corner. Men fell off buildings, were scalded by steam. Cranes toppled, boilers exploded, steel cables snapped, gas hissed, roofs collapsed. Limbs and lives were lost, promising sporting careers terminated.

My father would come home, sit down for tea and say:  ‘Bit of a bugger of a day. A rivet worked loose at the site. Fell fifty feet. It glanced off Stan’s head, ripped off part of his ear and shattered his collarbone.

I said, ‘Are you all right, Stan?’

He said, ‘Better than if I’d been stood three inches to the right, chief.’

I said, ‘Aye, you’d been three inches to your right, Stan, that bloody thing would have come straight out your arse’.’

‘Is Stan going to be OK?’ My mother would ask.

‘Oh I think so,’ my Dad would say with a shrug, ‘His jacket’s completely bloody ruined, though.’


The boys from Willington Juniors had all gone to work in mines, foundries, shipyards, steelworks and chemical plants. Several had suffered debilitating mishaps at work, a couple had not got through the War.
 ‘Aye,’ Kenny Twigg said, looking at the youthful smiling face of Biker Pears, ‘He was on the Magpies’ books, Biker. If it hadn’t been for the accident, I wonder if we’d ever have heard of Jackie Milburn.'

Wednesday, 1 October 2014


Remember The Full Members/Simod/Zenith Data Systems Cup? Of course you do - it was a sort of UKIP Europa League. The following appeared in When Saturday Comes in June 1990. I had originally sent it to The Times. The sports editor there had previously offered encouragement. He sent it back saying it was 'amusing but inconsequential'. As it turned out, this was to prove an accurate summary of my career.

My father and I were talking a few days after Middlesbrough's victory over Aston Villa had earned them a place in their first ever Wembley Final. My father said that a well known Teesside garage owner had once promised his staff that if Boro ever reached Wembley he'd buy them all tickets and put them up in the Savoy for the weekend.

'Really?' I said.

'Yes,' my Dad said, 'By, I bet he's bloody glad he's dead.'

Tickets would be tricky, my Dad said. 'I used to know that bloke in the drawing office but he's gone to Saudi...'

A few hours after I'd talked to my father the phone rang. 'I've got a mate can get tickets,' the voice said, 'D'you want one?'

Experience should have made me wary. Whenever there is an important cup-tie there is always a mate. The mate's uncle was at school with the chairman, his sister is married to the physio, his grandfather did national service with the kit man and 'you forge lasting bonds in the jungles of Burma.'

The mate is like the local cut-price carpet warehouse: he's cheap and cheerful, but he doesn't deliver. As the days pass in a whirlwind of increasingly desperate telephone calls. the mate's tenuous connections with the world of professional football are snipped off one by one. His grandfather dies, his uncle has a stroke, his sister runs off with the Betterware salesman.

Two days later you are at a party, 'I wish you'd said sooner. Gary down the printshop can get tickets for anything. He's amazing, Gal. He could have got you into the Last Supper, you'd wanted. I'm seeing him tomorrow night as it happens. I'll give you a bell, Monday.'

Monday dawns cold and bleak. 'You know that Gary I was telling you about? You're never going to believe what's happened....'

Don't tell me. Let me guess. Driven mad by the petty vagaries of life, menaced by midgets, his ambition to attend clown school thwarted by uncaring parents, he hurled himself from the high rooftops, arms outstretched, ready to embrace the only true peace we shall ever know....

There is silence, then a voice says, 'He's got mumps.'

Thus it was I found myself, just sixteen days before my club's first ever Wembley final, without a ticket. It was at this point that my girlfriend made her suggestion. 'Why don't you phone up the stadium,' she said, 'and buy a ticket from the box office?'

I looked at her and shook my head. She was not a football fan. She had grown up in the west country, a rural enclave where the most popular sport was throwing cheese truckles at wooden pigs. The poor innocent, she knew nothing of British football's history and rituals, its favouritism and corruption, its nepotism and I-know-a-blokiness. She did not know that in football you do not simply buy tickets to important games. If you could simply buy tickets where would be the drama, the glory, the opportunity to scowl bitterly and curse 'the system' with the words: 'They've all gone to the bloody part-timers. Where were they at Grimsby away, eh?'.

Then suddenly it hit me. I leapt to my feet, slapped my fist into my palm and cried, 'It's a wild, madcap scheme, Ginger,' I cried, 'But it just might be crazy enough to work.'

It didn't.

(Boro lost 1-0 to Chelsea. Tony Dorigo scored the goal from a half-arsed free-kick. We don't want to go through that again, so here's a photo of some bloke from Middlesbrough holding up the Cup instead)