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.'

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