Saturday, 21 February 2015


I'm going to Crook Town v Benfield today. I’m hoping won’t be my last ever trip to the Millfield Ground (or mimic my first - the game was snowed off). Sadly the way the Black and Ambers’ fortunes have nosedived means I can't be certain. Currently bottom of Northern league Division One with a goal difference of -108, Crook are in dire trouble financially too. For the past three years there has been talk of selling off Millfield to a supermarket and moving the club to a multi-sports venue in Peases West. This proposal is apparently supported by the majority of people in the town. The news that nowadays shopping is more important than football – even in County Durham - is probably no news at all, but it is hardly calculated to raise the spirits either. Every time I see that Asda in Ashington I feel like heaving.

Probably I'm over sensitive. Doubtless the fate of Crook is an irrelevance in the glitzy world of Richard Scudamore and we should just look the other way - staring in awe at Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s tattoos or whatever vapid Champions' League web-splatter we are being cattle-prodded to admire this hour - as another historic non-League football club wanders off, unanchored from memory like a bewildered pensioner in the Metro Centre.


Here’s something about happier times that I wrote for Back Pass.

Watching the visitors from England demolish Barcelona 4-2, the Catalan journalists were in no doubt they were witnessing something special. ‘This is the best side seen here since football has been played,’ wrote one. The team in question? Crook Town, naturally.

That was in 1913. The amateur side from West Durham had just finished third in the Northern League, where regular opponents included Leadgate Park and Grangetown Athletic. Little wonder this triumph in the more exotic climes of Catalonia became part of Durham football folklore.

The man responsible for organising Crook’s trip to the Iberian Peninsula was Jack Greenwell. A miner’s son from Peases West, Greenwell had debuted for Crook as a teenager, had an excursion to Turin with West Auckland when they won ‘the first World Cup’ in 1909, and three years later – at a time when most North-Easterners regarded a trip to London as a dark and fearful journey into the unknown - left for Spain to play professionally at the newly formed Barcelona. A skilful midfielder, Greenwell made 88 appearances for Barca, hit ten goals and picked up two Campionat de Catalunya medals. Photos show a rugged, stocky man with the sort of tightly crinkled hair – running like plough furrows across his pate - that nobody seems to have anymore.

Crook's trip to Spain was part of Barcelona-founder Hans Kamper's efforts to increase football’s popularity in the city. His efforts - and those of his English partners the Witty brothers - didn’t go down well with the local middle-class, however. The Catalan bourgeoisie found the sight of men running around in shorts 'morally reprehensible' and supported only those sports such as riding, fencing and tennis that were performed in long trousers. Enraged by the menace to Catalonian youth posed by the fruity Anglo-Saxon game, they reacted violently to the news that King Afonso XIII planned to come and watch the English visitors at the Carrer Industria. Death threats were issued. The King was a big fan and patron of the game (all those Reals in La Liga were named in his honour) but having already dodged several anarchist bombs, he decided to stay in Madrid. The game went on without him.

The Crook team remained stoic throughout the furore. When the game kicked off one thing did perplex them though: Barcelona’s habit of swapping one player for another in the middle of a game. Substitutions, already a feature in Spain, would not become the norm in England for over fifty years. Following the opening 4-2 win, Crook played Barcelona twice more: drawing 1-1 and 2-2. They left with happy memories and an historic pennant that hangs in the Millfield clubhouse.

The Black & Ambers (or ‘The Crooks’ as the Pathe News commentator insisted on referring to them during their 1954 FA Amateur Cup Final marathon with Bishop Auckland) returned to Barcelona twice more, in 1921 and 1922. By then Spanish football had improved and the moral panic had ended. The side from Millfield played Barca seven times more: losing four, drawing two and winning the final encounter 3-1. It is rumoured that in one of the games the great Spanish goalkeeper, chain-smoking dandy, Ricardo Zamora guested in goal for the visitors. If the results didn’t mimic the triumph of the first trip, for a team of amateurs from a town with a population of fewer than 10,000 it's still not a bad record against the four time European Club Champions.


The remarkable Jack Greenwell was coach of Barca for both the latter series of matches. He'd taken charge in 1917 and remained so for seven seasons, longer than anyone in the club’s history apart from Johan Cruyff. In that time he won two Copa del Rey and five Catalan championships. He returned for a second spell in the 1930s and won another Catalan title, but his last season in charge was so poor he wrote to the club president asking that his annual bonus and that of his players be reduced.  I expect Louis Van Gaal will do something similar in May if no silverware is won.

Greenwell also helped prepare the Spain national team for the 1920 Olympics and coached Sporting Gijon, Espanyol and Valencia. The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War saw him depart for Turkey. From Istanbul Greenwell somehow found his way to Lima. He won the Peruvian title with Universitario, was assistant manager to the Peruvian national team at the Berlin Olympics (The South Americans were disqualified after refusing to replay a controversial match with Nazi-favoured Austria) and then took charge of them for the 1939 South American Championships, which they won. Following that triumph Greenwell took up a post in Barranquilla, Colombia. Sadly his wife Doris refused to travel with him, staying put with their children in Lima.

Separated from his family, Greenwell died of a heart attack in Bogota aged 58, a few days after the team he was coaching at the time, Santa Fe, had won a league match 10-3.  One of the most successful and influential of all expatriate English coaches, Greenwell is buried in the Colombian capital, though no one seems quite to know where.



1 comment:

  1. The comment about the Premier League tattoos is bang-on.

    The two grandsons were staying with us at Christmas and we were watching a Premiership match when the eldest, six years old, pops up with one of those unanswerable children's questions.

    'Grandad, why do a lot of those footballers look like colouring books'. I'm still searching for an answer.

    All the best,