Saturday, 28 March 2015


This week I had the pleasure of giving a short talk at the Northern Social Club in Ashington as part of an event my friend, the photographer Julian Germain had organized. He was delivering what is called 'The Wednesday Lecture'. Because there's bingo at the Northern Social Club on Wednesday night, he had to give it on Thursday instead.

The last time I appeared in Ashington the bloke who did the poster got confused and billed me as Harry Roberts. Several members of the audience were disappointed to find I hadn't killed any policemen.

Here's a bit of what I said this time.

Ten, fifteen years ago I used to come and watch football fairly regularly in Ashington, at Portland Park. I knew some of the people who ran The Pit Pony Express fanzine. One of them, Mick Hydes, moved up to Scotland. He said that at work one day he was talking to a woman who said she came from Portobello. She said that Gail Porter, the Blue Peter presenter also came from Portobello. She asked Mick where he was from. He told her. She asked if there was anyone famous who came from Ashington. Mick said, 'Jackie Charlton'. And the woman said, 'What, the bloke form the Kung Fu films?'

One Saturday in March 2001 I walked down the evocatively named Third Avenue in Ashington, Northumberland, past thoroughfares named after Shakespearean heroines - Juliet, Portia, Katharine - until I came to Beatrice Street, two long rows of brick terrace houses facing each other across small front gardens and a narrow pavement.

This was where Jack and Bobby Charlton were brought up by their indomitable mother Cissie and their father Bob, a quiet, tough man who won the money to pay for the wedding ring in the boxing booth at the Town Moor Hoppings. The family moved here from Laburnum Terrace, a street where the young Jimmy Adamson, then playing for East Chevington Juniors, lived. Laburnum Terrace is the only street in the World that has produced three English Footballers of the Year. Ashington is likely the only town.

At the top of Beatrice Street is Hirst North Junior School where Bobby won his first championship, the East Northumberland Boys League. At the back you will find the alleyway where the brothers were traditionally photographed in later life kicking a ball about with local youngsters. But though Bobby has some legitimate claim to be the most famous Englishman of the latter half of the 20th century, Beatrice Street does not have a plaque or a sign. Nor does Labunrum terrace

To find out about the local football heritage you have to go along to Portland Park, home of Ashington FC. Contrary to what the Wembley marketing people might choose to believe, football does not have a home. The game is itinerant and there is plenty of evidence in the Colliers' clubhouse that it has occasionally pitched its caravan in Ashington. Photos of the town's famous players line the walls. Many of them are Charlton relatives.

Cissie's father "Tanner" Milburn was Ashington's goalkeeper during their brief spell in the Football League. 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, wisely stayed away from football fans.

Cissie brought Bobby to Portland Park when he was a baby. The shouting of the crowd startled him and he burst into tears and wailed so loudly she had to take him home again. On Saturday the roar produced by the 80 or so diehards was less alarming; Ashington, pushing for promotion in Albany Northern League Division Two, thrashed Norton and Stockton Ancients 5-0.

Not that anyone would have predicted a 5-0 scoreline after forty minutes, Norton more than matching the home side and playing some neat football in midfield. Unhappily for them they lacked the Colliers cutting edge in front of goal. If only the legendary RA “ Bullet” Smith were still on their books things might have been different. Although given the fact that he would be at least ninety, probably not.

With half-time approaching Ross Atkinson showed how it should be done, latching onto a through ball and going one-on-one with the Ancients' gargantuan goalie. Sensing that to attempt to go round this massive figure would require a four-wheel drive and a fortnight’s supply of food, Atkinson wisely chose to lob him instead and the ball dropped nicely into the empty net.

Ashington's second came shortly after the interval. Unfortunately I had been distracted by a picture of Jimmy Adamson in his Burnley glory years in the clubhouse and didn’t see it. I am reliably informed that Robson scored. Other information is lacking, but years of missing goals at live football tell me that it was in all likelihood a wickedly swerving shot struck with the outside of the right foot from thirty yards which practically tore a hole in the roof of the net. And I’m sure the player himself would confirm that if you asked.

At this point Norton became disillusioned. Heads went down. “We’re not talking anymore,” the giant keeper said more or less to himself.  Porter added a third with a spectacular diving header worthy of Jurgen Klinnsman in his pomp and the visitor’s manager was heard to inquire of an assistant “Have you got the petrol money?”

Lawson and Robson finished the rout with goals that were almost mirror images of Atkinson’s opener, the Norton custodian showing the sort of aversion to chips normally associated with weightwatchers.

Five-nil. Afterwards, the two teams sat at long tables in the clubhouse function room eating the fish and chips an Ashington committee member had brought in a few minutes earlier in a large cardboard box. On the wall by the telephone a photo shows Big Jack tangling with a Celtic forward at Hampden Park in the semi-final of the 1970 European Cup. 100,000 attended that game, the terraces so tightly packed just looking at the photo sends a shiver down your spine.

Ashington council have discussed the founding of a football museum, but it has come to nothing, yet. If any of the town's footballing sons had been writers, artists or politicians, though, it seems certain they would have been commemorated by now. Perhaps this is as it should be - a true reflection of the game's value.

Except that I look back now to a time twenty-five years ago, in a bar in a little village in the Picos de Europas in Northern Spain, when the man frying prawns on the iron hot plate heard that we were English and smiling, raised a thumb and called, ‘Bobby Charlton!’

I’ve never heard anyone do that withVirginia Woolf or Charles Dickens.


  1. I was at the event in the Northern,bloody good night.Canny to watch ,sing along too and witnessed the worlds first art bingo.your spot did not go amiss.I really enjoyed how you talked the history of football from Ashington. I did not know half the things you talked about,but as I see it ASHINGTON is the home of footie.

    1. Thanks Michael. It was a great night out. I think Ashington should make more of its football heritage - the town should feel rightfully proud of its contribution to the game. At one time there was talk of a football museum but nothing seemed to come of it. Maybe Woodhorn could do something...