Tuesday, 17 March 2015

AMATEUR DRAMATICS


A shorter version of this piece appeared in the excellent Back Pass magazine.

 
 

 The 1954 FA Amateur Cup Final. Bishop Auckland v Crook Town.  5 ½ hours of football at three different stadiums in front of an aggregate crowd of close to 200,000  – almost ten times the combined populations of the two Durham towns. Those indeed were the days.

The struggle began at Wembley. Bishops started as favourites. They’d played Crook twice in the Northern League that season, beating them 4-1 at home and 3-1 away. The men from Kingsway were on a roll. They’d spent the late-summer on a three week tour of Rhodesia, guests of the local FA, then returned to the North-East and embarked on an incredible scoring spree that would see them net over 200 goals that season. In the five games they’d played to get to Wembley, Bishops had scored 26 times, including five in a semi-final win over Briggs Sports that drew 54,000 fans to St James’ Park.

 

If Bishops’ skipper, Londoner Jack ‘The Galloping’ Major appeared quietly confident perhaps that was unsurprising. Bishop Auckland were the Real Madrid of amateur football and the 1950s were their glory years. They took the Northern League title six times, appeared in five Wembley finals, won the Northern League Cup three times and the Durham Challenge Cup (a competition many locals felt was the toughest of all) twice.

Bishops’ best players were household names, not just in the North-East, but across the whole of England. Wing-half Bob Hardisty (his given name was Roderick – he’d been nicknamed ‘Bob’ by a midwife at the hospital and it stuck) was considered by many the greatest amateur footballer of his generation (one man who didn’t join the chorus of adulation was Bishops' 1938 Amateur Cup winner Kenny Twigg. He considered Hardisty amateurish and lacking in positional sense).

A midfielder who liked to roam forward, Hardisty had captained the Great Britain side that reached the semi-finals in the 1948 Olympics, forging a friendship with GB manager Matt Busby that would lead to him guesting for Manchester United in the wake of Munich. He was tall, elegant, and prematurely bald due to an illness contracted in India during World War Two. A PE instructor at a local Teacher Training College, Hardisty, ‘was a man who unified the town, a story that folk lore is made of’.

Despite the veneration, Hardisty was no saint. He had a roving eye when it came to women and a reputation as a reckless gambler. ‘There was bookies chasing him all over Durham,’ a resident of the town once told me. And bookmakers in those days – operating illegally off track – were not gentle when it came to debt collection. ‘The club had to bail him out for fear they’d break his legs,’ my informant said.

That the club would do such a thing hints at an underlying truth of ‘amateur’ football: gate receipts were high and the players, valuable assets. As a consequence many top amateurs earned better money than League professionals. Future Liverpool star Geoff Strong left Stanley United for Arsenal in 1958, later confessing that he had taken a pay cut to turn pro. At Stanley he was earning £4 a week as an apprentice tool-fitter, a match fee of £10 plus a bonus of £1 per goal (he averaged ten per month) – all cash in hand.  Arsenal – constrained by the maximum wage – could only offer £13 a week. And he was taxed on it.

Sometimes payment came through services in kind. ‘Every Saturday your wife or mother could pick up the Sunday roast at a local butchers and the bill went to the club,’ Kenny Twigg said, ‘And a couple of times a year you could go and get a suit made, stuff like that. I never took cash, though I could have if I’d needed it.’

 

One man who didn’t need it was the improbably glamorous Seamus O’Connell. Born into a wealthy Cumbrian family, O’Connell was tailored by Saville Row and transported by Jaguar. The inside-forward was a top class striker (he’d equalled an NL record earlier in the season when he scored eight times in a match against Penrith) and a world class womaniser who – according to Northern League president Mike Amos – was so well endowed one society lady who chanced upon him in the shower remarked, ‘Built like that you really ought to trot’. O’Connell had just signed amateur terms with Chelsea. He’d help the Pensioners win their first league title, hit 11 goals in 16 appearances and then walk away saying, ‘I really don’t think football is any sort of job for a man.’

Between the sticks for Bishops stood Wigan-born Harry Sharratt - a goalkeeper so madcap he made John Burridge look like Alan Shearer. Sharratt’s antics would fill several articles. One will suffice: he was booked for building a snowman on his goal line.

Compared to Bishops swaggering Galacticos, Crook Town (or ‘The Crooks’ as the Pathe News commentator would insist on calling them) appeared modest.  The Black & Ambers’ star player was winger Jimmy McMillan. McMillan was quick and skilful and he’d finish his career with a record four Amateur Cup winners medals, but he was no glamour boy. He’d turned down the chance of playing for Newcastle United and Chelsea, to train as a local government planning officer. Sensible, decent, honest. The same might be said of the entire Crook squad. Coached by the young Joe Harvey whose main focus was on physical fitness ('The only instructions I can ever recall Joe giving us,' McMillan once said, 'was 'If it's near the end and you're not losing, hit their corner flags.') and skippered by former Bishop Auckland centre-half Bobby Davison, the side from Millfield was greater than the sum of its parts. To borrow a phrase from Franz Beckenbauer: the star was the team.

Wembley was packed. Supporters from the two towns had travelled down to London on twenty special trains and 250 coaches. To the roars of this migrant Durham throng, it was the underdogs who kicked off. Barely five minutes had gone by before the odds tilted in their favour. Bishops’ preparation for the game had already been disrupted, Scottish international full-back Tommy Stewart going down with jaundice. Worse now followed. Half-back Jimmy Nimmins slid into a tackle and didn’t get up. He’d broken his right leg. With no substitutions allowed, Bishops were going to have to play the rest of the game with ten men. Supporters shook their heads. Bishops had played three finals at Wembley and lost them all. It looked like the hoodoo had struck again.

With O’Connell dropping back to fill the gap in the half-back line, rugged number nine Ray Oliver (a volunteer lifeboat man who’d been decorated for gallantry) and inside-right Les Dixon were left to forage up front. With twelve minutes gone it was Dixon who opened the scoring, controlling a long free-kick with his first touch and then with his next slashing the ball past the rangy Fred Jarrie in the Crook goal.

Crook rivalled Bishops for the power of their attack. They’d won the Northern League the year before scoring an average four goals per game, and hammered Hitchin 10-1 on the road to Wembley. They responded almost immediately, Ronnie Thompson collecting the ball on the edge of the Bishops box, advancing a couple of strides and planting a low shot into the left hand corner of Sharratt’s goal.

With their one man advantage Crook might have expected to take control, but they suffered their own injury crisis, Ken Williamson pulling up with an ankle injury. He would spend the rest of the game limping up and down the wing, occasionally hobbling off for treatment.

Bishops took advantage of the disruption. Railway worker Bob Watson produced an inch perfect pass for Oliver on the edge of the box. The big centre forward accelerated past a couple of opponents and blasted the ball into the top corner from 18 yards.

The second half saw Crook in the ascendancy. Ten minutes of more or less constant attacking were rewarded when Bill Jeffs, a summer signing from Whitby, crossed for winger Eddie Appleby to hammer home the equaliser.

For the next 35 minutes play flowed from end to end without anyone managing to add a goal. In extra-time Bishops came close to winning it, Crook defenders twice clearing efforts off the line.

 ‘I have just witnessed the finest two hours of entertainment I have ever seen,’ announced Kenneth Wolstenholme on the BBC home service. Few amongst the 100,000 crowd at Wembley would have disagreed.

 

The replay was held ten days later at St James Park, Newcastle. It was Easter Monday, a 6pm kick off. The official attendance of 56,008 was the highest ever for an amateur match outside the capital.

Bishops made changes. Tommy Stewart returned and the teenager Barry Wilkinson – a National Serviceman with the RAF - replaced the unfortunate Nimmins. For Crook, Williamson had failed to shake off the ankle problem. Ex-Bishops man John Coxon took his place.

Things began badly again for the team from Kingsway. Within four minutes they were two nil down, both goals scored by the prolific Ken Harrison, an Annfield Plain schoolmaster who had bagged a hat-trick in the semi-final win over Walthamstow. Bishops refused to panic, and after a shaky first period they emerged after the interval with renewed purpose. Gradually they took control of the game, stringing passes together in the smooth flowing style that was their trademark. After 69 minutes Ray Oliver pulled one back and in the 81st he got a second. Extra-time brought no more goals. By the final whistle both sides looked dead on their feet.

With league fixtures piling up, the third replay was hastily arranged at Ayresome Park three days later. Conscious of time restraints, the FA determined that on this occasion no extra period would be played and if neither side was victorious inside the 90 minutes the trophy would be shared. Despite the short notice and the difficulty of getting off work in time for the 6pm kick off 36,727 turned up on a windy Teesside night.

By now both teams had an unsurprising look of weariness about them. The first two matches had been marked by excitement, goals and free flowing football. This one turned into a trial of strength.

Midway through the first half Bishops had the ball in the net, Oliver rising to head home Major’s corner. The jubilant players had danced all the way back to the centre circle before they realised one-armed referee Alf Bond had disallowed it, harshly ruling the centre forward had been ‘climbing’. In the end one goal settled the match. It went to the Black and Ambers, Harrison almost inevitably the scorer.

 

Joe Harvey’s team returned immediately to Crook aboard a special train, skipper Davison waving the silver trophy from the window at the supporters who lined up beside the tracks at pit villages along the way. When they got home 15,000 people and a silver band greeted them despite the lateness of the hour. There was to be no all-night partying for the Crook players, however. They had work the next day, and in the evening there was a Northern League fixture to play at West Auckland.


 
(Bobby Davison shows off the Cup to workmates at Marshall Richards Machine Co.)

2 comments:

  1. Harry, a great article. I have vague recollections of watching the game on a fuzzy black and white TV at an Aunts who lived on Eastbourne Road almost opposite the police station. A black and white world.
    The photograph of the goal keeper and the 'casey' in the roof of the net is wonderful too.

    All the best like.

    John

    ReplyDelete
  2. 192,000 fans watched the 3 games. Has there ever been a cup tie with a greater aggregate of spectators either in Britain or globally?

    ReplyDelete