Wednesday, 29 April 2015


The last time Middlesbrough were in the play offs.... From My Favourite Year.

...Of the other contenders only Notts County had recorded a victory over Boro that season, which was a bit unfortunate as it was them we had to play.

The first leg of the semi-final, at Ayresome, ended in a 1-1 draw. The game was so intensely physical at times it looked like a fall or a submission might settle it. Neil Warnock, the County manager, had picked up plenty of acclaim from the media through the season presumably from journalists who'd never actually watched his side in vigorous, knees-pumping action. The Magpies had talented players like Tommy Johnson and Noel Bartlett, but they seemed even less interested in entertaining than John Beck's Cambridge.

After Boro's previous display at Meadow Lane  - the highlight of which, from our point of view, was the away end inviting Tommy Johnson to 'stick his big banana up his arse' - I didn't travel north with much hope. Stuart Ripley, who had come into form again, was injured, Bernie Slaven, who had been throwing periodic paddies all season, was sulking, and Stephen Pears was still out, which meant a place for Andy 'Officer' Dibble. The veteran was a good shot-stopper but when he came out for crosses he looked like a drunk flagging a taxi.

It was a warm, sunny evening in Nottingham and virtually every pub was shut. Simon Chapman and I sat by a canal eating chips. There was a musty smell of approaching summer in the air; a mood of torpor.

The game, which should have been the most exciting of the season, was pitiful; about as exciting as being trapped in a lift with a Jehovah's Witness, The bloke standing next to me kept shouting, 'Get a goal, lads, and we'll sing you home,' in an increasingly pitiful voice, but Boro never seemed likely to score and soon the tedium had numbed the whole crowd into silence, even him. It was a match neither side deserved to win. Though County did, with a goal in the 75th minute.

When the final whistle blew I watched Tony Mowbray sink to his knees, head bowed. If anyone deserved better it was Mowbray. All season long he'd hurled his battered body around with the disregard a steel erector shows for a work's van. If there's anyone who embodies Teesside more completely than Tony Mowbray then I wouldn't want to meet them.

We drove back to London. No one said much. Ian Magor was reading Jose Torres; book about Muhammad Ali. A phone-in about pit-bull terriers was on the radio. We got in just before midnight. And that was that.

Saturday, 25 April 2015


A piece from WSC about Brian Clough's playing days.

It was during the 1986 World Cup. England had got off to a pathetic start and in the ITV studio Mick Channon was lamenting the inability of English players to “get by people”. “The Brazilians do it,” he burbled. “The French do it. The Danes do it…” From off camera came an unmistakable whine: “Even educated fleas do it.” Brian Clough may have won titles and European Cups, but the queasy, humiliated expression that remark put on Channon’s medieval mug will likely live longer in my memory than any of them. To anyone who grew up on Teesside the tone, if not the accent (Clough’s peculiar vocal style was all his own) was unmistakable. Funny undoubtedly, but also scornful, the humorous equivalent of a slap in the face.

Born and brought up in the Grove Hill area of Mid­dlesbrough, Clough must have had plenty of chance to practise those withering put-downs, if only in self-defence. Nowadays cockiness is seen as a not-entirely-negative trait; some even view it as a prerequisite to sporting success. But back then self-regard was a mortal sin. The slightest sign of confidence was mercilessly crushed. Nobody liked a bighead.  And Clough was by all accounts a monstrous egotist right from the start. A schoolmate of my father had been goal­keeper in our village team. One Saturday in the 1950s they'd played a Great Broughton side featuring a teenage centre-forward – Clough. The adolescent had scored three times and, at the end of the game, gone over to my mate’s father, given him a consoling pat on the shoulder and said: “Don’t worry, one day you’ll be telling your mates Brian Clough put a hat-trick past you.” Which was true as it turned out, though it’s hard to imagine anyone was impressed at the time.

Clough signed for Middlesbrough – the team he had supported since boyhood – from Great Broughton in 1955. Photos show a sharp-featured face beneath a Woody Woodpecker quiff. His skin is pale, dark eyes glimmering with energy. His scoring record for Boro was extraordinary. In his five full seasons at Ayresome Park his lowest tally was 36. Yet he was never popular with his team-mates. His quest for goals was said to have been so single-minded he shoved better-placed colleagues out of the way so he could score himself. He allegedly sulked after defeats and criticised others on the field of play; he was accused of being arrogant, scathing and combative.

Clough hit back with accusations of his own, more serious ones. Boro were mired in the old Second Div­ision and apparently incapable of escape no matter how many times their centre-forward found the net. Clough believed there was something more sinister behind the situation than mere mediocrity. He went public, alleging his team-mates had a habit of betting on themselves to lose to offset their win bonuses, and on occasion deliberately con­ceding goals to avoid the one result that didn't pay out- a draw. The accusations led to fisticuffs in the dressing room and when Clough was made captain nine play­ers signed a round-robin let­ter to the directors asking for him to be removed.

The Boro crowd took the majority view (though few supporters these days doubt Clough’s version) and in the next home game bar­racked the skip­­per from the kick-off. He responded in typical style – scoring a hat-trick, all with shots from outside the area. That his swagger survived in the venomous atmosphere at Ayresome is an extraordinary testimony to his toughness, mental and physical. Blooded minded, was the phrase my mother would have used. In the end you suspect the boasting was more about challenging doubters than an act of self-promotion.

While at Boro, Clough had put in transfer requests every season without fail. He was linked with Everton and Birmingham, but eventually went to Sunderland for £55,000. He liked it much better at Roker Park and hit 63 goals in 74 appearances, before a collision with Bury goalkeeper Chris Harker smash­ed his knee. He struggled gamely to recover. But though 20,000 turned out at Roker Park to watch his comeback for the reserves, he made only three more appearances for the first team before being forced to quit. He was 29.

It is hard now to see Clough’s playing days as any­­thing but a prologue to his brilliant management career, but in many ways it was his time at Mid­dles­brough and Sunderland that formed him as a man. He was bright, brash and outspoken before he arrived at Ayresome Park, but his experiences with his home­town club stirred bitterness and frustration into the mix. It was there, too, that he met Peter Taylor, while the injury at Sunderland led to his first prolonged bout of drinking. His instinctive strong sense of right and wrong (evinced by his teams’ excellent disciplinary records and his hatred of gamesmanship) was af­fronted by Boro’s habit of frittering away matches for financial gain; the fact that the board turned a blind-eye added a mistrust of authority that would be vindicated years later at the Baseball Ground.

The thwarted ambition, the back-stabbing and the sense of injustice made him what he sometimes was – particularly dur­ing the “Mike Yarwood” years at Derby, Brighton and Leeds: awkward, confrontational and belligerent, a man determined that no one should get by him again.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015


Continuing on the theme of violence....

My Dad worked in the steel industry all his life - at Britannia, Cargo Fleet, Port Clarence and for Cleveland Bridge in Darlington, Dubai, Iraq, Saudi Arabia.

My Dad said: “I met one of the old platers in Darlo. We were talking about Duffy. He was a real rough bugger, worked in the stockyard. Fight anyone. The only bloke he wouldn’t take on was an erector, Davy Walker – ex-paratrooper, hard as nails, came out of South Bank. I said to this Duffy, “If you're so tough how come you’ve never had a go at Walker”. He said, “I’m waiting till he’s past it… And he’s almost past it now.”
"This Duffy, he’d have six, seven pints and his fingers would start curling and flexing, curling and flexing. Blokes saw him doing that, the pub cleared out. The old plater said, “His wife was the only one who could control him. When she was with him everyone could relax. After she died he went berserk.”
My Dad said, "It's a good job he was in his seventies by then, or somebody would really’ve got hurt”.

He says: "It's lucky the stockyard never got to play in that bloody inter-departmental football league."

The inter-departmental football league at Cleveland Bridge only lasted one match. It was the brainchild of a new personnel manager who'd arrived from the south. He had a lot of clever ideas about bonding and team building between the different skill bases in the works. He said, 'If you defence doesn't know who your attack is, then how can you expect to win the game?'

The first and only match in the inter-departmental football league was between the welding bays and accounts.

My Dad said: "It was abandoned midway through the second half when the accounts team was reduced to six men by injuries. Three of them were hospitalised. This big gangly welder that everybody called the Praying Mantis did most of the damage. The Praying Mantis was a bloke who looked like he had twelve elbows, and he wasn't particular about where he stuck them."

"I went down to the welding bays next day. I saw one of the foremen. I said, 'What was all that about yesterday then?" He said, 'I don't rightly know. But I tell you what, I bet it's the last time the fuck up our overtime payments."

That was over twenty years ago, but my Dad still chuckles every time he thinks of it.


Saturday, 18 April 2015


This one of the first 'This Sporting Life' columns I wrote for the Guardian while acting as a temporary replacement for the late, great Harry Thompson. The fat player named 'Killer' was a massive lout who played for St Mary's D team in the Teesside Schools League Division Two. I must have played against him at least six times during my teenage years and he decked somebody in every game. I avoided his attentions by playing wide on the right, so far wide I was over the horizon.

I response to some midlife crisis my friend John recently announced his intention to join a Sunday morning football team. When I asked him if he thought this was wise for a man of his years he said, ‘Why not?’ Apparently oblivious to the fact that when he had first made his declaration the man sitting on the next table to us in the pub had turned white in the face and mouthed the words ‘For God’s sake, no!’

‘Sunday morning football is a great British institution,’ John said.

‘So is Broadmoor,’ I replied, ‘but you wouldn’t voluntarily go there.’

John shrugged off my comment. ‘I don’t know how to find a team,’ he said.

‘Have you tried the probation office,’ I said.

John looked at me with the rueful expression of Tony Gubba discovering an old hairbrush, ‘Why are you so cynical?’ he asked.

‘It is the product of bitter experience,’ I told him, ‘Because once when I was living in the Old Kent Road I embarked upon the same path – and how I lived to tell the tale only the fates and the emergency services can know. Let me tell you, then, of the experiences to come for one hell bent on your foolhardy course of action.’

‘From now on each Sunday morning will see you driven out into a horizontal and lumpy rain to one of those areas in which the local sports shops sell little else save live bait and baseball bats. You will be abused, kicked, punched and spat upon. And when you leave the team bus things will get even worse.’

‘The changing rooms are an abandoned Ford Fiesta and a clump of bushes. The pitch a rutted battlefield fertilized by local dogs. Your own team may look like escapees from an Alabama chain gang, but they are S Club Juniors compared to the opposition. Your opponents’ idea of a midweek team building exercise is to rob a building society. Their centre-half is called ‘Killer’. He is so fat he works during the week as a temporary roundabout. Killer’s hobby is taking things apart to see how they work. He finds humans particularly perplexing.’

‘Their midfield juggernaut is inevitable called Psycho or Mad Dog. He responds to the referee's instructions to ‘Play the ball and not the man’ by saying ‘Ball? Ball?’ over and over as if it is a concept as alien to him as silence is to Jonathan Pearce. Psycho/Mad Dog has a weak first touch. Do not be fooled. It is just setting you up for a left hook.’

‘The centre-forward is called ‘Rhino’. He possesses a fantastic left foot. Whose it was originally nobody remembers. ‘Rhino’ will punch you in the kidneys when the ref is not looking. Unfortunately for you when it comes to Rhino, the ref is never looking, his blindside is a 360 degree curve. And who can blame him? The only man who would dispense justice here is one who had been lowered into the centre-circle in a shark-proof cage.’

‘The goalkeeper wears a facemask, not because he is protecting a damaged cheekbone, but because his sporting inspiration is Jason from the Halloween movies. Their manager is deemed too fat and violent even for Sunday football. He looks like Rockall in a shell-suit. His job is threefold: to drive the team bus, to collect the subs and to shout if he sees anybody from the Child Support Agency. His idea of a tactical substitution is to replace the half-time oranges with amphetamines.’

‘After running around in the icy wind, attempting to avoid being decapitated by a maximum security winger your reward will be a trip to their clubhouse, a cheerless concrete bunker with the appearance of a Stalinist prison, but none of its comforting warmth. From the backroom comes a familiar pock-pock noise. Is it a game of pool? No. It is a local gangster breaking the fingers of a police informer. When ‘No Surrender’ comes on the jukebox you know it is time to leave.’

John shook his head when I had finished and laughed, ‘You have a vivid imagination,’ he said, ‘I’m going to play whatever you think.’

The doctors say he should be able to eat solid food by Christmas.



Wednesday, 15 April 2015


The great US boxing writer Phil Berger recalled a time when he was ghost-writing Smokin' Joe Frazier's autobiography: 'Joe said, 'When Muhammad Ali lit the Olympic flame in Atlanta I wish I'd been standing behind him so I could have pushed him into it.' I said, 'You don't want me to put that in the book, Joe.' He said he did. I said 'Are you sure? I'd advise against it.'

Frazier remained adamant. The comment appeared in the book and drew widespread opprobrium. Later Berger concluded that if a journalist tells you to take a statement off the record you really ought to listen.

I imagine Hunter Davies must have had similar feelings when working with Paul Gascoigne on Gazza My Story. Certainly it's a book that at times you can only read with your hands in front of your face.

The Paul Gascoigne who stares out from the cover of this long-awaited (it was commissioned six years ago) autobiography bears a strong resemblance to fellow nineties casualty Shaun Ryder. There are other similarities too: talent, loutish behaviour, wild acclaim, drugs, craziness, rehab and, at the end of it all, a greatest hits package that however enjoyable never quite adds up to a career. 

From the moment Gascoigne fully establishing himself in the England team with a memorable goal against Czechoslovakia to his final, chaotic expulsion from the squad in La Manga is a period of just eight years. After it his football life was, more or less, slow dying – five goals spread over seven seasons spent at five different clubs. Add to that the fact that in the three-and-a-half years between the spring of 1991 and the autumn of 1994 the midfielder managed just 53 games for Lazio; and that after leaving Spurs when he was 25-years-old he never played thirty league matches in a season again and, however, hard Gazza may deny it in this at times painfully honest and at other times just plain painful book, it is impossible not to feel a sense of immense talent wasted.

Could it have been different? You would certainly hope so, but it’s a question of ifs and maybes. Much has been made of Gascoigne’s dysfunctional family (and, yes, they do seem to have stepped straight out of the pages of Viz) but the family of football is if anything even madder and more psychotic than the Dunston clan. Like an absent Dad the clubs lavish their juvenile charges with gifts (at Lazio Gascoigne demanded – and was given – his own trout farm), but offer little in the way of emotional support, discipline or sound advice.

The chance of anybody involved in the game recognising that the hyper-active, obsessive, attention-seeking Gascoigne, whose every madcap prank comes with a whiff of desperation, needed help, let alone acting on that knowledge until it was way, way too late seemingly were negligible; after all, by his own account, while at Rangers Gazza regularly helped himself to Zimovane – a type of synthetic morphine - from the Ibrox medical cabinet without any of the staff apparently noticing.  

Until Bryan Robson reacted to Gazza’s attempted suicide at Stevenage station, the only manager who actually did anything to try and address the player’s mental problems was England boss Glenn Hoddle. And he, naturally, decided the right treatment was to send him to see Eileen Drewery. Brilliant.       

By this stage Gascoigne was an alcoholic and a wife-beater. He deals with both in these pages with a self-lacerating frankness. That he makes no attempt to illicit the reader’s sympathy is to his credit. He clearly feels he deserves none and in the latter case he is right.  


Gazza makes little attempt to explain his behaviour and the abusive relationship with Sheryl remains enigmatic. As Gascoigne says more than once he prefers to be out with the lads than chasing women. Perhaps it is unsurprising therefore that his most successful relationship is with another man, his best chum and current flatmate Jimmy “Five Bellies” Gardner.

Not that things have always been easy for the pair, especially for Gardner. During the course of this book Gascoigne attempts to shoot an apple off Jimmy’s head with a crossbow, pays him £25 a time for allowing him to fire airgun pellets into his arse, deliberately runs him over, feeds him a pie filled with human excrement, throws a feral cat onto his face while he is asleep and gives him £1,000 in return for the pleasure of watching him set fire to his own nose. Perhaps most cruelly of all, with his mate up in court having threatened some kids with a gun Gazza arranges for Chris Evans to testify as a character witness. And yet through it all their friendship has endured: Gazza and Five Bellies - the Posh’n’Becks of Tyneside. It is one of the few heart warming aspects of what is otherwise a cautionary tale.


Saturday, 11 April 2015


A WSC Match of the Month feature from 2011 on Gateshead v Cambridge United. The home side were embarking on a successful spell which has seen support gradually rising thanks to some clever ticket initiatives, and brought the club to the brink of the League last season. Sadly the proposed new purpose-built ground seems to have been put on hold and this year play-off hopes have faded after a decent start, though a local derby with Hartlepool could yet become a reality next season...

Photos are by the excellent Colin McPherson and are owned by him. You can see more on Colin's website by clicking the link on the right.

It's the Saturday of the Junior Great North Run. At Newcastle Central Station the usual hordes of stag and hen-nighters in identikit Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirts, nurse's uniforms and pink cowboy hats with signs saying "sperm donor needed" have been temporarily displaced by mobs of enthusiastic tots in running gear, herded together by harassed adult helpers. ("Emma, man, if you drink any more of that pop before you set off you're gonna throw up, I'm telling you.")

Down on the quayside crowds are gathering to watch Mo Farah and Hannah England compete in the Great North City Games. Newcastle United are away at Aston Villa. Sunderland don't play until tomorrow. For a rare, brief moment on Tyneside football isn't the centre of sporting focus.
Ironically on a day when athletics is dominating the back pages of the local papers, the one place where football is commanding all attention is at the region's premier track and field venue, Gateshead International Stadium, where Gateshead are playing Cambridge United. The visitors' fall from grace is so recent it almost seems compulsory to preface their name with the words "former Football League side" and follow it with a reference to Dion Dublin or John Taylor.

Gateshead are a former Football League side too, though that was so long ago and the club has been disbanded and re-formed so often since that nobody feels much of an urge to remind you of it, or talk of the Callender brothers. (Though there does remain a lingering bitterness among those old enough to remember about the way Gateshead's re-election appeal was batted aside in 1960 to make way for Peterborough.)

Besides, the Tynesiders are looking to the future. They only just avoided relegation last season, but have gone off on the B of bang in the Conference this term, losing just one game in nine, sitting in second place behind Wrexham and holding out the promise of returning the number of League clubs in the north-east back to five for the first time since the full effects of George Reynolds' lunacy took their inevitable toll on Darlington.

Gateshead have a wealthy but realistic owner, Graham Wood, a shrewd full-time manager in Ian Bogie, who played alongside Paul Gascoigne in Newcastle's FA Youth Cup-winning side of 1985, and have spent comparatively heavily over the summer to secure the services of burly Stevenage striker Yemi Odubade and full-back Sam Rents from Crawley.

As helicopters hover over the Tyne, small knots of Heed fans wearing the club's original claret and blue shirt saunter from the Metro station towards the floodlights through the Playmobil-neat-and-tidy St James' Village estate. A group of visitors from the south-east, meanwhile, do their bit for regional stereotyping by chanting "What a waste of income tax/we paid for your house". Some local urchins in Henleys hoodies do the same in return by hanging around outside Asda, begging passing adults to buy them fags and cider.

The last time I was at Gateshead International Stadium I was watching Asafa Powell and Phillips Idowu compete in a Diamond League meeting. I've only seen football here once before. That was over a decade ago, when Gateshead were in the Northern Premier League and fewer than 200 supporters occupied the 12,000-capacity ground.

The atmosphere was so muted you could hear the substitutes' studs clattering as they warmed up on the athletics track. It was a dispiriting experience and I squeeze through the turnstile today with no great expectation for the afternoon.

Gateshead Stadium has been redeveloped over the years, but nothing much has been done to make football's role here look anything more than an afterthought. The "dugouts" are on wheels, the technical areas are matting, the electric scoreboard is the sort that normally shows the lap times in the 1500m. There's a shot put circle behind one goal.

A misplaced cross could end up in the steeplechase water jump and the 50 or so away fans are housed in a stand on the other side of the stadium which, thanks to the pitch and the 16 lanes of running track that lie between them and us, means even their most enthusiastic singing registers only as a distant, incoherent murmur.

On the positive side, there are some attractive floral hanging baskets and flower beds near the long jump pit, and I arrive early enough to get a plum seat in the stand, high up and level with the half-way line. It's the sort of position usually occupied by the pressbox. This being an athletics stadium, however, the hacks are actually housed 40 yards or so to my right – giving them a perfect view of the finish line, but not such a great one of the far goal.

By kick-off there are 900 fans in the ground, and an enthusiastic bunch of youngsters in one corner are making a sufficient racket to disperse some of my peevishness. It disappears completely once the game has kicked off, because it's cracking more or less from the opening minute with Gateshead's controlled attacking play counterbalanced by the sort of haphazard defending that means every Cambridge break seems to end with a shot on target.

Danny Naisbitt in the Cambridge goal pulls off a couple of simple saves from the speedy and muscular Odubade and Micky Cummins, before, with 17 minutes gone, a sweeping cross-field ball from the U's centre-forward Michael Gash finds Ashley Carew in acres of space on the right. The Cambridge No 10 speeds through on goal unchallenged and chips the ball over Paul Farman, who fails to get a hand to it despite wearing the biggest gloves since the retirement of Sepp Maier. The red-kitted Farman does better moments later, saving at the near post from Luke Berry, and is in a good position when the marauding Carew whips in a deep cross that Peter Winn heads narrowly over.
Briefly the home side look in danger of being overwhelmed as the ball pings around their penalty area, but they gradually regain some composure and, with top-scorer Jon Shaw leading the line well, begin to create chances again. Naisbitt pulls off a smart save and then, as Heed press forward on the half-hour, Tom Shaw trips Obudabe just outside the penalty area. Rents lines up to strike the ball. "They only bought this lad to take free-kicks," a father in front of me advises his son. "Watch this sail in the top corner."

Rents confounds parental wisdom, however, by choosing to square the kick to Josh Gillies instead. The young midfielder takes a touch to control the ball, but it's heavy and the crowd is already beginning to rumble with discontent – "What a bloody waste" – when Gillies stretches out a left foot to slap a shot goalwards. It doesn't seem particularly powerful or menacing, but it bamboozles Naisbitt, who stands motionless as the ball skips past him and into the net.

The equaliser prompts a rash of Gateshead attacks. Odubade – one of those players who seems to be nursing a hamstring injury whenever he doesn't have the ball – comes closest to adding a second, lashing a shot narrowly over after a jiggling run. As the half-time whistle blows the PA announcer brings news that Wrexham are surprisingly trailing at home to York City. As it stands the Tynesiders are top of the table.

Sadly, the second half fails to produce the excitement of the first. Odubade is moved inside, leaving Eddie Odhiambo – who had combined well with him in the opening period – isolated when he receives the ball wide on the right. Bogie has clearly had a word during the interval too, and the Heed defence – in which the red-haired James Curtis is commanding – is a lot less sloppy. The home side spend much of the 45 minutes camped in the visitors' half. But, despite lots of possession and a frenzied five-minute spell in which they win half-a-dozen corners, they fail to create a single clear-cut chance.

Indeed, the biggest outbreak of cheering in the Tyne and Wear Stand greets the news that Leon Best has equalised for Newcastle. "Feed the Best and he will score," the supporters behind me chant. They may – as they proclaimed earlier – be Gateshead till they die, but they still have loyalty to the Premier League giants across the river. Cambridge, with Rory McAuley outstanding, defend resolutely, as they have done all season. This will be their fifth game without defeat. Gateshead also have reason to feel happy with a draw. Wrexham have been unexpectedly hammered by York City.

 "We are top of the league," the Heed fans chant as they file out after the final whistle.
Inside a home that still seems temporary despite their having played in it for over 30 years, Gateshead have worked hard to establish their own identity. Yet they still seem rootless compared to other local non-League bigwigs Blyth Spartans or Whitley Bay. The owner's plans to move them to a purpose-built stadium with room for 7,000 fans will surely help with that.

Given the grandiloquence of some local chairmen of the past, Woods – who as a boy watched Heed when they played west of here at Redheugh Park, attracting five-figure crowds for Cup ties against Bolton and Spurs – is refreshingly modest in his aims. No proclamations promising Champions League football in ten years for him. Instead he sees Gateshead playing lower-division football, with maybe a derby against Hartlepool as an annual highlight. On today's evidence that seems eminently achievable.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015


Manchester United and England midfielder Bryan Robson was described by one of his managers and admirers, Ron Atkinson as “A player with a matchless ability to arrive in the right place at the right time”. Captain Marvel’s runs into the penalty area were the ruination of many a defensive scheme, but when it comes to perfect timing Robson could have learned a thing or too from John McGovern.



For a man whose first ambition was to be a tennis player, whose second was to be a rugby union wing three-quarter, who had a muscle missing in his back and didn’t play competitive football until he was fifteen, McGovern’s career is really a thing of wonder, and it owes everything to being in the right place -Hartlepool - at the right time - the mid-1960s.

Born in Montrose, Scotland in 1949, McGovern moved with his family to County Durham when he was seven. It was here that fate took a hand. Because when McGovern left school, a thrusting young manager took charge of Hartlepools United: Brian Clough. One of his first signings, as an apprentice earning £2 a week, was John McGovern.

Despite the fact that the shy, blond Scottish teenager was short of pace, neither much of a tackler or a passer, and had no real eye for goal, Clough took an instant liking to him and handed him his first team debut at Victoria Park when he was just sixteen. The teenage McGovern was so small and thin the shirt he wore had to be pinched together with safety pins so it didn’t fall off his narrow shoulders.


When Clough left to take over at Derby, McGovern believed his career was over. Instead his former patron turned up one day at the door of his parent’s home and asked if they’d mind their son moving to the East Midlands. At The Baseball Ground McGovern won a second division championship medal and then a League championship medal, an ever present in a team that contained a host of internationals.

When Clough fell out with the board and briefly – very briefly – took charge of Leeds he made McGovern one of his first signings. The other Leeds players – top class internationals all – were horrified. “He wasn’t the quality of player you expected to see at Elland Road” huffed captain Billy Bremner.

Fired by Leeds after less than two months, Clough pitched up at Nottingham Forest. His first signing, predictably: John McGovern. In the next five seasons, pllaying alongside the likes of Martin O’Neil, Archie Gemmill and Trevor Francis, McGovern picked up another League championship medal, two League Cup winners medals and two Champions Cup winners medals. Outside the ranks of Manchester United and Liverpool that makes McGovern one of the most successful players in the history of the British game. Yet his ability was barely discernible. He was fit, he had great stamina, he never let anybody down, but the fact he did not win a single senior cap for Scotland tells its own story. Only Clough could see his quality. To everyone else it was invisible. As with Bryan Robson timing was the key. Anywhere else, any other era and nobody outside his own street would have heard of John McGovern.


Saturday, 4 April 2015


Laid low all week with some grim virus, so here's a very short thing from the third When Saturday Comes special published back in the days when wagonwheels were still the correct size and I could remember what I was looking for when I opened the cupboard.

'Vinnie Jones, a hard man. Vinnie Jones? You're joking aren't you? Vinnie Jones. You want to talk about hardmen. You talk about the Boro team of the mid-seventies. Spraggon, Craggs, Boam, Maddren, Foggon and Woof. Rock hard the lot of them, and each with a name that sounded like a Viking act of gross indecency.

Hard man, Vinnie Jones? Don't make me laugh. John Craggs, right? John Craggs, eve of Boro v Liverpool at Ayresome, 1976. He's gone in Billy Paul's drunk twelve pints of Jubilee black-and-tan (and never went to the toilet once, mind). He's gone across to the Dragonara. He's run up ten flights of stairs to the roof, dived off, landed head first on the pavement, cracking the slab with the impact. He jumps to his feet, points at that broken slab and yells: 'Tommy Smith, you're bloody next.'

Vinnie Jones....How, pet, when you're ready...'

Wednesday, 1 April 2015


You enter the Augustiner Brau Bierkeller in Salzburg through a monastery, open a large oak door and descend a long flight of marble stairs. There’s total silence until you turn left at the bottom, then – bang – you’re in a series of vast halls roughly the size of the Metro Centre packed to the brim with merry Austrians, waving European Cup scale earthenware beer mugs and pretzels roughly the size and shape of Bill Gates’ ears. You pick up a mug, pay at a till and take the ticket they give you to the bar, where a man with the fierce rustic face of Horst Hrubesch fills the mug and slings it across the counter at you, sloshing lager down your shirt front.

A couple of years ago I was in the Augustiner Brau Bierkeller. I’d got my beer and was queuing up at a counter to get one of the giant pretzels when a smiley blond woman came up and asked me – in German - if I would mind taking a photo of her and her husband. I explained that I was English. ‘Ah English,’ the woman, whose name was Brigita, said, ‘We are football fans. Are you a football fan? What team do you support?’

When I told her, she shouted across to her husband, ‘Hans, he supports the Boro!’ and her husband raised his huge tankard, bellowed ‘Mad Dog Pogatetz!’ and drained off several litres in one gulp, and then launched into a chorus of ‘You are My Boro…’

It turned out that Hans and Brigita, were supporters of Sturm Graz, ‘The Boro fans are our favourite fans’ they said, ‘Before we played Middlesbrough in the Uefa Cup we had never heard of you, but now we always look for your score!’

Our friendship thus established, I plonked myself at their table and soon were ordering more beer from the waiters in leather aprons and I was telling them about the time Poggy had suffered that facial injury and had to wear the mask. An away fan had remarked to a friend of mine, ‘He looks a bit scary with that thing on’. And my friend had replied, ‘If you think it looks scary with it on, you should see him when he takes it off!’ And Hans and Brigita laughed heartily and bellowed ‘Mad Dog!’ and we all drained miniature flagons of apricot schnapps that seemed to have appeared miraculously.

At some point I noticed that I could no longer feel my legs, which I generally take as a sign that it is time for me to go home. As I took my leave of Hans and Brigita, Hans patted me on the arm. ‘We knew you were a good guy the minute we saw you,’ he said, ‘because you look just like one of our heroes. You know who?’

‘Billy Bragg,’ I said, ‘Or Nigel Worthington’

Hans had clearly heard of neither the Bard of Barking or the former Northern Ireland boss, ‘No, no,’ He said, ‘The person you look like is….Sir Alex Ferguson!’

I think they must have been in that bierkeller for several hours before I arrived. At least I hope they had.