Saturday, 31 October 2015


It's been raining round here for 48 hours. I think I might get the Red Kite bus to Consett to see the currently homeless Durham City play Seaham Red Star in the FA Vase

Consett's ground has an artificial surface which guarantees play and reminded me of this...

(My friend Jack Lowe's splendid hand-painted Newcastle United team. Jack looks after the Tomy Super Cup Facebook page. You can Like it here )

A lot of people thought that 2014 was the greatest World Cup of all time. It wasn’t. The best World Cup in history was held in a basement in Earl’s Court. It wasn’t organized by Fifa either, but by my mate Julian’s hairdresser and it was all over in a single Sunday. The trophy was four inches tall, made of solid plastic and it meant that Peru were entitled to a free cut and wash (no appointment necessary. Saturdays excluded). Yes, we are talking about the 1989 Tomy Super Cup World Cup.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Diego Maradona of Football Games let me explain. Tomy Super Cup was made by the Japanese toy giants in the mid-1980s (the box features a picture of Howard Kendal-era Everton playing against one of those Manchester United sides in which everyone looked like Arthur Albiston) and features two teams of tiny players who are moved up and down using levers, kicking the ball with a paddle attached to their feet.

This may sound a bit like the popular Casdon Soccer that came out in the 1960s. Casdon's game was endorsed by Bobby Charlton who featured on the box top wearing a bright red cardigan and grinning manically like someone listening to his fiancee's father telling his favourite story from thirty years in the double-glazing business, while trying not to fart.

In homage to the more rigid tactics of the sixties the players in the Casdon game stayed exactly where they were. The defenders never left the edge of the penalty area, the forwards tracked back less than Mark Viduka on Temazepam. In Tomy Super Cup, by contrast, the players hare up and down the field twisting and whirring. They are a blur of industry. This is because the game is – quite literally - electric.

It makes a racket. I admit. In fact, it sounds pretty much like that moment when one of your kids carries out an experiment to see what happens if you put Lego in the blender. When it is switched off at the end of a heavy session you have a ringing in your ears like someone stuck a brass pail over your head and got Karl Froch to clout it several times with a claw hammer.

The other minor problem with Tomy Super Cup is the black-and-white ball, which is the size of a flickable bogey. (Bogeys traditionally come in three calibrations: wipeable, flickable and stick under a work surface and blame it on that bloke with the Metallica T-shirt).

Since in times of high excitement the little players sometimes hoof the ball - in scale terms at least - several miles over the roof of the stadium, it is wise to Hoover the floor before you start. Otherwise you are likely to find yourself attempting to conjure a little magic on the edge of the D with a raisin, chocolate cake crumb, or indeed a flickable bogey.

Despite these quibbles Tomy Super Cup remains the best football game that I have played. Better even than Subbuteo and the estimable Teutonic game of Tipp-Kick, with its clanking metal players and their chisel-shaped kicking feet and dodecahedron-shaped ball. The only other game that comes as close to capturing the wild reality of football as Tomy Super Cup does is Balyna Super Soccer. In Balyna Super Soccer the players are moved using magnetised rods located under the playing surface.

This is a demented system because your opponent can use the reverse polarity of his own magnetic rod to chase your players around the field. As a result the whole match passes by in a frustrating attempt to influence a team who are totally out of your control and completely unable to fulfil even the lowest of your expectations - a pretty accurate representation of every fan's experience of football.

My friend Julian, who was introduced to Tomy Super Cup by his hairdresser, and has subsequently initiated just about every likely looking man he meets into the game’s arcane mysteries, says there were supposed to be more Tomy Super Cup Cups. A European League was mooted amidst excited talk of away fixtures in the cellars and bedsits of Spain and Italy. But then it all stopped as suddenly as it had begun. The hairdresser never explained why, but my belief is that the council intervened after complaints about the noise from the thrash metal band that were rehearsing the next door room.

Saturday, 24 October 2015


Last weekend Howard Kendall passed away. By way of a small tribute, here's a photo- courtesy of Dan Jackson- of Kendall's school football team in which he lined up with a certain B. Ferry. There's a good little story about it in Michael Walker's book.

No game for me today as my parents have inconveniently arranged their Diamond Wedding Anniversary to clash with Benfield v Norton & Stockton Ancients.

It's the first day of winter tomorrow, so here's this.

In 1930 Chilton Colliery RA of County Durham met Stockton in a Northern League match. Chilton were leading 6-0 when four players walked off saying that could no longer stand the freezing cold. The referee refused to abandon the game. Stockton fought back, scoring four times, at which point one of the Chilton players collapsed from exposure and had to be stretchered off the field unconscious. The match official finally brought the players’ ordeal to an end in the 83rd minute. It was April the 19th.

In 1962-63 snow fell so heavily and lay so long that only six Northern League matches were played from 29th December through to March 3rd. In 1979 an FA Cup tie between Consett and Acrington Stanley was postponed eleven times and only went ahead finally after volunteers had worked for several days to clear 1,000 tons of snow from the Belle Vue pitch.
As you may gather from these stories, playing and watching football (and sometimes cricket) in the North East of England – a corner of the country Roy Keane always referred to as ‘up there’ even when he was manager of Sunderland - often requires a high degree of fortitude, and, for those on the terraces, enough thick clothing to lag a boiler.
In the first week of January this year I went to see North Shields play Marske United in the First Division of the Ebac Northern League. North Shields play at the Daren Persson Stadium, possibly the only football ground in England named after an undertaker.
That day a south-westerly wind snapped in off the North Sea all the way from the Barents Straits, bringing tears to my eyes and chilling my joints until I felt my knuckles would pop like bubble wrap. Despite wearing two pairs of thick socks and walking boots, I got so cold that when I caught the Metro back into the centre of Newcastle I couldn’t feel my feet till Byker (which, as a friend pointed out, sounds like a song by Lindisfarne).

Yet North Shields is by no means the coldest place to watch football in the North East. Not by a long chalk. In the region that stretches from the Tweed to the Tees some football grounds, such as those at Easington, Horden and Hartlepool, expose themselves to the bracing sea gale, while others are perched on the side of North Pennine hilltops. Here from October to May winter mist hovers in the air like a bitter marital argument and sharp icy rain pecks and scratches at exposed skin. Over the past two decades I’ve shivered in swirling snow at Hall Lane, Willington; been blasted by hail at Brandon Welfare Ground, and frozen to my seat at Crook on a day when cups of hot Bovril were passed around as hand-warmers and firemen freed incontinent dogs from lamp-posts. I’ve watched a game at Stanley United’s infamously exposed Hill Top where the air was so chilled the match was temporarily halted because the pea had frozen in the referee’s whistle.

However, for skin puckering, nose numbing, ear-aching, brass-monkey neutering cold, none of these places can compare to Ironworks Road, the windswept, glacial home of Tow Law Town. The Ironworks Road ground was built and then rebuilt by striking pitmen back in the days when Northern League games regularly attracted four-figure crowds and the half and full-time scores were relayed back to the visitors’ home base by carrier pigeons. Tow Law’s mines are long gone, as is the foundry that gave the ground its name. The population of the town is now half what it was back in the 1950s. Temperatures remain stubbornly unaffected by climate change.

Tow Law lies a little over 1,000 feet above sea level on the eastern fringe of the North Pennines, which probably makes it the highest football ground in England (the fact is disputed by Buxton). From Ironworks Road on a winter afternoon (and there are an awful lot of winter afternoons in Tow Law) you can look westwards into a vast darkness unblemished by any of the spots of light that might denote distant farms or hamlets. A barbaric wind whips out of these barren wastes - the splendidly Dickensian-sounding Waskerley Common.

The world’s great winds often have names – the Freemantle Doctor, the Chicago Hawk – the wind in Tow Law has a name too. ‘We call it the Lazy Wind,’ Lawyers’ faithful fans joke, ‘Because It can’t be bothered to go round you, so it just goes straight through.’

To avoid the Lazy Wind, Tow Law’s fans sensibly gather in the shelter provided by a covered enclosure that presents its back to the dun-coloured moors. In this small enclave there is a micro-climate that feels almost sub-tropical in comparison to the more exposed parts of the ground. Even here things can be rough. ‘The weather was that bad,’ former Lawyers chairman John Flynn once said of a derby versus Crook, ‘you couldn’t see the snow for the fog.’

As a consequence of its location, cold is a recurring theme in the history of Tow Law Town FC. In 1925, for example, a team from Sir Bobby Robson’s home club of Langley Park had to abandon their bus in a snow drift and walk the remaining three miles to Ironworks Road. They arrived 50 minutes late, were beaten 6-0 by a Lawyers team who were on their way to a second consecutive Northern League title, and had to report before the management committee to explain their tardiness (the committee unimpressed by the namby-pamby excuse about the weather fined them £20). This happened at Easter. Little wonder that Tow Law was one of the first North East teams to install hot baths.

During the fierce winter of 1962-63 Tow Law was cut off for over a month, all roads blocked by snow drifts, food ferried in on coal trains that occasionally battled up the steep gradient from nearby Crook. By the time the thaw came the Lawyers faced such a backlog of fixtures they didn’t complete the season till the start of June.

The Lawyers reached the FA Vase final in 1998 after a 5-4 aggregate win over Taunton in the semi. Though they lost to Tiverton, they did enter the record books that day - with a population of just 2,200 Tow Law is the smallest town ever to appear in a Wembley final.
Prior to that outing, Tow Law’s greatest moment had come in 1967 when they played Mansfield Town in the first round of the FA Cup. The opening match at the Lawyers’ Ironworks Road ground was abandoned at half-time in a blizzard. In the re-match the Durham boys triumphed 5-1. “It was like playing at the North Pole” Mansfield’s manager, Tommy Cummings complained afterwards (that’s a man born in Sunderland, incidentally, not some bloke from Rio de Janeiro or Cape Town)
In the second round of the Cup, Tow Law drew 1-1 at home with Shrewsbury in front of 4,000 fans in a howling gale, then, with a home tie against Arsenal awaiting the winner, lost in the replay in the more clement conditions of Shropshire 6-2.  “Shrewsbury,” declared London-born sports hack Frank McGhee in the Daily Mirror, “Have saved Arsenal from a fate worse than death – a trip to Tow Law in January.”

That seems a little cruel to me, not least because Tow Law has some of the friendliest fans and best home-made pies in football. However, it’s altogether harder to argue with the non-League groundhopper who noted, ‘You will never watch a game nearer to the moon, or be so grateful for a covered stand.’

Saturday, 17 October 2015


Sam Allardyce reported for duty at the Stadium of Light this week, apparently with an autobiography to plug. Here's something I wrote when Martin O'Neill did the same thing four years and - was it? - three managers ago.

After lasts week's sojourn in leafy North Yorkshire where I watched Old Malton St Mary's thrash 'Naughty' Nunthorpe Athletic in the North Riding Cup, I think I'll restore my equilibrium by going to RCA v Washington

When it comes to giving hope to the desperate football fan there is an advantage in the Irish manager, who can always be imagined to have slept with a poster of some club stalwart gazing down at him from the wall. "Supported Sunderland as a boy," a bloke said to me on Sunday. "Hurley was his hero." And then he did that gesture that involves screwing up one eye, keeping the other wide open and turning your head slowly to the side as if scanning the horizon through an invisible telescope. I was pleased to see this gesture again as it was the one my grandfather used to make back in the 60s when we were sitting in the Bob End at Ayresome Park and he had just said: "There's 28,000 in here today, but they'll announce 22,000."

It is the gesture of somebody who is on the inside track, the possessor of secret knowledge. In truth,Martin O'Neill's support of Sunderland was hardly fresh news. It's a matter of public record that the Northern Irishman has a soft spot for them, one that began back in the days when they were "the Bank of England Club" and Len Shackleton (of blessed memory) was entertaining kids outside Roker Park by tossing a coin in the air, catching it on his instep and then flipping it up into the breast pocket of his jacket. The former Celtic manager has talked about it in interviews. I didn't say anything to the bloke though, because, to be honest, it was a relief to see a bit of the old I-know-something-you-don't swagger returning.

At one time you could barely cross the threshold of your house without somebody assailing you with a gaudy football rumour, usually one picked up on an intelligence network that apparently included everyone from the cousin of the Catholic bishop of Middlesbrough to the bloke who fitted Faustino Asprilla's satellite dish. Naturally, then, when Darren Bent was transferred from Sunderland to Aston Villa last season I expected something juicy to come my way. Possibly even an allegation so salacious that it might top the byzantine nonsense that inevitably followed a dozen or so years ago whenever anyone from the region said: "Well, you know the real reason the Toon sold Andy Cole, don't you?"

When nothing whatsoever emerged, I approached a longtime Sunderland supporter of six decades' service and asked him what lay behind the deal. His answer was in many ways more shocking than anything I could possibly have imagined. The man simply frowned and said: "Good business. And, at the end of the day, you can't keep a player if he wants away."


Behind this bald statement lay something even more worrying for Sunderland's then manager, Steve Bruce, than events involving performing snakes and a cabinet minister's daughter. Because when fans in the north-east don't react to the selling of a star by concocting a justification for it involving a trio of Brazilian lap dancers, an industrial quantity of baby oil and a trained parrot, then whoever is responsible for the sale is on wobbly ground.

And so it has proved, with Sunderland's poor finish to last season and shaky start to this one rapidly bringing unrest at the Stadium of Light. The explanation advanced in some quarters for the behaviour of those fans who shouted for Bruce's removal last weekend is that they are fickle, forgetting the progress the club made under his guidance 18 months ago when they threatened a top-six finish. This is to misread the situation. At any club that has struggled to fulfil its potential for as long as Sunderland the attitude to the management is always likely to mirror that at a Boilermakers rally. Fans were not reacting to 12 months of frustration, but to six decades of it. It is not that they have short memories, but long ones.

Back when Martin O'Neill was a boy, Sunderland were one of England's best-supported clubs. In the 1949-50 season, for example, the aggregate attendance at Roker Park topped the million mark. Sunderland and its supporters didn't experience relegation until 1958. Widely, though perhaps unjustly, held responsible for that debacle was the manager, Alan Brown from Corbridge. Brown was a strict disciplinarian who once said that the invention of football was 'one of the momentous things that happed in Creation'. He eventually got Sunderland promoted back to the top flight but promptly left for Sheffield Wednesday claiming they were more ambitious than the Wearsiders. .As a consequence Brown's name is so commonly prefixed by older Rokerites that a visitor might go away with the impression that the club was once coached by a bloke called Thatclown Alan‑Brown. Since Brown's reign it has been an uphill struggle for anyone taking charge. And as the years of underachievement have gone by the gradient has got ever steeper.

The captain of Sunderland during the club's last truly successful era was Raich Carter. Carter was a tough man, as anybody who grew up round Hendon docks with the name Horatio would be. Recalling the crowds at Roker Park during the 30s, however, he softened. "They sacrificed so much to come and see us," he told an interviewer late in his life. "We were their only hope" – and tears rolled down his cheeks. Nowadays people talk of the pressure created by the vast amounts of foreign cash that has flooded into the game and the media attention. Yet there are old‑fashioned burdens that are less tangible, but just as heavy, as Martin O'Neill may soon find out.


Saturday, 10 October 2015


Off to Malton today where I will be in the Old Town Hall from 5.30 talking about, amongst other things, Bobby Smith, the ironstone miner from Lingdale in East Cleveland  who won the double with Spurs and is probably the most Northern looking bloke in football history.

Our visit to Easington Collier last week was enlivened by a couple of fans from Hartlepool. One of them reacted to a forward bottling a one-on-one with the keeper by turning to me and saying, 'See that? He's quick, but he's taffy-hearted,' an expression of deepest scorn I hadn't heard since my Granddad died.

Here's something I wrote for the Boro programme a couple of years back.

In football these days we hear a lot of talk about passion. It’s not enough just to have it, you have to show you have it, whether you’re a player, fan or even a manager. When Sven Goran Eriksson was in charge of England he was often criticised for not racing from the dug-out and throwing a few water bottles while yelling at the 4th official about a throw-in decision.

As someone who grew up on Teesside in the era when men only waved their arms around when they were trying to punch one another, I find this belief in the benefits of hysteria baffling. When it comes to coaching it isn’t borne out by history, either. Don Revie spent practically the whole of every game sitting on the bench with his hands between his thighs looking for all the world like a man on a long bus journey who’s regretting having that pot of tea before he set out. Bob Paisley watched every
game with the benign smile of an elderly uncle attending a niece’s 5th birthday party.


Two other successful English managers who – when it came to emotions at least – kept their vests firmly tucked into their underpants were Alf Ramsey and Stan Cullis.. The better known of the two, Sir Alf demonstrated his reserve during the 1966 World Cup, famously remarking, when his trainer - Boro’s own Harold Shepherdson - jumped up from the bench in celebration of Geoff Hurst’s victory-sealing goal, “Sit down, Harold. I can't see.” What is less well known is that after the team’s celebratory dinner that night, Ramsey took a taxi back to Wembley and ran a solo lap of honour in the empty stadium. He didn’t want anyone to see how happy he was. He felt it would undermine his authority.

Stan Cullis helped transform Wolves into the best team in Europe (the North-East's contribution was winger Jimmy Mullen from Newcastle who managed to evade the local clubs despite being an England schoolboy international). Cullis was such a puritan he not only didn’t smoke or drink, he didn’t swear either, filling his half-time team talks with 'flippings' and 'floppings'. (He was also, in all probability, the only top flight English manager to speak Esperanto.)
Brought up dirt poor on Merseyside, Cullis didn’t jump about, or make feeble attempts to head butt opposition players, but his team knew where they stood. “Stan united the side,” Wolves defender Eddie Clamp recalled later, “We all hated him”.

Clamp had reason to feel bitter. A notorious hard man who terrorised opposition wingers, Clamp broke his leg in a European tie. He was stretchered off the field. As he passed Cullis, the manager leaned over and whispered, “Not so tough now, are you?”

Shouting doesn’t mean a manager is passionate. It just means he’s noisy.

Saturday, 3 October 2015


Next Saturday I'm appearing at the Ryedale Book Festival in Malton. You can find out more at:

Beforehand I'll be celebrating National Non-League Day with The Accidental Groundhopper at Old Malton St Mary's. Kick off is at 2pm please feel free to join us, though you're not getting any of my KitKat.

Easington Colliery v Ashington today in a game that Gary Oliver has dubbed 'El Classicoal'.

At the Lit&Phil a few weeks back Michael Walker and I discussed the shambolic state of North-East player recruitment over the years. Here's something I wrote on the subject for When Saturday Comes what seems like several decades ago, probably because it was...

Oh, before we get to that can I just say that if one more football commentator or pundit says, 'Right here... right now' in a growly voice I will spew.


Hackneyed ideas surround north-east football as midgies do a busy picnic site. If you find them too irritating it’s best not to go out. On August 6, 1996, two of the more bloated cliches collided with a resounding splat in the Leazes car park at St James’ Park, where 15,000 fans awaited a glimpse of their new signing, Alan Shearer.

The first was the mystic aura that surrounds the United No 9 shirt. As the former Magpies’ captain Glenn Roeder once memorably observed, “Centre forwards are the players that the Newcastle public hang their hats on.”

The second concerns the status of the north east as a breeding ground of footballing talent. This is a notion so enshrined in local lore that ace Tyneside sports scribe John Gibson once wrote a book on it, Soccer’s Golden Nursery. And Gibbo is not the sort of bloke to touch an idea unless its durability has been tested by decades of heavy use, believe me.

However, just because something is a cliche doesn’t mean it isn’t true. The north east’s status as (here we go) a “hotbed of soccer” is at least as merited as that of any other comparable area of the British Isles. (A hotbed, incidentally, is described by a gardening book I happen to have handy as “a glass-covered bed heated by a layer of fermented manure”. Hardly the sort of slogan the Northumbrian Tourist Board is likely to find useful.)

The hotbed’s heyday was between the wars. In 1933, for example, there were 341 players from County Durham alone registered with Football League clubs. Herbert Chapman’s all-conquering Huddersfield team of the 1920s rarely fielded less than eight. After that the sheer numbers tailed off somewhat, yet the presence of the north-east players continued to be felt. In 1967 there were only four clubs in the First Division that didn’t have a footballer from the region in their first team squad. Burnley had 12.

To many, Shearer’s signing seemed to mark a reversal in this tendency, not just for Tyneside but for the north east in general. The region had traditionally been seen as an exporter of players. Now New­castle were bringing one home. Shearer was not the first, of course. Kevin Keegan had already given Paul Kitson, for example, the chance to play for one of his local clubs, but at £15 million Shearer was easily the most expensive and therefore the most significant.

After Kitson there had been a minor drift back to the area, notably at Middlesbrough. A returnee himself, Bryan Robson’s re-recruitment of old favourites Gary Pallister and Colin Cooper looked to be part of the same Eighties revival that has seen Culture Club and Duran Duran playing to packed houses. Add to that returns for Bobby Robson and Paul Gascoigne and analysts might have pointed to a trend.

Well, maybe. Mindful of the ill-will created when earlier administrations off-loaded players like Peter Beardsley, Chris Waddle and Gascoigne, Sir John Hall stated early in his reign at St James’ Park that under him Newcastle would sell talented young north-eastern players “over my dead body”. Furthermore, he dreamed (“I am the vision man”) of an all-Geordie team, a black-and-white answer to Athletic Bilbao.

In Hall’s first few years at the club Newcastle had put their faith in just such an idea, albeit largely as a consequence of their financial troubles. Ossie Ardiles’s team contained many bright local hope­fuls – Lee Clark, Steve Watson, Lee Makel, Robbie Elliott, Alan Thompson, Matty Apple­by and Steve Howey among them. A decade later, only the injury-prone Howey remained at St James’ and Sir John was still very much alive. Until the return of Howey from injury, the Newcastle side at that point regularly contained just two north-easterners, Shearer and Steve Harper.

In truth, this situation was more usual than it might at first appear, because the north-east clubs have always brought in the majority of their players from elsewhere – in Newcastle’s case traditionally from Scotland. The problem has never really been the fact that the clubs have sold their top players, but that they have failed to spot so many of them when they were available free of charge. For every high profile transfer, there have been dozens of other stars who have simply slipped out of the region unnoticed.

The Turf Moor dozen were spirited across the Pennines by the famous scout Jack Hixon. Hixon, a once-passionate Newcastle fan who had become disillusioned with the club’s internal machinations in the 1950s, was Burnley’s chief scout in the region for 17 years. During that time he spotted 27 players who went on to play first-team football for the Lancashire club. One of the most famous of them, Ralph Coates, was officially signed in the house of Kevin Keegan’s grandfather.

Hixon left Burnley and ended up working for Lawrie McMenemy at Southampton, which is why Alan Shearer never played at Turf Moor. Burnley’s connection with the north east continued for a while, however, thanks to Peter Kirkley, the man responsible for taking Trevor Steven there in the early Eighties.

How players such as Bobby Charlton, Colin Bell or, more recently, Michael Carrick, should grow up unnoticed or unwanted by the north east’s clubs is probably best explained by Shearer’s experience. A prolific goalscorer at Wallsend Boys Club and Cramlington Juniors, he attended a trial at St James’ and allegedly spent most of it playing in goal. Two other players who were at the same trial, Celtic’s Tommy Johnson and Paul Kitson, were also rejected. Little wonder that descriptions of Newcastle’s youth system at the time tend to run from “non-existent” to “shambolic”.

You might think that with the establishment of the schools of excellence and the implementation of the FA’s much vaunted Blueprint, such a situation would now have been rectified. Not so. In 1967 the number of League footballers from the north east actually playing in the region represented just 34 per cent of the total number. Now, five years into the new, structured and ultra-professional system, that figure has risen by just 1.5 per cent.

The problem is that looking for footballers in an area where there are so many is like panning for gold – there is a high luck-to-skill ratio. Even experts get it wrong. When Hixon took Shearer to Southampton, many at The Dell felt the better prospect was the other boy he had with him, Neil Maddison (whose return to the north east merited less attention than that of his erstwhile team-mate). Michael Bridges attended New­castle’s School of Excellence, but injury prevented him making much of an impression. Luckily for the young striker, Hixon, now working for Sunderland, was waiting to whisk him away to Roker Park.

Nowadays footballers flood into the north east from all over the world. As Arthur Appleton observed of “the Bank of England club”, Sunderland, in his book Hotbed of Soccer: “What a paradox – the nation’s biggest buyers in the midst of the nation’s best-known nursery.” That was in 1959. It hasn’t yet become a cliche, but there’s still time.