Saturday, 28 November 2015


Sorry for the temporary absence last week. I was in Denmark where the only thing there was to report footballistically speaking (as Arsene Wenger would say) was piece of graffiti in Herning that read 'FC Myt-Jylland Ultras FUCK Silkeborg' which was succinct and made me proud to hail from the land of Shakespeare.

To Dunston today, meanwhile here's a thing about kids at football. The children in the seats above the paddock at Carlisle count down the last ten seconds on the clock at every game with rising excitement until finally blurting out 'ZERO!' at the tops of their tiny lungs. One day someone will tell them about stoppage time.

At Brunton Park a few Saturdays back they had given out a block of tickets to a large group of schoolchildren who were sitting right behind me. The kids kept up an enthusiastic chanting throughout the game, the pitch and volume of which posed a clear danger to crystal goblets for miles around. In fact, if there's a wine glass left intact in the Eden Valley, I'll be very surprised.

It all took my mind back to an occasion at the Manor Ground, Oxford, a couple of decades ago. Things had already started badly for the travelling Boro fans, when it emerged that the spotty Herbert in the away end tea hutch had failed fully to master the microwave and was serving meat pies that were frozen on the outside and boiling hot in the middle. They were like a savoury baked Alaska, in reverse. Though not much like it, admittedly.

When the game kicked off things slid downhill like Barry Fry on a luge. As the home side took the lead, noise levels from the Oxford junior enclosure rose ever higher. "We love you Oxford, we do!" the children shrilled. It was like listening to a thousand people scraping their thumbnails down a blackboard.

"You're back to school on Monday," the Middlesbrough support chanted in a futile bid to quell the infernal squeaking. "United! United!" the juniors chirruped. "Fuck off, munchkins. Fuck off, munchkins" the visitors hit back. It did no good. Luckily people soon discovered that the frozen pie pastry made handy earplugs and the rest of the game passed in a muffled silence.

"We want to bring back the families" is a cry you frequently hear from those who run the national game, though it seems to me that for decades now the authorities have done everything they could to drive children away. Clubs these days charge more money for mascots than Rolls-Royce.

It was not always like this. At one time children were enlisted to provide half-time entertainment. The penalty prize was a staple of most match days, still is in some places. It's a simple and elegant competition, one that affords the crowd an opportunity rarely granted to adults in our sensitive age – a chance to loudly and roundly taunt a group of little kids. Traditionally there's a class element to the abuse – the children from schools in working class districts are cheered and applauded, those from establishments in the affluent suburbs tormented as the offspring of wife-swappers and woodwork teachers.

At the Manor Ground they used to keep fans amused during the interval with a relay race around the outside of the pitch featuring two teams of boys from a local primary school, one dressed in the yellow of the home side, the other in the colours of the visitors. As they wheezed and panted round the touchline the PA announcer would try to whip the crowd into a frenzy of excitement with his breathless commentary, though in truth he was barely audible above the noise of the away section chanting: "We've got all the fat lads, we've got all the fat lads."

Luckily at non-league grounds the child still occupies a central position in the scheme of things. He or she is entrusted with many important duties, including scaling the goal-netting as if it were the rigging of Captain Jack Sparrow's pirate ship, standing in the back of the tea bar, intoning "Can I have some chips, mam? Can I, mam? Mam? Maaaaam?" As well as the venerable task of carrying around the blackboard with the winning raffle ticket number chalked on it. This is a character-forming exercise since it inevitably involves the child being subjected to disgruntled punters bellowing, "If there's only 76 people in the crowd, how come I'm 679, you little bugger?".

Non-league football in fact is the last stamping ground of the sporting urchin, once a traditional feature of all British stadiums. Here they are still free to pursue their ancient lifeways: riding around the terraces on bicycles, running up and down the steps of a semi-deserted grandstand breaking into a chorus of "We Are The Champions" for no apparent reason, or standing behind the goal and calling out "We saw your bum cheeks, mister" at the opposition goalie every time he dives for the ball.

The latter is not quite the cakewalk it might appear. Once at Shildon, the goalkeeper became so incensed he booted the ball down the field and chased the urchins. They jumped over a fence and into a neighbouring garden. The game continued until, a few minutes later, a large man came storming through the main entrance, pushing up his shirtsleeves, with a look of grim violence on his face. Behind were the two boys, each of them eagerly pointing at the goalie and yelling, "That's him, Dad. That's the one who said he would kill us." Players from both sides had to intervene to prevent a fracas.

It's easy to get sentimental about the days when the crowd used to pass the nippers over their heads to the front of the stand, but when you consider incidents like that one, and the damage to your eardrums caused by the shrieking, maybe it is better that they've priced the little rascals out of it.


Friday, 13 November 2015


Today I'm giving a talk at the British Society of Sports History symposium at Teesside University.
Here's a bit of what I'll be gabbling on about.

No matter how many lives it touched, football was always denied a place in general history.  Even in the North-East where the game was so firmly imbedded in the culture you couldn’t have removed it safely without a general anaesthetic, the guide books and the tourist maps generally turned a blind eye, as if to some marginal and slightly unsavoury ceremony partaken of only by the devout or the intellectually unhinged.

In a volume of the villages of Durham in a short section on Cockfield you’ll find a description of the geese once raised on a nearby fell and a brief biography of Jeremiah Dixon, the locally born surveyor who co-drew the Mason-Dixon Line. But you’ll find no mention of the team of unemployed miners from the ‘two street pit village’ who reached the FA Amateur Cup semi-final in 1923 and, five years later went one better, losing heroically 3-2 in the final against holders Leyton in front of 12,200 people at Ayresome Park, nor of the twenty-two League footballers that Cockfield produced during a three year spell in that same period.

To football fans in the 1920s Cockfield was known as ‘The Wonder Village’. The team and players had brought the village nationwide renown. Had they been artists, politicians or music hall acts, this might have warranted some symbol of remembrance, a celebration even. But they were merely footballers, their triumph over the adversity of long-term unemployment and cruel working conditions unworthy of even the briefest mention.

Instead The Fellmen’s skill, creativity and briefly flaring genius were destined to be recorded only in the memories of those that watched them play, and in time, as memories faded and died, everything of the hard brilliance of these men, save the skeletal facts of scores and line-ups, would be erased.

Road signs in County Durham direct you to Roman Forts, Saxon Churches and public artworks of dubious distinction. None point the way to Cockfield FC’s ground at Hazel Grove.

Nor will they now. This week it was announced in the Teesdale Mercury that Cockfield FC had folded, owing £200 in pitch rental to the Parish Council.


Saturday, 7 November 2015


Benfield v Guisborough today. My 15th Northern League game of the season. So far I've seen 60 goals at a cost of £81 admission which works out at £1.35 apiece.

Here's something about the days when you got similar value in the second division (or whatever they are calling it these days)

I have a soft spot for Millwall. That’s not a sentence you read every day, is it? The reason I like Millwall is because in my younger days I lived in a flat in the Old Kent Road. The Old Kent Road is Millwall territory. I lived all over London and everywhere else you saw kids wearing shirts from a whole variety of clubs including – inevitably – Manchester United and Liverpool. In the Old Kent Road, Bermondsey and Southwark, the only shirts anyone wore were the blue of Millwall. This was partly because Millwall ran an excellent and active football in the community scheme, but mainly it was because Millwall were, well, Millwall and most people considered it wisest not to give offence.

That was back in the days of the original Den. I used to see four or five games a season there when my old Boro idol Bruce Rioch was manager. The Den was supposed to be intimidating, but I always found it quite jolly. Even as an away fan. Back during the 1990/91 season we played a midweek game there, went 0-2 down and then came back to 2-2 thanks to a mesmerising substitute display from Paul “Nookie” Kerr. Afterwards, when we were waiting for the police to allow us to leave the catering staff came out and gave us all the left-over food from the executive boxes. Free shrimp vol- au-vents hardly chimed with the Lions’ ferocious reputation, but it seemed typical to me.
I went to that game with my girlfriend. She was a chef in a London restaurant and came straight from work. We went into the away end. ‘I was a bit worried they might want to look in my bag,’ she said. I asked why. She opened the bag a bit so I could look inside: it contained a paring knife, a filleting knife, a 10-inch blade cook’s knife and a stainless steel Japanese cleaver.
‘What did you bring those in for?’ I gasped. She replied that Bermondsey was a dodgy area and she was worried they’d get stolen if she left them in the car.
After the game we  went to meet some Millwall fans she knew in a pub in Bermondsey Road. One of them was a fruit and veg man who delivered to the restaurant she worked at. Years later I’d switch on the TV and see him making weird cooing noises over a summer pudding – Greg Wallace.

Not that it was all Masterchef, midget pork pies and sandwiches with the crusts cut off. One day, shortly after I’d moved to SE1, I was walking down Leathermarket Street. There was a boy sitting on a wall. He was about eight and he was wearing a sweatshirt bearing the Millwall Lions badge. When I came level with him, he shouted, “Oi, mister. What team you support?”  “Middlesbrough,” I replied bold as brass, because he was only about four foot eight - I was sure that I could outrun him.


I walked off and when I’d gone a few yards I heard the little kid singing, “Sign on, sign on. Cos you’ll never get a job, you’ll never get a job”. Amazed, I turned round. When he saw me looking at him the boy dipped his hand in his pocket, fished out a coin and brandished it at me, “Here’s 10p” he yelled, “Buy yerself an house”.


That was Millwall, for you. You had to laugh. It was either that, or buy a shotgun.