Saturday, 5 December 2015

THE BOY ZONE STORY



 
 
In October Wallsend Boys Club played a  fixture against Senrab FC of London to raise awareness of recent Uefa regulations stipulating that a percentage of the transfer fee of any player who moves between countries must be paid to the clubs he played for as a youngster. Wallsend have collected as a result of Fraser Forster's move from Celtic to Southampton, while Senrab benefitted from Jermain Defoe's transfer from Toronto to Sunderland. Sadly, no such fees are paid when a player moves to another club within the same association.
One of the first pieces I wrote for the Guardian, was about this very situation. At the time Sid Sharp secretary of Wallsend Boys told me 'If the clubs got 1% of the transfer fees their ex-players generate, we'd be in clover.' 

If such a system were in place, Redheugh Boys Club would, for example, have pocketed close to £700,000 from Andy Carroll alone. But it isn't. Because while Premier League clubs are apparently happy to hand over millions to agents of doubtful probity and dubious intent, they steadfastly refuse to put more than the bare minimum back into the grassroots game.

My article made no difference to this situation whatsoever, obviously, but I did get to talk to some very fine people. One of them, Evan Bryson was later awarded an MBE for his services to the local community, Her Britannic Majesty apparently recognising the importance of his work, even though the Premier League didn't. Tripehounds.
 
 
10 November, 1996.
Sunday lunchtime on South Tyneside. A hard frost has been followed by the kind of fog that should exist only in pop songs. In Redheugh Boys’ Club, Evan Bryson is fielding calls from young footballers desperate to hear their particular match hasn’t been called off.

Team managers and coaches nip in and out, steam from their mugs of tea misting up the windows of what was once a Victorian schoolhouse. Along one side of the room a trestele table creaks beneath the weight of trophies, cups and shields accumulated during the club’s 40-year existence. On the opposite wall a sky blue Lazio shirt signed by Reheugh Boys’ most famous former player, Paul Gascoigne, glimmers in the pale winter light.

Gascoigne’s name is one everyone’s lips at Redheugh this morning – not in response to the midfielder’s anonymous display for England in Tblisi yesterday, nor for the fresh revelations about his private life in the morning tabloids, but because the minibus he donated to the club a few years ago and which is needed to ferry the U-13s up the hill to Whickham, is sagging to one side – the result of a worn shock absorber.

Gascoigne turned up at Redheugh Boys Club aged nine and stayed until he was fifteen. Without the club it’s debatable whether Gazza would have made it in football, or, indeed, in life generally. Yet when Newcastle United took the boy wonder across the Tyne to St James’ Park, Redheugh Boys Club did not receive a penny.
 

After four decades of devoting his spare time to running the club, Bryson long ago ceased to be surprised by the attitude of professional clubs, ‘They can find a little diamond here, or at one of the other boys’ clubs and take him away,’ he says, ‘and all they have to give you is seven days’ notice. And often you’re lucky if you even get that.’

The view is endorsed by Sid Sharp of Wallsend Boys Club, ‘The professional clubs are greedy and insular,’ he says, ‘They don’t give a damn about grassroots football. I once complained to a First Division manager* about his scouts taking my players away without proper notification, I told him that if I can’t fulfil fixtures because of lack of players we are in trouble. He just said, ‘If your club folds another one will take its place.’’

Over the years Tyneside’s boys clubs have been a fertile breeding ground for talent, Wallsend alone have turned up more than £70 million worth of players.

Since Redheugh Boys Club began life in a flat above a shop back in the 1950s, it has sent a steady stream of players out into the professional game. ‘Tommy Robson who played for Chelsea and Peterborough was the first,’ Bryson recalls, ‘The most recent was Don Hutchison. We sent a lot of players to Middlesbrough at one time’ among them were Joe Laidlaw, David Hodgson and Billy Woof.

In his time at Redheugh Bryson has watched the players go, seen them transfered on for millions and wondered why so little of that money has trickled back to the places that nurtured the talent in the first place. The largest single payment Redheugh have ever received came – ironically - from impecunious Hartlepool United when Hutchison was sold to Liverpool. Even factoring in that sum, Bryson estimates that the total League clubs have contributed to Redheugh over four decades works out at around £1.25 per week. ‘Football is the only industry that gets its raw materials – the players - for nothing,’ he says.

The club survives on a small grant from the local council, subscriptions from 150 or so members, donations and the sale of raffle tickets.

Many of the men who help run the club once played here as youngsters. They return, Bryson says, because the club represents one of the last focal points of the community: ‘You had big engineering works, for example. You worked with 600 other blokes. You knew maybe 500 men by name and their families, too. That’s all gone now; but the boys club is still here.’
 
 

The boys clubs’ position has not been helped by the Football Association. The ‘Blueprint for Football’, a document that laid out a plan to rationalize the system of youth coaching in England, pushed them to the bottom of the pack, labelling them as ‘priority C'. ‘Despite our track record in producing players we are ranked below schools and the centres of excellence,’ Sid Sharp says, ‘They have all the say at county and national level. We simply have to abide by their decisions.’

Bryson believes the FA made a mistake in placing so much emphasis on football in schools. Changes in curriculum and the selling off of playing fields mean that many inner-city schools no longer offer youngsters the chance to play the game. Meanwhile, those that do, particularly in the North, are hampered by the long winter nights and often have no fixtures from November through February, ‘If it was left to the schools alone a lot of lads round here would have no football at all for four months of the season,’ Bryson says.

The behaviour of the centres of excellence is also a cause for concern. ‘The thing with them is,’ Bryson says, ‘that they take up a mass of boys at the start of the season and then if they decide they don’t want them they dump them back on us. But by then we’ve filled up their places with new lads, so it’s hard to find a place for them.’

Sharp likens the professional clubs to open-cast mining operators, scooping up large chucks of the football landscape, sifting out the bits that are valuable and slinging the rest aside. ‘The boys clubs are left to pick up the pieces,’ he says.

But this particular Sunday morning in Redheugh, Bryson has a more pressing problem: the minibus. He phones a helpful local businessman to borrow a substitute vehicle to take the U-13s to Whickham. Soon the bus bearing Gascoigne’s name has been temporarily replaced with one carrying the logo – appropriately some might think – of ‘Superpie’.

The fog clears, but it’s a bitter afternoon, doubly so for the U-13s who lose 3-1. They will be back next Sunday. Redheugh has absorbed worse setbacks and kept on going.


*The manager was John Lyall, then with Ipswich Town.
 
 

 The following ran as a sidebar to the piece.

Tyneside Boys Clubs

Montagu and North Fenham

Former players: Kevin Richardson, Gordon Armstrong, Arthur Horsfield

Dick Almond (secretary): ‘In my 42 years at Monty all we have received from the professional clubs is one cheque for £10 and a signed football.’

Cramlington Juniors

Former players: Alan Shearer (who also played for Wallsend), Andy Sinton, Graham Fenton

Glenn Craggs (secretary): ‘The players who go away and make it are usually pretty generous, but the clubs themselves put little back.’

Wallsend

Former players: Peter Beardsley, Steve Bruce, Steve Watson. Lee Clark, Robbie Elliot.

Sid Sharp (secretary): ‘If the boys’ clubs got even one per cent of the transfer fees their ex-players’ sales generate we would be in clover.’

Cleveland Hall

Former players: Steve Stone, Gary Owers, Graeme Jones

Jim Sinclair (secretary): ‘Usually when a club takes a player they give you a football. I knew Steve Stone must be good, because when he went to Forest they give us two.’
 
 
 
 

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