Sunday, 8 May 2016


Later than advertised....

My football season ended at Hillheads, a sea fret blowing in, the air so cold you could see your breath. May on the North Sea coast. The PA played Fly Like An Eagle by the Steve Miller Band and Durham City, needing a draw to stay up, played with all the urgency of a teenage boy walking to a double physics lesson. The pitch was bumpy, the crowd distracted by radio reports from Villa Park and the Stadium of Light. Bay won 4-0, the final goal bringing my total in matches featuring Northern league teams to 120 for the season. Four goals per game at a cost of £174 and not a single 0-0.  High sixes all-round, as they say in Alston.

The blog now goes into summer recess. Thanks again for all kind comments, retweets, FB postings, web links and the like. They are very much appreciated.

Words of thanks to all the people I've watched football with this season and whose company, generosity of spirit and detailed knowledge of the playing careers of obscure 1980s footballers has played such a big part in my enjoyment of it: Ian, Gary, Phil, Steve, David, Michael, Andy, Naggs, Jimmy, Kev, John, Duncan, the Two Petes, Martin and the Professor.

In honour of Boro's promotion here's a slightly wistful piece about Juninho's second departure from Teesside.

In mid-afternoon the players' tunnel at The Riverside Stadium, Middlesbrough is shaded by the West Stand. Last Saturday Boro's Brazilian midfielder, Juninho did what he always does before running onto the field. The 27 year old dipped one knee, touched the turf by the touchline with his right hand and then crossed himself before passing from the shadow into the sunlight. It may be the last time home fans see that characteristic gesture. Juninho's loan spell from Atletico Madrid, the club he left Teesside for in a £12 million deal in 1997, comes to an end at Goodison Park at the weekend. No one, including the 1994 Brazilian Footballer of the Year, knows if the club plan to make the move permanent, or not.  

In his last full season at Middlesbrough Juninho scored 15 times in 47 appearances and  Optma rated him the most effective player in the Premiership, way ahead of  his nearest rivals Gianfranco Zola and Eric Cantona. He was named Premiership Player of the Year and finished second to his friend Zola in the Football Writers' version of the award. The response to what could have been his last game in this country was  muted to say the least, a lap of honour in a half empty stadium, hardly a headline in the national press.

Juninho plainly wants to stay in England. A cynic might say he has little to go back to. Atletico are heading for their first relegation in 60 years, government appointees now administer the financial running of the club,  there is a nasty fascist element in the crowd . Despite the fact that Jesus Gil is facing charges of fraud the former-Mayor of Marbella has recently returned to the club as president.  A man who enjoys turbulence so much he might have done better in  white water canoeing than football, Gil announced his comeback in characteristic fashion, "My name is Jesus, not Jesus Christ, but I will try to perform a miracle". Past performance suggests this is less likely to involve loaves and fishes than the sacking of the odd manager or twelve. No wonder the little man from Sao Paulo says he feels "comfortable" on Teesside.

The supporters are more ambivalent than might be expected about the future of the player they voted  the greatest in the club's history three years ago. The chant of "Sign On Juninho" (a phrase that seems less open to misinterpretation when shouted than it does in print) may have echoed round the
Riverside Stadium  on Saturday, but a  poll published  in club fanzine Fly Me To The Moon found 40% of respondents thought  Boro shouldn't pay the £5.9 million asking price. 

Many feel the Brazilian has not recovered from the destruction wrought on his ankle by Celta Vigo defender Michel Salgado in 1998.  Atletico appear to agree. When Juninho signed a five year contract at the Estadio Vicente Calderon the Spaniards said that anyone who wanted to lure him away would have to pay £36 million. Now he is on offer for less than a sixth of that sum.

 The Teesside club too seem to share the doubts. Since his return in September Juninho has been used sparingly. Explaining why he had kept the Brazilian on the bench for much of  March and April,   Robson was adamant that player simply wasn't creating enough to justify being given a free role.

 Fans, forever programmed for conspiracy (And why not? Down the years Middlesbrough have displayed an  aptitude for upsetting their greatest stars - Wilf Mannion and Brian Clough are two others the club has fallen out at one time or other- that rivals that of Alfred Hitchcock), have suspected more convoluted motives. Some feel that the ridicule that poured down on the manager's head after he substituted Juninho against Wimbledon  hardened his heart against the Brazilian. Others that in a tactic favoured in carpet bazaars across the Middle East the club are deliberately attempting to force down Atletico's asking price by feigning a lack of interest in the product.

Times have changed, of course, and not just for the Brazilian. Juninho's arrival to the accompaniment of a samba band from Stockton-on Tees and the whirring of cameras from around the world in 1995 was more than just a triumph for Bryan Robson and Middlesbrough, it was a coup for the Premiership. These days we are blase about top foreign players signing for English clubs. Back then it was regarded as an inexplicable phenomenon on a par with the Mary Celeste or Kenny Cunningham's hairstyle. 

Saturday, 30 April 2016


If you're around Teesside next Friday evening I'll be at Middlesbrough Central Library with Daniel Gray, Robert Nichols and - hopefully - Richard Piers Rayner, waffling about the 1966 World Cup. Kick off is 7pm. More details about tickets and that at:

Fingers crossed for the long postponed trip to Northallerton Town.

Meantime here's a piece about Hughie Gallacher that appeared in The Northern Correspondent a while back.

‘Often times, Saturday afternoons, he’s been in The Strawberry till half-past-two, that drunk the fans have had to carry him to the players’ entrance. But fifteen minutes later he’s run out on that field right as rain and played a blinder. Hey, lad,’ my next door neighbour says, clapping his hands with glee, ‘Wee Hughie - there’s never been a one like him since. There’s never been a one like him ever.’

My next door neighbour is talking about the Newcastle United centre-forward Hughie Gallacher. My next door neighbour is 74-years-old. Gallacher left Saint James’ Park for Chelsea in 1930 and retired in 1939. My next door neighbour is too young ever to have seen him play, but that hardly matters. As Joseph Heller said ‘Some events are so memorable even those who were not there can recall them vividly.’

A pitman from Bellshill in the North Lanarkshire coalfields, Gallacher stood five feet five, had size six feet and could cover 50 yards as quick as a Powderhall sprinter. Short, skilful, explosive, Wee Hughie was an ungovernable force of nature. As a teenage prodigy he’d banged in nine goals at Queen of the South, another 91 at Airdrieonians. Turned twenty he’d lashed in five for the Scottish League against the Irish League and a fortnight later got a couple more as the full Scotland side beat England at Hampden Park in front of 110,000 roaring fans.

Maddened by his impudence, defenders kicked chunks out of Gallacher. By the time he hit is formidable peak his shins were a mass of scar tissue and bruised lumps, the relief map of a world of pain. Half-times he sat in the dressing room chain-smoking Woodbines, blood oozing up through the eyeholes of his boots. He kicked back too. He stuck his elbows in. He stamped on feet. He raked shins and calves, gouged eyes. ‘He was the greatest centre forward I ever saw,’ the England goalkeeper Frank Swift said, ‘but he had more tricks than a bucketful of monkeys’.

Gallacher appropriated his style from the gangster movies of the Roaring Twenties. He dressed like Jimmy Cagney in The Public Enemy. Sometimes he behaved like him too. He had an apparently unquenchable thirst for conflict. As a teenager he incensed his Ulster Orangeman father by supporting Celtic and marrying a Catholic, Anne McIlvaney. He sent team mates into fits of rage by berating them for their failures. He drank heavily, fought often. In Belfast he was shot at by a sniper. Asked who might have wanted to kill their star striker the Scottish FA committeemen shrugged – who wouldn’t?

Hughie Gallacher was a gallon of trouble in a half-pint pot, but his talent could not be ignored. Shortly before Christmas, 1925, Newcastle United signed him from Airdrie - where fans threatened to burn down the ground in protest - for a fee of £6,500, just £50 below the world record. Four days later he made his debut, scoring twice. He hit fifteen goals in his first nine games and finished the season top scorer.

Newcastle made him captain for the 1926/27 season. St James’ Park was packed for every game. The team was strong and workmanlike, Gallacher made it brilliant. He was to the Magpies what another febrile little man Diego Maradona was to Argentina in 1986. He inspired his club mates, fired up the crowd, terrorised and riled the opposition. He played in 41 games, scored 39 times. United won the League.

Adored by the fans and flush with backhanders from his signing on fees Gallacher swaggered and staggered around Tyneside dressed in broad-brimmed fedora hats, double-breasted suits and spats. Photos show a flat-featured man with crinkly hair, his chin tucked in like a boxer’s. He has narrowed eyes, a wide, vulpine grin - a smile as much of challenge as of merriment. Against Spurs we see him heading the ball goalwards, one foot planted firmly on the ground; his limbs swing one way, his body the other, giving the impression of a silent film star making a swift getaway.

He’d deserted his Scottish wife long since and took up with Hannah Anderson, teenage daughter of a Newcastle publican. It was love, but her family disapproved. Gallacher was arrested after fight with her brother in the shadow of the High Level Bridge.

And so it went on: brilliance and bother. At the start of the next season Wee Hughie was suspended for two months after shoving referee Bert Fogg into a bath after a game at Huddersfield. Without him United’s season stalled. They did not retain the title. They have not won it since.

In 1929 he was called before the FA to answer charges that he had been ‘drunk and disorderly’ during a pre-season fixture in Hungary. Gallacher’s drinking before matches might have become the stuff of Tyneside folklore, but it dulled his edge and upset his paymasters. In 1930 Newcastle manager Andy Cunningham decided the Scots’ performances no longer justified the problems he caused. Tyneside’s idol was sold to Chelsea for £10,000.

In London the Scot carried on much as before, scoring twice in his first match, getting arrested for fighting with Fulham fans, enraging the board of directors by threatening strike action over wages and being pulled drunk from the gutter the night before a match with Derby County. By now Gallacher's life had started to unravel. Desperate to marry Hannah he begged his wife for a divorce. True to her faith, Annie refused. Gallacher pursued the matter through the courts. Legal fees and high living ate up his money (in those days of football’s maximum wage he earned around £500 a year), By the time the decree absolute came through he had been declared bankrupt. When Derby County bought him from Chelsea for £2,750 his signing-on fee was paid straight to the court.  

After that it was a slow descent through the divisions, the transfer fees and bonuses a little less fat each time. Gallacher joined Notts County in 1936, Grimsby Town in 1937 and a year later returned to Tyneside to play for Gateshead, then struggling at the bottom of Football league Division Three (North). He was happy to be back and people were glad to have him. 20,000 packed into Redheugh Park to watch his debut. He was 34-years of age by then, but he could still play. One of those who lined up against him recalled Wee Hughie, ‘leaping five feet in the air and twisting like a corkscrew to get a header in on goal’. He scored 18 times for Gateshead in 31 appearances, and then the War came and his career in football was over.

Gallacher found work as a labourer. For a time he wrote articles in the local press, but his outspoken views incensed the Newcastle board and he was banned from the St James’ Park press-box. In 1951 Hannah died of a heart attack, leaving Wee Hughie with three sons to bring up alone.

In 1957 he was living with the boys in Sheriff Hill, Gateshead, working as a cobbler. One May evening he returned home from the pub. His youngest son Matthew, aged fourteen, had inherited his father’s feisty attitude. He greeted his dad with a cheeky remark. Gallacher snapped, picked up an ashtray and threw it at him. It struck the boy on the side of the head drawing blood. Matthew ran out into the street. His father tried to follow, bumped into his eldest son and fought with him on the pavement. Neighbours called the police. Gallacher was arrested and charged with assault.

Matthew went to live with an aunt in a nearby street. Hughie returned home. His friends assured him that everything would work out, former team mates offered to vouch for his character in court. Nothing anyone said made any difference. The fire had gone out in Hughie Gallacher. Filled with dread, he wandered the streets, glassy-eyed, dishevelled, muttering and remonstrating with himself.

He was due to appear before Gateshead Magistrates on June 12th. On the morning of June 11th he wrote a letter to the court apologising for all the problems he’d caused. Then he walked up to the railway line at Belle Vue Bank. For a while he stood on a footbridge from which, looking north, he could see the floodlights of Saint James’ Park where 68,000 had turned out to cheer him when he returned with Chelsea. Then, with tears running down his face, Gallacher descended the wooden steps, vaulted a low fence, scrambled up the embankment and waited for the 12.08 northbound express.

Saturday, 23 April 2016


The washing out of a long planned trip to Northallerton has left me with nothing much to report footballistically (as Arsene Wenger might say) except...

At Brunton Park two weeks back a bloke along the barrier in The Paddock bellowed 'Get it in the middle for Christ's sake!' every time Carlisle crossed the half-way line, and, when the Cumbrians responded by hoofing the ball into the penalty area, groaned 'Fucking route one again, Jesus.'

He reminded me of the gnarly old bird at Ironworks Road who yelled 'Stop interfering and let them get on with the game, man' every time the ref signalled a foul and 'Did you leave your bloody whistle in the dressing room, referee?' whenever he didn't.

It's not just match officials who need to 'show a bit of consistency...'

Lunch with David Roberts, author of The Bromley Boys followed by Benfield v Guisborough for me today. And it looks like it won't rain...

A story told me by another Dave Roberts - the Teesside version - coincidentally features in this piece about former Boro boss and local radio commentary legend, Malcolm Allison. I met Big Mal once in a pub near Durham. We'd been filming interviews for a documentary about the England national team. I was surprised how short he was. In football bigness isn't about physical stature - there are large players and managers who aren't Big and medium sized ones that are. And Big Mal was definitely Big, however small he was.

In October 1982 when the Dartford-born Malcolm Allison took charge at Ayresome Park he was pretty much the apotheosis of cockney swank. Fedora hats, big cigars, champagne and snaps of him wallowing in the communal baths at Selhurst Park with the Crystal Palace team and soft-porn star Fiona Richmond had established the personality known as Big Mal as an internationally renowned flash wideboy. Even Terry 'El Tel' Venables, a Palace player at the time of the Richmond incident (he sensibly ducked out of that particular photo opportunity), looked modest and dull when set beside him.

Eighteen years ago the arrival of Allison, who had recently won the Portuguese double with Sporting Lisbon, caused a mssive stir on Teesside. The club was in huge trouble. Bottom of the Second Division with crowds rarely breaking five figures they had moved from flirting with financial ruin to groping with it in the coat pile. In such desperate times Allison was hailed as the Messiah and toured round town on an open-topped bus. He averted relegation.

That summer the public responded to Big Mal's appeals and turned up by the hundred to help re-decorate Ayresome Park. They were joined by a number of players. How times have changed.

Allison's response to all this excitement was suitably mysterious. He employed Lenny Heppel - owner of  Fandango's, a Hexham nightclub and father-in-law of Bryan 'Pop' Robson - as a body movement coach and ordered thousands of badges bearing the motto "I was there at the beginning" to be distributed with season tickets at the start of his first term. Later he suggested that the Ayresome Park pitch be dyed orange and that the club should close down. He was sacked after 18 months. 
The story of Allison's life is a cautionary tale about the media and the dangers of self parody. Despite the trauma of having his playing career cut short by TB, Allison’s early years were full of promise. He was one of a generation of young British players awakened to a brave new world by Ferenc Puskas’s Hungary – a team that were to football what Elvis would be to popular music. The youthful Allison, whether he was talking tactics in Cassetari’s Cafe with Frank O’Farrell, John Bond and Noel Cantwell, coaching Cambridge University, or introducing the sweeper system to Bath City, was then the very epitome of an earnest young radical, brimming over with ideas. He wanted players to eat properly, to attain high fitness levels, to switch formations at the click of his fingers. He was fascinated by continental methods, willing to embrace techniques from the coaches of other sports. He brought all his thoughts together in a cerebral, serious book, Soccer for Thinkers, which was hailed as visionary. Bill Shankly came to seek his opinion. It seemed that everything and anything was possible.

Then, after the title success at Maine Road, came the 1970 World Cup and a seat behind a desk in ITV’s studios next to Derek Dougan, Paddy Crerand and Bob McNab. In a matter of weeks the cerebral Allison became a loudmouthed champagne-swigging, cigar-chewing TV personality, Big Mal was born. 

In many ways Allison’s career mimicked that of Brian Clough. Clough’s playing days ended suddenly, too. He became famous as a coach and then as an outspoken TV personality, and, like Allison, had a problematic relationship with alcohol. The difference was that after Leeds United Clough consciously stepped out of the limelight and went back to focus on football. Big Mal never did. A fly-on-the-wall documentary team even captured his departure from Maine Road after his disastrous second spell at City.
“Having won four major trophies in three years, Allison did not win a single thing in English football after the birth of Big Mal,” David Tossell his biographer wrote. “It seems to be more than coincidence.”
Despite his sacking by Boro,  Allison stayed on Teesside, managing Northern League Willington for several months (he succeeded Alan 'If the fans want entertainment they can go to the circus' Durban). For a while he worked in the commentary box for local radio as an expert summariser. Unfortunately his language was sometimes too salty for comfort. After an incident during a derby match with Newcastle in which Big Mal made use of what the late Brian Close memorable called 'the conjugative verb' it was decreed that he could continue in his job only if he was given a special microphone button. The button had to be pressed to make the microphone live, an arrangement it was thought that would prevent any more on air outbursts.
The button proved troublesome however. By them Big Mal was getting on in years and his co-ordination was poor. Quite often by the time he'd pressed the button he was already half-way through a sentence.
Big Mal hit on a simple solution to the problem. Once the game started he put the button on his seat and sat on it. Listeners no longer missed the start of his comments. Unfortunately they didn't miss the swearing either.

Saturday, 2 April 2016


Last week I went to North Shields with the Two Petes. One of the Petes supports Newcastle, the other Middlesbrough. We stood next to the Ashington dug out.

Midway through the first half one of the Ashington coaching staff, annoyed by the amount of time the Robins midfielders were being allowed on the ball, bellowed, 'He's had four touches and you're twenty fucking yards away'.

'Sounds like a metaphor for life,' Boro Pete said gravely.

Which reminded me of this bit from the WSC book Always Next Year published fifteen years ago.

Saturday afternoon. Four burly men with voices that rumbled like cement mixers and made eavesdropping compulsory even for those several streets away stepped out of the concrete bunker that houses Potters Sporting Club in the Dundas Arcade. The weather seemed to be working overtime to confirm Mrs Emerson's notorious description of Teesside as ' a dark and terrible place'. Sharp rain fell from a sky the colour of tarmac and the wind cried 'Murder'. The quartet set off on the long, grim march to the Riverside Stadium.

I was a few yards behind them. The collective mood matched the elements. The previous week Peter Taylor's Leicester City had slaughtered Boro at the Riverside. The home team's performance was so hopelessly shambolic that even a language as rich and diverse as English could not fully do justice to it, though the bloke behind me tried, yelling so hard and ceaselessly at the back of my head that when I got home and looked in the mirror I resembled a member of  Motley Crue.

At one point in the second period the visitors had strung together close to a dozen passes in Middlesbrough's half. Muzzy Izzet and Robbie Savage have many qualities but I think it is fair to say that it takes opponents of rare incompetence to make them look like Cruyff and Beckenbauer.

'Fuckyerbastardshitfuckinchristonanfuckinstickborojesus,'  the bloke behind me howled.

Even that was more coherent than Bryan Robson's tactics

The memory of the crushing defeat lingered like a marital argument. Today's visitors were Bradford City, a team who hadn't won away from home since the last days of Byzantium. That fact only made home fans more apprehensive. If you were looking to end a losing streak Boro were the team to play. Always. Or so it seemed.

As we crossed the road by the Ayresome pub with its stained glass windows of those secular saints Graeme Souness and Bernie Slaven, one of the men said, 'If we get beat off Bradford today and Robson doesn't resign I'm going straight to the Transporter and chucking myself off.'

'You'll have to get in a queue,' his mate said.

'Aye,' another added, 'They'll have a ticketing machine like the DSS.'

'Number 976, a position is now available to deal with your suicide claim.'

And on we walked into the darkness of the afternoon.

Saturday, 26 March 2016


Yesterday I saw my 100th Northern League goal in my 24th match. Total cost of admission £139. As the cartoon on the front page of the first edition of When Saturday Comes said: Stuff Yer Superleague.

Today I'm going to a game with the Two Petes, the first time we have had such an outing since we went on the Northern League groundhop together in 1995.

We're going to see The Robins v The Colliers. So in a vaguely themed post here's a review from WSC of Dave Thomas's excellent biography of one of Ashington's football stars.

Jimmy Adamson was born in Laburnum Terrace, Ashington, a few doors along from Bobby and Jack Charlton. All three would be Footballers of the Year. They shared character traits too; Adamson had Big Jack’s abrasiveness and Bobby’s tendency to aloofness. Unfortunately he didn’t have the charm of the former, or the diplomatic skills of the latter. The result, as lifelong Burnley fan Dave Thomas relates, in this illuminating and well told biography, was a career that promised much but ended in frustration.

Adamson’s childhood was brutally hard. His father abandoned the family at an early stage; his mother’s struggle to raise her children on her own ended in depression and suicide. Later he would suffer the horror of having his two children predecease him.

Whisked away to Burnley as a teenager after the north-east clubs took their traditional path of rejecting a local star, Adamson started as a winger but soon switched to half-back. Intelligent, tough, with a rare ability to pick a pass, he quickly established a midfield partnership with Jimmy McIlroy and became one of the stars of a team that, alongside Wolves and Spurs, dominated the period..

Clarets' manager during that time was Harry Potts, another north-easterner (Ray Pointer, Arthur Bellamy and several others were on the playing staff). Potts was born in Hetton-le-Hole a few doors away from his lifelong pal Bob Paisley, a few streets away from a future Burnley star, Ralph Coates.

Burnley's attacking style of play and mastery of corner kick and free kick routines had been established before Potts took charge, by the Northumbrian, Alan Brown. Potts' coaching style seems to have been less focused than that of his predecessor, one ex-player claiming that the only instruction the manager issued was that the wingers should use the Turf Moor advertising hoardings as a guide and 'never cross till you get to the 'T' in Woolworth'. Despite, or maybe because of that - Burnley won the title in 1960 and came close to doing the Double a few years later.

As a coach Adamson was ahead of his time, a thinker and a tactician. After serving as assistant to Walter Winterbottom at the 1962 World Cup, he was offered the England manager’s job but turned it down to stay on at Turf Moor as player and eventually – after some backstage shenanigans to shuffle Harry Potts upstairs – the manager.

From Potts, Adamson inherited a side rich in young talent (including Geordies Ray Hankin and Peter Noble), labelling it “the team of the Seventies”. Unfortunately the economics of football had changed since his playing days and small-town clubs such as Burnley now struggled to compete with the big-city sides. The resulting financial pressures brought Adamson into conflict with Burnley chairman Bob Lord. Sitting in the head office of his butchery business in front of a large portrait of Winston Churchill, the man Arthur Hopcraft called “the Khrushchev of Burnley” was a self-made autocrat straight out of satire. (Indeed, one of the many entertaining nuggets the author has dug out is the fact that Brian Glanville wrote a sketch about Lord for That Was The Week That Was. Sadly it was never performed.)

As “the team of the Seventies” were dismantled to pay for ground improvements and fend off debt (and to line Lord’s pockets, it is alleged) the once close relationship between the two men descended into acrimony. “I wanted to build a team, the chairman wanted to build a stadium,” Adamson famously remarked after the split finally came.

Away from Turf Moor, Adamson never really settled. A spell at the side he'd wanted to play for as a boy, Sunderland, ended after a couple of inconclusive seasons, the appointment at Elland Road in 1978 was fraught with problems from the off. By then alcohol seems to have blunted Adamson’s talent and exacerbated his prickliness. After Leeds he did not work in football again.

Adamson continued to live in Burnley, but was so bitter about his treatment by Lord he refused to go and watch his former team even after his nemesis had departed. Thankfully he eventually made his peace with the club he had served so well and received a warm and heartfelt ovation from Clarets fans on his return to Turf Moor. It gave some semblance of a happy ending to a life marred by rancour and loss.

Saturday, 19 March 2016


We had a fine day out at Ironworks Road last Saturday, quite literally. Contrary to all expectations, coats were shed and sunglasses sported as the sun smiled down on a game that included a 50/50 tackle so ferocious I swear to God I heard the ball screaming.

Later in the week I went into my local bank.
Woman behind the counter: 'By, your very brown. Have you been skiing?'
Me: 'No. I was in Tow Law on Saturday.'

Today I am taking The Professor on his annual pilgrimage to see Olga.

Here is a shorter, edited version of a piece that appeared in issue 19 of The Blizzard. If you want to read it all have a look here:

When former Northern Ireland and Middlesbrough winger Terry Cochrane signed for South Bank in 1992 the Teesside non-League club had problems. Thieves got in the ground at night, lifted tools from the shed, forced entry to the club house, fled with booze. The Bankers took measures. They bought a powerful Rottweiler. When training ended for the day, they let him loose and locked the gates. That night thieves broke in again, stole the dog.

That’s South Bank, Terry Cochrane said, fella has two ears they think he’s a cissy.

South Bank lies three miles east of Middlesbrough. Locally they call it Slaggy Island in honour of the ring of spoil heaps that once cut it off from the outside world. It’s not as glamourous as that nickname makes it sound. South Bank was the home of the Smith’s Dock shipyard, of Bolckow Vaughan and Dorman Long steelworks, clusters of iron foundries, warrens of brickyards. Blast furnaces, smelters, rolling mills and fabrication sheds converted ore to pig iron, iron to steel. They shaped it, cut it, and shipped it out. Through most of the 20th Century Slaggy Islanders lived their lives under a cloud of bitter smog. You had to catch a bus to see the sun.

Yet there was a power and a magic to it. The sparks off arc welders and angle-grinders danced in the darkness and at night the sky was dyed a dirty orange and pulsed like a heart. When South Bank’s most celebrated son, Wilf Mannion called his hometown ‘the enchanted city’ he wasn’t being ironic.

South Bank FC was founded in 1868, the first football club in the North East of England. The Ellis Cup, was launched - as the South Bank Amateur Challenge Cup – in 1889, which makes it either the fourth or fifth oldest football competition on the planet (the Northern League –of which South Bank was a founder member – began the same year).

Originally for under-18 teams, the Ellis Cup soon expanded to include senior sides too, not just from South Bank but from across Teesside and down into the mining villages of the North York Moors and Cleveland Hills. Over the next century over 100 players who’d turn pro played in it, amongst them some of the most influential figures in the English game.

George Elliott, my grandfather’s boyhood hero, played in the Ellis Cup for Redcar Crusaders, signed for South Bank shortly afterwards , then for Middlesbrough. Aided by two other Ellis Cup Slaggy Islanders, the Carr brothers, Jackie and Willie, Elliott hit 31 goals in 32 league matches in 1913/14 helping Boro to third place in the English top flight, the club’s highest ever finish.

George Hardwick’s father worked in the ironstone mines of East Cleveland. The mine shut down. Money was so short it could crawl under a duck. Hardwick’s mother picked up old jumpers, pulled the yarn apart and knitted George a red jersey and matching socks to play his football in. He turned out in the Ellis Cup for Saltburn, moved on to South bank, signed for Middlesbrough in 1937. A cultured full-back, Hardwick had a matinee idol moustache and the face and physique to match. When he smiled women’s legs turned to jelly. My Granddad called him ‘Gorgeous George’ and blew sarky kisses to him from the Ayresome Park chicken run. Hardwick laughed off the abuse. He captained club and country, people whispered happily of an affair with a Hollywood ‘It Girl’ : Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth, accounts varied.

The Golden Boy, Wilf Mannion was born in Napier Street, South Bank. Mannion won the Ellis Cup with South Bank St Peter’s when he was sixteen. His side played South Bank East End in the final. East End’s stopper got no closer to the blond inside-forward than kicking the ball into his groin. The stopper’s name was Harold Shepherdson. Three decades later, as Alf Ramsey’s assistant he’d be leaping off the bench at Wembley when Geoff Hurst scored England’s fourth, the manager barking ‘Sit down, Harold, I can’t see,’ at his back.

The influence of Slaggy Island’s football trophy spread far beyond Teesside. Future Leeds United capo, Don Revie played in the Ellis Cup for Middlesbrough Swifts. Man United boss, Matt Busby, a serviceman at Catterick Garrison, helped Portrack Shamrocks defeat Cargo Fleet Home Guard in the 1946 final. Ken Furphy turned out for Stockton West End, went pro with Everton, achieved great things coaching Watford and ended up in the USA in the 1970s managing New York Cosmos, pairing Pele with Giorgio Chinaglia up front.

My friend’s Dad was the goalkeeper for the village team. Years later he’d recall an Ellis Cup match against Great Broughton – managed in those days by the village postmistress Nancy Goldsborough - when a shiny-eyed teenage centre forward banged in a hat-trick and at the final whistle wandered over, patted my friend’s Dad on the arm, told him ‘One day, when I’m playing for England, you’ll brag to your mate’s about this,’ smiled and introduced himself, ‘I’m Brian Clough.’

‘If he hadn’t been so little, I’d have planted him,’ my friend’s Dad said, telling the story for the thousandth time.

From the late seventies onwards hardship battered Teesside. The steelworks and the shipyards shut. The population of South Bank dwindled. Shutters went up over doors and windows, shops closed, derelict streets were bulldozed. Football clung on. Barely.

After Terry Cochrane quit, South Bank’s ground was attacked routinely and severely. Vandals smashed the windows. Arsonists burned down the clubhouse, torched the main stand. Somebody took a sledgehammer to the dugouts, carted off the bricks. By the late 1990s the pitch was three feet deep in grass, a stadium that had once held 8,000 for cup ties looked like a bomb site. Unable to fulfil fixtures, the Bankers had long since been suspended from the Northern League they’d co-founded.

Now there’s a community centre, named Golden Boy Green in honour of Wilf Mannion where the ground once stood. There’s a skateboard park and a basketball court, no football, no memorial. These days South Bank FC play at Harcourt Road sharing the pitch with Eston Villa and Middlesbrough Homeless. They’re in the Stockton Sunday League. In 2015 they got to the final of the Ellis Cup, won it in a penalty shoot-out against North Ormesby Cons. 

Saturday, 12 March 2016


In the Letzigrund, Zurich last Saturday I saw my first scoreless game of the season. And frankly both FCZ and Thun were lucky to get nil. If ever the phrase 'Get stuck in, you bloody fanny merchants' deserved to be bellowed at high volume this was it. Sadly my efforts fell on deaf ears.

Today I return to Ironworks Road for the first time in many a year. On the last visit I stood next to an elderly man who called out - in the plaintive, hopeless tones of someone long marooned on a distant shore- 'Hells bells,Lawyers, hells bells.'

I hope he is still there.

For now, an article about a family food fight that appeared in Tees Business. The piece has little to do with football, but it amused me at the time and maybe it might you, too.

When Upex pies re-launched last November after a twenty year absence from Teesside’s culinary landscape, hungry punters practically knocked the shop over in their clamour to get one. Owner Steve Davies sold 1,400 in a matter of a few hours.

Personally I am not surprised. Upex pies have been around for over a century and there are few things that attract brand loyalty like a pie. I should know, my own family was savagely divided by what can only be described as pork pie civil war.

There were other gastronomic disagreements amongst us, admittedly. My father’s family were committed to tomato ketchup and Branston pickle, while my mother’s would entertain only Hammonds Yorkshire Sauce and Piccalilli; things could get a bit heated over the Lowcocks v Alpine debate when it came to lemonade and dandelion and burdock; many a trip to Whitby ended in an acrimonious dispute over the merits of favourite chip shops, and when it came to beer, the impossibility of finding a pub that served both Cameron’s Strongarm and Vaux Samson meant separate Saturday nights for a couple of branches. It was the pork pies that were the cause of the bitterest trouble, though. When it came to them it was The Beatles v The Stones, Blur v Oasis, Mods v Rockers. You had to pick a side.

You see, my granddad and his brothers grew up in Smeaton Street. As lads from the heart of the Boro they had – naturally - pledged pie-allegiance to Newboulds at a young age. While Joe and George stayed in Middlesbrough, my grandfather married a girl from Marske and settled there. Later his daughter, my mother, moved to Great Ayton. And that was when the trouble started, because our house was 50 yards from Donald Petch, the butchers.

At some point my grandfather was lured into buying a pork pie from Petch’s and pretty soon they were the only pork pies he’d give house room. He might have stayed silent on the matter, but, like a man converted to a new religion by a miracle, he just couldn’t keep the good news to himself.

It all kicked off round my great-gran’s house on Christmas Day when I was six. It was a tiny terraced house, the living room so small the only way all of us could fit in it was with kids sitting on knees and men folk arranged shoulder-to-shoulder around the walls. We all had our place. You could tell where the men stood even when they weren’t there by the height of the stains their Brylcreme left on the wallpaper.

At some point my great-gran expressed the view that a nice pork pie would do her for New Year’s Eve.

‘You want to have a one from Petch’s,’ my granddad announced.

‘What are you talking about?’ Uncle Joe said, ‘Have you gone looie? I’ll get her a one from Newboulds.’

‘The only thing she’s getting from you is a load of tripe,’ My granddad replied.

By this stage my mother had started to wrestle me into my coat and signalled for my Dad to go out and get the engine of the Riley warmed up. She recognised fighting talk when she heard it.

Things might have stayed at simmering point, but at this point my grandma’s sister’s husband who hailed from Skeleton, worked down Boulby potash mine and had a voice so loud and deep it sounded like an explosion in a cave, growled out his opinion that the pork pies from the butcher in Sleights knocked all others on Planet Earth into a cocked hat.

What happened next I cannot honestly say, for my mum had hustled me out the door. From reports it seemed the police got matters under control fairly quickly once they arrived on the scene.
Later my Dad suggested that ‘Blahblah’s Pies – They’re worth decking your brother-in-law for’ would make a good advertising slogan. As far as I know, it’s still available, if anyone wants it.

Saturday, 27 February 2016


Next week I shall be away in Zurich. Sadly my enjoyment of that trip has already been compromised by the discovery that SC Young Fellows Juventus are away.

Last week it was my birthday. So here's a short thing I wrote when I was still relatively young about what it means to get older as a fan. The last two paragraphs perhaps explain why us neutrals are so excited about Leicester.

A few years ago a friend of mine took his six-year-old son to his first match. It was at the Stadium of Light during a fractious period for the home side. They conceded early. As all around him fans shook their fists and vented their fury with the players, the manager, the owner, my friend looked across at his son. The boy was weeping uncontrollably. “What’s the matter?” his father asked. “I don’t like it. I don’t like it,” his son sobbed. “Why are the men so angry?” They left at half time.

My friend’s son was a sensitive child, admittedly.Why the men are so angry is a good question, though. Recently a letter in WSC raised the topic of the vengeful faces seen in modern goal celebrations contrasted with the more cheery chops of yesteryear. Looking back on my early days as a supporter in the late-1960s I recall neither rage nor happiness at Ayresome Park, just the smell of fried onions and a sense of seething resentment. But maybe that was just because I was sitting next to my granddad.

Rage is all the rage these days. At least it is in most places.

With the passing of the shortest day we enter the season of renewal. Or not in the case of a friend of mine who yesterday announced that he is to give up his Middlesbrough season ticket. He has been going to watch the Boro since he was seven.

"You know how they talk about 'compassion fatigue'?" he says when I ask him to explain this radical scheme, "well I've got frustration fatigue. I reckon every man is born with a finite reservoir of bitter, teeth-grinding rage and for the past 18 months the pumps have been bringing up mud from mine. There was a time when I could spend 90 minutes seething about Paul Kerr, but these days I can't even get vexed about Fabio Rochemback and he's 10 times as annoying as Nookie ever was. I'm jaded. I just can't raise myself to get angry anymore

My friend says that his Dad gave up going to Ayresome Park when he turned 44 and now he has turned 44 himself he is doing the same. He says when you can't work up a head of steam about a feckless Brazilian get in a headband it is nature's way of telling you it is time to quit.

Part of the problem, my friend says, is the Premiership itself, or rather the new business-like approach to it of many clubs including our own. "Outside the top four nobody actually seems to consider trying to win it," he says. "The ambition of most of them is surviving in the Premiership, so that they can receive all the TV money they need to survive in the Premiership. Keep going to earn money to keep going: that's not sport it's everyday reality for most of us."

I know exactly what he means. When I listen to most Premiership managers and chairmen droning on these days about the need for realism, fiscal constraints, the limited size of their squads and keeping their fingers crossed that, with a bit of luck and freedom from injuries we just might be good for a top ten finish, I am reminded of the Czech writer Jaroslav Hasek's political organisation The Party of Moderate Progress within the Bounds of the Law. The only difference is that Hasek was joking.

Saturday, 20 February 2016


Since their formation in 1908 Horden Colliery Welfare have played over 2,500 matches at Welfare Park. Today's game against Jarrow may be the last.

This week, after a five day court hearing in Newcastle, the ground owners, Horden Parish Council were given right to serve an eviction notice and awarded £82,500 in legal costs. The football club must be gone by next Thursday.

Hopefully this is just a temporary measure and the club can return to its historic home soon.

There is a petition you can sign in support of Horden CW here:

In 2009, photographer Colin McPherson and I went to Horden for a When Saturday Comes Match of the Month feature. The images are Colin's and he holds copyright on them. You can see more of Colin's fine work on his website. There's a link over on the right.

Horden Colliery Welfare v Billingham Synthonia

Skilltrainingltd Northern League Division One, 24th November, 2009

Saturday afternoon in the North-East and its raining. It’s not a heavy rain. It’s the sort of fine rain that hangs in the air, all-enveloping like an unfinished argument. The bus from Peterlee to Horden drops me off at a stop next to a spiritualist church. Down the road towards the porridge-coloured North Sea there’s a medical centre named after radical Labour MP Manny Shinwell. Outside the Comrades Club a mother and a ten-year old girl in a party frock unload a chocolate fountain from the back of a Renault Clio and scurry indoors. A poster in the window advertises a night of entertainment featuring “Donna, Promising Young Vocal Artiste”.

Horden Welfare Park – with its football, cricket and rugby grounds, its bowling green and flowerbeds  - is an enduring monument to community spirit. Paid for by the miners through subscription back before the Great War it’s as neat and tidy as a front parlour when the vicar’s due. On the backs of the benches that line the paths are little plaques telling the history of the community – how many cinemas the town once had, when the railway station closed, the tonnage of coal the pit once produced and the number of men who died digging it.

In Horden 80% of the workforce was once employed in the mining industry. The colliery closed in 1986. Since then the population has dropped by several thousand and local business seems almost entirely devoted to the North East’s new boom areas – tattoos, tanning and taxis.

Today’s visitors, Billingham Synthonia, are another relic of heavy industry. Synthonia was founded in 1945, part of the social and sporting side of Imperial Chemical Industries’ vast Teesside operation. Like the NUM, ICI was a paternalistic organisation. It looked after its 30,000 strong Teesside workforce and their families, providing them with a whole network of support from pensions to hockey fields to medical care and subsidised beer. But ICI gradually shed its holdings in the region and in 2006 it left for good. The big HQ at Billingham is now empty, the windows smashed, the insides ransacked by vandals. Like Horden Colliery Welfare, Billingham Synthonia are a tiny reminder of what once was, like the hat of a dead man hanging behind the door in a widow’s bungalow.

There was more like them too, at one time. In recent times though the Northern League has seen many of the clubs from its traditional heartland, the Durham Coalfield, disappear – Eppleton CW, Easington Colliery, Langley Park, Evenwood Town, and Willington have all dropped out, replaced by sides from the Tyneside and Teesside commuter belts. Places like Morpeth and Stokesley where there’s more money and fewer folk whose idea of a good evening’s entertainment is to set fire to the dug-outs.

Not that there’s any evidence of that sort of thing at Horden’s ground. It’s recently been revamped using lottery money. The old stand – opened by local celebrity ref George Courtney back in the 1980s – now has indoor toilets and facilities for female match officials. Horden won the Northern League second division title last season. Now they are struggling to come to terms with life in the top flight. They lie fourth from bottom. Synthonia are a few places above them.

When I arrive at the Welfare Ground a bloke in a Horden warm-up coat is removing a couple of dog turds from the pitch, carrying them away on a shovel. There’s a catholic social club over the west wall and the Horden social welfare centre over the fence to the east. Everything in sight is made of red brick. The streets run up from the headlands above the sea to the green hill where the colliery once stood, as if that was the only direction the population would ever expect, or need, to go in.

In the tea bar friendly middle-aged women who seem purpose built for a role as aunties are frying chips and doling out cups of tea in Princess Diana commemorative mugs. I take mine into the main stand, which is, as it happens, the only stand. It’s a big old-fashioned shed, with a red corrugated roof, a press box and a bit of worn away graffiti pledging allegiance to the Horden Shed Army. I take a seat in the Stan Anderson enclosure. Anderson – the only man to captain Sunderland, Newcastle and Middlesbrough – is the Horden’s most illustrious former player (Colin Bell played for the juniors). Synners can trump that, though. They once had Brian Clough and Frank Bough on the books.

Behind me a group of Synthonia fans talk in Teesside accidents so finely adapted to expressing scorn and contempt even their complements sound like an invitation to a punch up. When three elderly Horden fans saunter into the ground from the nearby social club at ten to three one of the Synners fans booms, “Oh look. Here comes the Barmy Army”. The rest of the talk is of flu jabs and hip replacement operations.

Synners have rejected their old-style green-and-white quartered shirts in a favour of a wild mess of blue and yellow. Horden’s shirts are rather nice, a red-and-white striped body with plain white sleeves. They carry the logo of sponsors Tweddle Children’s Animal Farm inviting jokes about rustic tackles. The left-back wears a white polo neck under his that, combined with his thinning, slicked back hair and lean face gives him the vague look of the seventies comedy actor Patrick Cargill.

The first period is played out in the swirling drizzle. After ten minutes the players’ shirts are soaked. Water drips from hair, ears and the tips of noses. On the skiddy surface it’s a struggle to stay upright. At one point four players and the referee are all sprawled on the turf. “Has somebody up there got a rifle?” one of Horden’s subs yells up at the supporters in the stand. It’s too wet for anybody to laugh.

Thanks to the conditions, the play is not so much disjointed as completely and utterly devoid of any joint whatsoever – the football equivalent of a tapeworm. Occasionally there are outbreaks of coherence, but they never last long. Synners are kicking up the slight slope towards the ex-colliery and into the sort of breeze that sets the corner flags flapping. Occasionally they succeed in lumping a ball over the top to the swift number 11, Danny Earl, who looks the most likely to player to score, but never quite manages to get a shot away. When it gets to the break I look down at my rain spotted notebook and find the only entry in it is “Jack Pounder (H’den) sounds like character from Catherine Cookson mini-series”.

At half-time something surprising happens. There’s a brief flicker of lightning somewhere to the south over Blackhall and then the rain stops and the sun emerges shyly from amidst the grey. By the time the two teams return to the field its genuinely warm and steam is start to rise from the concrete terracing The change in climate seems to inspire the two sets of players and the next 45 minutes, while in no way samba soccer, certainly has a bit more rhythm to it.

We get an inkling that a change has come when Horden come close to scoring in the first minute after the restart, Pounder’s volley from the edge of the box almost worming it’s way under Chris Porter in the Synners’ goal. The visitors break away from the resulting clearance and win a free kick on the edge of the area. Horden’s defenders seem to have cleared the danger, but the ball drops to skipper Andy Harbron twenty-five yards out and he strikes a volley with real venom and accuracy, sending it flashing into the right hand corner of the net. The celebrations that follow are testament to the quality of the strike and to the fact that Harbron is making a bit of a habit of scoring wonder goals - he’d blasted one in from even further out a few weeks back against Consett.

Once they are in front Synthonia start to knock the ball around with newfound confidence. The shaven-headed David Yale in the midfield pulls the strings and up front Nathan Jameson, a big fair-haired striker with the look of John Belushi about him, always seems to have space and time to control the ball and bring others into play. They get their second in the 60th minute. It’s another beauty, the ball moving via a series of crisp short passes from the halfway line, down the left and finally into the path of Colin Iley coming in from the right wing. He takes one touch before dinking it past the advancing James Winter.

Horden bring on an extra forward, Keith Devine, a huge man with the body of a cartoon strongman and an impressive goal scoring record. He’s all hustle and bustle, sprinting forward and banging defenders about at every opportunity. His introduction brings new urgency to the Colliers. The ball bumps around the penalty box, cannoning off knees and thighs. There’s a big shout for a penalty when Stephenson tumbles over in the box and for a few minutes it seems as if sheer physical endeavour might be enough to rescue the situation.

It isn’t. The visitors continue to look the more likely side to score, moving the ball about with a purpose and accuracy Horden lack. Substitute James Magowan, who seems to be nicknamed Bimbo, almost adds the third, turning neatly on the left of the box and firing in a fierce, curving shot that Winter does really well to tip over the bar.

Throughout it all, good and bad, the Teessiders behind me remain resolutely unimpressed “First touch like a bloody elephant” one snorts as a ball bounces off a Synners’ shin. Another is listening to the Boro match commentary on headphones. "Johnson’s scored a second” he bellows at one point. “He’ll be away in January” his mate growls. The pits, the shipyards, the steelworks and the chemical plants may have gone, but the region’s pessimism endures.

Saturday, 13 February 2016


Last Saturday I arrived at Dunston UTS after a tortuous journey on the number 10 bus. Only one other passenger on the top deck was over 15 and not singing along to One Direction - the man who sat behind me and coughed down the back of my neck from Branch End Garage to Blaydon.

At the gate I found that the admission charge for the FA Vase replay had been raised from £6 to £7. In solidarity with fans on Merseyide I considered walking out in protest after seven minutes, but decided that - on balance - £7 still represented pretty good value. My reward was a cracking game on a pitch that in the current age would likely be characterised as 'vintage' and have an outrageous price tag slapped on it by a young man dressed as a Victorian poacher. I also saw my 100th goal of the season. Sadly it was an injury time winner for visitors Ashford United - my second NL 2-3 Vase defeat on the trot. I ll stay away from Morpeth next week.

The latest issue of The Blizzard podcast features a reading of my piece about Adam Boyd. You can listen to it here:

Today I am walking to Ryton and Crawcrook Albion with Mike Amos as part of his Last Legs Challenge. The last time we walked anywhere together was in Bishop Auckland when we covered the distance from The Stanley Jefferson to the station in record time. Here's something I wrote for WSC about that evening.

Emmott Robinson played cricket for Yorkshire in the inter-War years. Late in life the all-rounder complained that the general public’s perception of him came entirely through the writing of Guardian cricket correspondent Neville Cardus. ‘I reckon Mr Cardus invented me,’ Robinson said wearily.

Though he played over 400 times for his county, Robinson never got an international cap. No film of him exists. His doughty manner, his gruff, unruly style, his mad devotion to the game he loved, lives on almost exclusively in Cardus’ prose. 

The point of writing, William Faulkner said, is to fix movement to the page, so that when the reader comes along it moves again. Back in Cardus’ day that was what sports journalists did, captured action. Writing was a medium of record, often the only medium.

Things have changed. If Emmott Robinson was around nowadays there’d be hours of footage of him on YouTube. Film has superseded writing. Newspaper websites are peppered with video clips. Even editors don’t trust words to do the job anymore. Why read about a  Lionel Messi goal, if you can watch it? Even those of us who make a living from it must occasionally wonder - as we see the bloke beside us filming the goal celebrations on his mobile - what the point of writing is in the age of the smartphone and the tablet.


At the start of the summer I gave a talk at Auckland Castle, a tie-in with the excellent exhibition on Bishop Auckland FC - Birth of the Blues - that is currently showing there. Afterwards members of the audience came up to chat. Many had brought with them bags containing mementos of North-East non-League football: winners medals from long-forgotten local cup competitions, Amateur Cup Final programmes, photographs in gilded frames. All the items had tales attached, a memory trail to long dead relatives, to pit villages once lived in.

A lady in her mid-seventies opened her handbag, pulled from it an autograph album covered in tartan cloth. Her parents, she said, had been involved with Stanley United back in the 1950s. ‘When I was a teenage girl,’ she said, ‘I served the players their post-match teas, and I got them all to sign my book.’

Stanley United was one of the oldest clubs in Durham. They won the Northern League title three times. Stanley United played at Mount Pleasant. Like many places in Britain it seemed to have been named by someone of ironic bent. Mount Pleasant was on a freezing crag above Crook, so isolated and windswept the white-washed two-story clubhouse, where the players changed and ate, and the spectators defrosted at half-time in front of coal fire, was nicknamed ‘The Little House of the Prairie’.


The lady opened the tartan-covered book. ‘Here, look,’ she said, ‘The Bishops team, 1955.’ She ran a finger under the signatures, the well-practiced autographs of men who were the superstars of the amateur game: Bob Hardisty, Corbett Cresswell, eccentric ‘keeper Harry Sharratt who once built a snowman on his goal line. I pointed at one which had an extra flourish: Seamus O’Connell

Seamus O’Connell was Bishops’ wealthy and glamorous inside-forward. He also played as an amateur for Chelsea and Middlesbrough, rejecting the chance to make a full-time career of the game at Stamford Bridge with the words, ‘It’s no kind of job for a man’. An infamous womaniser, O’Connell was allegedly so well-endowed that, after catching a glimpse of him naked in the shower, one London society hostess remarked, ‘Built like that you really ought to trot.’

The woman with the tartan autograph book grinned. ‘Eee, aye’ she said ‘Seamus O’Connell. He once give me a lift home over the moor top in his sports car,’ and she shivered with delight at the thought of it.

‘So you must have known Geoff Strong, then.’ I said.

Geoff Strong was the centre-forward at Stanley in 1957. Between the start of the season and Christmas he scored 31 goals. Arsenal came looking to sign him. They offered Strong £13 a week. It was a tougher decision than you might think. The amateurs of Stanley were paying him £10 a week ‘boot money’ and he picked up another £4 as an apprentice fitter. In the end he decided to take the pay cut and move to Highbury. He scored 69 goals for the Gunners, then Bill Shankly bought him for Liverpool. He died two years ago.

The woman’s eyes twinkled when I said the name. ‘Ooh Geoff Strong,’ she said, and she placed the autograph book down on the table we were standing beside and ran her hands back and forwards across it. ‘I used to iron his number nine shirt every week,’ she said, looking at the tartan book as if it was the targetman’s red-and-white striped jersey, pressing her palms down on it to smooth out the wrinkles, ‘And, you know, I always ironed that shirt with love.’


Stanley United folded in 2003. The Little House on the Prairie was burned down by arsonists. Only the goalposts and the memories now remain. And memories don’t last forever. As Jorge Luis Borges noted, ‘one thing, or an infinite number of things dies in every final agony’ never to return.  

To be recalled is the only afterlife we can be guaranteed. That’s part of the reason we tell strangers stories from our lives. It’s why I write them down. It’s why you should too. If we don’t, one day it will all be gone, YouTube or not.