Monday, 30 June 2014

CHARISMA AND THE SCENT OF LANOLIN

The following match report was written at a St James' Park temporarily engulfed by the rosy glow of Ruud Gullit's sexy football. I had been reading a lot of George Plimpton's sports stuff and influenced by the great man's oblique approach to things, chose barely to mention the game at all. The handful of compliments I received for the piece all began with the words 'Everyone else hated it, but...'





Newcastle United 2  (1)  Nottingham Forest 0 (0)
Shearer 11, pen 89


As the travelogue cliche would have it, the Premiership is a land of contrasts. No two men illustrate this notion better than  Ruud Gullit, manager of Newcastle United and his counterpart at the City Ground, Dave Bassett.

There is something cheeringly old-fashioned about Bassett. He reminds you of one of those uncles who were always willing to take you for a kickabout in the garden on Christmas Day when all the other adults were slumped in front of the Queen's speech surreptitiously belching.

At the press conference following this entertaining game, the Forest boss sported a club blazer and grey flannel slacks. His face had the pinkish hue of the freshly scrubbed; his neat blonde hair was sharply parted and held firmly in place by manly unguents.

Bassett is a man of actions. At rest is not his natural state. When stationary he has the perpetual air of someone who is on the verge of breaking into a trot, or doing a couple of dozen squat-thrusts. Though answering the questions of the assembled journalists at St James' Park with courtesy, candour and no little humour Bassett never quite dispersed the feeling that he was in a hurry to be somewhere else.  When he left he did so through the front entrance, hustling quickly across the room giving off an odour of talcum powder and shaving cream. As he passed he la-la-la-ed a merry tune, as a jaunty traveller might when entering a strange pub toilet.

 In a film you feel the role of Dave Bassett would be taken by Kenneth Connor. Ruud Gullit, on the other hand, would definitely play himself, if only because no actor will ever be found who is quite glamorous enough for the task.  On Saturday Gullit sauntered confidently into media reception wearing a chocolate brown suit, matching suede shoes, a cafe latte-coloured shirt and a bronze shot-silk tie.  Dave Bassett had swigged Lucozade straight from the plastic bottle, the Magpies' manager had a glass of sparkling mineral water. 

Like all stars the Dutchmen has the habit of appearing far larger than he actually is. Given that the Newcastle manager is actually pretty big to begin with, this means that his appearance can make even a sparsely populated room seem suddenly overcrowded. From amidst the throng Gullit's stellar presence had created in the St James's press room someone put it to him that at times during the match things "had been quite hairy" for the home side. Gullit frowned, thought for a moment, then shook his dread-locked head, "What is that, hairy?" he inquired politely.

Presumably it was the idiom which had confused him rather than anything he had witnessed on the pitch. For while it would be a mistake to say that victory flattered a Newcastle team for whom Alan Shearer, whether scoring, flattening defenders, or subjecting the linesmen to torrents of invective, seemed like a player rejuvenated, it was certainly true to say that Magpies'  Irish goalkeeper Shay Given did more than enough brilliant work to fully merit the sponsor's man-of-the-match award that came his way.

 "Technically, and tactically also, things could be improved," Ruud Gullit observed, "But on the pitch and in training we are giving very positive vibes".
 

"Some of our finishing today was crap" said Dave Bassett.



 

Saturday, 28 June 2014

LOVE, DEATH AND HAMILTON RICARD



From The Guardian, March 2010


I've been going through a bit of a period of emotional upheaval. I won't bore you with the details, but suffice it to say here that the week it all blew up like a rogue septic tank Middlesbrough lost twice. "You would have thought," a friend of mine said in the consoling way men have in times of crisis, "you would have thought that after all you've been through recently your team could have at least produced a decent result for you. Bloody hell, they even missed a penalty at Blackpool."

My friend knows me very well, but he clearly doesn't know the Boro at all. While there may be other clubs who, subliminally sensing the distress of one of their supporters will go out and give a glowing display of uplifting football in an attempt to console and reassure them, that is not the Middlesbrough way.

If Boro find a fan lying face down in the proverbial cowpat, they do not haul him to his feet and gently wipe his cheeks with a hankie while muttering soft words of reassurance. No, they thump the toe of their boot on the back of his noggin and twist it from side to side until their ankle gets tired. And after over four decades following the rotten bastards it is exactly what I need and expect. In times of turmoil you have to hold on to the constants. Frankly, if this had all gone off when we'd just signed Juninho, or Ravanelli, or were making heroic comebacks on our way to the Uefa Cup final, I'd have become so disoriented insanity would surely have followed.

I was supposed to go to the game against QPR on Saturday, but I phoned the friend I was going with and told him I couldn't make it. When I explained why he said, "Oh, yes, I can see that. I mean, the Riverside isn't a place to be visiting if you're feeling a bit depressed. In fact, even if you're elated it's a bit of a suicide risk these days. Forty-five minutes of the sort of football we've been playing this season and we'd be pulling you down off the Transporter bridge."

It reminded me of one of the dark, final days of Bryan Robson's regime. Literally a dark day, as it happens – the sky was the colour of a deep bruise, the rain was hanging in the air like an unfinished argument and Teesside generally appeared so grim and forbidding it made the city in the movie Se7en look like Trumpton. Boro were playing Bradford City, a side so inept it was always a surprise they didn't get lost in the tunnel. Yet a feeling of discomfort and unease filled the chests of the home fans walking to the ground – even those who hadn't eaten a parmo.

Ahead of me were three big-faced men with those deep, rumbling Teesside voices that sound like a half-laden coal truck driving slowly over a cattle-grid. One said: "If Boro lose today I'm going to climb up on the Transporter bridge and chuck myself in the river."

"If Boro lose today, there'll be a queue," one of the others said. "Aye," the third man said: "You'll have to take a number like down the DSS. You'll have to wait for them to call you."

Gallows humour is what I want from football, the certainty of bubbling grievance and simmering resentment. My Grandad took me to Ayresome Park for the first time when I was six, slipped the gateman a shilling for a "squeeze" and lifted me over the turnstile at the Bob end.

I had spent most of my life in the company of women, in houses that were calm and cosy, full of cushions and the smell of baking scones and lily of the valley soap. Ayresome Park, by contrast, was cavernous and cold. The seats were hard, the air filled with the scent of fried onions and stale ale and the harsh growl of the crowd, always teetering between rage and joyful laughter. Though I did not recognise it at the time, I had entered the world of men.

My grandad pointed at the famous pitch that day, green and shimmering with autumn dew, and said: "Look there, that's the finest turf in the country." And the bloke behind said: "Hardly surprising, all the shite it's had on it".

In the year that my grandfather died from a stroke Middlesbrough went into receivership, the gates at Ayresome Park were padlocked, the club passed away. I saw my grandmother alive for the last time on the same afternoon I watched a Nicky Mohan own goal gift victory to visiting Swindon. My daughter was born the summer Boro moved to the Riverside.

It would be easy to interpret this as somehow symbolic, a link in the chain. It isn't, though, it's simply coincidence, and we stand in the middle of it all looking for signs and portents and trying to piece together some plausible narrative from the chaos. Which, as my friend said last Friday when I mentioned it to him, is pretty much the way most of us felt when we were watching Mikkel Beck and Hamilton Ricard.

Friday, 27 June 2014

 

LIFE LESSONS IN VELOUR

 



My mind drifted back to a conversation I had with a taxi driver in Consett many years ago. He was a burly man who spent so much time in his vehicle it appeared to have moulded itself around him. He was like some latter day centaur - half bloke, half Nissan Primera. A plasterer's cap was permanently affixed to his head and from beneath it wild and wiry hair stuck out at all angles like stuffing escaped from a sofa. Mirrored shades, a Zapata moustache and a voice that had the wheezing rumble of ancient rolling stock were other characteristics.

I'd taken many journeys with this taxi driver and was aware that his working day was one long conversation that started the minute he turned the ignition and continued on through his shift regardless of the constant changes in the back of the vehicle. " . . . I mean, it's a tragedy when you think about it," he was saying as I slid on to the blue velour zebra-striped rear seat and inhaled that unmistakable mini-cab smell of fresh mountain pine, king size, curry and vomit. "A hundred years plus of football ended at the flick of a lighter." I judged from this that he was speaking of the recent demise of a non-League club, forced to fold after an arson attack on its clubhouse.

"It was vandals, was it?" I asked him, because that is what I had read in the local papers. The taxi driver let out a world-weary sigh. "Mebbes, Though I heard a few weeks before she went up they got notice of an Inland Revenue audit. And there's nowt more likely to spark a blaze in a Durham club than a letter from the Revenue."

INEVITABLE DOG BITING PUN

Four years ago Bedlington Terriers got a bit of attention when a US billionaire, fittingly called Bob Rich, sponsored the club. Mr Rich paid for the pitch to be relayed and bought the Terriers a huge electric scoreboard. Unfortunately when the club groundsmen plugged it in it fused the floodlights.

Back in 1998 Bedlington had a good run in the FA Cup. No electrical troubles resulted.



When asked for directions to Bedlington Terriers' football ground, the man in the chip shop points eastward to a patch of pale, glimmering blue that breaks the darkness above the roofs of distant houses. "See them bright lights?" he asks. "Well, that's it."

Since the Terriers trounced the Second Division's Colchester United 4-1 in the first round of the FA Cup last month, the glow the Arnott Insurance Northern League club has been casting over the small Northumberland town has been as much metaphorical as literal.

There was plenty of evidence of why that might be so at Doctor Pit Welfare Park on Wednesday night. To keep the players in the pink for today's away tie at Scunthorpe, a league fixture with South Shields had been postponed and a news-media event arranged instead.

The original FA Cup was on display, courtesy of the sponsors AXA, committee men delivered china mugs of tea to assembled hacks and photographers and three separate camera crews filmed the team jogging in front of the pitch-side advertising hoarding, unexpected national exposure for H Ternent, Family Butcher.

In the clubhouse a bespectacled gent was trying to interest a young female fan in a Bedlington baseball cap: "Keep your head warm. £4.50."

"It'll spoil my hair."

"Not this 'un, man. It's adjustable."

The Christmas decorations were up beside the pennants of visiting teams and the framed signed shirts from Spurs and Forest and the tape deck was rolling out Hark, The Herald Angels Sing.

Things did not look quite so festive when the current manager Keith Perry arrived at Doctor Pit Welfare Park five years ago, and not just because it was March. "We were bottom of the Second Division of the Northern League, struggling to put together a committee or a side or to drum up support, on the verge of going under," he recalls, still flushed from a round of television interviews.

The Bedlington-born Perry was brought in by Billy Ward, a legendary local figure, who had been involved at Welfare Park and its predecessor at West Sleekburn "A" Pit for close to half a century, as player, manager, director and chairman. During that time the club's suffix changed frequently (from Mechanics to Terriers via Colliery Welfare, United, Colliery and Town) but their fortunes rarely altered. A handful of Northern Combination and Alliance titles and league cups excepted, Bedlington were strugglers.

In 1993, however, the threatened disappearance of the town's football team shook local people from their apathy. Relegation and oblivion were avoided. That summer the newly appointed committee set about rebuilding the club, literally. Keith Perry, who runs a building company (his brother, Dave, the chairman, is in demolition), dug the holes for the floodlight pylons himself.

In the following year, beneath their new lights, Terriers took the Second Division title at a trot. Last season they repeated the feat in the First, finishing 12 points clear of their nearest rivals and completing a double by defeating the neighbouring non-league giants Blyth Spartans in the Northumberland Senior Cup final at St James' Park. Nowadays they are regularly watched by crowds nudging 300, a considerable figure in a league in which the two playing staffs can often outnumber the fans.

Colchester's visit attracted a club record gate of 1,600, even the most wildly optimistic (or pessimistic if they had travelled from Essex) of whom could not have expected to see the home side triumph so comprehensively. That they did was down to a couple of goals by John Milner, Terriers' all-time top scorer, a masterly display at right-back by John Sokoluk, a Scot with a Ukrainian father and experience with East Fife and Berwick Rangers, and the visitor's undisciplined collapse when things did not go their way.

It may not be so easy today. As well as home advantage the element of surprise is missing. Not only did Bedlington's hammering of Colchester serve warning to future opponents, Scunthorpe's manager Brian Laws also has an impeccable source of local information. His brother John lives 100 yards down the road from Welfare Park and has watched Terriers' last five matches.

Despite all this, Perry is unfazed by the trip south. "The gulf between non-league and league used to be an ocean, now it's a pond," he says. "When I look at Scunthorpe's record and see they've conceded 18 times at home I have to think we've a chance of scoring."

His notion is supported by fact. Last season the Northumbrians notched 120 goals in 38 Northern League outings. It is 42 games in all competitions since they last failed to find the net. "We shan't be playing for a draw," Perry says, "but I tell you what, I'd love to get them back up here."

If the Terriers do earn themselves a second chance, do not rely on the floodlights for navigation to the match. The whole of Bedlington will be shining.


(Unfortunately that didn't happen. Scunthorpe won 2-0)

http://youtu.be/bU-DU7_fdZ0

 


 

 

AMONGST GOUDA WITH GREATNESS


Asked why Australians are so good at sport, Dame Edna Everage replied: "Because there is nothing intellectual to distract people from it." Until the turn of the century the same held true of north-east England. Nowadays, the region is brimming with cultural distractions - The Sage, Baltic, mima, The  Potato and Egg Shop - but back then it was a case of football, or eff all.

Two travellers from this less enlightened time battled their way on to the train the other day in a whirl of haversacks, Thermos flasks and muttered curses, and plonked themselves opposite me. Both had the big red faces of northern working men and voices built to be heard above the roar of heavy machinery.

The men on the train arranged themselves noisily. One stretched and groaned, the other cleared his nostrils with a noise like an emerging whale. "Did I say," the first man said, "I was talking to Peter Beardsley the other day?" "I didn't know you knew Peter Beardsley," his companion replied.

"Well, I don't know him, know him," the first man said. "But I know him, like."

"Well, obviously, man. Everybody knows Peter."

"I'll tell you something," the first man continued. "He seems a lot taller now than when we watched him playing."

"Mebbe he's had surgery," the second man said sarcastically. There was a note of peevishness in his voice. Envy, I suspect. It is always annoying when somebody else has encountered a famous person and you haven't.

There was a short silence, a sort of verbal staring match, until the second man cracked and asked: "Where was this, then?"

"Kingston Park Tesco's," the first man said.

"Whereabouts?"

"In the cheese aisle."

"In the cheese aisle?" his friend repeated.

"Don't sound that surprised. It's not like he was in ladies toiletries."

"So Peter was buying cheese, like?"

"Oh, aye."

"What sort of cheese?"

"Well, I didn't like to stare at his trolley directly, case he thought I was prying, but I got a glance at it, and I think it was that Wensleydale with berries."

"Aw, hey, I'm not fond of that," the second man said with feeling. "I don't like cheese with owt in it."

"Me neither. But mind, Peter's lived all over the country, hasn't he?" the first man said wisely. "Merseyside, Manchester ..."

"Carlisle," his companion added.

"Aye, Carlisle," the first man said. "So he's likely acquired a taste for that sort of thing, on his travels."

"So what did you say to him?"

"I said 'How, Peter. How are you doing?' And he said, natural as could be like, 'Fine, thanks. How about you?' And I said 'Canny, thanks Peter.' And he said 'That's good. See you then.' And off he went. What a lovely feller." The first man folded his hands across his stomach and grinned broadly.

"You weren't tempted to ask him about the current situation at St James' then?" the other asked.

"I wasn't. And even if I had, I doubt Peter'd have said owt about it."

"Aye," the second man said, "he'd have kept his own counsel, Peter."

"Mind, if I see him again I'll likely ask him," the first man said brightly.

"Aye well, you'll be able to, won't you?" the first man said with a trace of scorn, "Now you've established a rapport."

And then they lapsed into silent contemplation of that happy moment as they train rattled onwards in the thickening darkness.


 

FAUSTINO HAS FUCKED OFF

George Reynold's reign as owner of Darlington was as bizarre as his hair, but ultimately far less amusing, or stable. When it seemed the club were on the verge of signing the Colombian striker Faustino Asprilla in August 2002, The Guardian asked me to write a piece about it. I phoned the club and spoke to the press officer. I asked him if a well known local football agent was representing Asprilla. 'No,' he said, 'It's not him. It's this lass Faustino met down the Bigg Market.'


 
 
 
 

Asprilla lacing his boots. Photograph by Peter Robinson.


'Shafted' Darlington Pick up the Pieces After Asprilla Walkout

When rumours that Faustino Asprilla was about to sign for Darlington began to circulate last Friday Scott Thornberry, editor of the fan website, Darlo Uncovered, was so unimpressed he said that if the deal become a reality he would bare his backside in the window of a local department store.

For good or ill it seems the North-East public will have to wait for its glimpse of Thornberry’s unclad buttocks. At 5am yesterday morning with no warning to the club or its chairman, George Reynolds (described by Asprilla as 'a close personal friend'), the Colombian, who had been expected to make his debut next week, boarded a flight out of Newcastle apparently never to return.

When the gangly striker joined Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle from Parma in 1996 the £7.5 million signing arrived in a snowstorm. Yesterday in Darlington his departure was marked by a blizzard of expletives. As one Feetham’s employee bluntly but eloquently put it, 'Faustino has fucked off”.

Asprilla, apparently aided by a Tyneside-based girlfriend, had begun negotiations with Reynolds after meeting him at St James’s Park during Newcastle’s pre-season friendly against Barcelona. He was due at Feethams on Thursday morning to sign a contract that would have secured him a reported £17,000 a week and complete what would have been the most bizarre and unexpected transfer in British football since George Best turned out for Dunstable Town in the 1970s. The Colombian failed to turn up, however, saying he was jet-lagged despite having been in England for nearly a week.

A rescheduled meeting at 2.30 that afternoon also passed. Asprilla eventually turned up an hour or so later. Unfortunately he had mislaid his passport in a restaurant and so the contract went unsigned. At 10am yesterday the club learned that the man from Tulua had left the country, presumed destination the Middle East.

'We cannot believe it,' said Darlington spokesman Luke Raine. 'We have bent over backwards for him. The chairman has worked tooth and nail for seven weeks to sort everything out. He’s kept upping the ante in order to bring him here and this is how he pays us back.'

On the field Asprilla is noted for skills so loose-limbed and eccentric he makes Paolo Wanchope look like a robot. Off the field too the thirty-two year old’s career seems to have been one long, meandering and often pointless dribble. Since leaving Newcastle United in January 1998 he has had an abortive spell back in Italy with Parma, played for two Brazilian sides, Palmeiras and Fluminense, a Mexican club, Atalante and returned briefly to Colombia to turn out of Atletico Nacional, marking his debut with a red card.

He was sent home in disgrace from France 98 after a blazing row with the national team boss and shortly afterwards he announced his retirement from international football, mysteriously adding that he still hoped to be selected again some time in the future. When news of his move to Feethams first leaked out the wandering forward was in Venezuela.

And while opponents may have struggled to mark the rangy Tino, trouble has stuck to him in a manner worthy of Nobby Stiles. In his native Colombia he was convicted of illegal possession of two revolvers, alleged to have stuck his foot through the windscreen of a bus in an attempt to kick the driver and to have been investigated by police after firing a pistol in the air outside a beachside disco. He created scandal of another sort when he left his wife and took up with a porn star.

 

Given Asprilla’s reputation some local residents may feel his unexpected departure is a cause for celebration – local nightclub owners and George Reynolds are unlikely to be among them. The loss of the exotic striker will be a big blow to The Quakers’ chairman. The club’s spectacular new 25,000 seat stadium is scheduled to open in the New Year, but with Darlo’s regular home attendance around the 4,000 mark that adds up to a lot of empty seats.

When he took over the club the former-safe cracker turned fitted-kitchen-manufacturing millionaire stated that his intention was first to build a stadium and then build a team worthy of it. Securing the services of Asprilla was the first part of that process. It was calculated to signal Darlington’s ambition to other players. Since the deal with the Colombian was announced both Nicky Summerbee and Dennis Wise have been linked with a move to Feethams and fans have even whispered that the mission to secure the services of Paul Gascoigne, aborted in the summer, was soon to be revived. Certainly the chairman must have noted with delight the thousand or so extra fans that turned up at last Tuesday’s game with Carlisle simply to watch the Colombian star sit in the director’s box.

As well as building the stadium, Reynolds has also kept himself regularly in the news thanks to a series of well publicized battles, not least with the club’s playing staff. He published the team’s salaries in a local newspaper to shame them into better performances and had a bitter slanging match with former manager David Hodgson live on local radio. In February a supporters club meeting ended acrimoniously when Reynolds’ wife, Susan stated that, 'it isn’t unknown for games to be thrown deliberately at this time of year by way of favours.'

Then there is the long-running battle with a Hartlepool-supporting North-East radio presenter, Paul 'Goffy' Gough that has seen billboards carrying insinuating references to the DJ’s sexual preferences appear outside the new stadium. 'Since George took over, every week something happens,' Thornberry says.

Reynolds’ apparent fondness for the limelight has inevitably led to suspicion amongst certain sections of Darlington’s support, suspicion that may be fuelled by the latest shenanigans.

 'Some fans will think this business with Asprilla has all been a publicity stunt by the chairman, but that isn’t the case,' Raine said yesterday. 'Everybody at the club is gutted, the chairman more than anybody. Last weekend Asprilla put on a Darlington shirt and talked about how much he wanted to play here. But it seems he has just been using us to get himself back in the public eye and set up a deal elsewhere. We have been well and truly shafted.'

Darlo’s faithful, meanwhile, have been brought down to earth with such force they will need ladders to get out of the crater. Talking about the miraculous signing of the South American the day before he jetted eastward, Scott Thornberry said, 'We’ve been crying out for a goal scorer since Marco Gabbiadini left. But we never expected somebody like Faustino Asprilla. I mean, when people said it was going to be a big name we thought maybe it would be Luke Beckett.'

It still could be.  

 

 

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

FAITH RESTORED WITH THE SNOWMAN


The following piece was published in The Guardian on 23rd February 2007. The game, as some readers guessed, was Blyth Spartans v Workington at Croft Park. I went to the match with a German friend, a medical scientist who works at Newcastle University, and his eleven-year-old son. He told me afterwards that he had never understood why the British got so upset about players faking injury until that day. ‘In the Premier League the players are just like everywhere else, rolling about all the  time, but this afternoon, wow! There were some tackles I thought, ‘That man will never walk again, and ten seconds later he was on his feet running about. It was fantastic.’

Faith restored amid camel hair and carping

The Dutch photographer Hans van der Meer made a lovely short film a few years ago that captures the strange and plaintive beauty of amateur football. As its title implies, "Flemish Fields" was filmed in Belgium, but its landscapes and participants will be instantly recognisable to anyone who has followed the non-league game in Britain. Here are the no man's land pitches, the washed-out, shapeless kits covering washed-out, shapeless bodies and the melancholy middle-aged spectators with 70s hair-dos and charity shop overcoats.

At one point in the film a man pops his head out through the window of a prefabricated concrete clubhouse and bellows the same phrase over and over again in futile rage. You don't need to speak Dutch to interpret his words: "Get up their arses, for Christ's sake."

It was much the same in the North-East on Saturday. The surface was rutted mud, the players so vulnerable looking that whenever the ball struck their pale thighs with a sound like an angry chef slapping an oven-ready chicken you felt the urge to call social services. And when the Tannoy announced that the sponsor had selected the big No6 as the home side's man of the match, the bloke behind me bellowed, "how can there be a man of the match when they've all been shite?"

It was a poor reward for his team's heroism. Though I'd have to say that the big No6 would not have been my choice either. He was a singular figure who combined the big lumpy torso of Steve Bruce with the slender, awkward legs of a young moose. I could only recall him touching the ball once. He had collected a hopeful through pass and humped it directly into touch and then, when one of his own midfielders protested, pointed to his right eye and barked: "Anticipate, Dazza, son. Vision."

My man of the match would have been the bloke behind me. He had bottle-top glasses, an elaborate macramé bonnet of lank grey hair and a shiny baseball jacket in a shade of blue so bright it must have been radioactive. The bloke behind me had played a blinder. All afternoon he'd been subtly prodding and probing from his position near the left touchline. It had begun in the first minute when he noticed that the linesman nearest us bore a passing resemblance to Aled Jones and signalled it by singing "Walking in the Air" in a high-pitched whine every time the official was called into action and burst thrillingly into life with the lightning turn and finish on the half-hour mark that produced ,"either your pencil's snapped, referee, or your mind has".

I admired his courage, because abusing match officials at non-league games is not without dangers. A friend who refereed Northern League games once sent a spectator off for foul and abusive language. He had not intended to, he explained later, but he had heard the phrase "Where's your yellow card, ref, wedged up your arse?" coming from the direction of the home bench once too often. "It was a gadgie stood next to the dug-out wearing a tracksuit top," he said. "I thought he was one of the subs so I took his name and showed him red." The man had protested that he was a paying customer and couldn't be ordered off, but my friend, "sensing that any show of weakness at this stage might end badly" had advised the man to read league regulations before directing him to spend the remaining 37 minutes in the clubhouse amid the scent of fizzy beer and smoke of cut-price king-sizes, the clack of dominoes and the TV racing from Wincanton.

I don't think the bloke behind me on Saturday would have surrendered his place so meekly. With five minutes to go the opposition broke away and the linesman failed to signal an obvious offside. "Stop pissing about with that snowman and wave your bloody, flag, you squeaky Welsh twat," the bloke behind me cried. The onrushing forward collected the pass, rounded the keeper and popped the ball in the net.

It was too much for the man in a camel-hair car coat who had been standing at an oblique angle to play for the entire match. He stalked off, pausing only to howl indignantly: "The pitch is shit. The ground is shit and you lot are a bloody disgrace." As he walked away the bloke behind me yelled after him in the nasal-posh accent of a train customer service announcement: "Thank you for choosing the Welfare Ground. We hope to welcome you again soon."

And after that he and the rest of the spectators fell silent. A cold wind was blowing from the North Sea but I felt a warm tingle rising in my chest. Before Saturday I had been feeling disillusioned with football; this was a sign that my love for it had been restored. Though in retrospect maybe the corned beef slice I'd had at half-time played its part too.

The photo shows the toilets at Evenwood Town - a ground that sadly no longer exists. It was taken by Pete Doddman at the 1994 Northern League Groundhop

 

THE TROPHY ROOM



A long time ago I appeared as a guest on a widely reviled Tyne Tees TV football show called, The Football Show (A leather clad John Burridge fronted a rock band, Dean Holdsworth's estranged wife sang You're So Vain...) A friend said he’d buy me a pint for every time mentioned Arthur Horsfield. I got in four references to the former Middlesbrough and Newcastle forward in my ten minutes, and induced Bobby Moncur to say his name twice as well. The I remember it so precisely is testament to the non-stop thrillingness of my life.
The following snippet featured in a beautifully made booklet, The Trophy Room which was produced to coincide with the unveiling of artist Neville Gabie’s sculptures at the housing estate built on the Ayresome Park site. Walking around it a few times with Neville was a strange experience, the neat little Wimpey Homes standing on the centre circle and the Chicken Run, people gardening where Pak Do Ik had struck his shot into the Italian goal.
You can see Neville’s photos of his work by clicking on the link at the end. Or better yet go and visit them.
 
 

Holgate Standing
One afternoon a man shouted abuse at Arthur Horsfield. “Leave him alone. He’s alright,” another bloke countered.
“What do you mean “he’s alright”? He’s useless. Look at him stood there doing nothing.”
“He’s not doing nothing. He’s lurking.”
I bet in spirit Arthur’s here now, ready to pounce on a half-chance from behind a sofa or a pitched-pine shed.

 

IRON MEN DIG DEEP FOR SILVER


In 1998 Tow Law Town, made it to Wembley to play in the final of the FA Vase. The following article about Tow Law (nicknamed “The Lawyers”) appeared in The Guardian the day before the Wembley match. A week after the final - which I attended in the bleary-eyed state of a parent with an 18-month old, teething child - I had a letter from the Lawyer’s chairman, John Flynn. He said that everyone at the club was so pleased with the article they had had it framed and put it on the wall in the clubhouse gent’s toilet, “So the lads can read it whenever they're having a leak”. When I went to see Tow Law play a year later the article was still hanging above the urinals. The nicest compliment I have ever been paid.
 
 
Tow Law clubhouse. Photo Colin McPherson. http://www.colinmcpherson.com/
 

IRON MEN DIG DEEP FOR SILVER

After Tow Law’s FA Vase quarter-final victory over Sudbury Wanderers one Suffolk newspaper offered the opinion that the North-east town was “practically in bandit country”. You can see how a reporter might get confused. Tow Law’s isolated position and its long, straight main street certainly have the whiff of the Great Plains about them. You half expect to see tumbleweed blowing past the war memorial. Which is maybe not so surprising. After all this is wild West Durham.

For the past fortnight motorists on the A68 have no longer had to resist the subconscious urge to whistle a Sergio Leone theme as they pass through Tow Law. Instead they have simply marvelled at a community in the last stages of Carlsberg Vase fever. Since the Arnott Insurance Northern League side overcame Taunton in the semi-final to book their place at Wembley tomorrow, the town council and local businesses have invested in £400 worth of bunting in the team’s colours of black and white and a competition has been organised for the best shop window display. Last Sunday the congregations of all the local churches sang “Abide With Me” in preparation for the big day.

Tow Law, population 2,200, have sold more than 3,000 tickets for Saturday’s clash with Tiverton Town of the Screwfix Direct Western League. “A lot of people in the North-East have a soft spot for Tow Law,” Lawyer’s chairman John Flynn says. Much of the fondness surely stems from the sheer adversity of the place and the fortitude of its inhabitants. Tow Law is one of the highest towns in Britain. Perched on an exposed hillside with the Dickensian name of Waskerley Common, the small former coalmining community it is battered by howling, icy gales throughout the year. The Thermometer rarely rises. Some times it snows in June.

Until the 5-4 aggregate win over taunton, Tow Law Town’s greatest moment had come in 1967 when they played Mansfield Town in the first round of the FA Cup. The first match at the Lawyers’ Ironworks Road ground was abandoned in a blizzard. In the second the Durham boys triumphed 5-1. “It was like playing at the North Pole” Mansfield’s manager complained afterwards.

In the second round Tow Law drew with Shrewsbury then, with a home tie against Arsenal awaiting the winner, lost in the replay.  “Shrewsbury,” declared Frank McGhee in the Daily Mirror, “Have saved Arsenal from a fate worse than death – a trip to Tow Law in January.”

Tow Law lies a little over 1,000 feet above sea level on the eastern fringe of the North Pennines. 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 the spots of light that might denote distant farms or hamlets. A barbaric wind whips out of these barren wastes and Tow Law’s faithful fans sensibly gather in the shelter provided by a covered enclosure that presents it 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.

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 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 and 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. This all happened in April. Little wonder that Tow law was one of the first North-East teams to install hot baths.

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. The football club is a fixture in a shifting world.

“Sometimes,” John Flynn says, “when I’m driving back across the Pennines and the team are training I can see the floodlights far off on the horizon like a beacon guiding me home”. It was the floodlights, perhaps the most distantly visible in British football that first got Flynn involved with Tow Law Town. Six years ago he helped raise the money to pay for them.

The Teesside born Flynn has lived in Tow Law for more than twenty years. He is a solicitor in nearby Consett, a former steeltown that’s reputation for roughness must keep him in constant employ. That a man of his profession should be chairman of the Lawyers is entirely appropriate and explains why Tow Law’s pre-match raffles sometimes forego the more traditional North-East prizes of whisky and cooked meat in favour of a free last will and testament.

The Northern league is the second oldest football league in the world. Despite its history and prestige it has had a thin time of it over the past decade. Attendances have dwindled, many of the bigger clubs had advanced up the non-League pyramid and those that have remained have sometimes struggled to stop their players departing for the greater cash rewards of playing Sunday pub football.

Tow Law’s home crowds average around 100, they have no interest in leaving the Northern League and according to Flynn little trouble in recruiting and holding on to players despite the fact that many travel more than thirty miles to get to their home ground. Tow Law is a place where the remoteness fosters a spirit of community, even in those who don’t actually live there.

One player the Lawyers didn’t manage to keep was Chris Waddle, who spent the 1979/80 season at Ironworks Road when he was eighteen, netted 23 goals and left for Newcastle United for the princely sum of £1,500. Much to Tow Law’s disgust Newcastle paid in instalments.

Few of Tow Law’s current team have had brushes with the big time. Paul Hague, the giant centre-half whose muscular physique and mane of dark hair have earned him the nickname “George of the Jungle” turned out for Cork City in a European Champions Cup tie with Galatasaray; the forward Trevor Laidler lined up in the same Tynesaid U-13s representative team as Alan Shearer; a few other have suffered the pain of rejection by League clubs.

Most though are what manager Peter Quigley refers to as “true grassroots players”, men who have spent their entire footballing careers in a world where the merchandising outlet if a fold-down picnic table, the half-time pies are all home-made and you encounter match day programmes exhorting supporters to bring a thorn bush with them to the next game so that the club can plant a vandal proof hedge round the back of the changing rooms.

Quigley is a grass roots man himself. He played as centre-forward for Dunston and then, as manager, took the same club from parks football to the first division of the Northern League. This is Quigley’s first season at Ironworks Road. When he leads the team out at Wembley it will be just reward for all those years juggling a full-time job with what is a time-consuming passion. In the 44 days leading up to the Wembley date Tow Law Town have played 20 matches. And Alex Ferguson worries that his players are tired.

For Flynn the reward has come already, The financial windfall of the Vase run will pay for the Ironworks Road pitch to be relaid and some retaining walls to be strengthened.

“For the last five weeks,” he says, “anything that would normally have depressed me like getting beat 7-2 at home by Billingham Synthonia, I’ve just said to myself, “So what, We’re going to Wembley”.

Everyone at Tow Law is similarly uplifted. Even a minor controversy over whether Town’s longserving mascot, 10 year-old Sam Gordon, would be allowed to lead the team out has been resolved in the Lawyers’ favour. In fact the only cloud on Tow Law’s horizon is the chairman. A lifelong Middlesbrough fan, Flynn’s three recent trips to Wembley have all ended in tears.

“I think,” says Peter Quigley of the potential Jonah in their midst, “me and the lads will probably lock him in the broom cupboard before we set off”.

[Unfortunately either Quigley forgot, or Flynn escaped. The chairman was at Wembley and Tiverton defeated Tow Law 1-0]