Wednesday, 30 July 2014

ENTER THE GIRAFFE


One Saturday I met a bloke from Ashington who'd recently moved to Portobello in Edinburgh. He said the first week he was up in Scotland he was chatting to a local girl he’d met at his running club. By way of introducing him to the area she listed the many celebrities who come from Portobello, including Gail Porter. “Does anyone famous come from Ashington?” She asked.
 
“Jackie Charlton” the bloke replied.

The girls eyes widened with amazement, “What,” she exclaimed excitedly, “That bloke from the kung fu films?”

Many of you may feel this was simply a mix-up on the girl’s part. Possibly so, though personally I like to think that she was right. And that somewhere in the world there is a place where people watch martial arts movies featuring a craggy figure in a Barbour jacket taming the Hong Kong Triads with nothing more than a flat-cap, a fishing rod and no-nonsense common sense. While elsewhere Jackie Chan focuses a mind honed to razor sharpness by Shaolin monks on trying to remember who, or what, Tony Cascarino is. 

Saturday, 26 July 2014

THE GOLDEN BOYD




I saw Adam Boyd play many times for Hartlepool. He was never less than entertaining. One rainy April night against Sheffield Wednesday water lay on the pitch at Victoria Park in great puddles. Everybody else struggled to stay upright (Ed and I almost died on the way home when his VW camper van aquaplaned on the A19), but Boyd waltzed around like Fred Astaire, hitting one of the finest hat-tricks I've ever seen. He was a 4th Division genius.

I wrote this about him in the Guardian in 2005.


There was much merriment in the tabloids last week at the tale of Pool's striker Adam Boyd who had been forced to flee semi-naked across a "posh estate" after the ex-boyfriend of the woman he was in bed with at the time had turned up drunk from a stag night and assaulted him. It was in many ways a fitting means for Boyd to come to national attention for, if there is anyone out there determined to disprove the age-old cry that there just aren't the characters in the game anymore, he is that man.

There is an air of Frank Worthington about Boyd. He is tall, stands erect and has uncommon skill - a huge repertoire of feints and dummies, shoulder drops and swerves. Not since Farrah Fawcett (ask your Dad) has one person possessed quite so many lovely flicks. There is no doubt in my mind that, if the 23-year-old could cover 10 yards even a split-second faster than a fully laden milk float, he would be very famous indeed. Pace, though, is not his strong suit. In possession Boyd is elegant but he runs as if his knees are welded, leaning backwards like a nervous child on roller skates.

Middlesbrough and Sunderland have sent scouts to Victoria Park to look at him. He is valued at £1m but no offer has yet come. There may be other reasons for this beyond a lack of speed. According to newspaper reports, Boyd's marked improvement last season came after he had lost weight following manager Neale Cooper's advice to "lay off the pies". In Hartlepool Boyd's fondness for pies is well known. Rumour has it that some evenings he goes out and has a dozen or more pies, so many in fact that he is often seen late at night staggering about from the sheer weight of all the meat and pastry.

Like any skilful player with a manner that edges towards the listless side of languid, Boyd tends to divide the crowd. Last week in the Carling Cup tie with Darlington two men sitting behind me started up a verbal exchange. "Get a move on, Boyd, you lazy git."

"He got 29 goals last season."

"Aye, but how many has he got in the past eight games?"

The pair then carried on one of those terrace non- arguments in which remarks apparently directed at the pitch are actually digs at the other fellow.

"C'mon Boydy!" the Boyd supporter yelled as the forward got the ball and did a series of elaborate darts and shimmies around it that recalled a Mexican hat dance, "Go on, son!"

"It's come to nowt," the other bloke bellowed as the ball bounced off the defender's shin and into touch. "Should have give it to Butler. Butler was free".

"Away Butler, make some movement," the first man yelled just to show he wasn't beaten. "Boydy'd opened things up for you there."

And so it went on.

"He's held it too long, as usual."

"Get wide, Pools, and give Boydy some options."

Eventually Boyd was substituted. "There you go," his detractor crowed. "Done nothing." He may have thought he'd got the last word but I suspect time will prove otherwise.

 

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

SIMIAN EXCHANGE


My friend Ed is a Hartlepool fan. he says that when he used to visit Brunton Park as an away supporter in the pre‑Taylor report days when grounds still had security fences, there was an old steward at Brunton Park who used to direct visitors into their pens with a call of "Come by, come by" as if he were herding sheep.

Sadly, I never encountered this old fellow, but once when I went with Ed to watch Pools play at Brunton Park I witnessed an illuminating exchange between two rival fans. As we left the ground a local likely lad shouted: "You hang monkeys," at the Pools supporters. "You shag sheep," came the crisp and witty reply from the bloke in front of me. "Well, you hang monkeys." The Carlisle fan hit back.
"And you shag sheep."
"You hang monkeys."
"Aye well, I'd rather hang a monkey than shag a sheep."
"Aye, well, I'd rather shag a ... Er, fuck off you."
Admittedly, it wasn't exactly Oscar Wilde and James McNeill Whistler, but the recollection has kept me amused during many a dark evening.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

JULIET, PORTIA, ROSALIND AND BOBBY

This is kind of a companion piece to the earlier Ashington v Stockton and Norton Ancients match report. I went to the match with When Saturday Comes editor Andy Lyons and the painter Paul Harvey. We asked a woman for directions to Beatrice Street. She said, 'I'd take you there myself, but I'm going to the off-licence'.






Last week a writer in the Daily Mail decried football's encroachment into every aspect of British life, saying that nowadays a politician would rather confess to tucking his shirt into his underpants than to not liking the game. You can take the point. No one likes to see MPs struggling to give themselves the illusion of three dimensions by listing the players they idolised in their youth, or, in the case of Mr Tony Blair, by recalling watching players who had retired before they were weaned. (Perhaps, like Woody Allen, the prime minister once suffered a near-death experience in which someone else's life flashed before his eyes.) And yet while football may appear ubiquitous, in some ways it also remains invisible. Or at least its history does.

On Saturday I walked down the evocatively named Third Avenue in Ashington, Northumberland, past thoroughfares named after Shakespearean heroines - Juliet, Portia, Katharine - until I came to Beatrice Street, two long rows of brick terrace houses facing each other across tiny front gardens and a narrow pavement.

Some of the plots are neatly tended, the shoots of snowdrops gingerly peeping up from the soil, others are a dumping ground for mouldering off-cuts of nylon carpet and the limbless torsos of discarded dolls. Certainly Beatrice Street is nothing to write home about - unless your spouse happens to be scouting locations for a remake of Saturday Night And Sunday Morning, that is - but in a land where football is apparently omnipresent you might expect it to be marked in some way. After all, this was where Jack and Bobby Charlton were brought up by their indomitable mother Cissie and their father Bob, a quiet, tough man who won the money to pay for the wedding ring in the boxing booth at a local fair.

At the top of the street is Hirst North Junior School where Bobby won his first championship, the East Northumberland Boys League, at the back the alleyway where the brothers were traditionally photographed in later life kicking a ball about with local youngsters. But though Bobby has some legitimate claim to be the most famous Englishman of the latter half of the 20th century, Beatrice Street does not have a plaque or a sign.

To find out about the local football heritage you have to go along to Portland Park, home of Ashington FC. Contrary to what the marketing people might choose to believe, football does not have a home. The game is itinerant and there is plenty of evidence in the Colliers' clubhouse that it has occasionally pitched its tent in Ashington. Photos of the town's famous players line the walls. Many of them are Charlton relatives.

Cissie's father "Tanner" Milburn was Ashington's goalkeeper during their brief spell in the Football League. Her four brothers all played professionally: Jack, George and Jim for Leeds, Stan for Leicester; her cousin was "Wor Jackie" Milburn; another set of cousins, the Cobbledicks, wisely stayed away from the football field.

Cissie brought Bobby to Portland Park when he was a baby. The shouting of the crowd startled him and he burst into tears and wailed so loudly she had to take him home again. On Saturday the roar produced by the 80 or so diehards was less alarming; Ashington, pushing for promotion in Albany Northern League Division Two, thrashed Norton and Stockton Ancients 5-0.

Afterwards, the two teams sat at long tables in the clubhouse function room eating the fish and chips an Ashington committee member had brought in a few minutes earlier in a large cardboard box. On the wall by the telephone a photo shows Jack tangling with a Celtic forward at Hampden Park in the semi-final of the 1970 European Cup. The terraces beyond him are packed so tightly just looking at it sends a shiver down your spine.

Ashington council have discussed the founding of a football museum and if the club ever build a new stadium there is talk of incorporating one into it. If any of the town's footballing sons had been writers, artists or politicians, though, it seems certain they would have been commemorated by now. Perhaps this is as it should be - a true reflection of the game's value.

Except that I look back now to a time twenty-five years ago, in a bar in the northern Spanish town of Potes, when the man frying prawns on the iron hot plate heard that we were English and smiling, raised a thumb and called, ‘Bobby Charlton!’

I’ve never heard anyone do that with Hardy or Dickens.

 

 

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

THE NATURALS



Fifteen or so years back I was walking down the street when a black Mercedes pulled up at the kerb next to me. The driver's door swung open and the then Newcastle centre-forward Mick Quinn emerged. The mustachioed scouser cast a furtive glance to left and right to check for traffic wardens, and then dashed up the pavement and into the betting shop. A man standing nearby raised his eyebrows. "I've been to every home game at St James' since we bought him and that's the furthest I've ever seen him run," he said.

The comment was not made with any malice, or sense of grievance. The man was grinning when he said it and finished with what can only be described as a chortle. Mick Quinn was held in high regard. Whenever I saw him I thought of Bob Paisley's observation about Ray Kennedy: "He's not quick, but he's nippy." Paisley had a habit of making pronouncements so gnomic they came with their own fishing rod and cap, yet you always knew what he meant, just about. Quinn wasn't fast, but he could cover two yards before you could say "tubby". Most of the time, though, he barely raised himself above a saunter, calling to mind a plumber who'd been sent to buy supplies during his lunch break. People admired him almost as much for this affable slowness as for his goals. They liked the fact that he didn't cavort around like a bullock let out into spring pastures. They liked his comfortable outline that called to mind my old biology teacher's description of the frog, which was "streamlined in a barge-like manner". They appreciated the way he moved like a bloke who'd just put his sandwich down.

In the film Chariots of Fire the Harold Abrahams character berates a British athletics official for objecting to his use of a professional coach. "You want us to win, but you want us to win without effort. You want us to win like gods," he says. Football fans are different from 1920s athletics officials in this latter respect. We don't want the players to win like gods, but every so often we enjoy watching one win like a bloke from down the pub.

This, along with his assured performances, surely accounts for the mounting popularity on Wearside of Andy Reid. The former Spurs midfielder has the dishevelled roly-poly looks of someone who might knock on your door one afternoon and announce that he has some leftover tarmac from a job down the road and do you want your driveway doing? Whenever I have seen him I have gone away with the impression that he had a cigarette in the corner of his mouth with half-an-inch of ash wilting from the tip. When it comes to sprinting well, frankly, the Irishman makes Mick Quinn look like Bryan Habana.

Though Reid may give the impression of being so slow that birds might nest in his hair, like Oliver Hardy, he has small and nimble feet and that eerie ability when centre stage to momentarily make it appear that the rest of the world has stood still while he remains in motion.

According to Roy Keane, Reid "likes a drink and a sing-song". This will undoubtedly add to his appeal. A friend of mine recently claimed that Middlesbrough's decision to buy Mido could only have been based on chairman Steve Gibson's nostalgia for the days of Alan "Fatty" Foggon and Gary Hamilton, a Scots midfielder who was purpose-built to carry the Boro's 1980s sponsor's logo, Heritage Hampers, across his chest.

The luckless Egyptian is someone who gives a whole new meaning to the term wide man, though he is clearly planning to lose weight, because if that arse is a permanent structure he would have had to apply for planning permission for it by now. And besides, Mido is far too clean living and dedicated to ever be compared to the man justly celebrated in the Middlesbrough version of the Deck of Cards (Teessiders feel free to join in): "And when I see the nine I think of the number of pints Alan Foggon used to drink before a match. And when I see the 10 ... I think of the number of pints Alan Foggon used to drink before a match."

The point about Quinn, Reid, Foggon and all the other players who look like they just stepped out of the saloon bar and on to the pitch is that they fulfil a subconscious need in all of us. They lend credence to the concept of The Natural. The belief in a sporting gift so wondrous that it requires no coaching, dedication or hard work to perfect is a great comfort to most of us, because the time has passed when we can spend 12 hours a day practising our ball skills or running up sand dunes.

Our only remaining hope of gaining glory is that one day we will absent-mindedly pick up a club, bat or racket and discover that - My God! - this is what I was born to do. And 12 months down the line Gary Lineker will be looking at us in amazement and saying: "So, when you hit that golf ball 600 yards down the fairway you had no idea how incredible it was?" And we can take another big bite out of our pie, nod and say: "No, and to be honest, Gary, I didn't even know I was using a sand wedge."

Saturday, 12 July 2014

THE BINS OF SUPER AL



A few years ago when languid striker Alain Boksic was reputedly pulling in £63,000 a week for putting in the occasional performance for Middlesbrough, a friend of mine would accurately predict the Croatian’s availability for matches simply by taking a detour past his house on the way back from work. While the club issued medical bulletins and talked of late fitness tests my mate would shake his head. “No go for Maine Road,” he’d tell me on Tuesday evening, “Super Al’s bins are already out”. Refuse collection day was Friday. You don’t put your bins out three days in advance unless you’ve gone on holiday.

 
During his time at the Riverside Stadium a story about Boksic circulated around Teesside. In a classic Armani suit-and-bovver-boots combination the ex-Juventus star found himself partnered up front by Noel Whelan. He was not impressed. And who can blame him? Whelan was a hard worker, a bustler, but he carried all the attacking threat of Tupperware. At one point during his Boro career he had scored more goals in his own net than he had in the opposition’s. Boksic may have been so slothful he appeared to be teetering permanently on the cusp of hibernation, but he had standards.

 
According to the story, one Monday after a particularly inept display by the former-Leeds targetman Boksic went in to see the Boro secretary. “What does Whelan earn per week?” He demanded. The secretary told him. “And how long does he have left on his contract” the Croatian asked. The secretary told him, and the striker stalked out. The next day he returned waving a cheque. “This is the money Whelan will earn during the rest of his time here. Give it to him now” he commanded the secretary, “and tell him to fuck off”.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

LAVATORY HUMOUR


During the dark days of Gordon Strachan's Riverside reign I was having a drink with a fellow sufferer. Fondly recalling the days when football fans threw toilet rolls on to the field. "They threw other stuff, too," I waffled nostalgically. "If memory serves, Hull fans used to pelt goalkeeper Ian 'Keckers' McKechnie with oranges, because he'd once told the local paper he liked them. Just as well the Tigers' custodian hadn't expressed a fondness for melons or coconuts, or he'd likely have suffered brain damage. But it was toilet rolls that were thrown mainly."

"The Boro have been that bad this season, I've been tempted to throw the whole toilet," my friend said in response, "and I wouldn't have flushed it first either."

When I laughed he said, "I actually mean it." But that, of course, was what made it funny. In football the best jokes are dragged from despair, like smouldering fruit bushes from a badly located bonfire.

WATCH YOUR STEP




If in sporting terms the international professional fixture is the peak of civilization, then the amateur club game is the wild frontier. Perhaps that is why the further down the sporting ladder you go the more likelihood there is of summary justice.

 

At the Doctor Pit Welfare Ground in Bedlington a few years ago I saw a salutary example of this. As a Bedlington player ran onto a long through ball the linesman raised his flag. Incensed, a home supporter who was a few yards away from him, leaning on the perimeter fence, yelled, “Bollocks, man! That was never offside”.

 

The linesman, an individual so large he might have worn a portaloo as a warm-up coat, turned round, fixed the complainant with the sort of steely glare that has “no messing” printed all over it in bold type and growled, “You’re talking total shite, sunshine”.  After that, criticism of the linesman’s decisions was confined to mild nose wrinkling and the occasional short burst of eye rolling, though only when his back was turned, obviously.

 

The point here is, that while it’s easy to pour abuse on an official or a player from the anonymity of a huge crowd (or indeed a newspaper column), when you’re aware that your accusations that the centre-half  "Couldn't catch wor lass - and she waits for men” may be put to the test when he vaults over the rail and chases you down the street, you think twice about it, I can tell you.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

THE TALL GUYS

Back in 2001 Sunderland boss Peter Reid seemed to be forever in the market for towering centre forwards...



 

British football folk once set great store by a forward’s ability to defy the laws of gravity. A top class targetman of the fifties such as Tommy Lawton could, apparently, launch himself into the sky like a rocket and then stay there, returning to earth only when food and Brylcreme supplies ran low. Later players such as Ian St John perfected the knack of lurking above the ground until a cross eventually found it’s way to them or they were knocked unconscious by a passing sputnik. When Denis Law was described as “hovering around the penalty spot” it was meant quite literally.

 

One of the game’s greatest soarers was Wyn Davies, once memorable described in the Newcastle Evening Chronicle as “The Magpies’ leaping Welsh dragon”. On a video dedicated to St James’s Park centre forwards, “The Magnificent Number Nines” one of Davies’ former team-mates, Scottish centre-back Bobby Moncur tells how in training he would jump for the ball with the Welshman. Defender and attacker rose together but as the Scot began to descend he would look up and there would be Davies loitering casually at the apex of his leap. “He was just hanging there in the air,” a still amazed Moncur announces to viewers.

 

You might be tempted to imagine that such an astonishing thing could only possibly result from the use of banned substances. But that would be an outrageous libel against Bobby Moncur.

 

The current Anderlecht forward, Jan Koller, is able to hang in the air simply by standing upright. Perhaps that is why the 6’7” Czech Republic international is attracting such interest in England. (Not that continental teams are averse to employing large forwards. The Champions’ League final will feature Valencia’s mighty Norwegian obelisk John Carew and Carsten Janker of Bayern Munich, a player whose ability to contribute in the quarter-final at Old Trafford was clearly compromised by the ban on the movement of livestock).  The big man from Smetanova Lhota has been linked with Chelsea, Manchester City, Aston Villa, and Sunderland.

 

Koller is a skilful player, but his sheer size may lead to him being typecast. There is after all no reason why somebody who is tall should necessarily be good in the air. I know this from personal experience. Despite being 6’ 5” tall I think it is fair to say that during my playing days I carried all the aerial threat of a lugworm. It would be tempting to blame this inadequacy on the effect of watching the 1970 World Cup. It will be remembered that during that tournament the winners Brazil fielded a centre forward, the sublimely talented Lee Harvey Oswald look-alike Tostao, who was forbidden from heading the ball by medical experts. Clearly this wasn’t reassuring for a watching ten year old, although in truth the realization that being struck on the forehead by a leather ball actually hurt probably did me more long-term psychological damage.

 

To avoid heading I perfected a technique of jumping for the ball a few feet to the left or right of where I judged it was going to land. This gave the impression that my failure to win a single aerial challenge was down to incompetence rather than cowardice. I honed this skill until it was practically an art form. Indeed for decades I thought I was the world’s leading practitioner. Then I saw Mikkel Beck play.
 
 

 

As well as targeting Koller, Sunderland boss Peter Reid is also, it is said, keen on QPR’s six-and-a-half footer Peter Crouch. He already has Niall Quinn and Daniel Dicchio, combined height a smidgeon shy of thirteen feet, at his disposal. Not since the days when the publishing magnate Lord Northcliffe responded to a fall in circulation at one of his newspapers by ordering the staff to line up in order of size and then appointing the tallest as editor has anyone shown quite such faith in the power of height.

 

Most observers suggest that one of these transfer targets is being lined up to replace the ageing Quinn. It’s my belief, however, that the gigantophile Reid is actually going to ditch the diminutive Kevin Phillips in favour of a massive attack of Quinn, Dichio and Crouch or Koller (or possibly both).

 

Since Reid is one of the craftiest managers around I believe he will use this formation to confuse the opposition. “So when we get the ball do we just lump it forward for the big men?” Sunderland skipper Michael Gray will ask before the opening match. “No Micky,” Reid will respond, with a cunning grin, “that’s just what the enemy will be expecting us to do….”

          

 

Saturday, 5 July 2014

EFFLUENT AND CYNICISM

In October 2010 a sewage pipe burst in the away dressing room at The Stadium of Light. Manchester United were the visitors.


The burst sewage pipe in the away dressing room at the Stadium of Light was the cause of some merriment for the man from the newsagent's. "They said the whole place was filled with liquid excrement," he said. "And we weren't even playing the Boro."

He let out a noise that sounded like an asthmatic hyena playing the kazoo and added: "I said: 'And we weren't even playing the Boro,'" in case the only Middlesbrough fan in the shop (me) missed it the first time. And then he said: "Are you not wanting a Kit Kat today?"

You might think this an example of customer care straight from the Ryan Air Manual, but we have to make allowances for the man in the newsagent's.  Half a lifetime as a Sunderland fan in a Newcastle-supporting area has left him all bitter and twisted. As a Middlesbrough fan the same thing might have happened to me. Luckily, when I arrived here 20 years ago I was already so bitter and twisted from supporting the Boro for three decades that if anything the added sourness and torque have gentled my disposition.

The start Steve Bruce's team have made to this Premier League season has at least got the bloke from the newsagent's off his twin favourite topics: Len Shackleton and Kevin Keegan, two footballers who represent the yin and yang of his life. As other men have had "love" and "hate" tattooed on their fists, so might he have had "Shack" and "Keegan" etched on his. Although, obviously to do so he'd have to have five fingers on one hand and six on the other, which as the barber pointed out is an unlikely configuration "even for someone who was born in Murton, like he was".

I should say that, in my view, this is a slight on Murton, though I have visited the Durham village only once, admittedly. That was back in the days when they still had a team in the Northern League. My friends and I had got off the bus from Durham City and were struggling to locate a pub, The International. It was raining. The afternoon was so dark that even if the workers' flag were flying you wouldn't have been able to see it from a distance of more than six feet.

The streets of Murton were deserted. The chip shop on the corner with the sign in the window proclaiming the availability of something called a "Dona Kebab" (whether a misspelling or an unfortunate fate for some poor woman, I cannot say) was shut.

As we began to despair, and consider suicide, or a trip to Spennymoor, a bloke lurched into view from a side street. He was walking in the classic manner of the daytime drunk, with his feet planted far apart as if to brace himself against the swell of the pavement, a grin on his face proclaiming: "I'm blattered, but I'm getting away with it."

We stopped him and asked the way. He gave us directions and as we walked off bawled after us: "The beer's piss, mind, lads." Kirstie Allsopp would doubtless get all prissy about the lack of dado rails, but I find it impossible not to warm to a place like that.

Any road, the barber said that he had heard something about the sewage pipes in the Manchester United dressing room. Looking around as if suspecting an eavesdropper, he lowered his voice so that only the entire shop could hear, and said: "Cut deliberately. By person, or persons unknown." He raised his eyebrow: "So you know who that means, don't you?"

It was plain from the way he told us this that the barber believes showering Rio Ferdinand with shit on purpose is somehow morally more repugnant than doing it by accident. Personally, I am not so sure. Because, to be honest, I still haven't forgiven the England centre-back for that World Cup prank programme.

Still, it must be stated clearly that there is nothing whatsoever to suggest that anything the barber has said on the subject of the Stadium of Light burst sewage pipe (or indeed on "that business" with three Newcastle players involved – a tale for which the world is not yet ready. And won't be until all three are dead and therefore beyond the protection of our libel laws) is in anyway correct. Nothing except historical precedent, anyway.

Because football dressing rooms have been sabotaged in some pretty vile ways over the years. Showers have been cold, salt has been supplied instead of sugar with the half-time tea and there have been accusations of rotten fish being placed in the heating ducts.

Perhaps the weirdest example was that of the Alnwick Town chairman John Common, who made a habit of leaving a dead animal ("The smallest a mole, the largest a sheep" according to the official history of the Northern League) in the visitors' changing area. Mr Common claimed that this was done in a spirit of impish fun – a practical joke of Ferdinand-esque proportions.

"Pity it didn't happen when your lot were playing there, isn't it?" the barber said. "Being surrounded by evil-smelling filth – it would have made the Boro feel like they were at home, wouldn't it?"

It's water off a duck's back, like I say.

Friday, 4 July 2014

BIG OSSIE SAYS




The previous evening I had been in the pub talking to a bloke named Ossie. He had a head the size of a breeze block and when he addressed you it was like standing at the mouth of a wind tunnel. When Ossie spoke he wagged a finger in your direction. Not straight on, but with his right arm stuck out at 45 degrees to his front and his index digit cocked inwards. You got the feeling that if you ever looked at that finger directly Ossie would smack you with a quick left hand, so you just left it out there dancing at the edge of your vision.

"I tell you what lad," Ossie had bellowed, sending the froth on my pint skimming across the saloon bar like a Frisbee. "I don't care how much money that Mike Ashley has made, or how he's made it. As far as I am concerned that man is stupid. Stupid. He is as thick as a Gurkha's foreskin."

Thursday, 3 July 2014

HAWAY 5-0

Portland Park in Ashington was one of my favourite football grounds, decrepit but rich in history, with one of the friendliest clubhouses in the North East. It is now a supermarket.

The following match report appeared in the Ashington fanzine, The Pit Pony Express in March 2001.





Ashington v Norton & Stockton Ancients


There are a lot of things that tell a man he is getting old. You notice that if you eat a balti after nine o’clock you can’t get to sleep, that jeans manufacturers are making their waistbands much tighter than they used to and that sheepskin slippers are damned comfortable and who cares what they look like, anyway, I'm only going to the bloody post office. Even more telling is the way people treat you when you have an accident. 

Coming out of the clubhouse into Portland Park on the evening after this game something happened. One minute I was walking along expounding to my two companions on the ridiculousness of the Northern League’s stringent ground safety policy, the next I had missed my footing and fallen down two steps of terracing. In days gone by my mates would surely have reacted to this event by laughing hysterically and yelling “A big round of applause for the acrobat” and other such witticism. This month, however, I turn 40. So instead of mirth I got concern. “Are you all right? Don’t get up straight away. Wait till you feel fully recovered”. All very laudable, I’m sure. Though personally I’d have preferred scorn.


I was not injured in the slightest, though I did feel mightily humiliated, AN EMOTION DOUBTLESS SHARED BY THE DAY’S OTHER VISITORS FROM TEESSIDE, NORTON AND STOCKTON ANCIENTS (I put this latter clause in block capitals in case any young aspiring writers are eager to see how an experienced hack such as myself sets about linking two completely unrelated pieces of twaddle in so seamless a manner that nobody but a certified expert can detect the join). For the latter had, in the immortal words of Hunter S. Thompson, just been thrashed like a red-headed stepchild.


Not that anyone would have predicted a 5-0 scoreline after forty minutes, Norton more than matching the home side and playing some neat football in midfield. Unhappily for them they lacked the Colliers cutting edge in front of goal. If only the legendary RA “ Bullet” Smith were still on their books things might have been different. Although given the fact that he would be at least ninety, probably not.


With half-time approaching Ross Atkinson showed how it should be done, latching onto a through ball and going one-on-one with the Ancients' gargantuan goalie. Sensing that to attempt to go round this massive figure would require a 4WD and a fortnight’s supply of food, Atkinson wisely chose to lob him instead and the ball dropped nicely into the empty net.


Ashington's second came shortly after the interval. Unfortunately I had been distracted by a picture of Jimmy Adamson in the clubhouse and didn’t see it. I am reliably informed that Robson scored it. Other information is lacking, but years of missing goals at live football tell me that it was in all likelihood a wickedly swerving shot struck with the outside of the right foot from thirty yards which practically tore a hole in the roof of the net. And I’m sure the player himself would confirm that if asked.

At this point Norton became disillusioned. Heads went down. “We’re not talking anymore,” the giant keeper said more or less to himself.  Porter added a third with a spectacular diving header worthy of Tony Mowbray in his pomp and the visitor’s manager was heard to inquire of an assistant “Have you got the petrol money?”


Lawson and Robson finished the rout with goals that were almost mirror images of Atkinson’s opener, the Norton custodian showing the sort of aversion to chips normally associated with weightwatchers.


Five-nil. The biggest victory margin I have ever seen at a Northern League game. Though, admittedly I don’t get to Crook very often. Which is probably just as well. I seem to recall the terracing at Millfield is a bit steep for old-timers like me.