Saturday, 19 December 2015

THE SNOOD, THE FAD AND THE UGLY

As the runners entered the crucial phase of an Olympic middle-distance race the former BBC commentator David Coleman was given to gurgling "Oh my word … and has he gone too early?" Viewers often feared that Coleman himself had gone too early, reaching a pitch of excitement in the final curve of major finals that seemed unsustainable without access to helium. Yet somehow, just when you thought he was going to yodel his lungs out through his nostrils and let the final 50 metres pass in blissful silence, the great man found something extra. Coleman was a commentator whose hysteria knob went up to 11, and likely way beyond that.

This week I found myself wondering if Carlos Tevez hasn't gone too early. The Man City striker was wearing a fleece snood back in the balmy days of mid-November. Given that the striker has been here for long enough to know that this is not the coldest time of year in the UK, it was a sartorial decision that if nothing else proved that in Argentina they have no equivalent of the popular English phrase, "You want to take that off, or you won't feel the benefit".

It has been remarked that the Argentinian forward is no oil painting, though only by those who have never studied the work of Pieter Bruegel. Take a peek at the Flemish artist's festive masterpiece, The Massacre of the Innocents, if you don't believe me. Look, there's Carlos in the far right foreground, apparently trying to prise a baby out of the arms of Peter Beardsley and Sally Gunnell.

Fittingly, the snood is by all accounts the name given to a type of cowl once popular in the middle ages. It is clearly not the garment for everyone, but since Carlos has the mien of a medieval swine-gelder he carries it off quite splendidly.

Unfortunately in professional football trends spread quicker than athlete's foot at a toe-wrestling championships. Faddism is rampant in Premier League dressing rooms. Fifteen years ago, for example, there was not a striker in the land who did not don a pair of thigh-hugging cycling shorts. They were so ubiquitous the FA even had to legislate on their colour. The lycra trunks were supposed to guard against hamstring strains, though the main effect was surely psychological. They suggested dynamic bursts of speed even where none existed: the football equivalent of the go-faster stripes youths used to apply to the side of their Austin Allegros. Even the Middlesbrough striker Paul Wilkinson wore them and, whatever his many other fine qualities, Wilko was so slow he'd have needed a quad bike to round up the stock on a snail farm.



Yet despite the alleged protection they offered against injury, where are cycling shorts now? Mouldering in the back of the changing-room lockers with the peroxide bottles and those strips of sticking plaster players used to wear across their hooters apparently to increase oxygen intake.
As a result of this insatiable desire among his peers to fit in and keep up, Tevez has already been joined in his snoodiness by Marouane Chamakh and Emmanuel Adebayor. In current climatic conditions many more are bound to follow in their swaddled wake. The question is, if the Argentinian felt the urge for a snood three weeks back, what will he wear now it is genuinely cold – legwarmers, balaclava, jumpsuit?

Certainly, it as well Alan Curbishley is not currently on the scene. A decade ago the then Charlton Athletic manager – a man so mild, if he was cheese he'd be Edam – launched a, for him, unprecedented tirade against modern footballers' reaction to winter: "When you wear woolly hats, gloves and all sorts you cannot play properly," Curbs thundered. And quite right too.

Older readers will recall a time when no footballers dared wear gloves. Even goalkeepers rejected them for fear of mockery. Thirty years ago any child who tried to slip a pair on when taking up a position between the sticks would find the PE teacher sneering: "Oh dear, does the nasty ball sting diddum's ickle-wickle fingers? There, there, baby-boo-boo, here's oo rusk." The games master would then go on sarcastically to posit a future in which a generation of namby-pamby stars would refuse to head the ball unless they were wearing a crash helmet, insist that the floodlights be fitted with heat bulbs and strap hot water bottles to their torsos on frosty afternoons (to judge by his body shape, an approach already adopted by Yakubu Ayegbeni).

As if gloves were not bad enough, many players these days are flagrantly wearing vests under their shirts. For managers of the old school, raised in the harsh environment of, well, the old school, such developments must set alarm bells ringing. They know where it will lead. One minute it's keeping his vest on during games, the next it's a note from mother excusing him from showers because he's going through "that awkward phase".

And now we have the snood. Perhaps it will prove to be an isolated outbreak. Back in the 1970s, the bubble-permed Leicester City maverick Keith Weller decided to fight off the cold by wearing a pair of white tights under his shorts. Nobody followed him. He had gone too early.




    Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

THE CLASS OF '61

Going to watch Boro play in a pre-season friendly at Brunton Park in August 2005 you could still smell the damp from that January's flooding as you walked down Warwick Road. That it should happen again is immeasurably cruel.



On a happier note, I've a piece about South Bank and the Ellis Cup in the latest issue of The Blizzard. There's lots of other good stuff in there, including a great article by Gunnar Persson about tragic Swedish genius Nacka Skoglund.



(Nacka on the left, Knacker on the right)

Oh, and there's a piece about Tasmania Berlin the worst team in Bundesliga history, too. You can order/download a copy here: https://www.theblizzard.co.uk/

Finally catching up on that Class of '92 documentary  reminded me of this, written for WSC a decade back.



When they reach their forties, men experience a change. You begin to suspect that the manufacturers of jeans have started skimping on material, you meet young people (yes, you have started to use the phrase “young people”) that you assume are sixth-formers and when you ask politely what A-levels they are doing discover that in fact they are GPs, barristers or your new boss, and you feel strangely compelled to tell your children not to keep saying like, like all the, like, time, for goodness sake because “you’re hardly going to impress a prospective employer speaking like that”.

Worst of all, though, is the dawning realisation that you can no longer lie in bed and daydream about being a professional footballer. Because even a fantasy must have a tenuous thread attaching it to reality and, once you leave your thirties, the scoring-a-hat-trick-in-the-Cup-final thread has snapped with a reverberating twang.

You still daydream about football, of course, but the nature of the daydream changes. Where once you were spotted in the back garden dribbling effortlessly round toddlers and dogs and catapulted to fame and glory, now you write series of international best-sellers/invent a water-powered car/win the lottery four times in the same month and use the money to buy your football club. You are a model chairman. You implement all sorts of radical measures: investing equally in local young talent and top names from around the globe who “will excite the fans”, forging links with the local community, allowing kids in free for FA Cup ties, abolishing post-goal music and banishing sponsors’ names from the old-style cotton shirts the design of which remains unchanged for at least a decade.



You are a hands-off chairman – of course you are – but just every so often you pop into the dressing room and modestly offer an incisive and rather brilliant piece of tactical advice that turns the Champions League semi-final decisively in your favour (though naturally you refuse to take any credit for it despite a clamour in the media for you to take the England job). Soon the stadium rings with chants of praise featuring your name, while Match of the Day cameras catch you blushing humbly amid a throng of former players and adoring blondes. You are praised by Andrew Jennings and denounced by Sepp Blatter. One of the most important milestones in a man’s life is when he stops wanting to be the new PelĂ© and starts wishing he was the new Jack Walker.

That, at least, was what it used to be like. No longer. Because one of the most brutally damaging effects of the recent emergence of Premier League clubs as a rich man’s plaything, one that has not so far been touched on in the press, is the effect it has had on the fantasy chairmen of England. The influx of oligarchs and oil barons has, quite simply, pushed the price of even a moderate football club way outside the reach of even the most vivid imagination.

The news that Newcastle United would be beyond the pocket of JK Rowling was the final straw for me. £450 million? How do you dream up that kind of sum? Age has ended my fantasy of a World Cup winner’s medal and now cold, hard cash has spat in the eye of the one that replaced it. My grandad always assured me that money would ruin football. Little did I suspect that it would not only spoil the real game, it would destroy the made-up game as well.



Some may feel that the obvious solution is to daydream about buying a lower-division or non-League club instead. At first that may appear attractive. But taking a grassroots small-town club and leading them all the way up from the Conference North to the UEFA Cup is perilous. I have explored it recently and to be honest it never ends well. Your club’s new wealth breeds simmering resentment among others of similar stature, the hardcore fans are quickly alienated and replaced by glory seekers. You see yourself as a philanthropic bene­factor bringing joy to a depressed corner of the north. Others see you as an opportunistic sugar daddy who has undermined fair competition. There is much talk of Gretna and Rushden & Diamonds. It is not much fun having a fantasy that is filled with visiting fans chanting: “Where were you when you were shit?”

Of course you could take over the non-League club and not shower it with your imagined riches, building it up slowly through night after night after night of hard work, endeavour and prudent financial management. But, be honest, where is the fantasy in that?

Saturday, 5 December 2015

THE BOY ZONE STORY



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 The following ran as a sidebar to the piece.

Tyneside Boys Clubs

Montagu and North Fenham

Former players: Kevin Richardson, Gordon Armstrong, Arthur Horsfield

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

Cramlington Juniors

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

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

Wallsend

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

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

Cleveland Hall

Former players: Steve Stone, Gary Owers, Graeme Jones

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

Saturday, 28 November 2015

YOU'LL WIN NOTHING WITH KIDS, NOT EVEN THE MEAT DRAW

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

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






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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

 

Friday, 13 November 2015

THE UNMARKED FALL OF THE FELLMEN

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





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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Saturday, 7 November 2015

SOMEONE LIKES YOU, YOU DON'T CARE

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

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




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

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


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

 

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

 

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

 

Saturday, 31 October 2015

SEE ME, FEEL ME, TOMY

It's been raining round here for 48 hours. I think I might get the Red Kite bus to Consett to see the currently homeless Durham City play Seaham Red Star in the FA Vase

Consett's ground has an artificial surface which guarantees play and reminded me of this...



(My friend Jack Lowe's splendid hand-painted Newcastle United team. Jack looks after the Tomy Super Cup Facebook page. You can Like it here https://www.facebook.com/TomySuperCupFootball/?fref=ts )

A lot of people thought that 2014 was the greatest World Cup of all time. It wasn’t. The best World Cup in history was held in a basement in Earl’s Court. It wasn’t organized by Fifa either, but by my mate Julian’s hairdresser and it was all over in a single Sunday. The trophy was four inches tall, made of solid plastic and it meant that Peru were entitled to a free cut and wash (no appointment necessary. Saturdays excluded). Yes, we are talking about the 1989 Tomy Super Cup World Cup.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Diego Maradona of Football Games let me explain. Tomy Super Cup was made by the Japanese toy giants in the mid-1980s (the box features a picture of Howard Kendal-era Everton playing against one of those Manchester United sides in which everyone looked like Arthur Albiston) and features two teams of tiny players who are moved up and down using levers, kicking the ball with a paddle attached to their feet.

This may sound a bit like the popular Casdon Soccer that came out in the 1960s. Casdon's game was endorsed by Bobby Charlton who featured on the box top wearing a bright red cardigan and grinning manically like someone listening to his fiancee's father telling his favourite story from thirty years in the double-glazing business, while trying not to fart.



In homage to the more rigid tactics of the sixties the players in the Casdon game stayed exactly where they were. The defenders never left the edge of the penalty area, the forwards tracked back less than Mark Viduka on Temazepam. In Tomy Super Cup, by contrast, the players hare up and down the field twisting and whirring. They are a blur of industry. This is because the game is – quite literally - electric.

It makes a racket. I admit. In fact, it sounds pretty much like that moment when one of your kids carries out an experiment to see what happens if you put Lego in the blender. When it is switched off at the end of a heavy session you have a ringing in your ears like someone stuck a brass pail over your head and got Karl Froch to clout it several times with a claw hammer.

The other minor problem with Tomy Super Cup is the black-and-white ball, which is the size of a flickable bogey. (Bogeys traditionally come in three calibrations: wipeable, flickable and stick under a work surface and blame it on that bloke with the Metallica T-shirt).

Since in times of high excitement the little players sometimes hoof the ball - in scale terms at least - several miles over the roof of the stadium, it is wise to Hoover the floor before you start. Otherwise you are likely to find yourself attempting to conjure a little magic on the edge of the D with a raisin, chocolate cake crumb, or indeed a flickable bogey.

Despite these quibbles Tomy Super Cup remains the best football game that I have played. Better even than Subbuteo and the estimable Teutonic game of Tipp-Kick, with its clanking metal players and their chisel-shaped kicking feet and dodecahedron-shaped ball. The only other game that comes as close to capturing the wild reality of football as Tomy Super Cup does is Balyna Super Soccer. In Balyna Super Soccer the players are moved using magnetised rods located under the playing surface.




This is a demented system because your opponent can use the reverse polarity of his own magnetic rod to chase your players around the field. As a result the whole match passes by in a frustrating attempt to influence a team who are totally out of your control and completely unable to fulfil even the lowest of your expectations - a pretty accurate representation of every fan's experience of football.

My friend Julian, who was introduced to Tomy Super Cup by his hairdresser, and has subsequently initiated just about every likely looking man he meets into the game’s arcane mysteries, says there were supposed to be more Tomy Super Cup Cups. A European League was mooted amidst excited talk of away fixtures in the cellars and bedsits of Spain and Italy. But then it all stopped as suddenly as it had begun. The hairdresser never explained why, but my belief is that the council intervened after complaints about the noise from the thrash metal band that were rehearsing the next door room.


Saturday, 24 October 2015

SOME TIMES IT SNOWS IN APRIL (AND MAY. AND JUNE).

Last weekend Howard Kendall passed away. By way of a small tribute, here's a photo- courtesy of Dan Jackson- of Kendall's school football team in which he lined up with a certain B. Ferry. There's a good little story about it in Michael Walker's book.



No game for me today as my parents have inconveniently arranged their Diamond Wedding Anniversary to clash with Benfield v Norton & Stockton Ancients.

It's the first day of winter tomorrow, so here's this.



In 1930 Chilton Colliery RA of County Durham met Stockton in a Northern League match. Chilton were leading 6-0 when four players walked off saying that could no longer stand the freezing cold. The referee refused to abandon the game. Stockton fought back, scoring four times, at which point one of the Chilton players collapsed from exposure and had to be stretchered off the field unconscious. The match official finally brought the players’ ordeal to an end in the 83rd minute. It was April the 19th.

In 1962-63 snow fell so heavily and lay so long that only six Northern League matches were played from 29th December through to March 3rd. In 1979 an FA Cup tie between Consett and Acrington Stanley was postponed eleven times and only went ahead finally after volunteers had worked for several days to clear 1,000 tons of snow from the Belle Vue pitch.
As you may gather from these stories, playing and watching football (and sometimes cricket) in the North East of England – a corner of the country Roy Keane always referred to as ‘up there’ even when he was manager of Sunderland - often requires a high degree of fortitude, and, for those on the terraces, enough thick clothing to lag a boiler.
In the first week of January this year I went to see North Shields play Marske United in the First Division of the Ebac Northern League. North Shields play at the Daren Persson Stadium, possibly the only football ground in England named after an undertaker.
That day a south-westerly wind snapped in off the North Sea all the way from the Barents Straits, bringing tears to my eyes and chilling my joints until I felt my knuckles would pop like bubble wrap. Despite wearing two pairs of thick socks and walking boots, I got so cold that when I caught the Metro back into the centre of Newcastle I couldn’t feel my feet till Byker (which, as a friend pointed out, sounds like a song by Lindisfarne).

Yet North Shields is by no means the coldest place to watch football in the North East. Not by a long chalk. In the region that stretches from the Tweed to the Tees some football grounds, such as those at Easington, Horden and Hartlepool, expose themselves to the bracing sea gale, while others are perched on the side of North Pennine hilltops. Here from October to May winter mist hovers in the air like a bitter marital argument and sharp icy rain pecks and scratches at exposed skin. Over the past two decades I’ve shivered in swirling snow at Hall Lane, Willington; been blasted by hail at Brandon Welfare Ground, and frozen to my seat at Crook on a day when cups of hot Bovril were passed around as hand-warmers and firemen freed incontinent dogs from lamp-posts. I’ve watched a game at Stanley United’s infamously exposed Hill Top where the air was so chilled the match was temporarily halted because the pea had frozen in the referee’s whistle.
 

However, for skin puckering, nose numbing, ear-aching, brass-monkey neutering cold, none of these places can compare to Ironworks Road, the windswept, glacial home of Tow Law Town. 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. Temperatures remain stubbornly unaffected by climate change.

Tow Law lies a little over 1,000 feet above sea level on the eastern fringe of the North Pennines, which probably makes it the highest football ground in England (the fact is disputed by Buxton). 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 any of the spots of light that might denote distant farms or hamlets. A barbaric wind whips out of these barren wastes - the splendidly Dickensian-sounding Waskerley Common.

The world’s great winds often have names – the Freemantle Doctor, the Chicago Hawk – the wind in Tow Law has a name too. ‘We call it the Lazy Wind,’ Lawyers’ faithful fans joke, ‘Because It can’t be bothered to go round you, so it just goes straight through.’

To avoid the Lazy Wind, Tow Law’s fans sensibly gather in the shelter provided by a covered enclosure that presents its 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. Even here things can be rough. ‘The weather was that bad,’ former Lawyers chairman John Flynn once said of a derby versus Crook, ‘you couldn’t see the snow for the fog.’

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 Sir Bobby Robson’s home club of 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, 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 (the committee unimpressed by the namby-pamby excuse about the weather fined them £20). This happened at Easter. Little wonder that Tow Law was one of the first North East teams to install hot baths.
 
 

During the fierce winter of 1962-63 Tow Law was cut off for over a month, all roads blocked by snow drifts, food ferried in on coal trains that occasionally battled up the steep gradient from nearby Crook. By the time the thaw came the Lawyers faced such a backlog of fixtures they didn’t complete the season till the start of June.

The Lawyers reached the FA Vase final in 1998 after a 5-4 aggregate win over Taunton in the semi. Though they lost to Tiverton, they did enter the record books that day - with a population of just 2,200 Tow Law is the smallest town ever to appear in a Wembley final.
Prior to that outing, Tow Law’s greatest moment had come in 1967 when they played Mansfield Town in the first round of the FA Cup. The opening match at the Lawyers’ Ironworks Road ground was abandoned at half-time in a blizzard. In the re-match the Durham boys triumphed 5-1. “It was like playing at the North Pole” Mansfield’s manager, Tommy Cummings complained afterwards (that’s a man born in Sunderland, incidentally, not some bloke from Rio de Janeiro or Cape Town)
In the second round of the Cup, Tow Law drew 1-1 at home with Shrewsbury in front of 4,000 fans in a howling gale, then, with a home tie against Arsenal awaiting the winner, lost in the replay in the more clement conditions of Shropshire 6-2.  “Shrewsbury,” declared London-born sports hack Frank McGhee in the Daily Mirror, “Have saved Arsenal from a fate worse than death – a trip to Tow Law in January.”

That seems a little cruel to me, not least because Tow Law has some of the friendliest fans and best home-made pies in football. However, it’s altogether harder to argue with the non-League groundhopper who noted, ‘You will never watch a game nearer to the moon, or be so grateful for a covered stand.’
 
 

Saturday, 17 October 2015

WAITING FOR MY MANAGER




Sam Allardyce reported for duty at the Stadium of Light this week, apparently with an autobiography to plug. Here's something I wrote when Martin O'Neill did the same thing four years and - was it? - three managers ago.

After lasts week's sojourn in leafy North Yorkshire where I watched Old Malton St Mary's thrash 'Naughty' Nunthorpe Athletic in the North Riding Cup, I think I'll restore my equilibrium by going to RCA v Washington



 
When it comes to giving hope to the desperate football fan there is an advantage in the Irish manager, who can always be imagined to have slept with a poster of some club stalwart gazing down at him from the wall. "Supported Sunderland as a boy," a bloke said to me on Sunday. "Hurley was his hero." And then he did that gesture that involves screwing up one eye, keeping the other wide open and turning your head slowly to the side as if scanning the horizon through an invisible telescope. I was pleased to see this gesture again as it was the one my grandfather used to make back in the 60s when we were sitting in the Bob End at Ayresome Park and he had just said: "There's 28,000 in here today, but they'll announce 22,000."

It is the gesture of somebody who is on the inside track, the possessor of secret knowledge. In truth,Martin O'Neill's support of Sunderland was hardly fresh news. It's a matter of public record that the Northern Irishman has a soft spot for them, one that began back in the days when they were "the Bank of England Club" and Len Shackleton (of blessed memory) was entertaining kids outside Roker Park by tossing a coin in the air, catching it on his instep and then flipping it up into the breast pocket of his jacket. The former Celtic manager has talked about it in interviews. I didn't say anything to the bloke though, because, to be honest, it was a relief to see a bit of the old I-know-something-you-don't swagger returning.

At one time you could barely cross the threshold of your house without somebody assailing you with a gaudy football rumour, usually one picked up on an intelligence network that apparently included everyone from the cousin of the Catholic bishop of Middlesbrough to the bloke who fitted Faustino Asprilla's satellite dish. Naturally, then, when Darren Bent was transferred from Sunderland to Aston Villa last season I expected something juicy to come my way. Possibly even an allegation so salacious that it might top the byzantine nonsense that inevitably followed a dozen or so years ago whenever anyone from the region said: "Well, you know the real reason the Toon sold Andy Cole, don't you?"

When nothing whatsoever emerged, I approached a longtime Sunderland supporter of six decades' service and asked him what lay behind the deal. His answer was in many ways more shocking than anything I could possibly have imagined. The man simply frowned and said: "Good business. And, at the end of the day, you can't keep a player if he wants away."
 

 

Behind this bald statement lay something even more worrying for Sunderland's then manager, Steve Bruce, than events involving performing snakes and a cabinet minister's daughter. Because when fans in the north-east don't react to the selling of a star by concocting a justification for it involving a trio of Brazilian lap dancers, an industrial quantity of baby oil and a trained parrot, then whoever is responsible for the sale is on wobbly ground.

And so it has proved, with Sunderland's poor finish to last season and shaky start to this one rapidly bringing unrest at the Stadium of Light. The explanation advanced in some quarters for the behaviour of those fans who shouted for Bruce's removal last weekend is that they are fickle, forgetting the progress the club made under his guidance 18 months ago when they threatened a top-six finish. This is to misread the situation. At any club that has struggled to fulfil its potential for as long as Sunderland the attitude to the management is always likely to mirror that at a Boilermakers rally. Fans were not reacting to 12 months of frustration, but to six decades of it. It is not that they have short memories, but long ones.



Back when Martin O'Neill was a boy, Sunderland were one of England's best-supported clubs. In the 1949-50 season, for example, the aggregate attendance at Roker Park topped the million mark. Sunderland and its supporters didn't experience relegation until 1958. Widely, though perhaps unjustly, held responsible for that debacle was the manager, Alan Brown from Corbridge. Brown was a strict disciplinarian who once said that the invention of football was 'one of the momentous things that happed in Creation'. He eventually got Sunderland promoted back to the top flight but promptly left for Sheffield Wednesday claiming they were more ambitious than the Wearsiders. .As a consequence Brown's name is so commonly prefixed by older Rokerites that a visitor might go away with the impression that the club was once coached by a bloke called Thatclown Alan‑Brown. Since Brown's reign it has been an uphill struggle for anyone taking charge. And as the years of underachievement have gone by the gradient has got ever steeper.

The captain of Sunderland during the club's last truly successful era was Raich Carter. Carter was a tough man, as anybody who grew up round Hendon docks with the name Horatio would be. Recalling the crowds at Roker Park during the 30s, however, he softened. "They sacrificed so much to come and see us," he told an interviewer late in his life. "We were their only hope" – and tears rolled down his cheeks. Nowadays people talk of the pressure created by the vast amounts of foreign cash that has flooded into the game and the media attention. Yet there are old‑fashioned burdens that are less tangible, but just as heavy, as Martin O'Neill may soon find out.

 

Saturday, 10 October 2015

THE FLIPPING FASHION FOR FLOPPING PASSION



Off to Malton today where I will be in the Old Town Hall from 5.30 talking about, amongst other things, Bobby Smith, the ironstone miner from Lingdale in East Cleveland  who won the double with Spurs and is probably the most Northern looking bloke in football history.

Our visit to Easington Collier last week was enlivened by a couple of fans from Hartlepool. One of them reacted to a forward bottling a one-on-one with the keeper by turning to me and saying, 'See that? He's quick, but he's taffy-hearted,' an expression of deepest scorn I hadn't heard since my Granddad died.

Here's something I wrote for the Boro programme a couple of years back.



In football these days we hear a lot of talk about passion. It’s not enough just to have it, you have to show you have it, whether you’re a player, fan or even a manager. When Sven Goran Eriksson was in charge of England he was often criticised for not racing from the dug-out and throwing a few water bottles while yelling at the 4th official about a throw-in decision.

As someone who grew up on Teesside in the era when men only waved their arms around when they were trying to punch one another, I find this belief in the benefits of hysteria baffling. When it comes to coaching it isn’t borne out by history, either. Don Revie spent practically the whole of every game sitting on the bench with his hands between his thighs looking for all the world like a man on a long bus journey who’s regretting having that pot of tea before he set out. Bob Paisley watched every
game with the benign smile of an elderly uncle attending a niece’s 5th birthday party.


 

Two other successful English managers who – when it came to emotions at least – kept their vests firmly tucked into their underpants were Alf Ramsey and Stan Cullis.. The better known of the two, Sir Alf demonstrated his reserve during the 1966 World Cup, famously remarking, when his trainer - Boro’s own Harold Shepherdson - jumped up from the bench in celebration of Geoff Hurst’s victory-sealing goal, “Sit down, Harold. I can't see.” What is less well known is that after the team’s celebratory dinner that night, Ramsey took a taxi back to Wembley and ran a solo lap of honour in the empty stadium. He didn’t want anyone to see how happy he was. He felt it would undermine his authority.

Stan Cullis helped transform Wolves into the best team in Europe (the North-East's contribution was winger Jimmy Mullen from Newcastle who managed to evade the local clubs despite being an England schoolboy international). Cullis was such a puritan he not only didn’t smoke or drink, he didn’t swear either, filling his half-time team talks with 'flippings' and 'floppings'. (He was also, in all probability, the only top flight English manager to speak Esperanto.)
 
Brought up dirt poor on Merseyside, Cullis didn’t jump about, or make feeble attempts to head butt opposition players, but his team knew where they stood. “Stan united the side,” Wolves defender Eddie Clamp recalled later, “We all hated him”.

Clamp had reason to feel bitter. A notorious hard man who terrorised opposition wingers, Clamp broke his leg in a European tie. He was stretchered off the field. As he passed Cullis, the manager leaned over and whispered, “Not so tough now, are you?”

 
Shouting doesn’t mean a manager is passionate. It just means he’s noisy.