Saturday, 28 March 2015

A LACK OF PLAQUE

This week I had the pleasure of giving a short talk at the Northern Social Club in Ashington as part of an event my friend, the photographer Julian Germain had organized. He was delivering what is called 'The Wednesday Lecture'. Because there's bingo at the Northern Social Club on Wednesday night, he had to give it on Thursday instead.

The last time I appeared in Ashington the bloke who did the poster got confused and billed me as Harry Roberts. Several members of the audience were disappointed to find I hadn't killed any policemen.

Here's a bit of what I said this time.



Ten, fifteen years ago I used to come and watch football fairly regularly in Ashington, at Portland Park. I knew some of the people who ran The Pit Pony Express fanzine. One of them, Mick Hydes, moved up to Scotland. He said that at work one day he was talking to a woman who said she came from Portobello. She said that Gail Porter, the Blue Peter presenter also came from Portobello. She asked Mick where he was from. He told her. She asked if there was anyone famous who came from Ashington. Mick said, 'Jackie Charlton'. And the woman said, 'What, the bloke form the Kung Fu films?'

One Saturday in March 2001 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 small front gardens and a narrow pavement.

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 the Town Moor Hoppings. The family moved here from Laburnum Terrace, a street where the young Jimmy Adamson, then playing for East Chevington Juniors, lived. Laburnum Terrace is the only street in the World that has produced three English Footballers of the Year. Ashington is likely the only town.

At the top of Beatrice Street is Hirst North Junior School where Bobby won his first championship, the East Northumberland Boys League. At the back you will find 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. Nor does Labunrum terrace

To find out about the local football heritage you have to go along to Portland Park, home of Ashington FC. Contrary to what the Wembley 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 caravan 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 football fans.

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.
 
 

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 four-wheel drive 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 his Burnley glory years in the clubhouse and didn’t see it. I am reliably informed that Robson scored. 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 you 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 Jurgen Klinnsman 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. 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 Big Jack tangling with a Celtic forward at Hampden Park in the semi-final of the 1970 European Cup. 100,000 attended that game, the terraces so tightly packed just looking at the photo sends a shiver down your spine.

Ashington council have discussed the founding of a football museum, but it has come to nothing, yet. 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 a little village in the Picos de Europas in Northern Spain, 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 withVirginia Woolf or Charles Dickens.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

PASS IT, MAN, PASS IT, YOU BALL-GREEDY GET!

The discovery of this photo of the football team from Roseberry Primary School, Great Ayton c.1972 (I'm on the back row) prompted me to dig out this piece written long ago for one of the many football magazines that over the decades have sprouted and died without anyone much noticing and owing me money....



It is often said that footballers are role models for our children. Possibly so, though personally I would like to see this situation reversed. I think the game would be greatly improved if instead of children copying the players, the players copied children. Because I can’t help feeling that football needs to return to the exuberance and innocence of its spiritually home – the field round the back of the housing estate. Some may feel an increase in childishness would result in a breakdown in discipline. Not a bit of it.  I don’t think, for example, that we would have half as much arguing over decisions if the ultimate power of arbitration was taken out of the hands of referees and given instead to The Big Tough Lad Whose Brother Is In Borstal.

To take football back to its roots will require radical action, but I feel that if Sepp Blatter and his Fifa henchman could get the following proposals in place in time for the qualifying rounds of the next World Cup we would all feel the benefits.

First of all the pitch. Goalposts, naturally, must be replaced with jumpers, anoraks and the paperboys' satchels and at least one bottle of fizzy pop which will be sent cartwheeling by a powerful shot and explode. The exact position of the “bar” will be determined by a long argument between the goalkeeper (“It went about a foot over me hands and I was jumping this high”) and the player claiming the goal (“No you weren’t. You were leaning backwards and your elbows were bent”) and eventually resolved by a wrestling match (One fall or submission to determine the winner. No kicking, gouging or pulling down your opponent’s shorts to reveal his underpants to passing girls).

One touchline should be clearly demarcated by a wall, fence or line of parked cars while the other should lie at a point so far away none of the players can be bothered to run after the ball once it has gone beyond it.

To spice things up still further at random moments during the game the dimensions of the pitch should be suddenly altered when: a game featuring younger players starts up in one corner; a gang of youths on bicycles turn up to practice skids and experiment with cigarettes and spitting; an elderly couple in a spotless Ford Mondeo set up a picnic table and chairs near the half-way line and declare that “If that ball comes anywhere near our cups you lot are for the high jump”.

The game will last from “after lunch” until “tea-time” a duration calculated by having a traditional British grandmother boil a cabbage until it is cooked to her satisfaction – roughly four and half hours. Half-time will occur when the two biggest lads are thirsty and will last as long as it takes for the puniest player to go to the shop and bring pack crisps, pop and a selection of flying saucers, liquorice laces and some of that sherbet that turns your tongue blue.
 
The game will end when the cabbage has reached the consistency of pond slime and the granny appears at the edge of the playing surface yelling, “Your tea’s on the table. Come in this minute. I don’t care if you are 3-2 down and just about to take a penalty. Your granadad didn’t die in two World Wars so you could let good food go to waste. And stop that chuntering or I’ll have the FA suspend you for a fortnight”.

In keeping with widespread playing field practice I would also like to see Fifa introduce new rankings that mimic the popular “You get two of the little kids and we’ll have our Gary” system. Under these rankings an established star like Ronaldo will be the equivalent of 1.5 members of an international U-21s squad or a dozen U-12s. This will lead to greater tactical flexibility for coaches as they weigh up the possibilities of selecting the best available players and using a 4-4-2 system or opting instead to give youth a chance in a 12-12-28 formation. It will also allow good players to show off a bit more by dribbling round whole teams of little ‘uns, sometimes while doing a silly walk, or using only their weaker foot.

It would create some compelling matches too. Who would not be fascinated to see how the current Germany side's attacking verve coped with the packed defence of an Italian team made up of the entire primary school aged population of Naples.

Team selection duties will not stop there. The coach will also be expected to designate one team member who will play the entire match wearing wellies and another who is not allowed to get dirty because “We’re going to my aunt's house after and my Mam says if I’ve got any grass stains on these trousers she’ll bray me”.

As for discipline, I would institute a series of humiliating childish punishments for any offender. Clearly red and yellow cards no longer work, but I can't imagine any player would be quite so quick to show dissent if doing so meant spending the next four games acting as a goalpost (and no moving or you'll get a deadleg). 

 

Saturday, 21 March 2015

THE BOYS FROM BEATRICE STREET



When it comes to the Charlton brothers, most peo­ple probably concur with the assessment Big Jack apparently delivered to Ron Atkinson: “Our kid was the better footballer, but I am the better bloke.”

In this biography of the two very different North­um­­brians, Leo McKinstry – a former Labour party ac­tivist and author of a well received book on Geoff Boycott – doesn’t quite reverse that opinion, but he does present a much more sympathetic portrait of Bobby than has appeared in print for some while. At the same time he does little to discredit the view that in a world where every cynical poltroon in stonewash denim lays claim to being courageously honest and free of bull­shit, Jack is the genuine article. The result is a thor­oughly entertaining and ultimately rather uplifting read.

As Jack & Bobby makes plain, the elder brother re­mains fiercely loyal to his younger sibling despite their falling out. The cause of that, as has been well docu­mented, was Bobby’s estrangement from their mother, Cissie. Cissie Charlton was a tough northern mat­riarch and plainly didn’t much care for Bobby’s wife, Norma. Maybe Norma’s coolness was partly def­ensive. Because while everybody likes Jack (well, everybody except Eamon Dunphy and Roy Keane), Bobby, for all his gifts on the field, is a different kettle of cold fish – in Everton centre-back Brian Labone’s words “a bit of a sad sack”.

This assessment clearly has currency. In his autobiography, Atkinson gleefully recalls an incident on the Manchester United team coach in which the players taunted Charlton with a chant of "Bobby, Bobby, give us a smile'.

Big Ron's animus to the younger Charlton stems from a belief that Bobby conspired to have him removed as United manager and replaced with Alex Ferguson. If Machiavellian intrigue seems out of character, it is worth recalling Alan Ball's comment about his former-England team mate 'You do not survive at the highest level of the game for as long as Bobby did unless you can handle yourself, and he could.' What applies to the field of play surely counts double in the dark alleyways of football power. If Vinnie Jones ever had a fight with Sepp Blatter, I know who my money would be on.

As a player Bobby was a natural conformist who paradoxically failed to fit in. As a consequence he was derided by team-mates like Denis Law (who caustically referred to him as “Sir Bobby” decades before that title was officially bestowed) and Paddy Crerand (who dubbed him “the imposter” because he thought his abilities so wildly over-rated). He was also mercilessly baited by George Best – asked to name the biggest influence on his car­eer on a TV chat show, Best sarcastically replied “Cissie Charlton”. (For his part Charlton claims to have got on fine with Best, recalling an occasion when Norma and the kids were away and he and George had a boys' night out that culminated in them going back to Bobby's house for a meal of frozen scampi.)

Despite that, McKinstry finds plenty of former play­ers prepared to testify to Bobby’s charm, kindness and the hilarity of his Ben Turpin impression. And it’s hard to imagine that if he was really quite as aloof as has been alleged, Bill Shankly would have taken to calling round at his house unannounced for tea, bis­cuits and hours of football talk. Despite all the glowing endorsements to his gentlemanliness McKinstry has accumulated, in the end perhaps the greatest testimony to Bobby’s essential decency is the list of those who hate him. After all, anyone who’s earned the enmity of Law, Crerand and Big Ron can’t be all bad.




And then there is that other Charlton detester, Best. McKinstry doesn’t have much time for “El Beatle” and delivers an impassioned diatribe about the injustice of the Irishman being more popular than his dedicated and well-behaved team-mate that recalls the speech Anthony Hopkins delivers about John F Kennedy in the Oliver Stone movie Nixon.

McKinstry makes his point well enough, but when it comes to swatting Georgie boy, Big Jack inevitably does it better. During a trip to Lisbon to play in Eus­ebio’s testimonial, the Leeds centre-half meets up with Best and Tommy Docherty on the hotel terrace. For five minutes he listens to Best bellyaching about what he will and won’t do until finally, he remarks: “I was so disgusted I got up and walked away. He was just a fat little fella who had been wasting his time.”

Those, like Best, who criticise Bobby for his ret­i­cence and distance rarely seem to consider the effect the Munich air crash might have had on him. As a United room-mate Ronnie Cope comments: “Bob­by altered unbelievably after Munich. He never got back to being a joker, the Bobby Charlton I had known as a lad. He became withdrawn. Sometimes you’d ask him a question and it was like he just didn’t hear.”

Charlton's relationship with the other members of the Busby Babes was so close as to be almost familial. As apprentices at Old Trafford they not only lived in the same house, but also slept two to a bed. 'That might seem a bit strange now,' Bobby would explain in his autobiography, 'But for working class kids in those days it was not unusual. Jack and I shared a bed for ten years.'

Given that Charlton was just 21 at the time of Mun­ich and was seriously injured, while many of his closest friends died, the impact the disaster had on his character is entirely understandable. While he is undoubtedly deeply conservative, publicly reticent and may not have visited his mother as often he should have done, you can't help feeling that a little compassion might be in order.


Tuesday, 17 March 2015

AMATEUR DRAMATICS


A shorter version of this piece appeared in the excellent Back Pass magazine.

 
 

 The 1954 FA Amateur Cup Final. Bishop Auckland v Crook Town.  5 ½ hours of football at three different stadiums in front of an aggregate crowd of close to 200,000  – almost ten times the combined populations of the two Durham towns. Those indeed were the days.

The struggle began at Wembley. Bishops started as favourites. They’d played Crook twice in the Northern League that season, beating them 4-1 at home and 3-1 away. The men from Kingsway were on a roll. They’d spent the late-summer on a three week tour of Rhodesia, guests of the local FA, then returned to the North-East and embarked on an incredible scoring spree that would see them net over 200 goals that season. In the five games they’d played to get to Wembley, Bishops had scored 26 times, including five in a semi-final win over Briggs Sports that drew 54,000 fans to St James’ Park.

 

If Bishops’ skipper, Londoner Jack ‘The Galloping’ Major appeared quietly confident perhaps that was unsurprising. Bishop Auckland were the Real Madrid of amateur football and the 1950s were their glory years. They took the Northern League title six times, appeared in five Wembley finals, won the Northern League Cup three times and the Durham Challenge Cup (a competition many locals felt was the toughest of all) twice.

Bishops’ best players were household names, not just in the North-East, but across the whole of England. Wing-half Bob Hardisty (his given name was Roderick – he’d been nicknamed ‘Bob’ by a midwife at the hospital and it stuck) was considered by many the greatest amateur footballer of his generation (one man who didn’t join the chorus of adulation was Bishops' 1938 Amateur Cup winner Kenny Twigg. He considered Hardisty amateurish and lacking in positional sense).

A midfielder who liked to roam forward, Hardisty had captained the Great Britain side that reached the semi-finals in the 1948 Olympics, forging a friendship with GB manager Matt Busby that would lead to him guesting for Manchester United in the wake of Munich. He was tall, elegant, and prematurely bald due to an illness contracted in India during World War Two. A PE instructor at a local Teacher Training College, Hardisty, ‘was a man who unified the town, a story that folk lore is made of’.

Despite the veneration, Hardisty was no saint. He had a roving eye when it came to women and a reputation as a reckless gambler. ‘There was bookies chasing him all over Durham,’ a resident of the town once told me. And bookmakers in those days – operating illegally off track – were not gentle when it came to debt collection. ‘The club had to bail him out for fear they’d break his legs,’ my informant said.

That the club would do such a thing hints at an underlying truth of ‘amateur’ football: gate receipts were high and the players, valuable assets. As a consequence many top amateurs earned better money than League professionals. Future Liverpool star Geoff Strong left Stanley United for Arsenal in 1958, later confessing that he had taken a pay cut to turn pro. At Stanley he was earning £4 a week as an apprentice tool-fitter, a match fee of £10 plus a bonus of £1 per goal (he averaged ten per month) – all cash in hand.  Arsenal – constrained by the maximum wage – could only offer £13 a week. And he was taxed on it.

Sometimes payment came through services in kind. ‘Every Saturday your wife or mother could pick up the Sunday roast at a local butchers and the bill went to the club,’ Kenny Twigg said, ‘And a couple of times a year you could go and get a suit made, stuff like that. I never took cash, though I could have if I’d needed it.’

 

One man who didn’t need it was the improbably glamorous Seamus O’Connell. Born into a wealthy Cumbrian family, O’Connell was tailored by Saville Row and transported by Jaguar. The inside-forward was a top class striker (he’d equalled an NL record earlier in the season when he scored eight times in a match against Penrith) and a world class womaniser who – according to Northern League president Mike Amos – was so well endowed one society lady who chanced upon him in the shower remarked, ‘Built like that you really ought to trot’. O’Connell had just signed amateur terms with Chelsea. He’d help the Pensioners win their first league title, hit 11 goals in 16 appearances and then walk away saying, ‘I really don’t think football is any sort of job for a man.’

Between the sticks for Bishops stood Wigan-born Harry Sharratt - a goalkeeper so madcap he made John Burridge look like Alan Shearer. Sharratt’s antics would fill several articles. One will suffice: he was booked for building a snowman on his goal line.

Compared to Bishops swaggering Galacticos, Crook Town (or ‘The Crooks’ as the Pathe News commentator would insist on calling them) appeared modest.  The Black & Ambers’ star player was winger Jimmy McMillan. McMillan was quick and skilful and he’d finish his career with a record four Amateur Cup winners medals, but he was no glamour boy. He’d turned down the chance of playing for Newcastle United and Chelsea, to train as a local government planning officer. Sensible, decent, honest. The same might be said of the entire Crook squad. Coached by the young Joe Harvey whose main focus was on physical fitness ('The only instructions I can ever recall Joe giving us,' McMillan once said, 'was 'If it's near the end and you're not losing, hit their corner flags.') and skippered by former Bishop Auckland centre-half Bobby Davison, the side from Millfield was greater than the sum of its parts. To borrow a phrase from Franz Beckenbauer: the star was the team.

Wembley was packed. Supporters from the two towns had travelled down to London on twenty special trains and 250 coaches. To the roars of this migrant Durham throng, it was the underdogs who kicked off. Barely five minutes had gone by before the odds tilted in their favour. Bishops’ preparation for the game had already been disrupted, Scottish international full-back Tommy Stewart going down with jaundice. Worse now followed. Half-back Jimmy Nimmins slid into a tackle and didn’t get up. He’d broken his right leg. With no substitutions allowed, Bishops were going to have to play the rest of the game with ten men. Supporters shook their heads. Bishops had played three finals at Wembley and lost them all. It looked like the hoodoo had struck again.

With O’Connell dropping back to fill the gap in the half-back line, rugged number nine Ray Oliver (a volunteer lifeboat man who’d been decorated for gallantry) and inside-right Les Dixon were left to forage up front. With twelve minutes gone it was Dixon who opened the scoring, controlling a long free-kick with his first touch and then with his next slashing the ball past the rangy Fred Jarrie in the Crook goal.

Crook rivalled Bishops for the power of their attack. They’d won the Northern League the year before scoring an average four goals per game, and hammered Hitchin 10-1 on the road to Wembley. They responded almost immediately, Ronnie Thompson collecting the ball on the edge of the Bishops box, advancing a couple of strides and planting a low shot into the left hand corner of Sharratt’s goal.

With their one man advantage Crook might have expected to take control, but they suffered their own injury crisis, Ken Williamson pulling up with an ankle injury. He would spend the rest of the game limping up and down the wing, occasionally hobbling off for treatment.

Bishops took advantage of the disruption. Railway worker Bob Watson produced an inch perfect pass for Oliver on the edge of the box. The big centre forward accelerated past a couple of opponents and blasted the ball into the top corner from 18 yards.

The second half saw Crook in the ascendancy. Ten minutes of more or less constant attacking were rewarded when Bill Jeffs, a summer signing from Whitby, crossed for winger Eddie Appleby to hammer home the equaliser.

For the next 35 minutes play flowed from end to end without anyone managing to add a goal. In extra-time Bishops came close to winning it, Crook defenders twice clearing efforts off the line.

 ‘I have just witnessed the finest two hours of entertainment I have ever seen,’ announced Kenneth Wolstenholme on the BBC home service. Few amongst the 100,000 crowd at Wembley would have disagreed.

 

The replay was held ten days later at St James Park, Newcastle. It was Easter Monday, a 6pm kick off. The official attendance of 56,008 was the highest ever for an amateur match outside the capital.

Bishops made changes. Tommy Stewart returned and the teenager Barry Wilkinson – a National Serviceman with the RAF - replaced the unfortunate Nimmins. For Crook, Williamson had failed to shake off the ankle problem. Ex-Bishops man John Coxon took his place.

Things began badly again for the team from Kingsway. Within four minutes they were two nil down, both goals scored by the prolific Ken Harrison, an Annfield Plain schoolmaster who had bagged a hat-trick in the semi-final win over Walthamstow. Bishops refused to panic, and after a shaky first period they emerged after the interval with renewed purpose. Gradually they took control of the game, stringing passes together in the smooth flowing style that was their trademark. After 69 minutes Ray Oliver pulled one back and in the 81st he got a second. Extra-time brought no more goals. By the final whistle both sides looked dead on their feet.

With league fixtures piling up, the third replay was hastily arranged at Ayresome Park three days later. Conscious of time restraints, the FA determined that on this occasion no extra period would be played and if neither side was victorious inside the 90 minutes the trophy would be shared. Despite the short notice and the difficulty of getting off work in time for the 6pm kick off 36,727 turned up on a windy Teesside night.

By now both teams had an unsurprising look of weariness about them. The first two matches had been marked by excitement, goals and free flowing football. This one turned into a trial of strength.

Midway through the first half Bishops had the ball in the net, Oliver rising to head home Major’s corner. The jubilant players had danced all the way back to the centre circle before they realised one-armed referee Alf Bond had disallowed it, harshly ruling the centre forward had been ‘climbing’. In the end one goal settled the match. It went to the Black and Ambers, Harrison almost inevitably the scorer.

 

Joe Harvey’s team returned immediately to Crook aboard a special train, skipper Davison waving the silver trophy from the window at the supporters who lined up beside the tracks at pit villages along the way. When they got home 15,000 people and a silver band greeted them despite the lateness of the hour. There was to be no all-night partying for the Crook players, however. They had work the next day, and in the evening there was a Northern League fixture to play at West Auckland.


 
(Bobby Davison shows off the Cup to workmates at Marshall Richards Machine Co.)

Saturday, 14 March 2015

BLURT ALERT

The taxi driver speaks in a nasal, melancholic, lilting voice. He pauses at the end of sentences, adding a poetic touch to everything he says. He sounds like a Durham Eeyore reciting Verlaine. He says, 'I've got the house in Consett. I don't live in it, like. The bairns have left home. The wife has left home. Three bedrooms, two receptions. I'd be rattling round like a fart in a tank. I rent it out to students. Live in the caravan in the garden.' He says it suits his lifestyle.

He says he had a problem with the drink. He says, 'I've got on top of it now, mind. I only ever have a half-pint and then I leave. And I go to the next pub. And I have a half and then I leave. And I go to the next pub...'

There are only seventeen pubs within walking distance of his house, he says, a few more if he gets as far as Annfield Plain.  'You have to get a system that works and stick by it,' he says. He asks me where I need to go. I tell him to drive around until there's twenty quid on the meter and keep talking.

Anyroad....




When I was a boy our family outings in the car were greatly enlivened by the presence of my grandmother. Gran had a habit of repeating herself, unwittingly becoming a maestro of the catchphrase to rival Matt Lucas or Harry Enfield. One in particular stood out. On the outskirts of a small village near Saltburn was a large, detached house. Whenever we passed it, which was just about once a week, my grandmother would declare, “That place used to be a pub.”

I realised I had inherited my Gran’s most irritating trait back at the start of the new Millennium. Because every time the Portsmouth and Sheffield Wednesday forward Guy Whittingham touched the ball I found myself driven as if by some unseen force to announce, “He bought himself out of the army, that bloke, you know?”

It is not entirely my fault, of course. There are some football people, and Guy Whittingham is one, about whom there is a single piece of trivial information that everyone seems to know, but which they nevertheless feel compelled to share with everybody else. That England’s World Cup winning full-back Ray Wilson became an undertaker, for example, or that Gary Lineker’s middle name is Winston, or that 1970s England skipper Gerry Francis bred racing pigeons. And is there a Boro fan alive that can hear the name Alan Kernaghan without remarking “His uncle Jackie Wright was the little bald bloke on the Benny Hill Show”, or refrain from informing people that Billy “The Bear” Ashcroft used to be a judge on the Dutch equivalent of Britain’s Got Talent. having impressed Netherlands TV executives with his Tommy Cooper impressions? 

 

Quite often it is this fact, at once obscure and yet strangely familiar, that defines these sportsmen, however unjustly, in the public consciousness. They are prisoners of their own trivia. In places where football is as unfamiliar a concept as Paris fashion is to the crowd at a WWF event, I am sure there are people are aware that former Nottingham Forest striker Duncan McKenzie could jump over a Mini and that the great Italian coach Giovanni Trapatoni has a sister who is a nun, but elsewhere, well...

Personally, I am seeking professional help to deal with my problem. The chances of recovery are apparently good. They say that after only a few years of strict inversion therapy I may even be able to say “Dion Dublin” without adding, “his father played saxophone on some of Showaddywaddy’s hits."

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

CAUGHT BY THE CODGERS


Lots of things get the blame for the mediocrity of the Englandlteam - foreigners, tiredness, the heat, the rotation of the earth,  - but one group that generally escape censure are the codgers at Victoria Park. They may not be the finger-pointers' most fashionable target, but I believe they have played almost as big a part in the decline of the national team as imports, lack of primary school coaches and the fact our players are crap.

The codgers congregate just by the halfway line in the Mill House Paddock. They wear flat caps and car coats, give off the scent of Yardley's and throat lozenges and teeter permanently on the brink of exasperation. It is said that the attention spans of today's youngsters have been shortened by a diet of video clips and computer games. It seems the endless catchphrases of ITMA and Take It From Here had a similar effect on the codgers' generation. Formative years spent listening to Dorothy Summers squawking, "I've just popped by to dust the mayor's knick-knacks" have left them with no patience for the intricate. To them subtlety is just a posh word for "fannying about".

When Chris Turner and Danny Wilson were in charge, Hartlepool played a neat, attractive game based on passing and movement. It has carried the club to previously undreamed of heights, but it did not wash with the codgers. When the home side had the temerity to string three passes together without lumping the ball into the penalty area as a finale, the codgers erupted in indignant rage. "For Christ's sake, Pools," they bellowed, "Get on with it. Get it in the box. What's the matter with you?" The score, or the time, or Pools' league position, was immaterial. In the minds of the codgers the team is always 0-1 down with a minute to play in a relegation six-pointer - for them the situation is always critical, the seconds running out.

I have singled out the codgers at Victoria Park, but the truth is, of course, that there are codgers yelping in frustration at most English football grounds. More damaging still, every English football fan has a little codger that is constantly battling - sleeves rolled up, jaw set, studs showing - to get out. Thus while I may have murmured appreciation for the cerebral skills of G√ľnter Netzer and Giancarlo Antognoni down the years, my inner codger has ensured that I am never quite able to shake off the feeling that when applied to a midfielder the word "elegant" is a synonym for "lazy", that "cultured" is a euphemism for "gutless".



It is easy enough to hold the inner codger in check when nothing is at stake. That is why in polls English fans constantly ignore the claims of belligerent ball winners or knobbly-kneed centre-backs with blood oozing from a gash above their eyebrows and instead name twinkle-toed wingers or deft inside-forwards as their club's best-ever player.

Once inside the ground it is a different matter, however. Aroused by the smell of onions, the cries of the golden goal ticket sellers and mounting anxiety, the inner codger elbows and ankle-taps his way into control. Suddenly men who were earlier exalting Argentina's 24-pass goal against Serbia and Montenegro as the acme of football excellence are rising to their feet and bellowing "Get into them//fuck them up!" at the top of their lungs.

It hardly needs saying that this chant is not conducive to progressive play. "Get your foot on the ball/and then look up" might be a better exhortation for those who name Ginola or Juninho as their inspiration, but we are unlikely ever to hear it. "Get up his arse", "Clean his clock", "Get rid", howl the crowd - gripped round the nads by their inner codgers.

Unless we can shake them off, frankly England are going nowhere, and not nearly directly enough either.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

EVERYTHING IS SMALL AND IT RAINS ALL THE TIME

A longer version of this piece appears in the second issue of The Northern Correspondent. You can find out more about this worthy venture here: http://northerncorrespondent.com/

Hopefully issue three will be along soon.




 

‘Freezing cold and sheep shit in the garden,’ thus did Stanley Bowles summarise life in Carlisle in the early 1970s.

Fortunately for the Great Border City, in Bowles’ day footballers could say whatever they liked about anything: nobody was listening. The game, its participants and adherents, were kept firmly in their back page ghetto; regarded by the mainstream media as uncouth dimwits. The BBC would never have solicited Stan Bowles’ opinion on the National Health Service, as they do those of current QPR player Joey Barton. The notion of Frank Worthington being invited onto television to discuss immigration would have been considered as outlandish as getting Barbara Castle on Sportsnight to discuss Don Revie’s tactics.

All that changed with the arrival of the Premier League. Football became ubiquitous, the players feted. Satellite TV money brought an influx of foreign stars. The foreign stars created glamour and excitement. Their arrival also brought to the fore England’s contradictory relationship with ‘abroad’, highlighting the way a professed admiration for continental modes quickly becomes a stick with which to beat our fellow countrymen.

Take for example Ruud Gullit. Signed by Chelsea from Sampdoria in 1995, Gullit was charismatic, attractive. He spoke foreign languages, wore moccasins without socks and drank wine. ‘So cool, so much more sophisticated than English footballers,’ people who had never been to a football match or met a footballer in their lives would tell me at dinner parties. In response, I quoted the writer Simon Kuper: ‘In England drinking cappuccino is a sign you are middle-class. In Italy it is a sign you are Italian.’

It made no difference, which wouldn’t have mattered much, but then something entirely unexpected happened: Middlesbrough signed the Brazilian Footballer of the Year. The news that Juninho Paulista was coming to the Boro provoked great excitement on Teesside. The reaction in the rest of the country was altogether less positive.

Over the next few weeks Middlesbrough got a right shoeing. The Mirror warmed Juninho that Teesside was the car crime capital of Britain, The Sun juxtaposed photos of Redcar beach and the Copacabana (Juninho comes from Sao Paolo – as far from the Copa as Wapping is from San Tropez). The Guardian poured scorn on Middlesbrough’s lack of cultural spaces – as if the average footballer would pine away from lack of fringe theatre or the occasional glimpse of something challenging by Jenny Holzer.

Sadly for the national press, Juninho was neither repelled nor shocked by what he found in the North-East. In fact, he loved Middlesbrough so much he played for the club three times and during the 2014 World Cup told BBC viewers (and a plainly startled Gary Lineker) that winning the Carling Cup with Boro meant more to him than winning the World Cup with Brazil.
 
 

For those eager to have prejudices re-enforced, help was soon at hand, however. Buoyed by the success of Juninho, Boro signed another Brazilian, Emerson, a shaggy-haired Rick James lookalike who stomped about the midfield like a yeti in diving boots. This particular Brazilian didn’t take to Middlesbrough. Or more accurately his Portuguese wife, Andrea didn’t. Mrs Emerson arrived in the North-East, stayed a few months and then went back to Rio uttering words that are possibly the most quoted ever by the partner of a professional footballer. Middlesbrough, Mrs Emerson told the world is ‘A strange and terrible place and I hope I have never to return.’

The description reverberated around the world. Literally. One morning my phone rang. It was a reporter from the Wall Street Journal asking: ‘How terrible is Middlesbrough, really?’ A few days later the New York Times called. Then Gazetto dello Sport. Then Suddeutsche Zeitung.

People across the globe who had never previously heard of Middlesbrough now had a very firm opinion on it. Andrea Emerson, wife of a 25-year-old millionaire, was portrayed as the hapless victim of some awful crime. When Boro finally gave up on her lumbering husband and somehow persuaded Barcelona to pay good money for his services, the Daily Mail – whose contempt for England’s industrial heartlands is even more bilious than its hatred of foreigners - quoted her as saying she was ‘Ecstatic’.

Paul Theroux noted that the English had a facile summary for every part of their small island – The Highlands were ‘breath-taking’, the Cotswolds ‘charming’ the Midlands ‘ghastly’ and so forth. The the strange and terrible place now found a place on that glib list.

And then there was Newcastle. Improbably handsome French hair care product model David Ginola and rubber-limbed Colombian Faustino Asprilla had come and gone without any negative headlines, but now the city was about to welcome Mr Sophisticated himself, Ruud Gullit.  ‘How will he fit in up there,’ A Dutch journalist asked me on the phone, ‘He is used to London, Milan, Amsterdam. Newcastle is, well… It is not cultural.’ I asked him when he had last been in Newcastle. ‘Never. I have never been,’ he said without any indication that might somehow have compromised his judgement.

Newcastle was rated favourite UK destination city by the distinctly upmarket Conde Nast Traveller, but what impressed the stylish inhabitants of Vogue House, had little impact on Gullit’s girlfriend, Estelle. She told Hello! that she would not be joining Ruud on Tyneside because there were ‘no apartments nice enough’ in the city. In London heads nodded, of course there weren’t. Cue images of the Jarrow March and the theme from When the Boat Comes In. Ruud meanwhile was compelled to live in the squalor of Malmaison and jet back to Amsterdam to comfort her. It was Andrea Emerson all over again.

Gullit’s era of sexy football St James’ Park came to a quick and acrimonious end. After he left the Dutchman raised what would soon become another oft repeated notion: that to play for, or coach Newcastle United was to be subjected to such intense scrutiny it was more or less unbearable. Why would this be? Well, plainly because as Dame Edna Everage once said of Australia’s obsession with sport ‘There is nothing intellectual in our country to distract them from it.’

The notion was subsequently confirmed by Jermaine Jenas who described playing for Newcastle as ‘like living in a goldfish bowl’. The midfielder denied having said any such thing (‘I actually loved my time in Newcastle, really enjoyed it. The people up there were fantastic’), but his view - whether he expressed it or not - was quickly backed up by two former team mates. Kieron Dyer said, ‘It is like living in a fishbowl though, up there’ and former Man United player Nicky Butt explained, ‘[Newcastle] is not like Manchester or London where you can get lost. There are only four or five bars the lads go to so everyone knows where you are going to be.’

Oddly enough a similar criticism was soon to be levelled at Manchester by Carlos Tevez who said ‘There is nothing to do [In Manchester]. There’s two restaurant and everything is small….It rains all the time, you can’t go anywhere.’

Yet while the newspapers listened to Jenas and Andrea Emerson nobody seemed to care what Tevez said. And that brings us to the nub. Because ultimately none of this is actually the players or their wives’ fault. Their words are only taken seriously when they bolster some already existing prejudice. That the Spanish international Gaizka Mendieta turned down a move to Barcelona to carry on playing for Middlesbrough and continued living in Yarm for five years following his retirement saying, ‘I love the people, I love living in the area’ was barely commented upon, but when Gael Givet remarked of his time at Ewood Park ‘If left alone in Blackburn, I’d have hanged myself’ the Daily Mail (yes them again) gleefully splashed it all over the back page.

It is a belief commonly held that the media shapes national opinion. In reality – as Lord Northcliffe’s futile campaigns to destroy Lloyd George conclusively proved 100 years ago – it only panders to it. In the minds of many, most of the North is grim, dark, rainy and terrible and always will be, no matter what Juninho says.
 

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

JE NE GRETNA RIEN


When I moved back to the North East in 1991 Gretna were playing in the Northern League (they'd joined from the Carlisle and District in 1982). They won the NL title in 1991 and 1992 and took promotion up the pyramid to the Northern Premier League. In 2002 Gretna were elected to the Scottish League. Shortly after that Brooks Mileson the club over.

Brooks Mileson was a self-made millionaire from Sunderland's Pennywell estate who more or less defined the term eccentric: chain-smoking, scruffy, living on a farm up by Longtown he'd turned into an animal sanctuary. That he loved football is beyond question. Mileson gave thousands of pounds to supporters trusts at various clubs in England and Scotland and his generous eleven year, £500,000 sponsorship of the Northern League (the original £35,000 agreement drawn up on the back of a fag packet) helped preserve it.

One year - probably 2005, my memory is hazy - Brooks gave me a lift to the Northern League Annual Dinner at Ramside Hall, picking me up from my house in his Jaguar and dropping me off on his way home. I spent around four hours with him chatting about his life, how he had made his money (a whole raft of things from property via insuring rental cars in Northern Ireland to the importation of branded sportswear from the Far East), donkeys, llamas, the Scottish FA (whose arbitrary rules on minimum ticket prices had lead him to give free pies to visiting fans) and his fruitless attempt to buy Carlisle United (Mileson alleged that then owner Michael Knighton - hardly a stranger to eccentricity himself - had been unwilling to show the club's books to his accountants. 'He wanted me to buy a pig in a poke'.) He was engaging company, without a hint of that strain of self-satisfaction that so often comes with success. Brooks had a pony-tail and the dress sense and demeanour of someone who might turn up on Rock Family Trees talking about his time playing rhythm guitar in Brinsley Schwartz. He despised all the right people. I liked him, and I've not met many in the North East who didn't.





Here's a WSC Match of the Month feature on the then still rising, Mileson-inspired, Gretna

 
Gretna v Alloa Athletic

Scottish League Division Two

Raydale Park, Gretna

25th March 2006

 

Some things stay embedded in the British consciousness long after history has moved on. “Eloping are you?” The man in the station ticket office says when I ask for a return to Gretna Green. Though illicit marriages went out half-a-century ago, Gretna’s reputation as the destination of choice for runaway lovers is as strong now as it was during the Nineteenth Century when thousands of couples, fleeing the rigid nuptial laws of England, escaped across the border to wed.

The blacksmith’s shop – where many marriages took place - is still there, but these days more people go to Gretna for the designer shopping village than to pledge lifelong love. 

Not that retail has entirely replaced romance. On a cold winter afternoon I walk down Gretna’s blustery main street behind a phalanx of ballboys in identical black and red tracksuits, we pass the memorial to those killed when Nazi bombs fell on the little town in 1941 and a “Good Luck Gretna” display in the window of a local insurance company. There are bagpipes skirling outside the Anvil Hall – an angular brick building that looks like a cross between a Masonic lodge and one of Flash Gordon’s space rockets – and a procession of limousines with white ribbons attached waiting to turn right at the traffic lights next to the Chinese Takeaway. Around the corner at Raydale Park, meanwhile, the local football club seems determined to suck unwary reporters into a maelstrom of honeymoon/ love affair puns.

The first time I saw Gretna, they were playing at Willington in County Durham in front of nineteen people. That was back in the days when the Borderers were Scottish interlopers in the Northern League. A decade or so later and they are two results away from a place in the Uefa Cup. In a week from now Gretna will travel to Hampden to take on Dundee United in the semi-final of the Scottish Cup. A win, coupled with Heart of Midlothian making it through to the final will guarantee this tiny club a place in Europe.

Not that the physical surroundings at Raydale have changed much since the Northern League days. The gentlemen’s lavatory still has a corrugated roof and air conditioning supplied by gaps in the breezeblock walls, the changing rooms look like an pensioner’s bungalow, the hospitality suite is a wooden hut and the perimeter advertising comes courtesy of the local bakers and a discount food store. The legion of ballboys, meanwhile, is mainly stationed outside the ground to return ricochets and shots that fly over the roofs of the tiny stands and into the surrounding sludge-grey housing estate. AS Roma or Paris St Germain could be here next season. The plutocrats of G14 must be ringing their beautifully manicured hands in despair.


 

That is for next week, though. Today Gretna have domestic business to attend. If they can beat visiting Alloa Athletic while nearest rivals Morton slip-up at home to Ayr United then a second successive Scottish divisional title will be theirs. Europe or not, next season they’ll be playing Airdrie, Dundee and Hamilton Academicals – quite a step up from matches in north-east England against Shotton Comrades and Eppleton Colliery Welfare.

As a consequence, Raydale Park is en fete. Inside the ground a man wearing a kilt in the official Gretna tartan and a Gretna – Live the Dream replica shirt is holding an electric guitar and counting himself into a rendition of the Cockney Rebel hit Come Up and See Me (Make Me Smile). A lady ventriloquist in a striped coat that looks like something Joseph might have rejected as “a bit too bright and busy” has her hand stuck up the back of a giant plush seal. A group of twelve-year-old cheerleaders are scampering about excitedly with their black-and-white pom-poms fastened to their wrists as the match announcer plays “Long Hot Summer” by Girls Aloud. This is possibly the least appropriate song I have heard in a football ground since the bloke at Brunton Park, Carlisle decided that a freezing Wednesday night in February was just the time to give “Sex On The Beach” a spin.

By the time kick-off comes around there are 984 fans in the ground including a dozen or so who have made it down from Alloa. This may not seem many to watch history being made, but Gretna is in the Scottish Borders, a part of the Britain where Carlisle (pop 85,000) is the great metropolis and places like Melrose and Hexham are major conurbations despite having populations that struggle to make five figures. At Raydale Park team news is brought to us courtesy of Anderson’s Kilts of Dumfries; the guests of honour are Lord and Lady Blencairn and the programme carries a message from Dumfries and Galloway Police advising on farm security measures. This is a rural area, you see, and Gretna is hardly more than a village. Its hinterland is mainly cows, sheep and curlews. If the club realise their ambition of making it to the Scottish Premier League regulations decree that they will have to redevelop the ground to hold 6,000 – twice the population of the town.

Despite all that is riding on today’s results there seems little tension amongst the home support. Victory for Ayr United may be out of Gretna’s hands, but a win here seems assured, Visitors Alloa Athletic are bottom, over 50 points behind the home side and the goal difference gap between them is 96. Even the bookies are offering odds of 13-1 on the Wasps (Alloa’s nickname – in honour of their black-and-yellow hooped shirts) winning today, which in betting terms makes it about as likely as Elvis releasing a new fitness video. The way things are stacked up this will not so much be a football match as a ninety-minute mugging.

 

And so, perhaps not unsurprisingly given all that build-up, Alloa are a goal up inside three minutes, busy winger James Stephenson clipping a shot through the hands of Alan Main in the home goal. The visitors look likely to add to it, too. Main parries brilliantly from Paul McCloud’s point blank volley, dives to save a header from the resulting corner, pushes a bobbling shot from outside the area around the post and watches as what looks like a clear penalty for a foul on Stephenson is dismissed by the impressively tanned referee. Up the other end Gretna fumble about to no good effect. “Come on Big Deuchar”, a man in a grey double-breasted jacket and kipper tie yells, “Come on Big Kenny. Come on Big Man”.

Kenny Deuchar of Gretna is Scottish Division Two’s leading scorer and also a doctor, the sort of combination that’s a bit more of rarity these days than it was in the Edwardian era. Big Deuchar is indeed big - he makes Conan the Barbarian look like the sort of fellow who’d get sand kicked in his face. Over the past few seasons he has smashed all sorts of goal-scoring records into little pieces, but today his legs seem to be all shin from the toe upwards, and the ball bounces randomly off his head.

More Gretna passes go astray and Alloa continue to press for a second. A silence descends broken only by the keening of gulls blown in from the weird flatness of the Solway Firth, the yells of the players and the occasional imprecation from the terrace in a Border Scots, or Cumbrian accent. “What d’I tell you? They’re saving themselves for Hampden,” an old Borderer standing near me says with the smug finality of somebody who has predicted the worst and got it exactly right. When Deuchar sends a shot sailing over the bar and clean out of the ground he groans loudly, “Dr Deuchar? He’s playing more like Dr Evil!”

Suddenly though the mood alters. Across the terrace a group of young Gretna fans begin chanting, “Come on Gretna/ Come on Gretna”. Word has filtered through earpieces that Ayr United have – improbably - taken the lead at Morton. The news reaches the players and they renew their efforts. The result is no prettier than before but there is more huff and puff to it, a bit more aggression (“Rattle their bones, boys” the old Scot bellows, many times) and with their first shot on target – a powerful Steve Tosh drive from outside the area – Gretna are level.

Gretna’s sugar daddy is multi-millionaire Brooks Mileson, a man who has done for The Borderers what Roman Abramovic has done for Chelsea, albeit on a somewhat smaller scale. Pony-tailed and smoking like a Soviet powerstation, Mileson shuffles back and forth along the terrace throughout the game like a busy spaniel hunting a field for partridge. Gretna’s owner comes from Sunderland in north-east England, but lives on a large country estate just down the road from Raydale Park. He shares his his land with a herd of prize-winning Highland cattle, over a hundred Shetland ponies and a vast menagerie of rescued animals including a variety of monkeys and some capybara.

Looking after the abandoned and the forlorn seems to be Mileson’s mission in life. Apart from the animals he has also struck a deal to sponsor the English Northern League more or less in perpetuity, pumped money into Whitby Town, given several hundred thousand pounds to Carlisle United supporters club and handed out thousands more to other supporters clubs across England and Scotland. Last season when Gretna played Dundee he let everyone in for free and handed the profits from the catering outlets over to the visiting fans to help them rescue their team from debt. Anyone who has followed the game for any length of time will by now be thinking, “What’s the catch?” In this case, however, there really doesn’t appear to be an ulterior motive. Mileson is just a wealthy self-made man who likes animals and minor league football. And that - shocking though it feels to say it - is that.

In the second-half Mileson continues to wander from one end of the ground to the other. On one scurry-past he says “Ayr 2-0” and thereafter you can chart his progress by the applause and yelling. “Campioni, Campioni,” the boys behind the goal sing. Alloa are still making them wait for confirmation, though. Big Deuchar finally gets a header on target, but Alloa keeper Allan Creer, who has the build of a cartoon gorilla, pushes it away with clumsy athleticism. At the other end Stephenson continues to torment the Gretna backline swerving in from the left to send in a shot that Main dives to tip round the post.

Then finally, after the man in the grey jacket has yelled, “Suck his eyes out, Big Kenny” several dozen times, Big Deuchar comes good. He gets his head to a ball and delivers a perfect knock down for Tosh who strikes from twenty metres out to put Gretna in front. Ayr go three, and finally four up at Morton. Brooks Mileson quests hither and thither. Alloa continue to play the better football to no avail.

The final whistle goes. The PA blasts out I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) by The Proclaimers. The players return to the field to bounce up and down together in unison in the prescribed Champions League manner, while behind them the fans celebrate in the slightly self-conscious way of people in a crowd that isn’t quite big enough to guarantee anonymity. “I used to cut the grass on that pitch for hay at five shillings a time,” the man standing besides me remarks with a mix of wonder and wistfulness.

Gradually we drift away from the scenes of celebration, past pensioners waiting for the bus to Dumfries and ladies walking dogs. Back at Gretna’s one platform railway station a bagpiper from Anvil Hall is standing waiting for the train back to Anan. He is sixteen, wearing the official Gretna tartan, there’s a Scots dagger in his sock and his pipes are stored in a polished leather case. Half-a-dozen Gretna ballboys turn up to join him and the group punch the air and chant “Campioni, Campioni” for a few seconds before they are overcome with embarrassment and lapse into silence. Next year Lazio might be coming.




POSTSCRIPT

Shortly after I'd written this piece Gretna defeated Dundee United to get to the Scottish Cup final. They lost narrowly and unluckily to Heart of Midlothian at Hampden Park in front of an 80,000 crowd. The following season they did play in the Uefa Cup. There was to be no glamorous meeting with an Italian, Spanish or French giant, however. Instead they drew Derry City from the League of Ireland in the qualifying round and were comfortably beaten.

In the Scottish First Division Gretna proved just as successful as they had been in the second and third divisions, winning the title with several weeks of the season still to spare. Brooks Mileson told me at the time that playing in the Scottish Premier League against the likes of Glasgow Celtic and Glasgow Rangers was his dream. Sadly when the opportunity came it proved to be more of a nightmare. The Scottish Football Association would not let Gretna play their home matches at Raydale Park because it was deemed unfit to host games at so exalted a level. Instead they had to play 80 miles away at Clyde. On the field the step up to the next level proved to be too much for the players and coaches. Gretna were heavily defeated in practically every match they played. Midway through the season Mileson, never a well man, was taken seriously ill. Without him at the helm his business empire rapidly began to unravel. Three months later, with players’ wages unpaid, Gretna FC were officially declared bankrupt.

Reformed by a loyal group of supporters, Gretna took up a place in the first division of the East of Scotland League, the lowest level of organised football in Scotland. They are now back at Raydale Park, playing in front of a few hundred fans.


Brooks Mileson died of a heart attack in November 2008.