Saturday, 26 September 2015

THE TRAGIC SPONGE

A splendid tip to watch Julio Arca play at Brandon Welfare Ground last week was enlivened by an elderly man in full pirate regalia getting on the bus at Langley Moor. You can read more about it in the next issue of When Saturday Comes.

Consett v Bradford Park Avenue in the FA Cup today. Rob of Fly Me To The Moon has been working on an archaeological dig at Park Avenue recently, so with that tenuous link here's something I wrote for the Official Unoffical Voice twenty years ago.





For over a century the magic sponge was an essential item in every football trainer’s kitbag. Then came the leaner, fitter age of the physio and the painkilling spray. Soon magic sponges were surplus to requirements. Without concern for their future, football, the master they had served so faithfully and so well, wrung them out and tossed them aside.

 
There are a thousand magic sponges out there, this is the story of just one of them: Ronnie Soft (Middlesbrough and England). Once celebrated by the Holgate End with his own chant (“Ee-ay-ee-ay-ee-ay-oh/Down your waistband Ron will go”) now a washed up husk earning a precarious living wiping the flies off motorists windscreens at a busy road junction near Marton shops.
 
“The Boro scout spotted me while I was still at school. It was the autumn of 1967” Ronnie recalled twenty years later “I was a bit wet behind the ears, but even then there wasn’t a marker I couldn’t handle – or a stick of chalk or crayon come to that. They took me on as an apprentice. I spent a few days at Ayresome Park just absorbing things; my new environment, the atmosphere, some excess embrocation off David Chadwick’s knee”.

 
 
“Despite the fact I was doing quite well with the youth team it came as a shock when one day Stan Anderson called me into his office and told me that on Saturday my place was in the bag”.
 
That afternoon in front of 27,000 people the nerves that were eventually to prove his undoing surfaced for the first time “I felt clammy all over,” he would later confess, “Then Gordon Jones took a blow in the nuts and the next thing I knew Harold Shepherdson, the trainer was signalling that it was time for me to do a job for the team.”
 
Soft’s impact was immediate. “I made quite a splash,” he would tell his first biographer Michael Parkinson in 1970, “Most of it over Jonesy’s jock-strap! And that was it, fame. My life was changed forever. It happened so fast the details never really had time to sink in.”


 
 
By the time Jack Charlton arrived on Teesside Sponge was a celebrity thanks to an international call up to the England squad. But his edges were already beginning to fray. Wild nights at the Club Marimba and a busy romantic life (Sponge claims to have been the loofah of three Miss Worlds) took there toll.

 “I know it was stupid and unprofessional, but the night before the Poland game I allowed Bobby Moore to take me out on the town with him. Bloody hell, I soaked up some stuff that night. Lager, whisky, champagne, beeswax furniture polish….if it was on the table I polished it off. When I woke up next morning I was on the floor in the gent’s toilets of a fashionable West End night spot.”
 
“I got back to the team hotel in time for breakfast, but Sir Alf only needed to take one sniff at me to know that I’d been out on the piss, literally. Luckily he was a tight-lipped man and chose not to comment. But I sensed that the writing was on the wall and nothing I could do would ever erase it”.
 
“After that my career never really recovered. Sure I had some great moments with a bruise on Alan Foggon’s thigh and there was that steamy night in the laundry basket with Pan’s People’s knee socks but my life was sliding. It came to the crunch in 1976 when Shep took me to one side and introduced me to a new lad, “From now on this fella’s going to give you a hand,” he said waving a can at me.

I asked what it was. “It’s an anaesthetic spray,” he said.
 
“Why is it that funny shape?” I asked. “It’s an aerosol”, Shep said. Well, you’re telling me it was. Soon I couldn’t get a look in for that little squirt”.
 
Within six months Ronnie Soft had left Ayresome on a free transfer to a Redcar window cleaner. “Yes, I do feel bitter,” he confided in a newspaper Where Are They Now feature a few years ago, “Football squeezed what it could out of me and then threw me away like an old rag”.


 
 

Saturday, 19 September 2015

RUNNING INDOORS

At Jarrow Roofing last week: After watching the home side throwaway an early lead to Congleton Town a bloke remarked 'What's happening here? At two nils up we were crooning.'

Off to Brandon Welfare Ground today to see Julio Arca and more softly sentimental football.

Here's something from Back Pass about one of those trophies that time forgot.





There’s was one thing every kid growing up in the 1960s knew about football – you didn’t play it indoors. Not even with a tennis ball. ‘And not with a balloon neither. Now get outside the lot of you before you feel the flat of my hand’.

Imagine then, the surprise, the delight, the frankly illicit thrill of that November Wednesday night in 1969 when, dressed in Star Trek-style pyjamas and a lurid blue Brentford Nylons dressing gown that generated enough static electricity to power a small factory, I nestled down on the sofa with my Ovaltine for that evening’s edition of Sportsnight and found myself watching football not only being played indoors, but by some of the best teams in the country.

The longer I watched the Daily Express Five-a-side Challenge Cup the more excited I got. The squeak of the players shoes on the solid floor, the smack of the ball against the walls, the fact you could hear the stars shouting the sort of things we shouted in our playground games (“Man on!” “Leave it!” “Did you see Wacky races last night?” Nobody swore in those days, or so it seemed anyway). Here was everything I liked best about football (plus rebounds) and none of the things I hated about it: studs, sliding tackles and headers.

What exactly occurred that night at what was still called The Empire Pool Wembley (despite its name host to everything from ice hockey to bike racing via the Horse of the Year Show) is a bit of a blur (quite literally – we had a black and white TV with one of those adjustable aerials, even the Mexico World Cup looked like it was being played in a snowstorm), but I do recall that Manchester City beat League Cup-holders Swindon - featuring one of my new idols, the extravagantly skilful and moustachioed Don Rogers - in the final.  City’s team included Neil Young and Colin Bell who hit eleven goals between them. For Young it was second in-door football triumph in two years – he’d been part of the City duo that won the National Head Tennis Championships in 1968.

 

I was elated by what I saw on Sportsnight. And I was not the only one. At primary school the following day the playground was buzzing with excited chatter about The Daily Express Five-a-side. It is hard to credit it now but the whole event had about it something of the carnival sideshow. It was football, as the Starship Enterprise’s Dr McCoy might have observed, but not as we know it. Schoolboys all over the country were similarly enamoured – little wonder Subbuteo rushed out a five-a-side set, named Subbuteo Express, so we could merrily recreate the tournament on our bedroom floors.

It seems that the feeling of novelty and adventure extended to the players too, at least if the comments from members of City’s winning team were anything to go by.

Skipper Tony Book told the following week’s Man City programme, “We all enjoyed it a great deal. There was a variety of footwear. Most of the other players wore PT shoes. All the City team wore the practice shoes which were just right. It was a bit hard on the feet though.”

Midfielder Alan Oakes meanwhile sounded like he had been visiting a foreign land, “The atmosphere was dry, hot and quite dusty. But the pitch was quite a big one by five-a-side standards - 70yards by 30yards - which gave us plenty of space. It was a change from the normal routine and the competition as a whole was well organized. After four matches on that surface your feet did feel it a bit, though.”

Book’s comment about PT shoes raised another point in five-a-side’s favour.  Football boots were something else I loathed. This was because the pair I owned had been bought for me by my grandfather who hated all new-fangled things and had somehow managed to find a pair that reached up to ankles. They were made – he said – of horsehide, to which, judging by the weight of them, the horse was still attached. Running in them made me feel like Frankenstein’s monster.

 

The Daily Express five-a-side competition – played in lightweight PE pumps, or sandshoes as they were often called for reasons I can’t fathom - had actually begun the previous year, though the 1968 tournament had somehow passed me by. The newspaper organised a series of regional qualification rounds at various roller-skating and ice rinks around the country. Quite how seriously the clubs took the competition in those early years is hard to judge though the fact that the qualifiers from the Scottish section – played at Kelvin Hall, Glasgow – were Morton may give some indication. The men from Greenock were joined at Wembley by an equally unlikely group from around the country that included Gillingham, Peterborough, Lincoln City and Grimsby.  Charlton Athletic were the eventual winners.

The Daily Express weren’t the first newspaper to sponsor a five-a-side tournament. The London Evening Standard had organised one for the capitals teams that had begun in 1954 (Charlton Athletic won that inaugural tournament, too, beating Spurs 3-1 in the final at the Empress Hall, Earls Court). The London competition was usually held in May and at first at least it was seen to give the London teams a bit of an advantage in the national competition, alongside the partisan crowds who – at least according to City keeper Joe Corrigan – tended to get behind the southern teams.

Living in the North-East, the Evening Standard competition was as unknown to me as the vagaries of the Chilean title race, but the Daily Express national competition became a date I ringed on my calendar. In 1970 City were defending champions but were able to send only a virtual youth team to the tournament because it clashed with their Cup-Winners’ Cup tie with Honved. This time it was their arch-rivals United who lifted the trophy.

Ted Bates’ Southampton (In League matches heavily reliant on the aerial power of Welsh centre-forward Ron Davies) won in 1971, and Spurs took the crown in 1972 beating Ipswich in the final on penalties (another novelty – they had only just been tested out in Europe and were decades away from becoming a main stay of English domestic cups). Pat Jennings’ long-time understudy Barry Daines was the unexpected hero for the Londoners. The following year, Derby County, still in turmoil after the resignation of Brian Clough and Peter Taylor, showed there might be life after the Godhead by beating Celtic 3-1 in the final. In 1974 there was another surprise  when Leyton Orient battled through the opening three rounds winning each in penalty shoot-outs before overcoming Spurs 2-0 in the final thanks to a couple of goals from the unlikely source of centre-back Phil Hoadley (The defender scored just nine times in 255 senior appearances for the Os).

 

Orient would go on the win the 1976 Evening Standard competition, beating QPR 6-1 in the final. That win later acquired a whiff controversy when Stan Bowles commented that, "The only time I done it [thrown a match] was a five-a-side. Do you remember the national five-a-side tournament? I was playing for QPR and we reached the final against Leyton Orient. I had a good mate who was an Orient supporter - Jewish Dennis he was called, he's dead now - and he'd backed them to win the thing, £1,000 at 8-1. He said to me, 'If you go boss-eyed in the final, you've got a grand'. Well, I only stood to get £200 if we won the final, so I said, 'Certainly'. I scored a goal but we lost 6-1, and our manager, Gerry Francis, said to me afterwards, 'You looked a bit tired in the second half'. But it was only five-a-side, it didn't matter.”

Bowles may have thought five-a-side unimportant, but the quality of the Daily Express competition (‘It was a big deal in those days’ Lou Macari observed in his autobiography) suggested otherwise. Wolves won the national prize in 1975 and retained the title in 1976 beating Tony Waddington’s cultured Stoke City in the final thanks largely to the excellent goal-scoring midfielder Kenny Hibbitt, one of many fine players to be mysteriously overlooked by England. Bobby Robson’s elegant Ipswich Town took the title in 1977 and went on to win the FA Cup that same season. Terry Venables’ Crystal Palace made a further claim to being ‘the team of the Eighties’ by carrying off the trophy in 1978. My club Middlesbrough finally made an appearance around the same time, but a team that looked ruggedly hard to beat in League matches quickly came unstuck in the quick give-and-go of five-a-side. To rub salt in the wounds in 1979 Boro’s local rivals Sunderland carried off the title, conceding not a single goal while scoring ten, of which star man, midfielder Kevin Arnott got six. That an ex-Boro player, the diminutive and skilful Stan Cummins (whom Jack Charlton had once claimed would be Britain’s first ‘million pound player’) was in the Rokerites’ side only made it worse.


Aston Villa took time out from their successful First Division campaign by lifting the trophy in 1980 and the following year Celtic became the first – and only - Scottish club to win the tournament, with a team of unknown young tyros who looked for all the world like extras from that year’s hit film Gregory’s Girl. Under the guidance of youth coach Jim Lumsden, Celtic surprised everyone by beating a Manchester United side that included Lou Macari, Ray Wilkins and Bryan Robson, and brushing aside Uefa Cup holders Ipswich. In the final they met a Southampton quintet that boasted World Cup winner Alan Ball and twice European footballer of the year Kevin Keegan. Celtic triumphed 1:0 thanks to a goal by teenager Charlie Nicholas and some flying saves by English keeper Peter Latchford.

By that stage my own interest in the competition had begun to wane. So to it seemed had the nation’s. After the 1983 tournament the BBC, which had covered the competition since its inception, decided not to bother with it anymore. Without TV exposure to make it attractive to sponsors the competition quickly shrivelled and died, the situation not helped by the announcement of the new Atari-sponsored Soccer Sixes competition that would be held at the NEC in Birmingham.  The last hurrah for the national five-a-side competition was in 1986 when Norwich City – with Dean Gordon outstanding - beat Man City 5-0 in the final.

The Daily Express five-a-sides are largely forgotten now, a relic of the past like the Watney Cup, the annual Football league v Scottish league fixture and the Anglo-Italian and Anglo-Scottish tournaments. Few of the winners even bother to list the trophy on their honours boards. Perhaps in the end it really was only small boys who took the competition to their hearts.

 

 



Saturday, 12 September 2015

ANY MORE BRAINS AND HE'D BE A HALF-WIT

Next Thursday, 7pm, the Lit & Phil I'll be asking Michael Walker polite questions about his excellent book on North-East football, Up There. It's free (but it's not cheap) and you can book tickets here
http://www.litandphil.org.uk/whats-on/2015/sep/up-there-the-north-east,-football,-boom-and-bust/

Jarrow Roofing in the FA Cup for me today.

For no particular reason other than that, in the chaos in my house as daughter packs to leave for university (the greatest skill needed for parenting is the ability to find things you didn't lose, when you have no idea where they are, or indeed what the fuck they look like), I feel the need for discipline and order - here's a thing about Northern League referees.



World Cup referee, Pat Partridge who died last year was born in Billingham. Like his Teesside near-contemporary, Brian Clough, he had a nasal twang, a lot of opinions (he described Gordon Banks as ‘a player who believes his own publicity’ and Bobby Charlton as ‘the biggest moaner in the game’), and a clear sense of his place in the scheme of things. ‘Every referee is an egotist’ he noted in his autobiography, ‘Oh, Ref!’

Many years ago I did some filming with Pat in Cockfield, talking about the village football team that reached the Amateur Cup Final in 1928. After we’d finished, he invited us back for tea. ‘Just follow my car,’ he said, which was easy enough because he drove a Jag with the number plate REF1. Pat lived in a farm perched on the edge of the Durham moors. The farm was called ‘Law One’.  While his wife brought us hot drinks and a wide assortment of biscuits, we chatted and admired the photos of Pat officiating around the world that decorated the walls of the living room.

Conscious that in his autobiography Pat had also made approving remarks about the Argentinean military junta (‘The regime is owed an apology by the world’s press”), I asked him what it had been like officiating at the 1978 World Cup. ‘Well now,’ he said, ‘of course the game everybody remembers is Poland versus Peru.’ He pointed at a photo on the wall. It showed him brandishing a yellow card at Ramon Quiroga ‘And that, as you know, was the first time in a World Cup match that a goalkeeper has been booked inside the opposition half.’

Pat was a man with a forthright conviction that nipped the bud of argument. I imagine this attribute served him well when officiating at non-League matches in the North East. In non-League football you can’t afford to equivocate. The slightest hesitation is is the cue for a white-haired old lady stood by the corner flag to cry, in a voice like Edith Piaf gargling gravel, “If you’re not sure ref, ask your bloody guide dog”.

 

In those days anyone who spent time at grass roots football matches quickly came to see the pivotal role the match officials played in the game– not for the participants, but for the crowd. Let a home striker collect the ball from his keeper and run with it at pace, slaloming through defenders and finishing with a crashing shot into the top corner from thirty yards and would receive only the most cursory display of emotion from the spectators. The minute a linesman fails to signal an opposition player offside, however, and the entire crowd turned purple with outrage, bellowing, “Away lino, fetch your flag down from up your arse”.

The match officials may have seen themselves as a facilitators, people who helped create an environment in which football could flourish, but what happened the moment they made a decision? A fifty-year old bloke standing on the touchline, an oily nicotine-tinged quiff curled upon his head like an Ottoman’s turban, bellowed, “How referee, did one of your glass eyes just mist up?”

As a result of this constant barrage of insults, match officials tended to take on the air of frontier marshals in a hostile saloon. As a refereeing friend of mine who’d once mistakenly sent off a spectator in a Northern Alliance game (‘He was stood by the dugout wearing a tracksuit. I thought he was a sub’) remarked a decade or so ago, ‘It’s like dogs: if you show any sign of fear, you’re dinner’. This seemed a little unfair on dogs, but his point was well made.

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

 
The linesman, an individual so large his parents must have needed planning permission for him, turned round, fixed the complainant with a gunslinger glare and barked, “You’re talking rubbish, sunshine”.  After that, criticism of the linesman’s decisions was confined to mild nose wrinkling and the occasional short burst of eye-rolling, though only when his back was fully turned.

 

Never apologise, never explain was the credo back then. Lately that seems to have changed. The Northern League has introduced a strict no swearing rule for players and spectators. The abuse is no longer anywhere near as salty as it once was As a consequence perhaps the liners in particular seem to have softened. A couple of weeks ago, a linesman responded to a similar cry to the one I’d heard at Bedlington not with an admonition, but with a long and patient explanation of the reasoning behind his decision. He delivered it without ever taking his eyes off the pitch, like a parent driving a car while telling a story to a toddler and trying to avoid smashing head on into the lorry in front. After he’d finished a supporter of the rival team who was wearing a wool cap with the words ‘Lawn Ranger’ embroidered on it, yelled, ‘You don’t have to explain yourself to anyone, liner,’ only to demand clarification himself thirty seconds later.

It went on like that for most of the match. It was edifying, in a way. Though I confess that by the third time I’d heard the words ‘active’ and ‘inactive’ I found myself pining for the old days of gunlaw; muttering after the manner of Tony Soprano, ‘Whatever happened to Jack Taylor? What ever happened to the strong silent type?’

 

Friday, 4 September 2015

THE PALINDROME CASE



Brunton Park today for my first League game of the season. I doubt the playlist will match that at Hillheads last Saturday where we were treated to a half-time selection of Jethro Tull, Foreigner and Rory Gallagher. I haven't heard anything by Robin Trower since sixth form*, but if I ever do again, I suspect Whitley Bay will be where it happens.

In the opening five games of the season season Carlisle scored 10 goals and conceded 12 , so I'd put your house on a 0-0 draw.

The transfer window closed this week, so here's some heavy-handed satire on that topic that appeared in the Fly Me To The Moon annual.






Many readers will be familiar with the antics around Teesside in the past few years of the international players’ agent, playboy and friend to the stars, Iggi Palindrome. Palindrome’s multinational business empire has its epicentre in a woolens stall at Ormesby market. Over the years Iggy's catchphrase ("All good stuff. No rubbish. C'mon ladies, treat yerselves") has become well known to a legion of Boro's top players including the immortal Fabrizio Ravishankar, goal-scorer and virtuoso sitar-player;  wayward shaggy-haired Brazilian tup, Emmerdale, and maverick midfield maestro Paul Merton whose hilarious comedic performances kept audiences in Cleveland chortling for generations.

 
During his association with players of the top calibre Palindrome has brokered many a deal that has seen his clients leaving from Teesside airport to a soundtrack of cheering fans and club officials yelling, "Hoy, come back here with our lightbulbs". The story of his most audacious deal, however, has never been told. Until now..........
 
 
 

May 1995


Iggi approaches the Transporter Bridge claiming that he has just received an inquiry about its availability from Milan whose boss Fabio Capello sees  "a 225 foot high blue steel structure that only works sporadically" as the natural replacement for the ageing Ruud Gullit.

At the same time Palindrome places a story in Italian sports daily Gazetto della Sport that runs next day under the headline "Will No One End My North-East Nightmare? - Want away Industrial Monument's Desperate Plea" and alleges that the Transporter's family have been unable to settle in the area.


The next morning Middlesbrough is engulfed in a media storm. A spokesman for the Council says, "The Transporter Bridge is going nowhere".

 
Milan, meanwhile, deny any approach but also stress that "As a club we are prepared to buy practically  anything". A point that is confirmed later in the day when they sign Andreas Andersson.


The Transporter itself appears uncertain about the move, "Middlesbrough has been good to me," it tells the Daily Mirror, "But at the end of the day being a bridge is a short career and I have to think about my long-term future".

 
Asked if it believes it will be able to adjust to life on the continent the Transporter drops another bombshell, "From what I have been told Signor Berlusconi is prepared to pay for ICI Billingham, Dundas Mews and a large chunk of Eston to fly over for the first season to stop me getting homesick" he says.

 
A spokesman for Cleveland Council says, "Believe me when I say Eston is going nowhere," to which many people nod their heads and mutter, "You're telling me".

 
Meanwhile Palindrome is moving on to the next phase of his plan, phoning Real Madrid to inform them that so far Milan have failed to match the Transporter's personal terms which are believed to include free lubrication and a complete re-paint every two seasons. President Nunez says he is "very interested" in the 2,600 ton bridge.

 
An hour later Iggi is chatting with Italian sports journalist "I am confident Middlesbrough will let the Transporter go," he says, "After all everybody in England knows that the Newport Bridge is a far greater and more exciting river spanning talent".
 
 

 
The bait is swallowed. That evening the chairman of Lazio sends a fax offering £25million plus Beppe Signori and the Coliseum for "this wonderful 1930s masterpiece with its two powerful 325hp electric motors which lift its central span 120 feet above the water". Iggi says he believes he might be able to interest Middlesbrough in such a deal if Lazio are prepared to take Yarm viaduct as well.

 
Two days later, after a prolonged media campaign in the region, a candlelit vigil outside the Town Hall and the intervention  Mr Tony Blair, the Newport Bridge agrees to stay on Teesside in return for a new improved contract and a loyalty bonus believed to be worth several million. Iggi Palindrome trousers 15% and two minutes later telephones Barcelona with the news that Roseberry Topping is desperate to win some medals.
 
 
* On one occasion the art teacher came into the sixth form common room, pointed at the record player and said 'It's too loud.' To which a boy named Nick responded, 'Trower is never too loud, sir.'