At the gate I found that the admission charge for the FA Vase replay had been raised from £6 to £7. In solidarity with fans on Merseyide I considered walking out in protest after seven minutes, but decided that - on balance - £7 still represented pretty good value. My reward was a cracking game on a pitch that in the current age would likely be characterised as 'vintage' and have an outrageous price tag slapped on it by a young man dressed as a Victorian poacher. I also saw my 100th goal of the season. Sadly it was an injury time winner for visitors Ashford United - my second NL 2-3 Vase defeat on the trot. I ll stay away from Morpeth next week.
The latest issue of The Blizzard podcast features a reading of my piece about Adam Boyd. You can listen to it here:
Today I am walking to Ryton and Crawcrook Albion with Mike Amos as part of his Last Legs Challenge. The last time we walked anywhere together was in Bishop Auckland when we covered the distance from The Stanley Jefferson to the station in record time. Here's something I wrote for WSC about that evening.
Emmott Robinson played cricket for Yorkshire in the inter-War years. Late in life the all-rounder complained that the general public’s perception of him came entirely through the writing of Guardian cricket correspondent Neville Cardus. ‘I reckon Mr Cardus invented me,’ Robinson said wearily.
Though he played over 400 times for his county, Robinson never got an international cap. No film of him exists. His doughty manner, his gruff, unruly style, his mad devotion to the game he loved, lives on almost exclusively in Cardus’ prose.
The point of writing, William Faulkner said, is to fix movement to the page, so that when the reader comes along it moves again. Back in Cardus’ day that was what sports journalists did, captured action. Writing was a medium of record, often the only medium.
Things have changed. If Emmott Robinson was around nowadays there’d be hours of footage of him on YouTube. Film has superseded writing. Newspaper websites are peppered with video clips. Even editors don’t trust words to do the job anymore. Why read about a Lionel Messi goal, if you can watch it? Even those of us who make a living from it must occasionally wonder - as we see the bloke beside us filming the goal celebrations on his mobile - what the point of writing is in the age of the smartphone and the tablet.
At the start of the summer I gave a talk at Auckland Castle, a tie-in with the excellent exhibition on Bishop Auckland FC - Birth of the Blues - that is currently showing there. Afterwards members of the audience came up to chat. Many had brought with them bags containing mementos of North-East non-League football: winners medals from long-forgotten local cup competitions, Amateur Cup Final programmes, photographs in gilded frames. All the items had tales attached, a memory trail to long dead relatives, to pit villages once lived in.
A lady in her mid-seventies opened her handbag, pulled from it an autograph album covered in tartan cloth. Her parents, she said, had been involved with Stanley United back in the 1950s. ‘When I was a teenage girl,’ she said, ‘I served the players their post-match teas, and I got them all to sign my book.’
Stanley United was one of the oldest clubs in Durham. They won the Northern League title three times. Stanley United played at Mount Pleasant. Like many places in Britain it seemed to have been named by someone of ironic bent. Mount Pleasant was on a freezing crag above Crook, so isolated and windswept the white-washed two-story clubhouse, where the players changed and ate, and the spectators defrosted at half-time in front of coal fire, was nicknamed ‘The Little House of the Prairie’.
The lady opened the tartan-covered book. ‘Here, look,’ she said, ‘The Bishops team, 1955.’ She ran a finger under the signatures, the well-practiced autographs of men who were the superstars of the amateur game: Bob Hardisty, Corbett Cresswell, eccentric ‘keeper Harry Sharratt who once built a snowman on his goal line. I pointed at one which had an extra flourish: Seamus O’Connell
Seamus O’Connell was Bishops’ wealthy and glamorous inside-forward. He also played as an amateur for Chelsea and Middlesbrough, rejecting the chance to make a full-time career of the game at Stamford Bridge with the words, ‘It’s no kind of job for a man’. An infamous womaniser, O’Connell was allegedly so well-endowed that, after catching a glimpse of him naked in the shower, one London society hostess remarked, ‘Built like that you really ought to trot.’
The woman with the tartan autograph book grinned. ‘Eee, aye’ she said ‘Seamus O’Connell. He once give me a lift home over the moor top in his sports car,’ and she shivered with delight at the thought of it.
‘So you must have known Geoff Strong, then.’ I said.
Geoff Strong was the centre-forward at Stanley in 1957. Between the start of the season and Christmas he scored 31 goals. Arsenal came looking to sign him. They offered Strong £13 a week. It was a tougher decision than you might think. The amateurs of Stanley were paying him £10 a week ‘boot money’ and he picked up another £4 as an apprentice fitter. In the end he decided to take the pay cut and move to Highbury. He scored 69 goals for the Gunners, then Bill Shankly bought him for Liverpool. He died two years ago.
The woman’s eyes twinkled when I said the name. ‘Ooh Geoff Strong,’ she said, and she placed the autograph book down on the table we were standing beside and ran her hands back and forwards across it. ‘I used to iron his number nine shirt every week,’ she said, looking at the tartan book as if it was the targetman’s red-and-white striped jersey, pressing her palms down on it to smooth out the wrinkles, ‘And, you know, I always ironed that shirt with love.’
Stanley United folded in 2003. The Little House on the Prairie was burned down by arsonists. Only the goalposts and the memories now remain. And memories don’t last forever. As Jorge Luis Borges noted, ‘one thing, or an infinite number of things dies in every final agony’ never to return.
To be recalled is the only afterlife we can be guaranteed. That’s part of the reason we tell strangers stories from our lives. It’s why I write them down. It’s why you should too. If we don’t, one day it will all be gone, YouTube or not.