Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Bridesmaids Revisit

I enjoy my role as Chair of the Tyneside Amateur League, especially handing out trophies. Sadly for 3 weeks in a row I've had to present Cramlington Town Reserves with runners-up medals. Sorry lads. Anyway, here's the two pieces I had in the programmes for our cup finals at Benfield recently, which ended Wardley 4 Cramlington Town 1 and Morepth Town Seniors 2 Cramlington Town 0 -:

I’d like to take this opportunity to welcome all players, officials and supporters of Cramlington Town Reserves and Wardley FC to the first of our 2016/2017 Tyneside Amateur League finals. I’d also like to extend a warm welcome to any players, officials or supporters of other Tyneside Amateur League clubs and indeed to everyone who is here today to watch the Neville Cowey Cup; a trophy named in honour of our stalwart secretary, treasurer and so much more beside, the incomparable Neville Cowey himself.

I am particularly pleased that the game is being played at Sam Smith’s Park, the home of my beloved Newcastle Benfield FC. Consequently, I must pay sincere and humble gratitude to Chairman Jimmy Rowe, who has allowed us to use the ground for both end of season showcase events. In addition, thanks go to the rest of the Benfield committee and volunteers for all their hard work today and throughout the season: cheers to Stan, Dave, Allan, Alan, Ian, Graham, Tommy, Gary, the lasses from Snack Attack and the incomparable Johnny Innes. If you could put a few quid Benfield’s way by getting a couple of hot drinks and a burger that would be great. If you fancy hanging around at full time (remember, unlike the Northern League we still have extra time in cup ties, if necessary) to celebrate with the winners or commiserate with the runners-up, that would be even better.

Last weekend, I was privileged to see a team of black and white clad footballers cavorting with each other on the pitch, after a 3-0 win in the last game had handed them the title. I’m talking about Ponteland United Reserves of course (though I did get to see events at St James Park by a bizarre series of events I don’t have time to describe here, sadly). KennieMalia’s young team beat Cramlington Town Reserves away, to overhaul their hosts at the top of the table. Of course today’s game provides Cramlington with an opportunity to bounce back and win some silverware. However Wardley, the sole representatives of the Durham FA in our league, will be determined to take the trophy back south of the Tyne.

At the time of writing, there are still 3 games to be played, which will decide whether Wardley finish in 6th or 7th place. In a sense, as chair, this is immaterial; what particularly delights me, considering the crises that have enveloped clubs higher up the pyramid than us, including West Allotment Celtic, Washington, Hebburn Town and our dear friends at Percy Main Amateurs, all of whom have threatened resignations and closure at some point in the season, is that our league will finish the campaign with a full complement of teams. We started with 16 and we finished with 16; perhaps that’s the reason why the Tyneside Amateur League was recently honoured by the Northumberland FA, being named FA Charter Standard League of the Year. The trophy was presented at half time on the pitch at St James during the Northumberland Senior Cup final to our invaluable referees and fixture secretary, Paul Mosley.

We think we run a cracking local league and we hope you enjoy what is on offer here today. Even more, we hope you can return next Saturday to this venue for the final of the Tyneside Amateur Challenge Shield, when Cramlington Town Reserves are again involved, with Morpeth Town Seniors as their opponents.

May the best team win!

I’d like to take this opportunity to welcome all players, officials and supporters of Cramlington Town Reserves and Morpeth Town Seniors to the second of our 2016/2017 Tyneside Amateur League finals, which also marks the end of our season. I’d also like to extend a warm welcome to any players, officials or supporters of other Tyneside Amateur League clubs and indeed to everyone who is here today to watch the Tyneside Amateur Challenge Shield.

The campaign just ending has been a debut one in the league for both of today’s opponents. Morpeth had an encouraging season, ending in 5th place in the table, but for Cramlington Town it has been a case of so near, yet so far. A fortnight ago they lost a winner takes all final league game against eventual champions Ponteland United Reserves, meaning they had to settle for second spot. Last week, they went into the Neville Cowey Cup final against Wardley as favourites, but came up short as the Gateshead based club put in a more than impressive display to shock Cramlington 4-1. I hope they don’t regard the presence of the Tyneside Amateur League committee as a bad omen. Therefore, I must state; may the best team win!

I am particularly pleased that the game is being played at Sam Smith’s Park, the home of my beloved Newcastle Benfield FC. Consequently, I must pay sincere and humble gratitude to Chairman Jimmy Rowe, who has allowed us to use the ground for both end of season showcase events. In addition, thanks go to the rest of the Benfield committee and volunteers for all their hard work today and throughout the season: cheers to Stan, Dave, Allan, Alan, Ian, Graham, Tommy, Gary, the lasses from Snack Attack and the incomparable Johnny Innes. If you could put a few quid Benfield’s way by getting a couple of hot drinks and a burger that would be great. If you fancy hanging around at full time (remember, unlike the Northern League we still have extra time in cup ties, if necessary) to celebrate with the winners or commiserate with the runners-up, that would be even better.

While the eyes of North East non-league will be on Wembley tomorrow, where South Shields travel in expectation rather than hope against Cleethorpes Town in the FA Vase final, we at the Tyneside Amateur League have plenty of reasons for optimism about the future of our competition. Considering the crises that have enveloped clubs higher up the pyramid than us, including West Allotment Celtic, Washington, Hebburn Town and our dear friends at Percy Main Amateurs, all of whom have threatened resignations and closure at some point in the season, it is a source of great pride that our league will finish the campaign with a full complement of teams. We started with 16 and we finished with 16 and next season we may well have enough teams to split to two divisions; perhaps that’s the reason why the Tyneside Amateur League was recently honoured by the Northumberland FA, being named FA Charter Standard League of the Year. The trophy was presented at half time on the pitch at St James during the Northumberland Senior Cup final to our invaluable referees and fixture secretary, Paul Mosley. We think we run a cracking local league and we hope you enjoy what is on offer here today. Even more, we hope you can return next season to see games at our level. Indeed, if you find yourself at a loose end, every single club would welcome volunteer helpers.

ian cusack, League Chair

Monday, 15 May 2017

Shaw Leave & Cross Words

It's getting towards the end of the season, so time to do a bit of sorting out. This week's blog features two pieces from fanzines which were based on elements of earlier blogs; the one about Wayne Shaw is from Stand #21 & the one about offensive chanting is from View From The Allotment End #4 -:

Latest News 
Sutton United and SunBets
13th February 2017
We can confirm that the club has reached an agreement with SunBets for the company's name to appear on the front of our shirts for next Monday's game against Arsenal. This was arranged with the full knowledge and co-operation of our valuable first team shirt sponsors Green Go Waste, to whom we are very grateful for allowing us to take advantage of this one-off opportunity which will enable us to undertake significant additional ground improvement works. This money will help so much to keep improving this great club, and we're very excited to be working with SunBets. They arranged for Ian Wright to take a fun training session today and then arranged for the players to have a full tour of Wembley.  

Latest News

Wayne Shaw
21st February 2017
Wayne Shaw has resigned from his role at Sutton United following the events of last evening and subsequent publicity. He has said that he 'fully understands the club's position regarding this matter.'  We are naturally disappointed that Wayne's time with us should end in this manner, and would like to thank him for his contribution to the club and wish him well for the future.

There’s not many people in the world I can call a fat bastard, but one of them is Wayne Shaw. In case Andy Warhol’s prophecy is running slightly slow and we’re all only famous for 15 seconds now, I’ll remind you Wayne Shaw is the 46 year old former Sutton United reserve goalkeeper whose celebrity waxed in the run up to the FA Cup fifth round tie at Gander Green Lane, reached its zenith when the portly chap was pictured eating a pie in the dugout during the game and plummeted to earth once the cat came out the bag that this was some scam involving The Sun’s betting operation. Total proof that Wayne’s world had waned came on the day after with the news Shaw had agreed to a termination of his contract by Sutton because of the potential contravention of FA rules caused by the flutter Wayne’s pals had on him scoffing a meat and potato comestible on TV. All rather pathetic really; naturally Piers Morgan leaped to Shaw’s defence. After all, it’s not as if anyone had done anything really immoral, like hacking a murdered teenager’s phone for instance…

On Saturday 18th February, the 4,308 who took in Wrexham v Aldershot in the National League were part of the only non-league crowd higher than the 3,161 who broke the ground record at Mariners Park as South Shields blasted Newport Pagnell Town 6-1 in the FA Vase quarter final, in a game which had resulted in Souths postponing their trip to my team Newcastle Benfield. If ever there was evidence of a team on the up, it is South Shields, whose chairman and benefactor Geoff Thompson has ploughed a small fortune into his hometown club. Almost certainly, they will be promoted from the Northern League.

As we didn’t have a game that day, I took myself off to see Blyth Town hosting Alnwick in Northern League Division 2. The home side won a less than compelling game 3-1, in front of about 120 people I’d estimate. It’s a neat and tidy set up, with room for expansion if needed. They had a bigger game on the Wednesday following, breaking their attendance record against Blyth Spartans in the semi-final of the Northumberland Senior Cup. They may have lost 5-2, but the crowd of 400, who were charged £8 entry rather than the standard £6 (which includes a free programme normally) made it a lucrative night, with the catering and bar add-ons. That said, the decision to up their prices caused a minor social media shit storm. I don’t agree with their decision, but I can understand why. Being honest though, it is a bit of a shady thing to do. Then again, the noises of potential extinction coming from Blyth’s divisional rivals Hebburn Town prove that there isn’t an inexhaustible fund of cash, time or goodwill to share around, so you can’t really condemn a club for making hay while the sun shines. Can you?  Well, yes you can, if the source of income is of dubious moral provenance.

It’s almost 30 years since Matty Hanlon, master bricklayer by trade, popped in the winner against Sillett’s Sky Blues, when the Match of the Day cameras focussed not on a big bloke’s snack choice, but on Hanlon’s sister wiping a tear of emotion away. Back to the present day and I’m sure Wayne Shaw is actually the victim in all this; badly advised and borderline exploited, resulting in him having to fall on his sword. Everything that has subsequently come out about his character and devotion to the club paints the picture of the archetypal hands-on club stalwart, who puts the fate of their team ahead of personal advancement. It is rather a shame his club sought to make him a convenient scapegoat for ill-advised publicity stunts involving various tentacles of the News International hydra.

Do not be mistaken; Sutton United aren’t a struggling gaggle of part-time misfits, staggering around, knee in clarts, stinking of booze and cigars in a glorified pub league. In reality they’re a successful club from the affluent Surrey stockbroker exurbs. They are doing well in the National League and reaping the rewards of the astute business decision to lay a 4G pitch, which provides a constant source of revenue all year round.  Let’s be honest; they don’t need Rupert Murdoch’s minions hanging round the place to act as silent sponsors, living off the immoral earnings  of a club who are doing well enough by themselves.  The fact is, we should remember Sutton for the right reasons; specifically their giant killing acts against Coventry in 89 and Leeds in round 4 this year. The only time I’ve ever seen them was when they pulverised Gateshead 9-0 at the International Stadium in 1990; curiously, they went down that year while Gateshead stayed up…

Having reached the fifth round, courtesy of victories over Dartford, Cheltenham Town, AFC Wimbledon and Leeds United, Sutton bowed out of this year’s competition, after losing the BBC televised last 16 tie 2-0 to Arsenal. They may have gained a considerable amount of prize money for their cup heroics, all well-deserved, but in my eyes they’ve lost so much more in terms of self-respect and dignity by getting rid of Shaw. With delicious irony, Sutton lost their first choice keeper Ross Worner to injury in the very next game and didn’t have a substitute to bring on, having dispensed with Shaw’s services. Of course he’s an overweight bloke in his late 40s who wants to capitalise on his seemingly bankable notoriety and I’d imagine he’ll be a Soccer AM fixture for a while, or even the face of Pukka Pies for a season or two, until he drifts off into obscurity again, but any footballer or football fan giving The Sun their attention needs a severe talking to.  Every banknote News International peel from their greasy wad of avaricious amorality is stained with the blood of the 96 innocents who died at Hillsborough; that will never change, so we must neither forgive nor forget.

Money; it mightn’t make you happy or morally sound, but it certainly keeps non-league teams in business. Cash from almost anywhere, unlike a pie in the dugout, is not to be scoffed at…

On Wednesday 22nd March, my club Newcastle Benfield played host to Sunderland RCA in a Northern League Division One game. On an absolutely filthy, rainswept night, when almost every other non-league fixture in the region was called off because of waterlogged pitches; we destroyed an increasingly bedraggled opposition 6-0, in front of 180 fans. Considering the game was free to enter, on account of it being a rearranged fixture after the original was abandoned in early January because of a frozen pitch (when the opposition were 1-0 up, ironically enough), the crowd was particularly disappointing. This wasn’t just because I was left with 40 unsold programmes, but because it curtailed our attempts at raising funds for Ward 34 of the Freeman Hospital, where our midfielder Kieran Wrightson had been successfully treated for cancer (he got the okay a few days later that he was now completely cured, wonderfully enough), over the past year. Kieran is a great player and a very popular lad, which is why representatives of local clubs Dunston UTS, Team Northumbria, Whitley Bay, West Allotment and especially his old side North Shields, with whom he won the FA Vase in 2015, turned out to help us raise £3,000 on the night, partly though a bucket collection on the gate and partly through a raffle. Newcastle United had thoughtfully provided a signed shirt and Rafa Benitez took the time to give Kieran a call to wish him well; all in all, it was a highly successful evening, even allowing for the monsoon conditions. Every part of the event showed the positive side to the beautiful game, albeit at our modest level.

At full time, I headed into the clubhouse for a well-earned pint (courtesy of the special array of bottled cask conditioned ale provided for the occasion by the Newcastle University Non-League Football and Real Ale societies, who have adopted our club and have donated a sizeable sum to Ward 34 themselves), just as Lukas Podolski fired in his spectacular winner for Germany against England. As the commentary was drowned out by the sound of the assembled throng chewing the fact about matters of mutual interest, there was no appreciable reaction to the goal. When I got back home, I didn’t watch the highlights; having been out at graft then football, I caught up on events that had unfolded following the attack by Khalid Masoud / Adrian Elms on the House of Commons, with a growing sense of alarm, sadness and despair at the conditions in our society that provoked such an incident.

Whether this seeming suicide by cop of an apparently solo deranged murderer will be linked to the discovery of a hitherto undiscovered many-headed terrorist hydra, I have no idea. All I know, as a 52 year old English teacher, is that 4 innocent people were killed by a 52 year old English teacher from Kent, hell-bent on spreading hatred and division in a society that has already suffered cultural fissures from the hatred and division inspired by Nigel Farage, another 52 year old from Kent. I also know, at an instinctive, elemental level that singing Ten German Bombers is a fucking moronic thing to do at any football game, never mind at an international on the same day as the horrific incident at Westminster. To discover that the same song, together with repeated airings of Harry Roberts is our friend were part of the disgraceful scenes that marred Shildon’s 2-0 win over North Shields on Saturday March 25th, is nothing short of alarming. Partly this is because the idea of fighting on the unsegregated terraces of Northern League grounds is anathema to all but the lunatic fringe who’ve no business associating themselves with the grassroots game and partly because it seems a less than respectful way to remember the fallen PC Keith Palmer by chanting about a police killer from the 1960s.

Prior to events (plural) involving the pugilists at Dean Street, the only recorded incident of crowd trouble at a Northern League game I’m aware of, was the bizarre situation at Esh Winning against Penrith in April 2001, when referee Russell Tiffin, a farmer, left the field in tears after a certain Thomas Marron bellowed “I hope your animals get foot and mouth,” in the middle of said crisis. The perpetrator was bound over by Durham magistrates for the sum of £50 and banned from all football grounds for 3 and a half years. From 16 years distant, the story appears scarcely credible; did such a comment really merit such a punitive, heavy handed, official response?

Marron’s nasty little comment certainly paled into insignificance as an example of personally offensive, targeted abuse compared to what Greg Downs suffered at St James’ Park on January 2nd 1987. During a particularly dismal 2-1 home reverse to Coventry City, the one memory that stands out for me is of the completely bald fullback coming to take a throw in front of the Gallowgate corner and a particularly vindictive, intoxicated terrace wag bellowing “look at that twat; he’s got fucking leukaemia,” to a ripple of embarrassed laughter and the utter bemusement of the player himself, who quizzically stared at the perpetrator before turning to throw the ball in.  A decade and a half before the incident at Esh Winning, football grounds were different places and the police on duty way back then certainly had no interest in wading into the crowd to arrest the bloke. I’m certainly not adopting a sticks and stones standpoint, because words can wound, whether written or spoken and certainly the effect on the victim of mass offensive chanting can be deeply upsetting, in the same way as a co-ordinated campaign by Twitter trolls gets under the skin of anyone on the receiving end of a bully’s wrath. What I do suggest is that responses to abuse and abusive comments should be proportionate. The Coventry incident was one bloke out of 30,000, while the Esh Winning carry-on was one bloke out of 30, though both were clearly audible and both intend to offend and upset the targets of the comments.

Spring forward another decade and a half to the present day and the match day football experience is completely unrecognisable from 30 years ago. Esh Winning, resolutely anchored to the foot of Northern League Division Two, may still be watched by the same 30 blokes, or their sons and grandsons, who were there when referee Tiffin abandoned the game, but there are other Northern League clubs, like Ashington or Heaton Stannington, who have supporter groups that have more in common with Stratford, Lewes or Dulwich Hamlet than Millwall. More crucially, the 50,000 at St James Park are changed utterly from the demographic who endured the Coventry defeat.

Newcastle is a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic city and football club. The transformative bourgeoisification of the city is so complete that it has more in common with Bristol, North London or Brighton than neighbouring, north eastern towns; is it any wonder the population voted to remain in the EU at the last referendum? The football club and crowd have mirrored the city as a whole and similarly changed. While there is still much work to be done to fully celebrate the LBGT section of the support, elsewhere the inclusive and all-embracing nature of the club’s following must be recognised. Not only has the most successful and generous Food Bank at any club in the country been established organically by supporters, but the stands are enlivened by an ever diversifying ethnic make-up. Who would have thought that 30 years ago, we’d see groups of young Geordie Muslim women in full hijabs, rubbing shoulders with middle aged Geordie blokes, without a hint of suspicion or enmity on either side. This is no longer the place for the kind of vile racist chanting that Noel Blake said made Newcastle the most hostile place to visit as a black player. The people in these stands would not dream of singing a racist or any kind of offensive song; self-policing means it would not be tolerated.

If the entire attendance of  SJP knows what is right from wrong, as well as the overwhelming majority of non-league fans, why can’t the embarrassing element of knuckleheaded England fans who insist on singing about a conflict that ended over 70 years ago or an organisation who renounced violence a quarter of a century ago, just grow up? Easy question to ask; hard one to answer, sadly…

Monday, 8 May 2017


This weekend just gone, I was privileged to see a team of black and white clad footballers cavorting with each other on the pitch, after their convincing 3-0 win in the final game of a long season had handed them the title. Over the course of the last 8 months, the club’s fortunes had swung in different directions and nothing was resolved until the very last second. So, well done to Ponteland United Reserves for winning the Tyneside Amateur League. Kennie Malia’s young team beat Cramlington Town Reserves away, to overhaul their hosts at the top of the table, and clinch the trophy.

That was Saturday afternoon of course, which then continued until the early evening in Jesmond with the absorbing draw between Newcastle, who closed on 211/9, and South Northumberland, who had been dismissed for 224. I’ll come back to that game probably next week, but suffice to say, it was so tense I could hardly breathe, never mind sit still. Thank goodness for the 4.1% Wainwright’s beta blocker beer in the clubhouse to keep me on an even keel. For a while at least…

Being calm was off the agenda Sunday morning; not only were Newcastle United kicking off at the unearthly hour of noon at home to Barnsley, but I’d managed to acquire myself a freebie ticket up in Level 7 Family Area. Having attended 3 previous NUFC league games, Reading and QPR on freebies and Forest with Ben, as well as 4 cup ties in the Platinum club at a tenner a pop (Cheltenham, Wolves, Preston and Birmingham), I’d seen 6 wins and a draw. In addition, I’d caught 8 of the 16 other televised games, which isn’t bad as I don’t have Sky; thankfully Ginger Dave does and he only lives round the corner. I’ll never be a regular attender at SJP again, regardless of circumstances, but I do like to drop by now and again, especially for nowt. The only minor problem with the Barnsley brief was it was a junior ticket, which clearly could not be upgraded. So what? Newcastle United have defrauded me enough times in the past that I might as well get my own back.

Stepping off the Metro at 11.45, I was borne by the human wave of optimism up the stairs, across Strawberry Place and under the Milburn Stand canopy, coming to rest outside the sparsely used set of turnstiles, numbered 83-86. It isn’t the case that these entrances give you access to an empty part of the ground, it’s just that with it being the point of entry for families with young’uns, or gangs of high school lads, they all tend to get there well before kick-off. Additionally, the enormous queues for the lifts either side of the turnstile block showed that many punters demurred at the thought of clambering 140 stairs for their place in the sun. I must admit, the previous evening’s libations were a disinclination for me to begin my ascent on foot. However, scanning the turnstiles I realised one major hitch that could scupper my plans; when placing the ticket in the machine, a green light came on for adult tickets and an amber one for junior ones. Being candid, there wasn’t much of a chance I could pass for 15. Therefore, I was at the mercy of the turnstile operator’s mood; a failed attempt at one gate would immediately prohibit me from trying a different one as the ticket would instantly become invalid.

Several times I resolved to breeze into the ground, but on each occasion my nerve failed me. Being candid, I wasn’t prepared for the shame and humiliation of the inevitable knock back, so I stood idling and musing as the game kicked off. Admittedly I had the consolation of a cricket back up plan of Sunderland 3rd XI v Boldon 3rd XI in the NEPL Sunday Division 2. The perverse irony of watching a different sport in a different town did appeal to me, so I readied myself to leave the scene and take a long metro journey to Park Lane.  Then perhaps the most fortuitous series of off-pitch events I’ve known at SJP occurred, at least since someone threw a slack handful of spare tickets over the wall of the Gallowgate Corner before we played Southampton in September 1987 (won 2-1). In between the two pairs of turnstiles for Level 7 is a stand-alone concrete pillar, bearing a sign above a door, indicating this is the way to the lift, though apparently granting access to the car park only. I was leaning against this pillar when 3 coppers, 2 stewards, one carrying a tray of pies and the other escorting a young fella with a broken ankle, went through the door to the lift. The last of the coppers held the door open for me and gestured that I should walk through. I did, without even thinking. I entered the lift. I kept my mouth shut. I was borne upwards. I exited at Level 7. I had by-passed the turnstiles. I was inside the ground. I was ignored. I took the seat number from my ticket. I got away with it. In fact, the whole ground rose to applaud my entrance in the 17th minute of proceedings.

Hell of a view I had too; only other times I’ve been up there I saw us beat Everton 6-2 on Good Friday 2002, draw 0-0 with Swansea in the Gary Speed memorial game and Brazil defeat Costa Rica in the Olympic football. Lots of teenaged lads in Stone Island and CP Company, even more parents and tiny bairns. Good atmosphere. Within five minutes, everyone was back on their feet to acclaim Ayoze Perez’s delicious backheeled opener; a goal almost as impudent as his precocious winner at West Brom that won Goal of the Month in November 2014. I’d missed Hayden’s early departure, but at least I saw Haidara in a black and white shirt for the first time since decimalisation was introduced.  He wasn’t up to much frankly, though neither were Barnsley. Happy to be in the Championship next year and becalmed in lower mid-table, they produced as supine a performance as you could imagine; witness the utter lack of marking for the second goal and inability to deal with a long punt down field for the last one. Their two efforts on target, both blocked admirably by Rob Elliott, brought scarcely a response from their fans, who only appeared to show passion when news of Brighton’s goal at Villa Park filtered through. They set off a flare; there were gestures thrown from both sides of the sterile line and the coppers hoyed out 2 from each end. That said, fair play to the sizeable number of Tykes who hung back to applaud our team at the final whistle.

Now I’ll admit to having been a dreadful curmudgeon for large stretches of this season, but I’ll hold my hand up and say I was delighted to be there when the title was won. You have to say they deserved it with the way they dug in and came back from the Easter Monday fiasco at Ipswich Town. The joy from the players is what made the day special for me; none of this sullen, job done, underplayed lack of emotion malarkey. Instead, they were leaping all over each other and generally giving Ponteland United Reserves a run for their money in the celebration stakes. Without wishing to deflect from the joy of the occasion, perhaps many of those players realise this is probably the best moment of their careers and it won’t get any better than this for a whole load of them.

In contrast, Rafa Benitez has had many better victories than this in the past and may well have several more in the future, whether on Tyneside or elsewhere.  Yes he’s done a decent job in assembling a squad to gain promotion, albeit in fairly mundane circumstances and playing prosaic football much of time. Yes he’s popular with the support, other than the lunatic fringe who demand the moon on a stick, but that wouldn’t be difficult considering the shower of shit we’ve had in the dugout since the utterly irreproachable Chris Hughton got the bullet. Yes he’s won the title, but to celebrate that fact is, as my friend Gary states, like George Orwell winning the People’s Friend letter of the week and hiring an open top bus.

Meanwhile, talking of authors, both Mark Douglas and Martin Hardy have 2016/2017 season diary cash-ins ready to roll from the presses with almost indecent haste.  Mark’s a great writer on a terrible paper, but I presume he’s been pressurised to come up with this volume of platitudes from the public domain. Surely he’d be happier watching his beloved Bradford in the play-offs? As far as Martin is concerned, it seems both contrary and opportunistic for Martin to abandon his chronological accounts of Newcastle United from the mid-90s for the sake of a single campaign narrative. Then again, he’s a full time writer grubbing a living as a freelancer these days, so he needs to earn a crust. Also, it’ll give him another year to find a way of explaining in print about his exclusive that all the Muslim players at SJP were set to walk out when Wonga were named as sponsors.  Let’s just remember what happened again. Perhaps we can even discuss the ramifications of Newcastle’s supposed new sponsorship deal with a Chinese on-line gambling firm. Now that is something I find morally abhorrent. I’ve never bet in my life and don’t intend to start, but the club who have done such good things with the NUFC Food Bank initiative ought to give bookies a wide berth, as they cause untold misery for millions in their thrall; not just the unemployable and workshy either, but the likes of that little shit Joey Barton. Mind any sympathy I had for his plight disappeared when I learned he’d been betting against the club that covered his backside when he was in chokey. A character as complex and detestable as Paul Gascoigne; he’ll never eat Greggs in this town again.

Despite the premature adulation for Benitez (thanks again Gary), I have to say personally I regard him as only being marginally in credit for what he’s achieved since his arrival on Tyneside. You can balance this title with the inability to get more than 2 points from games at the end of last season against Villa, Norwich and the Mackems. The club record 14 away wins this campaign are offset by having the double done over us by play-off hopefuls Fulham and Sheff Wed, not to mention relegated Blackburn.  The inability to come back from going behind in several games, compared with the indomitable spirt of the Norwich (H) and Brighton (A) games. A stuttering start and a triumphant finish to the season. Yin and yang all over the park. Statistics can be manipulated to suit any argument: Newcastle gained more points this time than Keegan’s cavaliers, but less than Hughton’s roundheads. Most wins and most goals in the division, but more home losses than in the previous 3 promotion campaigns combined. Perhaps we ought to take comfort from the fact the single most irrefutable statistic is that Newcastle United obtained more points than any other side in the division in the campaign just ended. However, the nagging question is always there in the back of your mind; what happens now?

The day after promotion was achieved, HMRC were up at Darsley Park going through the books with a fine-toothed comb, looking for where les corps are buried from the era of Francophilic folly. Social media went into a frenzy of lurid claims relating to forced relegation and points deductions when Lee Charnley had his collar felt and so did Sylvain Marveaux; the latter for presumably impersonating a footballer. I’m glad I wasn’t le gendarme charged with running the anonymous winger in, as he’d spent so little time on the pitch I wouldn’t have been able to recognise him if he’d been shredding cheque book stubs in front of me.  As ever, the storm has blown itself out. Things might happen and charges could follow, but not for a while and nothing I’d imagine that will discomfit the NUFC playing side of operations, which is where we should have our gazes firmly fixed.

Looking at the squad list, other than Atsu’s loan spell ending, we’re in the situation whereby only Sammy Ameobi, Vurnon Anita and Yoan Gouffran are out of contract. Sammy must surely have miskicked his final ball for us, though the latter two players have had their best seasons with us (Big Vurn’s performance against Preston notwithstanding), on account of being coached and trained properly for a change. If they were to leave, it will be with the best wishes of all supporters who understand how football is played, rather than the mindless radgies who believe the ideal NUFC player is a cross between Jimmy Nail and Skeletor.

Before we even begin to think about new signings, there are those who’ve been away on loan to consider: Krul, De Jong, Saivet and Riviere from the first team squad, as well as Armstrong and Woodman from the fringes. Of the questionable quartet, the only one whose return wouldn’t fill me with dread would be Saivet, as I simply haven’t seen enough of him to hold him in utter contempt, yet. Perhaps we can trust Rafa’s judgement in this instance.

Looking at the signings he made last summer, obviously Gayle, Ritchie, Clark and Hayden have been unquestioned successes and I’d be happy for them to be in a Premier League squad, if not first names on the team sheet every week. Hanley and Murphy haven’t put a foot wrong either, but I wonder if they have the attributes for the top division. I hope Yedlin has, but he needs to add more steel to a game based entirely on explosive pace. Diame has let himself down with an infuriating number of under par performances and I doubt Rafa will be forgiving or sentimental enough to give him another season at the club. Meanwhile Lazaar, Gamez and Sels simply are not good enough; they must be moved on.

And what of those players Benitez inherited who remain at the club? Perez, so harshly and unfairly berated, is still a jewel and must remain. Shelvey has shown us what he can do, but he needs a creative partner. Elliott and Darlow are solid and steady; I trust them both. So too Lascelles, who has played through the pain barrier and Dummett; unfairly castigated for the crime of being a local lad. I don’t believe Rafa is convinced by Mbemba, good player he may be, or Haidara, who hasn’t really progressed in over 4 years.  Aarons is a low-carb Nile Ranger who needs bulleting, as does the woeful Serbian Whitehurst who, if retained, will get more red cards than goals in the top flight.

If you’re asking me to give you a list of suggested signings, you’re out of luck. In all seriousness, it is time for the fans to relax and enjoy the silence, while Benitez negotiates with Ashley. I have no doubt that Rafa is fully aware of who and what he needs for next season, while Ashley remains as enigmatic as ever. If the capricious billionaire plays nicely, the club will march forwards, but if he doesn’t the repercussions for the club will be frightening. Newcastle United need Benitez far more than the other way round; if Ashley doesn’t give him a sizeable transfer budget, Rafa could easily walk into another major club job tomorrow.

Were that to happen, the question of who would replace him would be almost immaterial as whichever crawling sap took over the job, they would struggle not just to keep us up with the current squad, but to emulate Derby’s 12 point haul of 2007/2008.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Jingle Jangle Mourning

I’d like to dedicate this blog to Alex Neilson; drummer, singer, bon viveur and folk polymath with such outstanding groups as: Trembling Bells, Death Shanties, Crying Lion and now his solo vehicle Alex Rex. The week his new album Vermilion was released to rapturous acclaim, just after Record Store Day 2017 had seen Trembling Bells’ wonderful take on The Auld Triangle appear on 10.” Tragically, this is also the week  Alex’s younger brother Alastair has tragically passed away. I never had the pleasure of meeting Alastair, but I know, respect and admire his cantankerous, clever, funny, articulate brother and I send my deepest condolences to Alex and the family at this sad time.

The last time I saw Alex was back in early March, when he got me a guest list spot to see Shirley Collins at The Sage. It hadn’t been on my agenda to see this gig, partly as it was only days after Fairport at the same venue, but also because, and I hope I don’t sound like a heretic saying this, I don’t particularly love what Shirley Collins does. I find her style of mannered delivery charming when it’s The Copper Family sounding like pre Victorian versions of The Archers, but I prefer my female singers with a touch of red meat and blood about them; like Anne Briggs for instance. That said, Shirley is 83 and I’m rather unlikely to see her again, so it was an event to experience, very sparsely attended I have to say, rather than a gig. This was reinforced by the fact it was a straight run through of her 2016 album Lodestar; pleasant and intriguing in a Wiccan way (other than the daft hat the bloke on hurdy gurdy was wearing), but never truly compelling.  I don’t have the album and I don’t intend to buy it, but I did get the Fledgling Records repressing of 1964’s Shirley Sings Irish on Record Store Day, which includes a fairly mediocre stab at She Moves through the Fair, but a thoroughly excellent Dennis O’Reilly.

Reflecting on The Sage performance, while it was important to see Shirley, I was genuinely glad to be there as it gave me a chance to hear Alasdair Roberts in the flesh for the first time ever. What a voice this bloke has; it’s to my eternal shame I’ve missed out on his work to date, especially with a certain ginger-haired, badly shirted drummer from Leeds in the band. That error will be put right soon. Alasdair Roberts takes the first verse on The Auld Triangle, which is an ensemble piece so great I fancy it will become our era’s equivalent to The Last Waltz version of I Shall Be Released, despite the fact that Mike Heron (seen at the Shirley Collins gig incidentally) doesn’t appear to know the song when he contributes a verse. Typically, Alex ends the piece with a glorious flourish and the b-side acts as an appetizer for Vermilion with a pair of tracks by Alex Rex; The Gift of Weeping is Richard and Mimi Farina reimagined, while When You Have A Hammer (Everything’s A Nail) is perhaps the best pastiche of Nick Cave I’ve heard since the Inca Babies hung up their crimpers. I don’t physically own Vermilion as yet, though it is on order, but if the rest is as great as the quirky to unhinged eccentricities of Song to Dora and The Screaming Cathedral, it is going to be a classic. Whisper it also; Trembling Bells have recorded their next album Dungeness, which is out in the autumn.

Meanwhile, British Sea Power are back with an absolute bang on Let The Dancers Inherit The Party. No more brass bands or ethereal film music, this slab of uncompromising noise proves they still like rock music. Obviously the singles Bad Bohemian and International space Station are hewn from the same rock of ages that produced the anthems that still bring the house down live, but there are moments of fragile, introspective beauty, such as the charming closer Alone Piano indicates. They didn’t play it live at a sold-out Riverside in early April; instead, it was full on assault turned up to 11, with every one of the crowd pleasers there, apart from Lately. We had 2 bears, crowd surfing and fancy dress space suits, but it was the heartfelt humanity of Waving Flags that did it all for me. How on earth could we ever have imagined when that joyous hymn to social inclusivity was released that we’ve have been facing the ignoble evil of Brexit? It truly makes your heart weep, while BSP still make it soar.

Sadly one gig I missed out on was The Wedding Present at Stockton at the end of March. Somehow I didn’t realise the venue’s capacity was so small and the tickets had gone before I stirred. Never mind, there’s George Best at The Academy in early June to perk things up, not to mention a pair of Weddoes releases, old and new. I picked up Hit Parade 1 for 20p in a charity shop and it’s good to have the first 6 releases from 1992’s singles collection together in one place. Go Go Dancer and Silver Shorts are the Gedge numbers that appeal, while Falling is the best of the covers, as it’s such a radical reimagining of the original. Sadly, Cattle and Cane is still as awful as it was a quarter of a century back. Of course David Gedge is a regular contributor to Record Store Day and this year The Wedding Present produced the Home Internationals EP; four instrumentals, three new and Wales from last year’s Going Going. Unlike the frankly ludicrous Welsh language release the other year, this is an essential purchase; Scotland comes in like a lamb on piano and goes out like a lion with guitars. Northern Ireland seems like any number of midplaced, 7/10 numbers that pepper albums across their career, but it changes to Big Black with toothache halfway through. Simon Armitage provides narration on the thoughtful England, before we’re back on familiar territory with Wales. I was highly impressed with this release I must say.

The last record to be purchased was by another band I didn’t see on Teesside, not having a lift to their April 20th show in Stockton; Wire, whose continued furrow of latter-day creativity saw realease of Silver / Lead, which harks back to the corrosive aural cruelty of 2015’s self-titled album, rather than last year’s relatively gentle Nocturnal Koreans. Strangely for wire, the vocals are pushed forward, so you can hear the words possibly for the first time since Chairs Missing, not that it makes them any more comprehensible than when they’re muffled. Musically, the band may not be as confrontationally arty as they once were, but the repetitive rhythms and walls of fuzz gives it a slower, more melancholy feel, but as enigmatic as ever. Diamond Cups and A Short Elevated Period are some of the most accessible numbers they’ve done in years. The latter song archly includes a catchy chorus right at the end. Wire can play pop, if they want to, but only on their own terms.

As regards the printed matter, I’ve upped the pitiful ante slightly; I finally got round to reading Sandy McNair’s Moonshine on Leith, a typically anarchic look at the Hibees finally ending the 114 year wait for the Scottish Cup last May. Rather typically, I managed to read it in the window between the Cabbage clinching the Championship title and bowing out of the cup to Aberdeen. A great, drink-sodden ramble through the highways and byways of the Scottish second tier, ending with the elation of David Gray’s winner at Hampden, it’s like all of Sandy’s books; an acquired taste, but an intoxicating one.

The next book I picked was the Waterstone’s Guide to Irish Books; another 50p purchase from Tynemouth Market. It’s a cross between a text book and an encyclopaedia. In effect it is a one-stop reference for the different elements of Irish writing in an easy-to-use format,. The guide includes both fiction and non-fiction and, in sections such as poetry and travel, history and art, it aims to be a tool for use by readers whose tastes are as varied as the writing the guide contains. Basic information about the authors and their works has been provided as well as bibliographic information which will enable the reader to find books more easily. Criteria for inclusion in the guide have been simple; books should be by Irish writers and about Irish subject matter.

Staying with the auld sod, this old sod has just finished Toby Harnden’s hagiographic absolution of the conduct of the British in South Armagh from the plantation to the present; Bandit Country.  Harnden cites the geography of the area as being an unwelcome feature for the Colonial marauders to manage. The term "Bandit Country" was a mainstream British media construct, specifically used to describe the liberated zones, created by the Provisional IRA's campaign in South Armagh, during the 40 year conflict with the British Army, commonly referred to as 'the Troubles.'

Harnden constructs a picture of the area as being particularly lawless, prone to violence and a place apart, which is fairly typical of the British Colonial mentality, when dealing with Irish Republican areas, failing to comprehend why the 'Queen's Writ' is not warmly received in much of Ireland, for very real historical reasons.

The author chronicles Provisional IRA operations which had their origins in South Armagh, including the cripplingly, massive London Docklands bomb and the innovative nature of those actions. Harnden's sources in the British security forces admit they feared and grudgingly respected the South Armagh Provisional IRA's ingenuity and ruthless determination. He provides numerous accounts from former serving members of the British army and RUC, confirming that due to the level of threat from the Provisional IRA in South Armagh, they only left the likes of the heavily fortified Crossmaglen barracks by helicopter and even the garbage bins had to be emptied by the same method.

Harnden's book is a very readable account and has become a bookcase essential for anyone with an interest in the centuries old, Anglo-Irish conflict or even those who have an interest in counter-insurgency matters, in general. Harnden's work is well researched and at 400 plus pages it should keep the reader well interested for a day or two, even if you grind your teeth at his ingrained British sympathies.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

The Concept

So, Newcastle United are finally promoted; two cheers for El Jefe... However, is exchanging The Championship for The Premier League a good thing? Moot point, which I discuss in the article below from the latest fabulous issue of "The Football Pink," which you really ought to buy -:

“A slum sport played in slum stadiums increasingly watched by slum people, who deter decent folk from turning up” The Sunday Times, editorial May 12th 1985

“The sport has become increasingly gentrified and ordinary people have been deliberately priced out of attending football, once a cultural ritual in working-class communities.” Professor John Russo, Georgetown University, research paper February 27th 2017

The second Saturday in May 1985; Newcastle’s solitary season under Jack Charlton is stuttering to a dreary conclusion with a fittingly mundane 0-0 on my one and only visit to Carrow Road. A year after we’d been promoted with a degree of pomp under Arthur Cox, things were on the stagnant to fetid continuum.  Cox had left for Derby, Keegan retired, Waddle was packing his bags for White Hart Lane and Peter Beardsley had been emasculated by Big Jack’s one-dimensional tactics. It was football fit for the era; grim, ugly, attritional, confrontational and aggressive. Nothing about the mid-80s Saturday match day experience felt safe; train stations, pubs, strange streets in unfamiliar towns and piss-reeking terraces were all dark, sinister and fraught with hidden dangers, both real and imagined, even in bucolic East Anglia. Behavioural psychologists call it hypervigilance; to us regular travellers, it was simply keeping your wits about you. Three months earlier I’d taken the worst kicking I ever had following The Mags away; 2.30 in the Stanley Park pub outside Goodison, a squad of angry Coppers burst in to clear out the away fans. Because I didn’t drink up immediately and make for the door, one of them truncheoned me across the back. I doubled over and his pal grabbed me by the hair, then kneed me in the bollocks. We lost 4-0, but I barely remember the game, as I teetered on the brink of unconsciousness while waves of pain radiated through me the entire game.  Thankfully, things were calmer in East Anglia and we got away from Norwich unscathed.

Of course, many others that day were not so lucky; the quotation that prefaces this article appeared in the next morning’s Sunday Times as an unfeeling obituary for the 56 who perished at Valley Parade in the inferno that engulfed the main stand on what should have been a day of celebration as Bradford City clinched promotion to Division 2. When compared to the vile, outrageous lies printed about Hillsborough, the inaccurate, kneejerk reaction to the Bradford fire smacked more of cruel snobbery than organised propaganda, despite the proximity of the 1984/1985 NUM strike and the role of the right wing media in undermining that heroic working class struggle. Perhaps, on reflection, a more relevant event that could have coloured media response was the garish footage of the Battle of Kenilworth Road in March 1985, when Millwall fans invaded the pitch after losing an FA Cup replay. However, in all honesty, I can say I heard nothing about events at Valley Parade as I made my slow, ticketless way back from Norwich to Peterborough and thence to Newcastle, with only a carrier bag of McEwan’s Export for company. On April 15th 1989, having seen Newcastle lose 1-0 at Highbury, the number of people with transistors as we left the ground meant news of Hillsborough spread, albeit in a very confused form, by the time we reached Finsbury Park. Four years previous, half full Inter City rattlers on Saturday nights weren’t renowned as Oracles of unfolding current affairs.

Despite the tragic loss of life at Bradford and the Heysel Stadium tragedy of May 29th 1985, when another 39 innocent lives were lost inside in a football ground, little if anything changed for the average football fan in the years following. The apportioning of blame for Heysel must be discussed elsewhere; suffice to say it was not the greatest night in the history of Liverpool FC and allowed the accepted narrative of football fans as being barely civilised thugs to be reiterated by the ruling elite and their pals the Press Barons. Football Saturdays continued in a predictable way; oppressive policing that assumed guilt as a default position for travelling fans, shoddy rolling stock that wouldn’t have been fit to take heifers to the slaughter, crumbling grounds with inadequate facilities and the constant, malevolent threat of violence that dampened the air.

In the context of the times, it seemed faintly ludicrous to see the FA attempting to ignore both the squalid conditions and the ban on English clubs in Europe, by organising a series of pointless competitions; the Screensport Super Cup, the Simod (later ZDS) Cup, the Mercantile Credit Centenary Trophy, as well as the 16-team Football League Centenary Tournament in April 1988. Frankly, these were the sporting equivalent of the Emperor’s New Clothes; farcical, inappropriate and born out of the kind of shallow let them eat cake vanity that ignored reality.  If this wasn’t crazy enough, Greg Dyke on behalf of ITV organised a deal with the “Big 5” teams to show live games on Sunday afternoons, apparently to head off talks about the formation of a Super League. Well, that worked didn’t it? The “whole new ball game” of the Premier League kicked off less than 4 years later on August 16th 1992 with Sheffield United 1 Liverpool 0. However, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Hillsborough changed everything. Immediately it had the effect of uniting all fans in a common cause, against police oppression, league intransigence and owner venality. The Taylor Report, absolving fans of any blame and holding the authorities to account for the atrocious condition of most grounds, no doubt unwittingly began the process that lead firstly to the establishment of the Premier League, the broadcasting coup d’etat led by the Murdoch Empire, the supposed gentrification of the people’s game and the pricing out of those who made up the backbone of matchgoing fans. I’m sure Lord Justice Taylor’s motives in phrasing the report in the way he did were utterly impeccable; he was a decent, thoughtful man (yes I met him once) whose life was underpinned by a sense of duty and public service, but he will be remembered for enabling a course of events that has led to the likes of Berahino trousering £60k a week.

Nostalgia is a strange thing in football. The internet seems to be full of 40 and 50 something Dadsuals, squeezing their ample guts into Tuk Tuk shirts and selvedge Armanis, reminiscing about all those years when they didn’t brawl on train stations or take other firms’ pubs, but wish they had. Initially this alpha storyteller phenomenon was seen as part of the AMF movement, which fissured almost immediately into the ideological faction, who seek fan engagement and affordable ticket prices, and the bona drag popinjays, resolutely apolitical and concerned only with Polyveldt reissues and canary yellow casual windcheaters. Craft Ale bores mumbling on bar stools about how the game has lost its soul. Frankly, such sentiments are the sporting equivalent of false memory syndrome.

The oft-repeated cliché that if you remembered the 60s you probably weren’t there seems to have been appropriated in relation to football during the half decade after Hillsborough. Many accounts talk about the prevalence of E generation chemistry and Madchester baggy beats chilling the terraces out in 89/90, but that’s not how I remember it. The immediate post Hillsborough season was more a case of a shared, stunned disbelief that ordinary people could die watching football. Most of the time, we sleepwalked our way to grounds, in a kind of collective, delayed shock. Only at Leeds and Sunderland did I, predictably, notice serious tensions with home supporters, not to mention our season ending pitch invasion at SJP when Sunderland beat us in the play-offs.

Next up we had Italia 90, World in Motion and all that baloney. Suddenly, it was socially acceptable to like football, without being accused of genetic thuggery. For Newcastle United, the 1990/1991 campaign was the most banal non-event of a season ever; becalmed in lower mid-table, crowds were down to 13k and Ossie Ardiles wasn’t the tactical genius we’d hoped. We weren’t being gentrified; we were being anaesthetised.  Thankfully, the music scene in the autumn of 1991 provided succour and inspiration. Nirvana’s first ever English gig was at Newcastle Riverside on Monday October 21st 1990 when they blew headliners Tad off stage. On Saturday 28th September 1991, Newcastle came back from 2-0 down to grab a point at home to Derby County in front of almost 18,000; I was rather more enthused by my purchase at full time of Nirvana’s major label debut, Nevermind. It was to be the last vinyl album I bought for about 20 years, as the following month I invested in a CD player, having finally accepted there were more products available in this format than Dire Straits and Bryan Adams. My first two purchases were a pair of Creation Records classics; Loveless by My Bloody Valentine and Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque. Quarter of a century later, I maintain both of these releases would feature in my top 20 albums of all time, though I now choose to listen to them digitally rather than on CD; the reason being I feel the compact disc format saw music squashed and tamed by bland reproduction levels.

Live, the two bands produced contrasting experiences; Teenage Fanclub are my favourite group of all time and I love their honest, friendly stage demeanour, as well as sounds that alternate being achingly beautiful 3 part harmonies and piledriving indie rock genius. Sure they’re louder live than on record, but not deafeningly so. My Bloody Valentine in the flesh are quite frankly terrifying; endless waves of white noise and distorted, aural scree create feelings of genuine instability. On December 17th 1991, they blew the entire power system at Northumbria University during the 20 minute sonic assault of Feed Me With Your Kiss. While the Dadsual view of cultural history would hold that post Baggy, the likes of Paul Weller’s solo tripe and the aptly named Charlatans were part of the three-stripe movement that created the conditions whereby Champagne Supernova could be hailed as a work of genius, there were those of us who opposed the Britpop gentrification of music, holding candles for uncompromising shoegaze and grunge.

The opening track on Bandwagonesque is the enduring crowd pleaser, The Concept; an amalgam of Glam stomping with a pastiche of West Coast soft rock, the daft lyrics that talk of an unnamed female protagonist who “wears denim wherever she goes” and intends to “get some records by the Status Quo” may appear to be a throwaway afterthought but attend any TFC gig and the entire audience sing along, word perfect. We have clearly bought into The Concept, as The Fannies influenced and improved the world with this album. I wouldn’t choose to go back to the music scene before I heard Teenage Fanclub, in a similar way to how I wouldn’t like to go back to football in the 1980s.

There is much I hate about modern music; not just Ed Sheeran and Beyoncé, but the karaoke culture, with a seemingly universal preference for endless cover versions over creativity, the minimal concentration span of consumers who can’t listen to an album all the way through and the marginalisation of live gigs. However, the musical world we inhabit is a product of the digital revolution I guess and to oppose it would be as fruitless as Canute attempting to roll back the waves. All I do is pick and choose what I want from music in the modern era, then ignore the rest.

Similar to music, there is football; what world would you rather inhabit? A fiver in on the day, or a £37 ticket bought a month previously on-line? Newcastle fans I know who went to successive away games at Brighton, Huddersfield and Reading spent the thick end of £700 in a week.  A shiny plastic seat half a mile from the pitch, surrounded by people you’ve never met and have nothing in common with, or wedged onto a disintegrating 6-step terrace, running in piss, staring at the corner flag through a metal fence, while dodging flying coins and bottles? I’m 52; if safe standing does come in, it won’t be for the likes of me. Mute indifference by largely silent consumers whose only utterances are complaints, or endless racist chants? I risked life and limb shouting down NF boneheads among our away support at Grimsby in 1983; I’m glad I don’t have to do that these days.

The world has changed in the past 30 years; while politically it seems to be reverting to the 1930s, football is never going back. The Concept we’ve bought into may have been a Faustian pact, but I feel considerably better about being in the company of fans who donate several tonnes of produce to the Newcastle Food Bank every home game, rather than still being with awayday radgies who believed nicking pub tab machines and robbing station off licences were all part of a good day out. As the likes of Jimmy Chargesheet, Daft Gary, Mad Stu of Blyth, The Throat and a thousand other early 80s NUFC travellers were fond of saying; tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis…

Tuesday, 18 April 2017


I went to see 1883 Darlington versus FC United of Manchester, to see how fan ownership is working out in the National League North -:

Can you remember all the brouhaha surrounding the Against Modern Football movement in its early days? About 4 years ago it really seemed like we were on the cusp of something vital; a genuine, organic movement formed on social media, ready to reclaim the game from the incompetent and rapacious fools who had torn the beating heart from the chest of the people’s game. Sadly, the initial momentum was lost as #AMF went from being a war cry to a hash tag, latterly the preserve of self-mythologising Dadsuals keen to tell stories about an edgy 80s youth they’d never known anything about. Meanwhile, those doing the hard yards in terms of promoting and maintaining fan ownership, at clubs from all sections of the football pyramid, including Portsmouth, Swansea, Hereford, Salisbury and many others, kept on battling in the face of mass indifference and ignorance. Too much work to be done and too little support from sneering pretend toughies who couldn’t put a tab out.

Being secreted for most of the time in my own Northern League bubble, where fan ownership is a fact of life because there’s nobody else going to pay the bills, I’d not really taken much notice of non-league events elsewhere in our region. The problems with West Allotment Celtic, Hebburn Town, Percy Main amateurs and Billingham Synthonia, who I’m delighted to see promoted to the top division, had kept my mind focused. However, I was delighted to see Blyth Spartans achieve promotion to the National League, formerly Conference, North. I knew this league was the home of 1883 Darlington, the phoenix club that rose from the ashes of the original Quakers in 2012, starting again from Northern League Division 1; I can still recall the fearsome 4-0 pounding they gave Benfield as they raced to the title in spring 2013. Until the week before Easter, all the stars seemed to have aligned to give Darlo a strong chance of returning to the Conference. At Christmas, they moved back to the town, groundsharing with the rugby club at Blackwell Meadows, after 5 years in exile at Bishop Auckland’s Heritage Park. Since their return, home form has been good enough to propel them to 4th in the National League North, which is one of the 4 play-off places below the sole automatic promotion spot. Then, disaster struck.

As is so often the case outside the football league, the ground grading requirements for clubs seeking promotion seem to be both perverse and incomprehensible. Amid the labyrinthine series of intractable regulations for promotion to the Conference was the new instruction that clubs must have 500 covered seats across two stands by 31st March 2017, in order to be allowed promotion. Darlo have 500 seats in one stand; they’ve also just installed a hundred or so in another and have a block of 250 temporary ones that they paid for, still at Heritage Park, which they were intending to transport as and when necessary. Human error meant that Darlo believed the rules allowed for temporary seating to be used for the play-offs, as long as the club could show that it had obtained planning permission and had detailed plans to construct a permanent seated stand; which they of course do. Sadly, this isn’t the case and Darlo, as well as Poole Town in National League South, who have been similarly disbarred, are appealing the decision. There’s been no final judgement as yet, but the full statement, which is praiseworthy in its detail, transparency and honesty, can be accessed here

Having researched into the Darlo situation, I then naturally had a look at their fixtures, as I quite fancied a trip to their new ground. Easter Monday was the perfect time; home to FC United of Manchester, a beacon club for fan ownership, now fighting to reclaim their slightly tarnished, previously ideologically incorruptible identity after a prolonged bout of internecine warfare that wouldn’t have been out of place in Kruschev’s days. Suffice to say, former Chief Executive and prime mover in the foundation of the club, Andy Walsh, left with his legacy somewhat battered after the risible involvement of the mobile disaster area Andy Walker in FCUM. Walker, another former Militant full-timer like Walsh, is a Teesside born, lifelong Liverpool fan (unquestioning veneration of anything and everything to do with Merseyside goes with the Militant ideology), who reinvented himself as a kind of PR guru to get on the payroll at Broadhurst Park. So successful was he that FCUM were brought to the verge of extinction by their dismal stewardship. Thankfully they’ve gone now, with FCUM stabilising in mid table and a new set of elected directors.

My other Easter Monday choices had been Blyth’s home game with Whitby, which went 5-1 by way of the home side, but the title was already won, taking the urge to attend off the table. As my almost deserted Metro swung by Percy Main, I remembered Purvis Park was hosting the Northern Alliance’s Amateur Cup final, which was won 6-0 by Hazelrigg over Cramlington United. In an almost deserted city centre, I saw a couple of people I knew limbering up in Rosies with early afternoon pints, ready for the beam back of Newcastle’s latest aberration as El Payaso de Mierda Benitez continues to produce laughably bad football while shamelessly trousering £5m a year and squandering automatic promotion.

Wandering down Pink Lane past The Forth, I mused how a collection of the more earnest and youthful bona drag popinjays of NUFC’s support had once met some of FCUM’s chief theoreticians for beers, before heading with them to Blyth, to support the away side against Spartans. Baffling and almost as incomprehensible as the tale of one of them choosing not to go into the game, for whatever specious reasons. Anyway, the preponderance of Belstaff and Stone Island attired big lads with Peronis confirmed that the Lincoln Transit Elite were refreshing ahead of a trip to Gateshead Stadium, where they won 2-1, with a brace of injury time goals, to almost confirm their return to the football league.

And so to the train; £13 return to stand with my back to the driver’s cab on a packed 3 carriage rattler, full of hungover Hens and returning squaddies. My ticket didn’t get checked going down or coming back on a far emptier, dirtier train, which always feels like money wasted. In fact, despite remaining totally sober, this was an expensive day out; £13 train, £5 Metro, £12 in to the game, £2.50 for a programme and £1.50 for some warm, brownish liquid masquerading as coffee. Good job I brought my own bottle of water and a bit bait. Part of my doomed economy drive included walking to and from the ground by different routes; both of which were canny hikes. Grimy, poorly maintained, low-rent Park Road and the confrontational, social housing of Parkside, before emerging to the bucolic pleasures of the A167 and 3 minute final leg in almost countryside to the ground. Coming back I took the A167 the whole way; admirably Victorian stonework akin to the fringes of York, then a rollercoaster up and down on a hilly road, parallel to the former Feethams and populated entirely by kebab shops. It seemed much quicker on the way back; perhaps because I knew where I was going, what time the train was and had started to regret wearing shorts in this weather.

Perhaps I ought to have taken a leaf out of one of the Darlo fans’ fashion bible; a Weekend Offender sweatshirt and a Berghaus fleece provided an intriguing combination. However, despite lurid stories on social media and apologies in the programme (which must have been written well in advance as there was no mention of the play-off saga) about bad behaviour at Fylde and Alfreton, there seemed to be a dearth of Darlo lads out looking for Manc hides.  The sheer volume of cops, including camera wielding spotters, may have dissuaded any potential pugilists. Having decided to go in to the FCUM end, as I’ve seen Darlo enough times in the past to know what they are about, I was initially surprised to discover the travelling support wasn’t an immaculately attired, culturally progressive mass of Trotskyist trainer tribunes. Instead, it was just a big away following of non-league fans in the main; an older demographic of working class blokes and quite a few families. Some of them pissed and some of them angry, especially about the appalling quality of burgers being knocked out for £4, but it wasn’t a lairy or unpleasant atmosphere. Well, apart from the bloke next to me who got into a tedious, circular argument with the chief steward about how the bloke’s 7 year old son couldn’t get to see the game properly, as he was exactly the same height as the railings round the pitch. Earwigging this interminable conversational 0-0 draw kept me occupied for the 20 minutes until kick off as the crowd, now encompassing more of a traditional Mancunian match going vibe and many inventive flags, steadily built.

The final total was an impressive 2,147; with I’d imagine 300 or so from Manchester. It wasn’t a great day on the pitch for the visitors, even if they did win the singing contest, with many inventive chants, often in the face of adversity. I have to say, I was impressed by Darlington’s style of play; fast, ruthless, skilful and well organised, their quickly established 3-0 lead was totally deserved. The scoring was opened early on by David Ferguson, who lashed one into the top corner from 25 yards. On 13 minutes it was 2-0 when Ferguson’s cross was nodded home by Mark Beck, for a lovely picture book goal. It was 3-0 before the half hour when Terry Galbraith fired home from the spot after Beck had been fouled. Thereafter FCUM steadied the ship somewhat and got one back after 34 minutes when Tom Brown finished low past Adam Bartlett.

No further goals until half time, at which point a small trickle of well-bevvied FCUM fans were brought into the away end from the bar where they’d watched most of the game to that point. It wasn’t uncomfortable, but one bladdered radgie, apparently a Mansfield fan from Alfreton, started throwing his Paul & Shark ensconced weight around in a silly show of posturing. It was enough to send me to my phone and regular, gloomy updates of Newcastle’s crucifixion at Portman Road after the resurrection of hopes that had been Good Friday and Leeds, until the 94th minute at least.

The second half was a quieter affair; the home side wary of pushing on, lest it invite a sucker punch from the visitors, kept the ball and drew the sting from the game. The skill level was encouraging, but the vision and finesse required to create opportunities was lacking. Gary Brown made it 4-1 after an exchange of passes with the marvellously named Cartman after 75 minutes. This was a reason for many FCUM fans to take down their flags and head for the exits, though the majority stayed and were rewarded with a fine consolation by Adeloye in the dying seconds.

So, 4-2 it finished and not once during the whole game did I hear any targeted negativity by the FCUM support. They understood the game and weren’t there for some ideological power trip or anarchists’ Easter egg hunt; in fact, I was the only bugger there with dreadlocks I think. I came away with the sense of a day well spent and a profound admiration for both clubs’ supporters. The lack of whinging wasn’t an absence of passion; it was borne of the realistic awareness that when you start a club at the very bottom, like these 2, you’re in it for the long haul as the vagaries and caprices of billionaire owners don’t impinge on the honest soul of the game as played by 1883 and FCUM. Let’s hope those charged with running the respective outfits can keep them on an even keel, progressing upwards season by season.