Tuesday, 19 September 2017

51 Not Out

Durham are playing their final home County Championship game this week, with a trip to Worcester to follow. There are a few England v Windies One Dayers as well. However, for me, the cricket season is over. Time to say goodbye and grieve behind closed front parlour curtains -:

The 2017 cricket season is dying. It began for me on a freezing cold Good Friday with the first day of Durham v Notts in the County Championship Division 2 and ended, 5 months and 51 games later, in a torrential downpour after Hebburn 2nds had laboured to 84/6 against Stobswood 2nds, who managed to collect the 8 points needed to win Northumberland League Division 3. With only the NEPL promotion play-off between Castle Eden and Swalwell, rained off twice and scheduled for high noon Sunday 24th September at the Emirates left to be played, it is with a heavy heart, I must summarise what was so good about the season and what I’ll miss about local cricket in the long winter months that lie ahead.

My previous cricket blog (http://payaso-de-mierda.blogspot.co.uk/2017/08/banking-crisis.html) was penned in the immediate aftermath of Newcastle’s victory over Benwell Hill in the final of the Banks Salver; a win secured in no small measure by Josh Phillippe’s imperious 162 not out. In some ways it is fitting that this was the lad’s last knock at Jesmond, but in many other ways it is a crying shame that the young West Australian had to curtail his time on Tyneside. I am not privy to the exact details of the potential problems with Josh’s visa that caused the hasty termination of his engagement on Osborne Avenue, nor am I interested in the minutiae of legal process concerning this issue or the shamefully indecorous clamour from certain quarters on social media that brought obloquy on certain clubs and individuals. I was interested in watching Josh, in the same way as I like to watch Jacques Du Toit, Marcus North, Kyle Coetzer and any other stylish, entertaining batsman flaying the bowling from April to September each year, as a spectator and lover of good cricket. However, as a Tynemouth fan, I was mightily relieved that Josh wasn’t playing for Newcastle at Jesmond in the semi-final of the Smithson Cup on the Wednesday following I must say.

In the event, I spent a good deal of the evening in the company of Josh; he’s a smashing young lad, with a good head on his shoulders and utterly bereft of any edge or tinge of arrogance, even if he did refuse to pick up the slack for his comrades as Twelfth Man.  As it was a midweek game, both sides were very much a mix and match of who was available. While Josh was going home early, JDT hadn’t even left home that evening. Tynemouth were bolstered with some lads in from the 3rds. In the end, it made for a tremendously exciting game; Newcastle batted first and made 104/7 from 15 overs. Tynemouth replied with 104/5, victory denied by a fine last over from Alistair Appleby who took 2 wickets and conceded only 4 runs. With scores level and wickets not counting at this stage, it was time for the Super Over. In near darkness, Tynemouth went first and amassed 10 for 2 from Appleby’s bowling, before Tahir Khan won the day, restricting Newcastle to 6 for 3. After a great game played in a convivial atmosphere, Tynemouth advanced to the final against Benwell Hill at South Northumberland the following Sunday.

On the Saturday following, Benfield’s home game with Marske United (limp performance; deservedly lost 2-0) prevented me from following Tynemouth Firsts to Chester le Street, where an uncharacteristically cautious home batting decision to use all 58 overs to score 267/8 in the hope of drawing the sting from the game as Tynemouth consequently had only 52 overs available to them, backfired spectacularly. Matty Brown and Stuart Poynter batted with savage brilliance to chase the total down in less than 50 overs. Winning away at Ropery Lane was probably the best result of the season, at that point, and I had to miss it. My second choice on the day would have been another visit to Jesmond for Newcastle against South Shields where, thankfully, the potential for rancour in the fall-out from injudicious social media posts was not an issue. However Newcastle skittled the visitors for around 120 and had the game won by 3pm, denying me the chance of seeing any of it. In the end, I headed back to Tynemouth to watch the Seconds beat Chester le Street by 4 wickets in chasing down 218. A good day all round and, as a result, the following day’s final could be approached with optimism.

Sundays, as ever, are public transport disaster zones on Tyneside; unsurprisingly the Metro was off, so the horror of a sluggish and slothful replacement bus from Shiremoor to South Gosforth caused me to miss the first part of the undercard. In the Northumberland County Bowl final, Newcastle City had made 142 batting first and Tynedale were going along nicely in response, with a first wicket partnership of 80. However, some superbly accurate bowling by Newcastle City, who play on Broadway West on the way from Gosforth to Fawdon, meant they won by 5 runs. I knew there were entirely Asian teams up here, such as GEMS (Gateshead Ethnic Minorities), but I’d never seen such a side as Newcastle City play before. Basically, below the NEPL I’ve seen very little of the Tyneside and Northumberland Senior League, the various divisions of the Northumberland League or any of the West of Tyne League; this is something I really need to remedy next year, once I’ve ticked my remaining NEPL grounds off. With the relegation of Mainsforth, my total of missing grounds extends to Brandon, Burnopfield, Willington and potentially Castle Eden, if they win the delayed promotion play-off; all in Division 1 incidentally.

In the Smithson final, Tynemouth did remarkably well to restrict The Hill to 111/8, especially as Chris Fairley managed to concede 16 byes in Tahir Khan’s opening over. Subsequently Tahir and young Henry Malton, deservedly keeping his place in the Firsts after a combination of some solid performances by him and pitiful cry-offs from more experienced players left the team seemingly weaker than one would have liked, bowled with guile and economy. Unfortunately, the reply was characterised by rash shots and risible run-outs; only Fairley and Sam Robson, who did well in scoring 38, gave reason for optimism. Sadly, two run-outs in the penultimate over allowed The Hill to win by 10 runs. Well done to them; a club I have enormous respect for and feel genuinely disappointed not to have visited this year.

And so to September. When my father died in the early hours of Saturday August 1st 2009, the day after Bobby Robson had passed; I still got up to play in goal for Heaton Winstons Over 40s in a pre-season friendly. We won 3-1 and then I headed to Percy Main Amateurs v North Shields in the Gary Hull Trophy; the visitors won on penalties after a 2-2 draw. On a day when I could have been concerned with private grief, I chose to absorb myself in sport. It just seemed the correct and appropriate thing to do; to keep myself busy, to keep myself sober and to be amongst friends. Once it became clear my mother was near death, it was somehow fitting that I learned of her passing while cycling to Tynemouth Cricket Club, a place I regard as of equal sporting and spiritual importance to me as the twin icons of Sam Smith’s Park and Easter Road, for the last home game of the season on Saturday September 2nd, when Hetton Lyons were the visitors. Ironically, that morning I’d been having a conversation about French literature on Twitter before I left the house, so could have quite feasibly tweeted the news by saying -: Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. However I didn’t; there was cricket to be watched.

It was my 48th game of the season and undoubtedly the one I’ve paid the least attention to, partly for emotional reasons but mainly on account of the enormous volume of phone calls I had to make and receive during the course of the first session. When a life ends, life and all of its administrative tasks must go on. It was lovely to see Stuart Poynter compile a sparkling cameo of 21, before being taken at gully by the kind of catch he specialises in, even if it was a loose and lousy shot. On World Beard Day, the sun shone brilliantly across Preston Avenue and the calming beauty of my surroundings, allied to the genuine and understated messages of sympathy I received, as news of my loss spread round the ground, made me feel utterly at peace with the universe as lunch arrived with us 138/5.

At this point I took to my cycle and headed for Hillheads and Whitley Bay versus Benfield in the FA Cup. My club did us all proud by winning 2-0 and they did me enormous good by the fact that almost all the travelling fans took time out to shake my hand and express their sympathies, as did a considerable number of Whitley supporters. Full time, I headed back to Tynemouth, having already learned we’d made 228/7 declared. Only the third innings over 200 of the season in point of fact, and looking certain to bring us a win with Hetton teetering on 77/6 as I arrived. However, the Lyons batted like tigers and obdurate defence allowed them to collect a gritty, losing draw, closing on 144/8. As the overs wound down and the sun began to set, the beer started to flow and, regardless of the score, the ethos of the Tynemouth Cricket Club extended family came to the fore. It may not have been what the doctor would order, but it’s exactly what I needed; a serious rake of pints in the company of some of the best people you’re ever likely to meet in a sporting or any other context. Meanwhile, those from my extensive network of local cricket and football followers from places other than Benfield and Tynemouth expressed genuine messages of sympathy on social media. I am honoured and humbled to know you all and call you my friends.

The final weekend of the NEPL season was the week after; on Laura’s birthday. I gave her a card and made my way to South North courtesy of a properly functioning Metro. Another gloriously sunny, warm day with South North batting first and, despite unfurling the NEPL Champions flag, only around 50 people gathered to watch, though loads of spectators had brought their dogs. The Champs started off like the usual well-oiled machine they are and reached 88/2, when Martin Pollard caught a Marcus North skier in Tahir’s first over just as it began to rain. The shower was light and brief, but it signified an early lunch and I took my cue to head for Benfield. While we lost 4-1 at home to a vengeful Whitley Bay in a game where the score tells nothing of the story of the game, Tahir went crazy on Roseworth Terrace, taking 6 wickets, meaning South North were bowled out for 156. Amazing eh? Even better, the Tynemouth lads knocked off the runs required for the loss of 5 wickets, with skipper Ben Debnam contributing an excellent unbeaten 70. Only one problem; I didn’t see it. As the end of season drinks evening in the clubhouse was planned, I headed to Preston Avenue from Benfield, where the Seconds were already on their second pints having glamorously lost by 8 wickets to South North 2nds. What was a fella to do?

I contributed to the end of season inquest by getting on the San Miguel, joined in a game of 5 a side (won 3-1 with that man Fairley getting a hat trick) and spent several hours in the company of all 3 teams, with the 3rds returning victorious from Bomarsund, not to mention birthday girl Laura, plus Dave and Heather. Everyone got half cut and sentimental. I truly would have loved to stay for the curry that Tahir and his wife had prepared, even if Matty and Smithy’s rice experiments were running seriously late, but we left them to it. What a wonderful sport. What a wonderful club. What wonderful people. I’m missing Tynemouth and the NEPL already.

However, the vagaries of the fixture list gifted me one last hurrah; a chance for an adventure south of the Tyne. Hebburn Cricket Club share their home with two football teams; on the “big” pitch Hebburn Town play in Northern League Division 2 (indeed I’ll be there on Saturday September 23rd watching my beloved Benfield in the FA Vase), while Hebburn Reyrolle of Northern Alliance Division 1 play on the “small” pitch. Reyrolle had hosted Coundon & Leasholme in the Northern Alliance George Dobbins League Cup on the Saturday, losing 4-2 in the process. As a result the cricket seconds were forced to host Stobswood 2nd XI (the team I ought to have made my still delayed Monkseaton 3rds debut against back in July) on the Sunday. Because all the other games had been played, already promoted Stobswood knew they needed 8 points to win the title ahead of Rock CC. As a result, on a dank and overcast day, they were keen to get as much of the game played as possible.

Via Metro and the meanderings of the generally unhelpful 27 bus, I arrived just in time to see a Hebburn batsmen caught from a skier. At this point the crowd consisted of me and Geoff the Durham fan, who told me he’d seen 165 games this season, which put my half century in its place. Eventually a few supporters and zealots arrived and the spectators must have numbered a dozen or more, by my reckoning. Trying to find out the score was a different matter; twenty minutes later the portable tins said 7/0 from 4 overs. Runs came from a variety of unorthodox shots, yielding fewer boundaries than deserved as the dampness of the outfield, on both the “big” and “small” sides of the wicket, made ground shots slow up and lofted ones plug in the earth. At drinks, there was a brief shower of no more than 5 minutes duration.

I took the opportunity to grab a coffee from the refreshment stall and noticed the umpire, who had the same idea, was attired in a Metallica hoodie. He was in a loose conversation with the home scorer, so I took the opportunity to inquire as to the state of play; 71/4. The Hebburn lad then asked “are you a Rock fan?” I replied in the negative, but suggested that the umpire probably was, to baffled looks of incomprehension.

The players returned and in the 10 minutes possible before the heavens opened, Hebburn advanced to 84/6. As flooding became a possibility, tea was taken, stumps were drawn and the game abandoned. I sipped my coffee, waiting for a cessation of the storm to allow me safe passage.  It was my intention, on the day before my mother’s funeral, to take a bus from by Hebburn graveyard to Heworth, by the cemetery where my grandparents lie, then metro and bus to Benwell Hill, opposite Newcastle West Road Crematorium for the James Bell Cup final. Stood at the stop by St. Andrew’s churchyard awaiting the 39, I checked my phone to discover the weather had won out; the game has been postponed until 2018. Something to keep us going over the winter anyway.

So, that’s it for another year; just time for a few daft awards. Sell you all in 2018.

Best innings: Josh Phillippe 162 not out for Newcastle v Benwell Hill in the Banks Salver final; 20-08-17
Best non NEPL innings: Gary Oliver 28 not out for Monkseaton 3rds in a measured response to Rock’s 370/2 from 40 overs; 28-05-17
Best ball: Sean Longstaff for Tynemouth 2nds away to Stockton 2nds; tie between his first and last deliveries of the game, both of which made a terrible mess of the timbers and neither of which were seen by the batsmen; 25-06-17
Best game: Tynemouth beat Benwell Hill by 23 runs in a contest of heartstopping tension; 01-07-17
Best food: Di Brown’s strawberry Pavlova, which deserves an Oscar; 27-05-17
Dullest game: Tynemouth 2nds beating Sunderland 2nds in the Banks Bowl, where even Finn Longberg confided “this is rubbish this;” 29-05-17
Coldest game: Northumberland being trounced by Cumberland in 50 overs competition in a hurricane at South North; 30-04-17
Most ridiculous run out: Awarded collectively to every side Tynemouth CC put out this season.
Second Annual Phil Hudson Award For Comical Fielding: Sam Robson for a pitiful roll over the top of a trundler in front of the pavilion in the Charity Bowl final for Tynemouth against Shotley Bridge. In a tight game, where we’d made only 92, boundaries were crucial; thankfully David Hymers took 4 wickets in the final over, so Tynemouth won.
Player of the Year: Every single one of you. It has been a pleasure watching so many games at 16 different grounds at many levels. Don’t even think about retiring; come back next year and do it all again, as your efforts are appreciated.

Winter well everyone.

Thursday, 14 September 2017


I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but my lifelong urge to read voraciously this summer, unlike every other year I can remember, was almost entirely absent. Normally, the start of June marks the opening of the book devouring season round our way but, despite an attractive in-tray at the side of the bed, I opted instead for magazines and on-line information in the main, despite the huge amounts of time available both in the house and at cricket grounds during a lull in play or a break for rain that would have been ideal in other years to salve my bibliophilic urgings. There was one exception; Wisden’s Guide to Cricket Grounds by William Powell, ironically enough. Given to me as a birthday prezzie by Ginger Dave, it’s a satisfyingly encyclopaedic guide to all First Class grounds and a vast number of Minor Counties’ venues, though not delving particularly lowly into the glories of club and village grounds. It’s stuffed with exactly the sort of information the target audience would love; pleasing line drawings, travel arrangements for rail enthusiasts and tips for where to sit, in terms of views, passage of the sun and prevailing winds. It is precisely the sort of book to dip into and lose oneself during the long wait for civilisation to return in April.

On a similarly nostalgic theme, Earth Recordings released the record of the summer; a companion piece to the late Bert Jansch’s ornithologically influenced masterpiece Avocet. Rather than inviting copycat cover versions of the sublime original avian instrumentals, Earth engaged some seriously important contributors to muse upon the sea bird theme to produce a 4 song 12” EP called Avocet Revisited. Side 1 has the only vocal cut; Edwyn Collin’s masterful Fulmar, followed by the hitherto unknown to me chamber-pop outfit Modern Studies and Curlew, which is pleasant enough. Side 2 is where the jewels are really to be found; the gloriously talented Alasdair Roberts produces subtle and superb acoustic guitar picking that evokes the spirit of Jansch, not to mention Leo Kottke or even John Fahey, on the excellent Goosander. However it’s the closing track that is the true prize; Trembling Bells, showing that their beautiful heart of folk opulence still beats beneath those breasts of riffing prog bluster, on Golden Plover. It moves 180 degrees from Sovereign Self, Wide Majestic Aire and recent Record Store Day releases, back to the pastoral and the elegiac and away from the scratch and sniff uncompromising crotch rock that their last live appearance at the Sage evoked.

As a kind of nod to the 50th Anniversary of the Summer of Love, Trembling Bells headed out in August with Mike Heron for a further instalment of The Circle Will Be Unbroken tour. Support was from left-field, confessional New York auteur Ed Askew, whose gentle tales of human bravery were augmented by Jay Pluck on piano, Alex Neilson on percussion and guitarist Mike Hastings,  who had the hardest paper round of the night, never getting off stage from curtain up to curfew. The Bells were in the café beforehand, Lavinia tucking into cheeseburger and chips; on their usual wonderful form. Friendly, open and genuinely pleased to see someone in a worse shirt than Alex. The Mike Heron set was as charming, whimsical and downright tree hugging as ever; all leading towards a climactic finale of The Cellular Song, but it was Trembling Bells on their own who arrested my senses. The power unleashed by them on stage is verging on the seismic.

Sadly the new album, Dungeness, won’t be out until February 2018, but when it is, it will be possibly the most important release of the year. All the folk that’s fit to sing has been purged from the Bells on stage; you’d not believe this band was responsible for Ravenna or September is the Month of Death. Instead, My Father Was a Collapsing Star disinters the Bonzo Dog Doodah Band to transform sixth form humour into bleak Dadaism. The Prophet Distances Himself from His Prophecy is Black Sabbath with the accelerator jammed to the floor and every bit as scarily brilliant as it sounds. And of course Christ’s Entry Into Govan will be better than Willows of Carbeth, better than Just As The Rainbow and even better than Wide Majestic Aire; songs that all our grandchildren will love in the same way we treasure the Velvets, Fairport, Sun Ra and every other band almost as good as Trembling Bells. Mark my words, people will talk about Trembling Bells in hushed, respectful tones to acknowledge their genius half a century from now.

Now another band who’ll stand the test of time are Penetration. As part of the Whitley Bay Film Festival, they kicked off their 40th Anniversary Tour at North Shields Saville Exchange, supported by Graham Fellows in his Jilted John incarnation. Logical really; he’d played Cullercoats Cresecent Club as John Shuttleworth the night before. It was the first time I’d been to the Saville Exchange; what a great venue it is too, with proper real ale in proper real glasses. Jilted John was funny, heartwarming and exactly the kind of musical cul de sac that Fellows reversed away from at speed in early 79.

Penetration were trying out their new chronological set, which reminded just how many superb songs they’ve written and equally how daft they are to be modest to the point of diffidence about their remarkable achievements over the years. Don’t Dictate, Silent Community, Shout above the Noise, The Beat Goes On and for that I’m glad. Pauline’s voice remains a perfect beacon in the hands of a siren, Rob grows ever more distinguished and Paul’s spangly white suit as flashy and eye-catching as the guitar work. I was worried about the pace of the set, as the obvious encores had been played in the body of the set, but the rabbit from the hat to close proceedings in the shape of their fabulous readings of I Don’t Mind, debuted previously and a simply stunning Shake Some Action left me in raptures. They’re releasing a pair of crowdfunded 7” singles that I’ve already stumped up for and return to the region on November 4th at The Cluny; the night after Wire at the Riverside… Be at both; I will.

I’ve bought myself a few records as well; none of them contemporary I hasten to add. One of them was a new release though; No Forgetting by The Manchester Mekon. My weekly email from Monorail drew my attention to this limited edition vinyl compilation of every obscure cut ever released by the highly recondite late 70s Manchester Musicians Collective (MMC) ensemble. Bracketed alongside the very wonderful Spherical Objects, The Manchester Mekon obviously preferred Henry Cow to The Lurkers for inspiration. For the majority of the short time of their existence, they produced memorable, loose-limbed, proggy, improvised jazz rock, with flutes, saxophones and vibraphone, as in Film Music, The Note, Approaching a Russian Caravan and Jonathan Livingstone Seafood. Where they failed to make a mark was when they attempted to write songs, with synthesisers and vocals, when the music failed to ignite, especially the deathly dull Idle Gnome Exhibition or unspeakable Blancmange-lite of the title track. I will listen to this record fairly regularly, but just the second side I imagine.

The other two purchases I’ve made were from Tynemouth Market. For a quid I got the awesome Tackhead Tape Time by Gary Clail’s On-U Sound System. Released in early 1988 it came after the Sherwood inspired football number, The Game, that sampled Brian Moore, included the full band with the sadly forgotten Bristolian ranter Clail declaiming hysterically over the top of crushing beats. It predates his popular success with Human Nature and the false step of Tackhead veering towards commercialism, when trying to be Living Color reanimated with Bernhard Fowler on vocals. All the better for that, with solid gold classics Mind at the End of the Tether and Hard Left reinforcing just how cutting edge, provocative and downright daring this music was. I’m absolutely delighted to add it to my collection.

Similarly, the wonderful Charisma Records sampler One More Chance, featuring a dozen prime middlebrow prog rock and prog folk outfits from the 71-73 era plus Monty Python doing Eric the Half a Bee. Despite dross like The Nice and Jo’Burg Hawk, there are some superb cuts by the likes of Audience, Bell and Arc, the singing schoolmaster himself Clifford T Ward, Capability Brown, Rare Bird, String Driven thing and a closing Clear White Light by Lindisfarne. Well worth £4 I say.

Anyway, on the horizon we have Godspeed You! Back Emperor (25/10), Wire (3/11), Penetration (4/11), Euros Childs (25/11) and Vic Godard with The Band of Holy Joy on 8/12. Sounds decent to me; even if I’ve seen them all many times before, I can still wallow in nostalgia for the gigs yet to come.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Thermidorian Reactions

After the predictable tedium of the early season international break, the Premier League returns this weekend, with Newcastle travelling to Swansea City in what already looks like a crunch relegation 6-pointer, like every game featuring a couple of the PL also rans from outside the hermetically sealed glamorous top 8. Apparently the Magpies may not be under the charge of self-proclaimed Messiah and Greatest Manager in the World Rafa Benitez for the nearest thing to a European tie the club is likely to get for the thick end of a couple of decades, as he is recuperating following a hernia operation. I wish the man a speedy recovery, but would observe that I’m surprised that it hasn’t been a procedure to alleviate a particularly serious cause of haemorrhoids that he’s recently undergone, as he’s been an absolute pain in the arse since it became clear he was being held to account regarding some of his failed signings last year, with the club (okay Ashley and Charnley) standing firm on the need to ship the dead wood out before we signed any more new planks.

My last piece about Newcastle United (http://payaso-de-mierda.blogspot.co.uk/2017/07/what-carton.html ) was penned in mid-July, when Newcastle United’s Irish training camp was to include a wonderful opportunity to meet and greet Rafa and the boys in Sports Direct off O’Connell Street. While I was full of the optimism of midsummer, I did wonder whether conduct involving such distasteful self-abasement was a contractual obligation for Benitez, as it seemed to fatally undermine any sense of dignity he could previously command, meaning players may not wish to sign for someone who had so little self-respect as to act as an errand boy for Mike Ashley. Returning to these shores, Benitez then took up the role of glorified glass collector in 9 Bar, turning up for a Q&A session with the great unwashed among the support. Considering the bitter irony of Bob “Lord Haw Haw” Moncur hosting the latest one of these Strawberry Place show trials on 31st August as the transfer deadline passed with a predictable lack of inward activity on Tyneside, one wonders just what purpose Benitez’s dutiful obedience to the finger clicking orders of his superiors actually served in a wider context. Perhaps this is the sort of issue Benitez’s personal hagiographer Martin Hardy can address in detail when he phones in the next of his banal diary of a season cash cow accounts of how Rafa diverted the threat of nuclear war in Korea, while discovering a cure for all forms of cancer and winning the World Cup with Newcastle. At least Mark Douglas’s account of 2016/2017 attempted to be even-handed and professionally detached when analysing the effect Benitez has had on the club, even if his conclusion that Benitez had effectively checkmated Ashley may seem to be wildly optimistic if not risibly naïve regarding the future direction of NUFC. The many headed Sports Direct hydra will not allow itself to be slain so easily.

Interestingly, on Thursday 7th September, the NUFC Food Bank are hosting a fundraiser at the Tyneside Irish Centre, whereby 7 local football journalists of varying quality, reliability and reputation, will hold a public “inquest” into the impact of the transfer window and a discussion about the immediate future prospects of the club in the light of this. There are a few tickets left, price £10, but I’ll not be in attendance as the inquest I’m particularly concerned with is the one following my mother’s death last Saturday, which means I need to empty her room in the care home or face a £500 bill. This is a shame, on many levels, but particularly because I’d like to have heard what some of them have to say. As well as Mark Douglas, the opinions of George Caulkin and Simon Bird are worth paying attention to, though the swivel-eyed, paranoid froth from the likes of Craig Hope, Louise Taylor and the frankly pitiful doom-mongering of Luke Edwards and Rafa’s special pal Martin Hardy can be safely ignored. Frankly, even Lee Ryder or Ian Murtagh have more to recommend them than the querulous quartet who’ll no doubt be predicting Benitez out by October, relegation by Christmas, administration by Easter and oblivion in the Summer. Shame I can’t make it…

One thing Newcastle United, and Mike Ashley in particular, does better than anyone else, is the self-destructive, volcanic lurch from one avoidable drama to an equally preventable gargantuan crisis of existential angst. The last 10 years have seen a whole litany of indescribably ludicrous public relations gaffes and nightmares in the boardroom and dugout, as well as on the pitch and among the support. The Quatrième pouvoir Brains Trust gathered on Gallowgate will surely come to that consensus, though one wonders whether any other than Bird, Caulkin and Douglas would have the mental sophistication to accent that the current situation at Newcastle United is not a Doomsday scenario. In my eyes, it appears as if a smaller but slightly stronger squad than the one that gained promotion, are being endlessly rubbished and denigrated by the majority of our support, especially the South Tyneside Twitterati, in an attempt to display unblinking, unthinking loyalty to Benitez and the kind of dog whistle enmity towards Ashley that garners quick and easy numbers in the likes and retweets stakes. Strangely though, supporters of other teams in the top division do not have Newcastle earmarked for one of the relegation spots; partly because of the supposedly world class manager who is in charge and partly because we’ve assembled a few half decent players. These include at least 5 of our new signings: Lejeune, Merino, Atsu, Joselu and Murphy. While I’ll admit the lack of firepower and options at left back are potentially bothersome, I’m more annoyed we didn’t get rid of Haidara, Colback, Gamez and Shitrovic. If we had, other players could have been brought in.

I do find it incredibly strange that Benitez is both the most unprofessional, disloyal and deliberately provocative manager since Brian Clough took on Sam Longson at the Baseball Ground 45 years ago, as well as being simultaneously happy to accept the role of Ashley and Charnley’s patsy. His incessant griping from the point it became clear a block had been put on future incomers, until the dross was disposed of, generally along the lines of some variant on the we must try, but it is hard or not possible to always compete got on my nerves after a couple of days. It seemed excessively negative, deeply divisive and unnecessarily alarmist; one wonders exactly what effect it had on a squad preparing for a return to the Premier League. Having watched the Spurs game, I would contend this Dismal Jimmyism hadn’t really caused much damage to morale; there was a point there for the taking, while the eventual defeat was of Shelvey’s own doing, following his ridiculous stamp in front of the referee. You can’t compete with Harry Kane and Dele Ali when you’re a player short, though Kane ought to have walked for the snide scissors kick on Lejeune.

The week after Spurs, I didn’t see the Huddersfield loss, as I was watching Newcastle beat Benwell Hill in the Banks Salver final at Jesmond, but I caught the highlights later on and it seemed that a timid, negative team selection had put in the kind of stuttering, inadequate performance that we’d seen last year against Blackburn (twice), Sheff Wed (twice) and Wolves at home. It seemed as if they’d gone out there utterly lacking in self-belief and accepted we were beaten as soon as the goal went in. Surely if Benitez is the tactical maestro so many insist he is, then he could have coaxed more than this limp surrender? Or am I missing the wider implications of such hopeless performances? Are we seeing superb counter-intuitive tactics, whereby Ashley will be convinced of the need for new blood if the old stock is deoxygenated, depleted and discredited? You’d be forgiven for thinking that if you’d been at the Nottingham Forest League Cup loss on the following Wednesday, that outstripped anything I’d seen for eye-bleeding torpor since the Souness era.

Sat in an eerily silent Platinum Club on a ten quid ticket, the quality early goal by Shitrovic and the excellent efforts of Aarons, including a blindingly good equaliser, only served to stay the inevitable torrents of bellyaching from those who displayed not so much support for the club, but a sense of arrogant entitlement far removed from any version of fandom I can identify with. The moaning twat in the Thame United fleece behind me managed to be more annoying that the seizure-inducing pitch side adverts for some morally dubious gambling website or other. As a Hibbee, I know Jason Cummings is as fast as hell and a nuisance in the box; he isn’t Neymar though. He scored a brace and tortured the defence who were uniformly pitiful, then went off for NUFC legend Daryl Murphy just in time for their winner in the 97th minute. In the remaining 23 minutes, Newcastle mustered perhaps 2 efforts on goal, preferring instead to languidly pass the ball along the back line, almost as if defeat was something of an achievement. The strenuous efforts of sub Matt Ritchie to rescue the game stood in sharp relief to the complacent ambling of the rest of the side. I’m just surprised there wasn’t more booing after extra time following such a performance, but it appeared rather like Ritchie’s efforts, there were only pockets of genuine anger and passion to be heard. While I made a vow that I’ll not set foot back in the ground while Benitez is in charge; most punters around us glumly accepted another rancid night at the office and shuffled off without complaint.

However, in the days following this loss, I detected a gear shift in public opinion. Hacked off with the lame excuse of a team who are utterly bereft of ideas once they’ve gone behind, significant numbers of NUFC fans were beginning to question whether Benitez was all he claimed to be cracked up to be; sterile football, indifferent transfer record, ostracising players, a relentlessly negative attitude and a seeming obsession with courting conflict with the elusive and mercurial Ashley were getting people down. Obviously there’s still a huge number of Stockholm Syndrome Sufferers who refuse to believe that Emperor Benitez may not have any new clothes, but their influence was waning. This caused some juvenile hotheads to claim that Benitez wouldn’t be the man they thought he was unless he walked away from NUFC. Just think about that; hoping the boss resigns to show what power he’s got over the owner. The mind boggles…

All in all, it added up to a potentially epochal contest with West Ham in the last game. Surprisingly, it almost all went to plan; the dismal Bracelet Thieves were beaten out of sight and the support remained united. Of course, the idiotic elbow by Shitrovic that has caused him to face an entirely merited 3 game ban was seen as an FA-led attack on the NUFC politic by the authoritarian populists in the Gallowgate, rather than just desserts for rash impetuosity. Amidst all this, the single most amazing thing about the game and its aftermath was the deputation to Benitez led by Charnley, which involved the reading of the Riot Act, the redrawing of boundaries and responsibilities and the emergence of a contrite, on-message manager. It seems that Rafa isn’t Spartacus; he’s a very naughty boy. Thankfully, he’s ditched the Icarus impression in favour of a more solicitous Daelus profile, while at least keep the club on a relatively even keel, even if the hull seems ready to spring a leak at any second.

The manager’s subsequently more respectful tone in his public utterances, following the visit to the Headmaster’s study, show he knows he’d overplayed his hand. If this rebellion had turned into a revolution, Ashley would have been Stalin, Robespierre and Pol Pot combined in terms of the repression visited upon the club. Thankfully Benitez’s awareness of the failings in his conduct could be seen by his eagerness to please his employers by shifting the likes of Hanley, Krul and Lazaar (two of them his signings of course) before the deadline. If only Benitez had been more pro-active and on-message earlier in August, the whole NUFC situation could have been immeasurably more optimistic, especially if he’d ditched his bizarre obsession with signing another keeper.

So, three games in and 16 to go before New Year’s Day, we are where we are. It isn’t ideal, but it’s not time for a Three Mile Island meltdown just yet. Frankly, I’m expecting an ugly season at SJP, with a whole load of attritional, dreary games whereby we crawl at a snail’s pace to around 48 points. This will no doubt be partly thanks to some overpriced, panic buys in January who may provide temporary respite. Undoubtedly, Benitez, who is no longer talking about Newcastle as a long term project, will leave next summer, having met his match in Ashley and the club will have lost an opportunity to push on, because of Ashley’s illogical caprices. Having watched my mother dying on her sick bed these last 2 years, I can confirm there is no joy to be found in remaining one step away from last rites at all times. Benitez, who now knows his limitations, is aware of this, but Ashley doesn’t care, or so it seems. This vile, moneyed patriarch has the power and the amount of devil in his soul to cast us into a footballing nuclear winter at the flick of a switch. Let’s hope the obsessive gambler doesn’t play his ultimate Trump card.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Extreme Boys Terror

This weekend it's the International Break; it should give a chance for sober reflection over recent events involving Newcastle United, which I'll publish next week. This week, an article from the very wonderful Football Pink #17, discussing the strange phenomenon of the Football Lads Alliance, who will no doubt be keeping St George in their heart over the next few days -:

2017’s Album of the Year so far? While I’m in love with British Sea Power’s thunderous The Dancers Inherit the Party, unquestionably it has to be Vermillion by Alex Neilson, the drummer from Trembling Bells, in his Alex Rex incarnation. This is not the time for false modesty; Vermillion is a majestic work of genius. It is perhaps the best solo album to be released since Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde trilogy. Like those three magnum opi, there is a seam of eclectic genius running through the project that Alex and his collaborators mine imaginatively and zealously. The subterranean pit of Neilson’s artistry has many shafts of magnificence as yet undiscovered.  With typical insouciance, it begins with Screaming Cathedral; a duet with Lavinia Blackwall that is more Bosch and Dante than Peters and Lee; “it’s horror heaped on horror,” they endlessly chirp like Sonny and Cher jamming with The Third Ear Band on the walls of Bamburgh Castle.  The Perpetually Replenished Cup must be the only song in 2017 that borrows from Wilhelmus van Nassau, the national anthem of the Netherlands and turns it into an endearingly shambolic Klezmer pub crawl of a torch ballad. Best of all Song for Dora begins with an unaccompanied doo wop surreal poem in the style of Ginsberg, before a tight and dirty Magic Band style romp, with the most effective three note fuzztone guitar riff you’ll hear all year. Then all of a sudden, it’s Song for Athene at last orders in a social club Karaoke. You can’t want more than that. It is the finest album of 2017 so far and only likely to be bettered when Trembling Bells release their new one, Dungeness, late this year.

So what else have I been listening to? Perhaps it’s middle-aged nostalgia or perhaps it’s just the most appropriate soundtrack for summer I can think of, but I’ve been gorging on Van Morrison’s solo work from Astral Weeks to No Guru, No Method, No Teacher. You see it’s been 30 years since I had my sole religious experience, which occurred at Glastonbury 1987. Sunday night, still sweltering beneath a clear Somerset sky; Van the Man is headlining, bringing the chaotic Bacchanalian Bohemianism of the weekend to a close at the only festival I’ve ever been to. Perhaps it was the vibe, perhaps it was the 72 hours on the drink or perhaps it was the big bag of mushrooms ingested in preparation for the Belfast Cowboy’s set, but when George Ivan lost himself in a super extended version of And The Healing Has Begun, I found myself cutting a rug with une femme du certain age, who was attired solely in a pair of gumboots and a straw sun hat, while endlessly screaming Hallelujah at the top of my voice. We made a lovely couple. It was an epiphany, a moment of clarity, a game changer.

Similarly, the sight of Jeremy Corbyn on the pyramid stage Saturday afternoon June 24th 2017 was an epochal moment for our society. Thirty years previously, Billy Bragg was omnipotent and omniscient at Worthy Farm; proselytising the cause of Red Wedge (the Labour Party’s earnest and well-meaning music and entertainment wing) to all Pilton punters, to a respectful rather than ecstatic response. Times change and, to borrow a phrase, it appears Our Day Has Come. People want to believe in kindness, justice and compassion; only Jeremy Corbyn’s vision for Britain offers the chance of that, which is why he was afforded such a rapturous reception, not just by trustafarian hordes at Glasto, but by 200,000 ordinary, working class people at the Durham Miners’ Gala (aka The Big Meeting) on July 8th.

As I write, the country is in one hell of a mess; the deracincated and marginalised poor of all creeds, colours and ethnicities are in turmoil. The bitter harvest of austerity and the contempt for the less well-off has seen a hundred people or more die in the wholly preventable fire at Grenfell Tower, with the news that the retired judge handed the task of presiding over the Public Inquiry into the tragedy is already pouring doubt on whether the full truth will out and if those who are ultimately to blame will be brought to book. Is it any surprise that misguided and angry youths are wasting their lives and killing hundreds of innocents in terrorist atrocities? We can’t live like this any longer.

Years of unnecessary and damaging austerity inflicted on us by the Tories and the broken promises of the failed Blairite experiment have left the population angry, turning inwards to blame others who are enduring equal levels of social misery and financial misfortune. Embittered, frustrated ordinary people have chosen hatred and blame in preference to understanding and a desire for solutions. However, the mood of negativity is altering, in a good way. About halfway through Theresa May’s election campaign that took more than a single leaf out of the French Royal Family’s 1780s guide to humility and the common touch, it became clear that enough was enough; people simply decided to reject conflict and start loving each other once again. The young in particular got out and voted for a positive, vibrant future and rejected the lies of the Tories and their partners in the mainstream media. We didn’t win, but we will, because that tidal wave of love and warmth and inclusivity is an irresistible force for good in society; it’s going to wash away the hatred and conflict that has left deep, wounding scars on the body politic of our society. Most people, good people, don’t want lies and violence; they want hope and compassion for all. Change is inevitable; have you met a single person who thinks May’s cosying up to the Young Earth Ulster Israelite no dancing on the Sabbath fundamentalist Sharia Law in a Sash that’ll be a billion quid and kick the Pope nutters from the DUP is anything other than a farce? Nah; a change is gonna come. It’s inevitable.

On the same day as Jeremy Corbyn owned Glastonbury more than Chic, more than the Foo Fighters, even more than Michael Eavis, Theresa May was in Liverpool (don’t laugh), being booed from pillar to post (I said don’t laugh) at an Armed Forces Day parade (honestly, please stop laughing). Liverpool, the city whose entire recent history is built upon implacable opposition to the right wing establishment, did not let us down. The endless jeers and catcalls, in contrast to the deafening acclamation Corbyn got at Glastonbury and Durham (and before you start, it’s about ideas not a cult of the personality), meant that May was publicly humiliated, once again.

It is worth noting that her latest public relations fiasco took place at an event commemorating a recently invented day of dubious moral provenance; I mean Armed Forces Day isn’t Remembrance Sunday is it? Indeed, I’m not actually sure what it is and who officially recognises it. Gordon Brown announced a Veterans’ Day would take place on the last Saturday in June back in 2006 and in 2009 it changed its name to Armed Forces Day. Pretty much it appears anyone can set up an event, as the whole umbrella organisation ostensibly co-ordinating the project appears messily organised and less than meticulously scrutinised. No wonder the solemn day of reflection seems to have been hijacked by Britain First, the EDL, UKIP and all the usual far right Fascist fuckwits out there. Indeed in London, while Theresa May was being excoriated by angry Scousers,  a heavily policed EDL gathering of 50 unemployable pissheads were kept behind metal railings by a few dozen Met Officers, while ten times as many UAF protestors let the boneheads know their tired, lame Islamophobic ultra-nationalist agenda was not acceptable in modern day Britain.

So what’s all this got to do with football huh? I must mention that finally the CPS have decided to press charges against David Duckinfield, Norman Bettison and other members of South Yorkshire Police for the tragedy of Hillsborough,  which is further vindication of the unending struggles of those who sought Justice for the 96. But there is more to consider than that. You’ll remember the appalling events at London Bridge, when 3 suicidal terrorists murdered 8 innocent people (three French citizens, two Australians, a Spaniard, a Canadian and a Briton). One of the many moments of heroism that evening was the bravery of 47 year old Ray Larner, who was repeatedly stabbed by the terrorists while allowing others to make good their escape from the Black & Blue Restaurant in Borough Market, having stood up and announced “Fuck you I’m Millwall.” He was hospitalised after the attack, when it became clear he was both unemployed and homeless, resulting in a crowd funder campaign that has earned him in excess of £30k, intended to help him put his life back together. Meanwhile a Swedish Brewery has named a beer “Fuck You I’m Millwall” in recognition of his heroism, with some of the proceeds from future sales going to the fund set up in Roy’s name.  That said, the latest tabloid revelations of his prior involvement in a fracas where he set his dogs on several marchers during a Black Lives Matter demo, then followed this up with a tirade of racist abuse, may mean his star has waned already.

I sincerely help his future life is a happy and a fortunate one and that he can rebuild with the cash he has been donated. However, I’m not quite sure if his acts, at Borough Market I stress, are being properly celebrated by the formation of a supposed pressure group called Football Lads Alliance (FLA), taking inspiration from Roy Larner’s bravery, who organised a “Unite Against Extremism” march across London Bridge, also on Saturday 24th June. Unfortunately, what with the attention being given to Corbyn and May’s activities on the same day, media interest in this procession was minimal, which is a shame as by all the no doubt unbiased accounts of those who took part, there were “fahsands” in attendance and “not a spot of bovver”-:

24 June 2017 21:35

went ok all firms integrated - west ham , , pompey, yids, chelsea etc etc nobody said a word when they turned up 200 boys each firm just mingled except us lot when we came we sing a low millllllllll and all firms clapped us - bit mad really proper respect we had from everybody. Marched to london bridge and most went our own way west ham turned back halfway over london bridge & did not come south total respect we had a good drink with pompey proper boys these lot and no trouble average age of everybody 45-50.

have a feeling the next march will double in size. It would be good next time for everyone to demonstrate at a mosque or the like, as this is where the extremists are made. That Britain First mob turn up about 30 handed at places like Luton and East London mosque to demonstrate, have to admire their bottle. Would be good if they got the support of the thousands yesterday, as we are all against the same common enemy.
I probably don’t need to tell you this, but pictures show the FLA demographic was resolutely white, resolutely male and almost certainly Brexit voting. It’s not an unexpected outcome when you mix up West Ham, Millwall, Chelsea, Palace, Portsmouth and the more lumpen elements of Spurs firms. Again, it’s unsurprising that Arsenal, Fulham, QPR and Brentford followers were conspicuous by their absence. However, I would contend that this was an event with only a tenuous connection to London, specifically restricted to the football clubs those taking part support; indeed the actual home turf for those marching will have been the dreariest of the M25 satellite and dormitory towns, from Basildon to Slough and Dunstable to Haywards Heath, where the displaced descendants of those who could remember Drake’s Ducklings, The Irons winning the World Cup and Harry Cripps in his pomp, have lived their lives.  For them, London is a place for relaxation and recreation not community cohesion, which is probably why they combined protest with a day out on the gargle. Southerners and Home Counties residents, not Londoners or Cockneys. In many ways, they should be of a similar stamp to the enormous crowd drawn to the Big Meeting, but ideologically these modern day variants of Essex Man keep considering closer to the right than left of the spectrum.

While attempting to discover more about the FLA and their beliefs, I liked their Facebook page, followed them on Twitter and sent both the same fairly detailed message, asking if they could tell me exactly what their working definitions of the highly emotive and subjective terms “extremism” and “terrorism” were. I obtained no reply. However, I did find a link to an interview with the founder of the FLA, 32 year old Spurs fan John Meighan on the Shy Society website, an organisation whose raison d’etre is described as follows -:

We are opinionated. We like common sense. We consider ourselves liberal in many aspects. Alas, not by today’s definition. We believe in fairness and transparency. We don’t shy away from change, yet tradition and identity are things we hold dear. We are proud of Britain and will always champion democracy. But we are cynics who can detect corruption like a stench fills the air. We are engaged, yet disenfranchised. We can see right through the mainstream media, career politicians, and the establishment. And we are numb to the excruciating snobbery of the metropolitan class which has stifled our speech for so long. We are loud. But we dare not speak out. We had no voice, until now. We are the Shy Society…

Presumably this is why the site includes two posts revelling in their attendance at marches in the company of Tommy Robinson; one in Sunderland as part of the specious #JusticeForChelsey campaign that local police have described as “racially intolerant” and “deliberately inflammatory” and the other in Birmingham to protest about “Muslim extremists.” If you’re in any doubt about Shy Society’s ideological standpoint, here’s what they said in advance of the general election, while urging readers to vote Tory -:

“Corbyn couldn’t be any more anti-British even if he wrapped himself in a black flag started chanting ‘Allahu Akbar’ through the streets of Islington. From refusing to sing the national anthem, to describing the huge sacrifices made in the Falklands War as “flag-waving nonsense”, to his unrepentant support for terrorists including the IRA and Hamas – backed up in Labour’s manifesto by their pledge to “immediately recognise the state of Palestine” thus putting strains on UK-Israeli relations. This is a man who was arrested at a protest to “show solidarity” with accused IRA terrorists in 1986, a man who invited convicted IRA terrorist Gerry Adams to the House of Commons just weeks after the Brighton bombing, and a man who was actually investigated by the MI5 over his close links to the Republican cause. This despicable man now wants to lead the United Kingdom.”

I would hope John Meighan was aware of who he was talking to when he gave his interview to Shy Society, because if he didn’t he has shown a terribly naïve lack of judgement. Of course if he were aware, it would make it considerably easier to write off the FLA as another far-right Trojan Horse, looking to recruit the shiftless, prejudiced low-life that have bounced between the BNP, EDL and Britain First over the last decade or so. As the question of his understanding of the agenda of those interviewing him is unknown, we can only judge John Meighan and his pet project with the words they’ve spoken. They aren’t encouraging -:

“Longer term, it’s looking at terror laws and preachers of hate. We’ve all seen it in the press that they’ve got thousands of people on watchlists but the reality is you can’t watch them all so you need to look at somehow putting a framework in place to monitor what they do. Be that electronic tags, be that some form of confinement – I don’t think we as a country should be afraid to deal with radical Islamic extremism.”

When compared to calls for internment or electronic surveillance of ordinary British citizens for ideological reasons, the delusional belief that 5,000 bladdered, baldy, ageing, semi-literate, jug-eared porkers called staying out of Ladbrokes and Wetherspoons for half a day is going to “make our voices heard” or “get things done our way” is almost grimly humorous. Let’s be honest about this; I don’t really see Daesh unilaterally laying down their arms just because The ICF and Bushwhackers have laid a bouquet together, do you?

Now fair play to the FLA for not kicking off on the day, banning flags and ensuring Robinson and his pals were kept well away from this demo, but what on earth can Meighan expect to be the future direction of this organisation if he is making public statements in such immoderate and confrontation language? There is a chance the whole momentum of the thing will get out of control and that is something to worry about. Not only that, it’s disturbing to note there are several tweets by the FLA stating that they respect Tommy Robinson, who is apparently “on our wavelength.” This is a worrying statement and the FLA need, before their next demo on October 7th, to state explicitly what their ideological as well as organisation links to the EDL or Britain First are. If the answer is none, then best of luck to them, but I worry its political agenda could be more accurately described by changing the word “extremism” to “Muslims.”

I think it is important to realise what we should be doing as football fans to rid our game of hatred. Up here on Tyneside, we have seen the real and positive effect fan involvement in the wider fabric of society can make. In one afternoon, a fundraiser by the Gallowgate Flags collective to purchase a Rainbow banner with an NUFC crest in the middle, as part of an attempting to be socially inclusive and to make the stadium an LGBTI+ place of safety, achieved double its target amount, with the surplus going to Stonewall.  Equally importantly, a channel of communication has been opened with the Football v Homophobia project, which will be as solid and symbiotic as earlier alliances with Show Racism the Red Card and the FSA. Perhaps the FLA could reflect on the fact that the annual Pride parade in London attracted 10 times as many marchers as their debut swagger across London Bridge.  

Of course, there’s more to football supporting than challenging homophobia; the Newcastle United Food Bank project has been an amazing cohesive project for social inclusion, which has brought together club, fans and the local community, despite the niggardly naysing of a dozen dismal dullards with their pitiful #CasualsAgainstFoodBanks hash tag. It makes my heart sing with joy when I see the good this initiative has done and continues to do; it is a source of immense pride that we see young African Muslim women able to wear Hijabs to SJP and not be confronted by small-minded bigots, or the club’s official twitter account wishing Eid Mubarak to all.

If Newcastle United fans, with the stereotypical baggage of northern, industrial working class masculinity to contend with, can bring to fruition such positive achievements, then surely supporters in the South East can do similar?  In my opinion, these are the sort of campaigns the FLA ought to be busying themselves with; reaching out to their local communities, inviting them in, though I’ve seen no hint of that as yet in any of their posts or public pronouncements. If the FLA continue and want to do some good in the world, perhaps they could send their condolences to those who suffered at the Finsbury Park attack or even, have a march in solidarity with poor old Orient fans who have seen their club decimated by corrupt and incompetent owners. It’s got to be a better option than risking heatstroke in a CP Company rig out while looking for bother with anyone who seems up for it. Let’s not look backwards to the days of hatred, but to the optimistic future that awaits us, Inshallah…

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

The Banking Crisis

Sadly, another wonderful NEPL cricket season is reaching the final straight. With 3 league games to go, the top and bottom of both divisions is not as yet decided, but the likely outcomes are becoming clear. In the Premier, South North look to be in pole position to regain the title, which would be their eleventh out of the 18 years the competition has been in existence. Newcastle are in with a shout, having the bottom 3 sides left to play, but realistically South North would need to lose a game for it go as long as the final day as they hold a 42 point advantage. The relegation issue is tighter; South Shields are bottom, 14 points adrift of Felling and 16 of Whitburn, who have been in a dreadful run of form recently. I’d back Felling to get out of this because of the fight and spirit they’ve shown for most of the campaign and warrant there wouldn’t be many tears shed for the demise of the Westovians.

In Division 1, Sacriston hold a 30 point lead over Burnopfield with Bournmoor a further 4 points back. No-one would deny Sacriston the right to play top division cricket, especially after the manner of their final day heartbreak against Felling last year, when the umpires took them off for bad light with victory in sight. Down at the bottom, Mainsforth’s 2 year stay in the NEPL looks likely to end soon. They can catch Seaham Harbour, but probably won’t. Meanwhile, the race to replace the wooden spoonists continues apace. Rather than simply allowing another Durham League team in, as has been the case previously, the NEPL have decided that the winners (or runners up if the winners don’t want promotion) of the Durham League will play off against the winners (or runners up) of the Northumberland and Tyneside Senior League, where Swalwell and Shotley Bridge are engaged in a titanic tussle. Both have expressed an interest in promotion. I’ve not been to Shotley Bridge, but Swalwell’s new, if windswept, facility is good enough to host Northumberland one day games, so it’s good enough for the NEPL.

I have actually seen Shotley Bridge this season though, the final of the Tyneside Charity Bowl. Having lost the toss, the home side were invited to bat by a determined Shotley Bridge side, who fielded magnificently, restricting Tynemouth to a less than intimidating 92 all out. In that modest total, only club professional Khan, with a fluent 34 and captain Ben Debenham (21) showed any mastery of the conditions. However, some magnificent bowling by Khan, who took 4 wickets and a tight spell by Finn Longberg meant Shotley Bridge fell well behind the asking rate. That should not detract from the heroics of David Hymers, whose hat trick as part of 4 wickets in the final over, meant Tynemouth were able to claim victory by 18 runs as Shotley Bridge subsided to 74 all out. It’s always great to win some silverware and Shotley Bridge showed the determination and organization to suggest they could do more than simply survive in the NEPL.

In the Durham League, Castle Eden are currently top, but the rumours are that no club wants to make the step up, so we shall see what happens. One rather brilliant eccentricity is that if weather prevents any play-off game happening before 30th September, the NEPL management will do a paper based audit to decide who deserves the Division 1 spot. Marvellous eh? As regards the knock-out competitions, the First XI 20/20 was won by South North, who have now made it to the national club finals. The Second XI 20/20 saw Washington, conquerors of Tynemouth, take the title. The 3rd XI Cup went to Seaham Harbour, while Chester le Street took the Midweek Shield and Gateshead Fell the Midweek League. The First XI Salver saw Newcastle beat Benwell Hill in the final, while the Second XI Bowl sees South North, conquerors of Tynemouth in the semis, host Sacriston on Bank Holiday Monday. The three Sunday divisions are also nearing completion, but I’ll return to them next time, as I’d like to spend a bit of time discussing the Banks Salver, which has been inordinately controversial in some quarters.

I’ve been quite lucky in seeing several games in the Banks Salver this season. After my last cricket blog, in which I talked about Tynemouth’s fraught success at Eppleton and Newcastle’s demolition of Sunderland, the situation was that we had reached the semi-final stage; Tynemouth were at home to Benwell Hill and Newcastle entertained Burnopfield, with the winners of the latter tie having drawn the right to host the final, with Sunday 20th August identified as the date. The semi-finals were supposedly on Sunday 23rd July, but Newcastle’s game didn’t even get started. Meanwhile, Tynemouth were thwarted by the weather. In the Banks Salver semi-final, the home side had Benwell Hill in a measure of distress at 96/5, courtesy of a pair of wickets each for Tahir Khan and David Hymers, after 26 overs when torrential rain washed the contest out, which finally gave me a chance to have a catch up in the pavilion with Phil Nicholson, Hill batsman and Twitter mainstay. As per the rules of the competition, the score was expunged and the sides started afresh the week after. Being invited to bat this time around, Tynemouth made a very poor effort, registering 147 all out with Chris Fairley top scoring with an obdurate 30 not out. The only other scores of note were a breezy 26 by Matt Brown and determined knocks by David Hymers and Andrew Smith of 16 apiece. In reply, Benwell Hill strolled to an effortless 8 wicket win with 25 overs to spare with Kyle Coetzer and Sameet Brar batting with fluency to build on an explosive 35 from 4 overs by opener Nick Jones. Frankly, the chance for Tynemouth had come and gone the week before and it was a depressingly one sided game, lit up by the stroke play of Coetzer and Brar. Still, well done to the Hill, who are a great club.

The Newcastle v Burnopfield semi-final didn’t take place until 6th August, as Northumberland were playing at Jesmond the last weekend in July. Sadly, I’ve not been along to any of the Northumberland 3 day games this season, mainly because I felt less than compelled to do so after being unceremoniously blocked by their Twitter account; this may seem childish, but I found it a very disappointing way to repay my enthusiasm and attempts to publicise the team over the past few years. Instead, I stuck with club cricket, watching Tynemouth’s loss to Benwell Hill instead. This did mean I could get to see the second semi-final when it took place on a heavy, overcast afternoon.

Things were all well and good early on as Newcastle posted an impressive 231/5 from a reduced 33 overs, with Alastair Appleby’s 84 the star turn, though Josh Phillippe’s 48 and an unbeaten 49 by Sean Tindale helped set a testing 7 runs an over. This was perhaps a little skewed in Newcastle’s favour as they’d benefitted from 15 overs “Power Play,” an ugly term but we’ll go with it, because the game started on time and the first 15 overs were bowled without interruption. That said when the rain came to curtail the Newcastle innings, things looked so bleak I cycled round home to watch the second half of Newcastle’s friendly with Hellas Verona through the club website. It was dull, but thankfully the afternoon and the weather perked up, as I received tweets from JDT, Oli McGee and Phil Hudson to say the game was restarting around 4.30.
Cycling back down, I happened upon a sight similar to the current state of diplomatic relations between DPRK and the Great Satan. Any fractious enmity was not about the recalculated total (141) or number of overs available (20; the minimum required to constitute a proper game), but about the length of the Power Play. Like many things, the conditions of play for the NEPL Banks Salver are a starting point for discussion rather than a definitive set of answers, which will no doubt see retrospective semantic nuancing for next year’s competition. Debate ranged from whether the Power Play should be 6 overs, as per the instructions for games of 20 overs, 15 overs for full games of 45 overs or the potential compromise of 9 overs, as that was about the same percentage as Newcastle had enjoyed in their innings. The browbeaten umpires had JDT in one ear and Burnopfield’s Gareth Breese, who at close quarters looks like the sort of bloke you’d best not push in front of in a Bigg Market taxi queue on Christmas Eve, in the other. Hard competitors, not giving an inch; arguing their respective corners with steely determination. Breese won the debate and Burnopfield chased the runs down with 3 balls to spare, courtesy of a 15 over Power Play that, in all subsequent debate about the game, I’ve yet to find a single person who believed it to be a correct decision, either in the laws or spirit of the game. At the end of the game though, sportsmanship thankfully prevailed, albeit reluctantly, and handshakes were exchanged, followed by a social hour in the bar.

However, the story was not to end there. Newcastle, having been informed by a senior umpire who knows about these things, that they had grounds for appeal, engaged the services of Hudson and Hudson Cricket Attorneys. The NEPL upheld Newcastle’s complaint and decreed that the game would have to be replayed on Sunday 20th August. To me, it seemed an eminently sensible decision, but Burnopfield demurred and withdrew from the competition immediately. I’m unsure if this was in a fit of pique, or whether it was because they’d struggle to get a side out, as a number of senior players had already committed to attending Paul Collingwood’s testimonial game at the Emirates and swanky dinner afterwards. Their choice, but Burnopfield’s loss, as Newcastle and Benwell Hill played out a magnificent game that must be the best I’ve seen all season. One wonders, of course, what Burnopfield would have done if they’d been required to play the final on the date stipulated.

Batting first, Newcastle started methodically after losing Alastair Appleby for 1 and Cameron Steel for 17. JDT came to the crease and hammered a quick-fire 35 before Coetzer had him LBW. At this point, Josh Phillippe went through the gears; after scratching his way to 30, he suddenly unleashed his inner Chris Gayle, reaching 162 not out from 119 balls with 15 fours and 9 sixes, most of which required lengthy stoppages to rescue missing balls from the graveyard or Osborne Avenue gardens. Messrs. Du Toit and Coetzer would have surely admired the young Aussie’s effortless savagery, though the Hill would have been alarmed at an intimidating final total of 284/8. Sadly Ben McGee was unable to play, having been required to work in his job as a TV licence detector van drone. His brother made the most tremendous entrance to the field of play when batting. The enthusiasm he carried was too much for his little legs to take and he almost careered face first into the turf after a Harold Lloyd style stumble. Well done Oli.

To give Benwell Hill full credit, they made a hell of a good fist of it, falling only 31 runs short. At the top of the innings, Phil Nicholson contributed a dogged 56, but wickets kept falling. When Sameet Brar quickly followed Coetzer, caught behind by that man Phillippe from the bowling of Steel, back to the changing rooms, it seemed as if Newcastle would win with something to spare. Enter Hill pro Haseeb Azam who smashed 63 from 43 balls to put his side back in contention until JDT intervened; a run out, a pair of catches and a couple of wickets, the last fittingly a catch by Phillippe, saw Newcastle home. It was a game where the casual spectator was caught up in the beauty, the intrigue and the drama of events; one left the ground with palms smarting from generous, repeated applause as to the efforts of all involved.  The only drawback being the endless retelling by A Trotter Esq of his dismissal of Marcus North the day before which, as the afternoon progressed and libations were enjoyed, took on the kind of semi-mystical aura of Warne against Gatting in 1993.

In all seriousness, it was a wonderful advert for the local game and, while it was a pity that Burnopfield chose not to accept the offer of a replay, the fact is they would almost certainly have lost against Newcastle in the first game if the Power Play had been correctly applied. Followers of other clubs, who tearfully raged over social media with banal impotence in an unpleasantly personal manner about the supposed favouritism shown by the management committee’s decision, ought to take a long hard look at themselves and shamefacedly apologise for their immoderate language and rampant paranoia. This is cricket; uphold and respect the traditions of the game please. Either that, or consider your response in light of, or properly in darkness of, a certain FA Vase floodlight failure last season…

So, where else have I been? Following Tynemouth mainly. On the day after the Shotley Bridge cup win, Stockton visited Preston Avenue. When Tynemouth had faced Stockton away earlier in the season in the North East Premier League, they’d shaded a tight contest by 2 runs and the margin of victory at Preston Avenue was almost as tight in the return fixture. This did not seem to be likely when, in a rain reduced contest, Finn Longberg’s superb spell of bowling (5/15) restricted Stockton to 102/9 declared. In response, the home team were cruising to victory on 91/3, with Stewart Poynter, who had already taken a pair of the finest, most athletic catches of the season, contributing an elegant 53, when he was controversially run out. A sense of collective panic then afflicted the middle order, with the game up for grabs at 96/7. However the Bearded Brothers, Hymers and wicket keeper Chris Fairley saw Tynemouth home without further mishap, to move the team up to 8th in the Premier Division at the two thirds point of the season.

The week after, it was South Shields away, which gave me a chance to cycle to the game; down the Fish Quay, across on the Ferry rather than biking on water, then through the parts of Laygate, Chichester and Westoe the guidebooks don’t tell you about; the hideous pubs, dilapidated housing and beautiful Mosque. Wood Terrace is undoubtedly the worst ground in the Premier Division, in terms of facilities. While lacking the confrontational brusqueness that can be prevalent at Eppleton for those of us with north of Tyne addresses and accents, Shields isn’t a place I enjoy visiting, mainly as it just looks like it’s falling down, which apparently will be the case when they move to a new sporting hub athwart the John Reid Road at the Temple Park end. Hopefully the grass on the new outfield will be shorter, as if it was your next door’s lawn looking like that; you’d be on the phone to the Environmental Health.

Tynemouth were hampered by a weakened attack; Sean Longstaff was making his Blackpool debut and Finn Longberg was out on the gargle. As such, Shields had made a leisurely 92/3 at lunch, when I headed off to see Northern League new boys Jarrow at home in a final pre-season friendly against Washington. Their Perth Green ground on Inverness Road in the Scotch (not Scottish) Estate is functional and improved; lights, hard standing and a small stand like Ryhope CW. Their team wasn’t bad either, destroying a totally disorganized Washington side 4-0, for whom former Whitley Bay striker Adam Shanks was a shadow of his former self.

Full time and I head back down to the cricket; it wasn’t a game to last long in the memory. The home side made 160/9 declared after 56 overs. Luke Elliott was top scorer with 45, while Andrew Smith (3/42) and Martin Pollard (3/20) proved to be the most effective bowlers. In response, Tynemouth never seriously challenged the seemingly less than imposing total, though the Wood Terrace ground is notoriously difficult to score on. Nevertheless, to be 91/7 was a sign of poor batting and with 20 overs to go, defeat seemed inevitable. Thankfully resolute batting by Andrew Smith (29 not out) and Chris Fairley (17 not out) staved off another loss. Indeed, if it weren’t for the pair’s totemic obduracy, then it could have been a second loss of the season to Shields and the cause for much wailing and breast beating up High Heworth Lane.

The football season returned on 5th August, so I was detained at Benfield 1 West Allotment 0 in the FA Cup, before arriving at Preston Avenue just on tea. We’d made 166/7 and that seemed positively dashing when compared to Whitburn’s response. Despite being dangerously close to the relegation spot, they made no attempt at getting the runs and crawled to a funereal 71/3 after 37 overs when the rain thankfully intervened. It rained for a couple of days; indeed on Tuesday 8th August, Whitley Bay 4 Seaham Red Star 1 was like a November night, with driving rain and howling winds. Scarcely believably, 24 hours later saw a glorious sunny evening for the oft-delayed quarter final of the Roseworth Trophy at Preston Avenue. Visitors Boldon 2nds batted first and made a respectable 135/5, but some virtuoso hitting by Marcus Turner and Graeme Hallam saw an 8 wicket win with overs to spare. Sadly, the 2nds came up short in the semi-final away to Ryhope CC.

As Laura and I were celebrating my birthday with Sunday lunch at Dave and Heather’s, there was no game for me on 13th August or 19th either, because I was down in Goole watching Benfield win 2-1 in the FA Cup. Consequently, the only other game to mention is the remnants of the Newcastle v Tynemouth game I caught after travelling back from Benfield’s astonishing 7-3 win at Bishop Auckland. Having made 136/8 on another rain ruined day, I get there with Newcastle 55/2. Tynemouth try their best, but lose by 5 wickets. JDT is out for 0, but he got 150 for Northumberland the next day. Such a shame I wasn’t able to see it.

So, it’s 42 games at 15 different grounds at the time of writing. Sadly, it doesn’t look possible to complete the whole of the NEPL this year, what with Burnopfield withdrawing from the Banks, Mainsforth being almost inaccessible and Brandon and Willington being washed out on the day I wanted to visit. That said I intend to make 50 games by the middle of September, weather permitting. I’ll let you know if I do. Or even if I don’t.