Monday, 9 July 2018

2017/2018 CV

With the arrival of Stand #26 last week and the news that I've had a piece accepted for next season's new issue of VFTAE #9, I think it's fair to say I've had all I'm going to have published for the season about to end. Hence, here's a list of stuff I've had in print over the past 11 months -:

28 Newcastle Benfield programmes
2 Tyneside Amateur League programmes
Stand #22: Double G&T
View From the Allotment End #5: The Kindness of Strangers
The Football Pink #17: Extreme Boys Terror
Stand #23: Cologne & All That
View From the Allotment End #6: Asprilla
The Football Pink #18: The Final Whistle
Stand #24: Jobs for the Boys
View From the Allotment End #7: Bounty Hunting
Stand #25: Kill Yr Idols
The Football Pink #19: Nothing Ever Happens
Hopeless Football Romantic #7: The Kindness of Strangers 2
View From the Allotment End #8: Warrior Race
The Football Pink #19: Once Upon a Time in Argentina
Duck #44: Jack Devlin
Hopeless Football Romantic #8: World Cup 74
Stand #26: I Can’t Hear the Grass Grow

Monday, 2 July 2018

The Wicket Man

It seems an age since I last wrote about cricket. Indeed, two whole months beyond the boundary and at fairly deep mid-on have passed in blissful serenity following my last missive, during which time I’ve seen 17 games, 14 of which involved a Tynemouth side, and played for the Bad Boys on 6 occasions. Of course, I’ve sadly had to miss a few Saturdays because of other commitments; May 5th saw Tynemouth claim their first win of the season, away to Sacriston, but I was still on Benfield duties back then, attending our creditable 0-0 at Marske United that saw the Seasiders crowned Northern League Champions and therefore gain promotion to the Unibond League. This was a great occasion to be at, but who is to say in the sporting pantheon that it will be of more historical moment than Polly’s 4 for 3 at Sacriston?

On the Sunday, I assumed my volunteer gatekeeping duties at Jesmond as Northumberland took on Lincolnshire in a Minor Counties 20/20 double header. All the Northumberland committee, especially Alan McKenna, Brian Wilkin and Gordon Halliday were most appreciative of my efforts. I was even treated to a pair of custard creams to go with my complimentary coffee. Seriously, I was delighted to be afforded the opportunity to help out and even more delighted to see a thumping 971 runs scored; 286 of them by Lewis Kimber (162* and 124) of Lincs, who also bagged 4 for 16 in the first game, which the visitors won fairly easily, chasing down Northumberland’s 200/3 for the loss of 4 wickets. However, the second game thrillingly went the way of the home side; Lincs made an impressive 237/7, but Phil Mustard, now of Felling but who I remember most fondly as the goalkeeper of Seaham Red Star who let 6 in against Ashington in December 2004 (“eee that’s shit” he said when the first trickled between his knees in the opening minute), got well involved, smiting 17 maximums into the graveyard adjoining. Tynemouth’s Matty Brown also contributed to the afternoon’s entertainment with an unbeaten pair of half centuries, much to the delight of his parents, who I watched the second game with. It was not just a wonderful advert for Minor Counties cricket, it was a simply brilliant day in boiling sunshine and there was more fun to come on May Day Monday.

First up, Benfield completed our league season with a classy 3-1 win over Whitley Bay. Basking in the glory of a well-played season, I cycled down from Hillheads to Preston Avenue for Tynemouth’s Banks Salver game against South Shields. We closed on 233/9, which looked a decent total from 40 overs. Shields tried hard and reached 45 without loss, but Polly got involved again with 4 for 4 and they found themselves 99/9, before being dismissed for 108. During the general chit chat in front of the pavilion over a post-game pint, it became obvious there was a staffing problem for the Wednesday following. The first team had Newcastle City in the Charity Bowl, but couldn’t find anyone to work the bar. Cometh the hour; cometh the man… Having recently found myself rehearsing the role of a neophytic gig economist, I’ll do anything legal for money (within reason). More importantly, my sense of community means I understand when duty calls. Also, getting hired as a bar tender by Tynemouth Cricket Club is as near to a professional sportsperson as I’ll ever be. Additionally, it’s considerably more professionally satisfying than the last 4 years of my teaching career.

By Wednesday, the weather had turned; it was freezing and understandably there was nobody there to watch. Bear in mind Newcastle City are an Asian team, so they didn’t want anything to drink and as it was during Ramadan, they didn’t want any snacks either. Consequently, I saw almost all of our 70 run victory. In fact, I enjoyed myself so much, I was back in harness on the Thursday to see the 2nds beat Felling by 90 runs in the Roseworth Bowl. At least Anthony Trotter was there that night, supporting the lads from NE10, meaning that I sold a few pints at any rate.

It was good to catch up with Hebburn’s most devout adherent to the Holy See, as I’d been unable to take in Tynemouth’s win at High Heworth Lane on May 12th, or indeed the home draw with Chester le Street the week after, on account of my duties at the two Tyneside Amateur League cup finals.  However, I was back on home turf for the opening NEPL 20/20 group game against Eppleton on Friday 25th May, having eschewed the chance of seeing the Duckworth Lewis curtailed Durham v Worcestershire one day game at South North. The weather at Tynemouth was clement though, as Peter Brown would testify, somewhat windy, allowing Eppleton to post 125/3. I have to say it was genuinely exciting watching Barry Stewart and Andrew Smith, though the meat haze emanating from the barbecue, chase the runs down, but even more important was the fact that 96 tiny bairns were on the back field doing All Stars cricket. This is the sort of thing the ECB should be prioritising, not tomfoolery like the 100 ball game. What an amazing turnout and hopefully enough to reassure the doom merchants who think cricket is finished as a mass participation sport. Hey, I’m 54 next month and I’ve just started playing regularly.

Of course, I’m still watching regularly and, having fulfilled an obligation to take in Wideopen 1 Spital Rovers 2 in the final Northern Alliance fixture of the season, I turned up to see the second half of the South Northumberland home game. The perennial favourites and champions elect had set a decent total, declaring on 228/9. The chase, as is often the case on occasions like these, was not straightforward. At 57/3, the pendulum was swinging towards the Gosforth galacticos, but Sean Longstaff and Mark Watt dug in; at first it was dogged occupation of the crease, but then runs began to flow and an unlikely home victory seemed possible until the two of them were out in rapid succession. Time for entrenchment; we ended on 188/8, which was a decent effort.

Sadly, the need for money meant I had to pass up the chance of another Northumberland 20/20 double header at Jesmond, home to Staffordshire on the Sunday, to graft behind the bar at a christening. It’s 35 years since I regularly worked in a pub and while many things are easier for bar staff these days (computerised tills, glass washing machines, specific glasses for specific drinks for instance), you can still get run off your feet. Goodness I was busy, so I saw little of the 2nds slaughter of Brandon in the Banks Bowl; 334/5 beat 108 all out. Niall Piper’s 178 not out, including an all run 6, is in the mix for the highest ever score in living memory by a Tynemouth player. Brandon are desperate to gain promotion to the NEPL top division and are throwing money at the first team, at the expense of the rest of the club. In one of those vagaries of the fixture list, they were back at Preston Avenue the following Saturday for a league fixture, in which they won the toss, batted first, got bowled out for 30, lost by 9 wickets and were on their way home by 2 o’clock.  In the afternoon that is; on Whit Bank Holiday Monday, it seemed many of the first team had been out until that time in the morning, as a tough trip to Chester le Street in the Banks Salver produced a depressing loss by 97 runs as we were bowled out for 138.

That defeat opened the box on a week of cup failures. South North, with Adam Cragg’s dad taking 4 wickets, ended our interest in the Charity Bowl, which we’d won in 2017. Then, on the Friday, any realistic chance of progressing in the 20/20 was snuffed out with a bizarre loss to Durham Academy. The first ball flew off a length and hit Mike Jones on the helmet, proving batting wasn’t going to be easy and so it proved as we only managed 86/9, though it got no easier for the Academy, who crawled home by 2 wickets. I pondered whether the sizeable crowd felt satisfied by a contest that was always on a knife edge, but that saw the ball dominating the bat.

The next day, the first Saturday in June, I took a trip to Ayrshire to assuage my love for Scottish Junior football, attending Cumnock 2 Auchinleck Talbot 2, while Tynemouth gained a losing draw in a rain curtailed game at Hetton Lyons. On the Sunday, grafting behind the bar at a quieter Christening do, the Academy side lost to South North by 3 wickets. In need of first team action, I made the last-minute decision to watch the final 20/20 group game away to Burnopfield on Friday 8th, partly because it was the chance to visit a new ground. Burnopfield may only be a few miles south west of Newcastle, but it’s the sticks without question. Getting off the bus, massively delayed by insane traffic caused by Ed Sheeran playing SJP, I had to use my phone’s sat nav to find the ground, which involved navigating a vertiginous park. It was worth it though, as Burnopfield’s ground and facilities are brilliant; a huge outfield, with landscaped viewing platforms and a massive clubhouse, with much Colin Milburn related memorabilia. It’s like a massive Swalwell. As I was heading to see The Wedding Present at the Academy the same night, it was only possible to see the home side’s innings. They made 119/5, though we chased it down it 13 overs, around the time David Gedge was recalling a time when he was probably dressed in corduroy. A real shame I didn’t see the outcome, especially as I missed our 4 wicket win over Benwell Hill the next day as I was back in Scotland for Glasgow Perthshire 1 Pollok 2 and a literary evening in Falkirk, but important to be there. If I’d not bothered, Di Brown would have been the sole Preston Avenue ultra in attendance.

On the way back from Falkirk on the Sunday, I entertained the thought of attending the Scotland v England 50 over contest at the Grange Ground in Edinburgh, because of the import of the occasion, but also to support Mark Watt in his endeavours, not to mention Kyle Coetzer of Benwell Hill and former South North man Callum MacLeod. Sadly, rather like the England v Australia game at the Riverside, the announcement of ticket sales had passed me by and all tickets had been sold. I’ll regret this forever; Mark took 3/47, Coetzer scored 79 and MacLeod was man of the match with 140 not out, as the NEPL beat England by 6 runs. Honestly, the pride I felt in seeing lads I’ve watched and drank with at local clubs making Sam Billings look very foolish, is almost impossible to put into words. The frustration felt by a wasted evening on the Wednesday when Kimblesworth never showed for a cup game with the 2nds was almost at the same level; at least they had the good grace to eventually concede the potentially rearranged fixture a few days later…

Saturday 16th June was a bit wet. I didn’t fancy the lottery of a trip to Stockton with the firsts, so I stayed local for the 2nds against Gateshead Fell. Shame really, I ought to have explored the chance of a double header at Brandon and Willington, to help me tick off the grounds I’ve yet to visit, but you couldn’t trust the weather, as had been forecast. Needless to say, the threatened monsoon season didn’t materialise in NE29 and the game reached a pleasing conclusion. Gateshead Fell made 167 and we won by 3 wickets after an on/off innings that ended in glorious evening sunshine.

 Friday 22nd June was 20/20 quarter finals evening and I decided to take a trip down to Ashbrooke for the first time since, I believe, 2004 for Sunderland’s clash with South North. Arriving early on a baking hot late afternoon, I killed time with a meandering stroll around the environs of the ground. The tiresome Tyneside prejudice about the supposed squalor that permeates Wearside couldn’t be further from the truth in leafy SR2. Admittedly, grinding poverty and social deprivation on an alarming scale can be discerned a mile to the south in Hendon, but the area around the cricket club is redolent of Jesmond before the students colonised the place, or Gosforth before traffic choked the streets. It’s almost like stepping back 40 years into verdant, genteel respectability. The ground, while considerably more difficult to effect entry to than in the past, is still huge and impressive. The new developments on one side don’t destroy the place and the Italian restaurant on the top floor of the pavilion looked to be doing good trade. While Durham were pitifully capitulating to Sussex, Sunderland made 98/8, with the usual competitive and impressive South North attack doing their best. In reply, Sunderland had a sniff of an upset with the visitors wobbling at 24/3, but reality intervened, and the current champions won by 7 wickets, courtesy of measured, lusty hitting and judicious running. Once the score reached about 70 from 12 overs, the home side took on that resigned look of imminent defeat; rather like the local football team, they’d been here before and knew what was around the corner. Nevertheless, a thoroughly enjoyable evening I have to say.

The last 2 Saturdays in June saw the contrasting sides to Tynemouth’s batting. On June 23rd Eppleton, who have proved to be tetchy opponents in the past, such as the nonsensical unpleasantness at last season’s Banks game at Church Road, were the visitors. In a simply unbelievable show of dominance of bat over ball, Ben Debnam and Nick Armstrong, centurions both, amassed 265/0 from 50 overs; the declaration giving us 60 overs to bowl them out. As could be anticipated in the face of such a huge total, Eppleton didn’t get near, ending on 134 all out, with Wesley Bedja getting 6 for 34. It was about as comprehensive a win as could be imagined and one of 7 victories for every club side that weekend, including a 20-run win for the 2nds in a Banks Bowl game against Hetton Lyons at home on the Sunday. However, fortunes fluctuate, as can be demonstrated by events a mere 7 days later when, having been inserted by Durham Academy on a cloudy morning with a green looking pitch, Tynemouth tumbled to a 9-wicket loss; after dismissing us for 131, the young opposition charted a rapid and untroubled course to victory.

Thus, at the halfway point of the season; Tynemouth firsts are fifth in the Premier Division, 56 points behind leaders South North and 79 ahead of bottom club Felling. The seconds, still unbeaten, are top with a 27-point lead over Benwell Hill. They’ve also a home 20/20 quarter final at home to Chester le Street and an away Banks Bowl semi-final against the same opposition to look forward to. The third team are second in the table to Cramlington 2nds in Northumberland and Tyneside Division 6 South. A reasonably encouraging set of statistics at this time of the season, though disappointing that the firsts have no cup interest remaining. Next week is a trip to second placed Whitburn; a picture postcard perfect ground.

Now you’ll recall I mentioned the half dozen games I’ve appeared in for the Bad Boys; well, here’s what has gone down. During these games, resulting in 4 victories and 2 defeats, I’ve only needed to bat once. After dismissing the 9 men of Bates Cottages for 87, having had them 12/5, we were 30/0 in reply and cruising. Then suddenly we were 77/8 and I had to go in. I faced 3 balls, allegedly scoring a single down leg side from the first, though despite what it says in the book, I don’t think I got a touch, before nervously playing the second about 5 yards on the offside and finally getting a ridiculously top edge from a hideous swipe across the line that gave an easy caught and bowled to the lad who’d belted my 2 overs for 28 in their innings. In my defence, I was bowling against the wind and the conditions kept dragging the ball wide of leg stump for their lad to clout away. Excuses mean nothing; we totalled 84 and lost by 3 runs. I got so bladdered that night; I fell asleep on the sofa and woke up with my lenses in at 3.00am.  It’s tough at the bottom…

With an immensely important pair of fixtures to come in the next week, at home to North East Tamils in the Midweek Plate and away to Mitford in the League, I can safely say, regardless of the outcome, playing for the Bad Boys has made the last couple of months some of the happiest of my life. Seriously. I may not have the confidence to bat as yet, but I’m loving the chance to bowl again. First up, in the home game against Mitford that we won by 80 runs, I got the last over when it was clear we were safe. Alright so my first ball in 28 years was loose, wide and clouted away for 4, but I only conceded 4 singles after that and almost had their bloke, when the ball ran along the deck and he was forced to jab his bat down to keep it out. It was a start and I finally stopped feeling a fraud. Just a shame I couldn’t build on that, as we conceded the next game away to Mitford because we couldn’t raise a team, then I wasn’t called on to bowl as we lost to league leaders Sparta by 22 runs on May 24th, before the trip to Beamish and East Stanley to play High Stables was postponed for some arcane reason I haven’t yet divined. 

You’ve got to keep the momentum going though and in a Plate game against Park House that we won by 80 runs, I took a wicket. In fact I took 1-0-1-1, with a single from my first ball and some excellent help by the lads in the field to keep things tight. And then, the last ball of the over… I could lie and say it was my googly that did him, but I think he just got pissed off at this portly, ageing, rubicund Rastafarian bowling at 2 miles per hour to him and tried to hit me over the Linskill Centre. He missed and the keeper whipped the bails off.

Sean Longstaff will have many stellar moments in his football career, but I’m sure he’ll treasure the time he kept wicket to me. Indeed, Dave Hull Denholm will obviously remember those occasions he played to sold-out City Hall crowds at Lindisfarne Christmas gigs, but he also stood behind the timbers, watching in anguish as two successive catches from my bowling went to ground as Park House were defeated for the third time this season. The latter drop was on captain Matty’s watch. He’d done the same the week before when we thumped Whitley Bay; at least then there was the mitigating factor of the torrential downpour we insisted on ignoring to complete a win by 90 runs.

So, it’s 1 run and 1 wicket for 54 so far; I’ve a bit of catching up on Sean (102*, 101* and 53*) to do. However, and this is the serious bit, the enjoyment I’m getting from this is almost incalculable; unlike the unforgiving blame culture of football teams, even in the Over 40s, cricket provides a civilised and supportive environment. If you make a mistake, people don’t start haranguing you. It’s just an enormous amount of fun and the only regret I have is the wasted 30 years when I didn’t play. Never mind; at least I’m doing so now. With 7 league games to go, we’re in third place, but that’s of secondary importance to the joy gained from taking part.

As I approach 54, cricket enables me to believe that this summer will be endless.

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

I Can't Hear the Grass Grow

This week I saw a tweet from Percy Main amateurs, bemoaning the dry weather we've had in June, as their pitch is parched. Rather ironic considering how late the season ended, on account of the endless wet weather in the winter. I do feel there is a solution though, which is contained in the following article from issue #26 of Stand, which came out this week and that you really ought to buy -:

These days, I’m probably as much as a fan of grassroots cricket as I am of football. Aged almost 54, time has caught up with me and I’m no longer able to play eleven a side football, but cricket still offers a chance of team sport for all but the most decrepit, so I’m turning my arm over again in the Thursday Evening Midweek League; a dozen overs a side and a similar number of pints post-match. As regards the First Class game, I take a strong interest in test cricket, but eschew such fripperies as the IPL, Big Bash and the ECB’s suggested 100 ball fiasco. When it comes to counties, my support is firmly behind Northumberland in the Minor Counties East Division, but my real cricketing passion is for my local club Tynemouth, who play in the North East Premier League. On Saturday May 19th, we were away to Felling; it’s a contest I normally relish as I was brought up in Felling and, despite moving away in 1983, still harbour a degree of affection for the team from High Heworth Lane. Sadly, I couldn’t make the clash that Tynemouth won by 101 runs, as I had both a wedding and a cup final to attend…

Before accusations of bourgeois conformism are thrown at me, I’ll just point out that I was one of a grand total of 4 guests at Grahame and Tracy’s fairly secret nuptials that surmounted a modest 17-year courtship and cohabitation, at North Shields registry office. From there, I left the happy couple to bask in the sunshine of their love and biked along the north bank of the Tyne on a glorious summer late morning until I reached Sam Smith’s Park in Walkergate, home of my beloved Newcastle Benfield FC of the Northern League Division 1. I’ve followed Benfield since we reached the Northern League in 2003 and edited the programme for the past 5 seasons, but the reason I was heading for the ground wasn’t to see my team in action. It was because we were hosting the Tyneside Amateur League Challenge Shield final between the clubs from the former Northumbrian pit villages of Ellington and Stobswood. In addition to my Benfield duties, I am also the volunteer, unpaid Chair of the Tyneside Amateur League (a competition that stands a mere 11 successive promotions away from the Football League); therefore, using Sam Smith’s Park to host the season ending TAL cup finals is a symbiotic no-brainer.

For those of you without a secure working knowledge of the non-league pyramid, Benfield are at step 5, which is 4 levels below the National League, or the Conference as I still call it. Other teams in our division include Whitley Bay, Bishop Auckland, Penrith (of whom more later) and Stockton Town. The latter outfit finished one place above us in 2017/2018; 6th to our 7th, on account of more goals scored (91 trumps 90), but their real achievement in this campaign just ending was to reach the FA Vase final, where they were to lose 1-0 to Thatcham Town at Wembley the day after, Sunday 20th. It was a great accolade just to get that far; Benfield went out of the Vase in the last 16 in a replay away to Coleshill Town, on penalties, after conceding an equaliser 7 minutes into stoppage time. Frankly, I’ve not recovered emotionally from that disappointment yet, nor the fact we also went out of 2 other cup competitions at the semi-final stage and the FA Cup a mere two ties away from the first round proper. During 2017/2018, Newcastle Benfield played a total of 61 games; 42 in the league and 19 in 4 separate cup competitions. Our centre forward Paul Brayson, formerly of Newcastle United, Swansea, Reading, Cheltenham, Northwich, Gateshead and Blyth, turned 40 last September and played in 59 of them. He’s been with us 6 seasons now and has grabbed a minimum of 40 goals in each year. He scored 49 this year, the best of which was an instinctive lob from 30 yards out, almost on the touchline, at Whitley Bay in a 2-0 win in the Preliminary Round of the FA Cup on September 2nd. It was a goal so good that the FA selected Brassy as one of the 137 players who’d scored in this season’s cup to have their names etched on the ball used at Wembley in the 137th cup final.

A nice gesture, but we’d rather have some money if you don’t mind. Considering we exist on crowds of 100, paying an average of £5 a head admission, the tasks of plugging the shortfall by attracting willing local sponsors, who are being similarly targeted by our geographical rivals and their begging bowls, not to mention attracting new fans is of paramount importance. Additionally, finding committee members ready to give up their free time is also a struggle. It gets harder to balance the books and move the club forward each year, despite the magnificent progress manager Mark Convery and his evolving squad of talented players who are skilled exponents of the brand of attacking football played on the floor he has brought to Benfield, with the dominance of the professional game and a certain club down the road attracting 52,000 every home game, seemingly regardless of Mike Ashley’s continued presence. Therefore, winning 4 games in the FA Cup and a similar number in the FA Vase was a godsend, in terms of the prize money garnered for such progression. However, every penny counts, and the money made from renting the ground out for cup finals, especially on boiling summer afternoons when thirsty supporters almost drank the bar dry, is essential because, let’s face it, the FA aren’t going to bail out struggling non-league outfits any time soon. Hence the Stobswood v Ellington final was played on the hallowed turf of Sam Smith’s Park.

As someone who has been involved in grassroots football for quarter of a century now, I always find it amusing when someone alludes to the FA's masterplan for the game. While initiatives like the Respect campaign attract publicity and schemes such as the bureaucratically exhausting Charter Standard gain funding, most of the direct interventions made by the FA at our level are financially burdensome and of questionable provenance. After years of speculation, the FA has now introduced compulsory promotion from this season on; hence Northern League champions Marske United and runners-up Morpeth Town will play in the new Northern Premier League Division 1 East next season. For Morpeth, this will involve an extra 5,000 miles of travel per annum. They’ve got to find that cash themselves. The FA, in attempting to implement a one-size-fits-all pyramid structure of leagues on a 1 – 2 – 4 – 8 - 16 basis, where the 1 is the National League and one of the 16 is Northern League Division 1, are looking to impose lateral movement to iron out geographical anomalies. At Northern League level, this means Cumbrian side Penrith may be forced against their will to move to the North West Counties League and Yorkshire outfit Northallerton Town could be transferred to the Northern Counties East at some point in the future.

Ground grading is similarly a joke; the onerous burden of providing covered seating for 200 and hard standing for 1,000 when clubs attract barely 10% of that creates unnecessary expenditure that would be far better spent on things the clubs actually need. Of prime importance would be a decent playing surface. Clubs at steps 5 and 6, as in the Northern Leagues Division 1 and 2, have their own grounds and must maintain them to an acceptable standard. In the Northern League, only 3 teams have 4G pitches; Stockton Town, Consett and West Allotment Celtic. While any heavy fall of snow put paid to games on artificial surfaces, they at least stood up to the incessant rain that made this season one of the wettest ever. Even allowing for the hideous backlog of games, the FA refused to sanction step 5 leagues playing beyond May 7th Bank Holiday. To put this in context, at Benfield we were rained off every Saturday in March, resulting in us playing our final 15 games in 30 days, with the last 3 weeks of the season involving games every Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. It was insane. The players were shattered. The spectators unable or unwilling to afford so many fixtures. The pitch was rutted, and committee members worn out.

 At lower levels, it is even worse; the Northern Alliance acts as the bridge between the Northern League and the Tyneside Amateur. As teams in that league don’t have floodlights, midweek games are impossible from early September until mid-April. Consequently, the final game in that 3-division league will see Killingworth Town face New Fordley on Wednesday May 30th. Ideal for groundhoppers, but an utter farce for everyone else. The vast majority of clubs in the Northern Alliance and Tyneside Amateur are teams who hire pitches from the local council or at high schools. Unless they’ve managed to find one with a 4G surface as standard, most clubs have either had to fork out the extra cash to book a synthetic surface or remain inactive for months until decent weather returned, then have half their season concertinaed into a few crazy weeks. Unsurprisingly, many teams are calling it a day, as the endless struggle for players, volunteers and cash is a thankless task. In the Tyneside Amateur, we’ve lost 4 clubs with only 2 newcomers to replace them. Even the Northern League saw Jarrow Roofing, FA Vase semi-finalists as recently as 2005, tender their resignation.

How do we stop this seemingly inevitable erosion of the grassroots game? Money and pitches is the short answer. The fact that every secondary school in the country does not have 2 full-size floodlit 4G pitches is an absolute disgrace. Such facilities would provide a decent surface and the chance for all levels of the game, from youth sides to veterans and clubs at Tyneside Amateur and Northern Alliance level, across the whole country, to play at a regular, timetabled slot. This could be from Friday evening through to Sunday afternoon, with midweek slots for training, not to mention providing the perfect surface for school PE lessons; whatever the age, level, ability or whatever, the game would be on. I realise the FA are starting to plan for game hubs in certain cities, one of which is Newcastle, with several synthetic pitches available in one area. Great idea, but possibly too little and too late.

For clubs from Benfield’s level upwards, who may not wish to abandon a traditional grass surface, grants for 4G pitches or regular input and expertise from professional, full-time ground maintenance and preparation experts would go a long way to reducing fixture pile-ups. Drainage, new turf, covers and so on cost a pretty penny, so remain beyond the pocket of most amateur clubs. However, there is one huge white elephant in the room that might come in handy. If the proposed sale of Wembley goes ahead, wouldn’t it make sense that, instead of funding Dele Alli’s 27th Ferrari, the money could be used for the greater good and spread out among the grassroots game. All we want is a level playing field; the sale of Wembley could give every player that. Equally important, from my point of view, we could get the football season over and done with by early May, so I can concentrate on cricket.

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Summer of 74

Never mind the current tournament that's currently unfolding in Russia, here's my memories of a 9 year old watching his first World Cup from West Germany 1974, as included in issue #8 of the newly published Hopeless Football Romantic -:

When I was a kid in the early 1970s, you could count on the fingers of one hand the number of televised games shown live each year. There was the FA Cup final, on both BBC and ITV, the European Cup final on ITV and the England against Scotland home international, which generally marked the end of the domestic season in the middle of May, on Grandstand. Edited highlights of lesser competitions, such as the Cup Winners’ Cup final and the UEFA Cup would be shown on Sportsnight with Coleman, while the League Cup final, played on a Saturday afternoon at the same time as a normal league programme, wouldn’t be seen until The Big Match on the Sunday. As regards international tournaments, I’m not sure what the deal was, as I’m too young to remember the 1970 World Cup and the 1972 European Championships fell off the BBC’s radar after England lost 3-1 at home to West Germany in the quarter final first leg; it had a very different structure in those days.

However, the 1974 World Cup was televised in its entirety and, as a football obsessed 9-year-old, I think I watched at least part of every game. In preparation, I’d also been able to see the emerging talents of Poland, who would finish third, in a couple of their qualifying games. On June 6th, 1973, 53 weeks before the finals began with a stultifying 0-0 between Brazil and Yugoslavia, England’s attempts to book their passage began to go awry with a 2-0 loss in Katowice. BBC1 proudly announced they’d secured the rights to show the game live and in its entirety; consequently, a supine capitulation, aided by the dismissal of Alan Ball, shone out across the nation on a Wednesday tea time. Even worse, the return fixture at Wembley in October of that year, when Jan Tomaszewski made a fool of Brian Clough and his dismissive analysis that the Polish keeper was “a clown,” while Peter Shilton allowed the only shot the Poles had to slip under his body, was not only live on ITV, but conclusive proof that Poland were going to West Germany and England were not. Alan Clarke’s equaliser from the penalty spot on the night was really no consolation. This failure was not just a national disgrace, it was the beginning of the end for Alf Ramsey, who was replaced temporarily by the avuncular Joe Mercer until the ominous figure of Don Revie, fresh from overseeing Leeds United kick their way to the title, assumed control. Meanwhile, the rest of the world had a tournament to watch.

Unlike the garish hues and robotic, synthesised, satellite garbled commentary of Mexico 1970 and the uneasy and unspoken combination of photogenic ticker tape displays and brutal, military repression that came to represent Argentina 1978, the 1974 tournament is strangely lacking in iconic images. Neither is it lauded in the annals of the game’s history, partly because the 97 goals scored marked the lowest average per game in any final series, but mainly because, the same as in 1954 when the magnificent Magyars lost the final, the wrong team won. It isn’t the case that rose-tinted spectacles and a warm glow of nostalgia refined over 44 long, passing years have affected my objectivity, the most compelling truth about the 1974 World Cup is that Holland were an amazing side to watch and that Johann Cruyff was the best player on the planet. To this day, I regret that the prosaic, pragmatic and predatory West Germans were able to squeeze the life out of Het Oranje with a game plan of resolute defending and high tempo harrying. Although I do recognise that Helmut Schön coached his side to win by fair means, not foul. The contrast between the clean as a whistle tackling by the likes of Vogts, Hoeness and Beckenbauer with the serial thigh-high assaults of the psychotic Uruguayans and Chileans could not have been more pronounced. Even Brazil, only 4 years on from their spectacular triumph in the Azteca, had embraced the concept of the studs-up lunge as their default defensive tactic.

The world was a very different place in 1974; football was a much smaller deal for a start. Only 16 nations competed in the tournament and 9 of those were European. Zaire were Africa’s sole representatives, while Asia had none at all. Haiti were the CONCACAF participants and Oceania sent Australia to complete the line-up. The 16 sides were split into 4 groups, with the top 2 going through from each to play in 2 subsequent second stage groups. This was the first time such an approach was used; it was maintained for Argentina 1978 but subsequently abandoned after the tournament was expanded to 24 teams. By total coincidence, the fixtures fell in such a way that the final second stage group games were actually semi-finals, between Holland and Brazil, and Poland and West Germany.

As regards popular attitudes to these far-off countries of which we knew little, South Americans, other than Brazil, were cynical, Eastern Europeans well-drilled and Mediterraneans excitable, but prone to diving. The Cold War and the end of Empire combined to produce a world view that was equal parts paranoia and paternalism, meaning every game was viewed through a prism of political opposition or diplomatic tolerance. Obviously, Scotland were supported by the two television networks and, or so it seemed, by everyone I knew. At Falla Park Junior School, black and white tartan scarves were all the rage among the lads, while the lasses were all Bay City Rollers fans, so it was a no-brainer to follow Willie Ormond’s side. This seemed a good decision when Peter Lorimer and Joe Jordan scored the opening goals of the tournament as Scotland beat Zaire 2-0 in the second game. I remember celebrating wildly in our living room; perhaps it was out of a sense of relief, as I’d been bored to stupefaction by the Brazil Yugoslavia game and gone outside to kick a ball around with Mickey Bell and Marky Hodgson who lived around the corner.

This hints at a basic problem for young kids back then; we simply weren’t used to concentrating on football for the full 90 minutes. I’d only seen about 5 live games in the flesh by this point; at least in a ground there are many other things than the action on the pitch to distract you. This wasn’t the case with a televised game and quite a few of them were really rather boring. During the opening phase, Group 1’s only stand out game was Jurgen Sparwasser’s finest moment, when his goal enabled the socialists from East Germany to beat their capitalist neighbours 1-0. I still recall the hysterical celebrations by the small band of approved travellers from the far end of Checkpoint Charlie going wild on the terraces when the winning goal went in. A truly seismic Saturday evening in Hamburg.

Group 2 was Scotland’s, where the heroic draws with Brazil and then Yugoslavia counted for nothing when Valdomiro’s innocuous shot squirmed beneath the Zaire substitute keeper; eliminated by 1 goal and with the record of being the tournament’s only unbeaten team, Scotland went home with their heads held high. This was not to be the case 4 years later, but we’ll not go into that just now. Group 3 was lit up by Holland’s excellence, while Uruguay were dirty and the Bulgarians and Swedes desperately dull. Group 4 was dominated by Poland, which made England’s elimination by them a more respectable failure than previously assumed. Argentina, notably represented by the arse-length hair of Ruben Ayala, squeezed out Italy to qualify, while Haiti lost all their games, including a 7-0 thumping by Poland.

In the second stage, Argentina and East Germany ran out of steam, as the brilliant Dutch waltzed through to the final with 3 successive victories. West Germany were similarly imperious in the other group; their 1-0 win over Poland to reach the final was really the icing on the cake as a draw would have done them.

So, just as England completed a 3-0 home series triumph over India by bowling them out for 216 to win by an innings at Edgbaston, the World Cup reached its climax. Over recent years it has become the custom for television not to show the third and fourth place play-off. I really wish they hadn’t shown this one as Poland, with Gregor Lato getting his 7th goal of the tournament, ground their way past Brazil in a truly terrible game. I remember turning over to Test Match Special on BBC2 where David Lloyd made 214 not out and skipper Mike Denness exactly 100 as England racked up 459/2.

The final was played on Sunday 7th July and it was the first time I’ve known frustration so huge and impotent, with defeat rendering me as bereft as the FA Cup final of two months previous. Everything began so well with Neeskens scoring a second minute penalty. For 20 minutes Germany were all over the place; Rep, Krol, Haan, Resenbrink, van Hanegem, Cruyff and the rest controlled the game. And then Holzenbein fell in the area; Breitner, the dashing, left-wing firebrand who could have passed for a Baader Meinhoff operative, slotted the equaliser, before that damned Gerd Muller made in 2-1 to the hosts on half time. The sight of the hapless, flat footed Jan Jongbloed helplessly watching the ball roll past him could be the iconic image of the 74 World Cup. The second period was worse; Holland were shot. They had no answers and Germany ought to have had 2 more goals, one was wrongly disallowed for offside and another penalty wasn’t given. Sadly, the fairy-tale had no happy ending. West Germany won, and Der Kaiser proudly held the trophy aloft.

I switched off the telly, picked up my Woolies size 5, then knocked for Mickey and Mark to play 3 pots and in on the grass at the far end of Brettanby Road.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Never Mind The Polloks....

The only footballing benefit provided by the terrible winter we endured, is the attendant fixture pile-up that offered opportunities to see games until the very last possible dates. In the North East, this meant that after whinging about Benfield’s utterly exhausting closing schedule, I was able to forget my principles and enjoy several more games in lower level leagues. Obviously, there were the two Tyneside Amateur Cup finals where, in preparation for stepping up to the Alliance, Stobswood Welfare won them both. They defeated fellow promoted side, TAL champions Ellington in the first, then Jesmond in the second. Meanwhile, in the Northern Alliance, I saw Killingworth YPC effortlessly take down Hazelrigg Victory, to win the First Division title. Rather a strange postscript to that game; Killingworth YPC have now merged with Killingworth Town, while Hazelrigg will be starting 2018/2019 under the relaunched Newcastle Blue Star name.

Also, in the Alliance, I saw games on adjoining pitches at the Barking Dog on a sunny Wednesday evening, where Wallsend Community defeated Red Row 3-0 in the middle division, while Spittal Rovers travelled down from Berwick and battled their way to a tenacious 2-2 draw with Willington Quay Saints in the basement. Great to see Keith Scoffham and Peter Osgood refereeing the respective games in their usual inimitable style. Spittal were involved in my final English game, winning 2-1 at Wideopen, which was a new ground for me in my 94th game of the season. However, I wanted more and that meant cross border raids.

Regular readers will be aware that nothing ends each football season more appropriately for me than a trip or two to the Scottish Juniors. Having first dipped my toe into this wonderful, parallel football universe in September 2006 with a visit to Benburb’s decrepit and subsequently demolished Tinto Park for the home side’s 5-1 thrashing of Royal Albert, I have returned on a further 15 occasions to sample the delights the Juniors have to offer. Since May 2009’s trip to Bathgate Thistle for a quite astonishing 6-2 demolition of Forfar West End, my adventures have been almost exclusively at the very end of the season. With typical cussed eccentricity, the UEFA imposed May 31st deadline for all winter leagues is dutifully ignored by the West, East and North Regions, who decree that the Junior AGM on the third Saturday in June is the deadline for when all fixtures must be completed.

Of course, in years that have had mild winters this has meant a desperate scurrying around to find appropriate fixtures that fulfil the sole criterion of taking me to a new ground, even though I’ve twice been to Bathgate’s Creamery Park and twice to Pollok’s Newlandsfield. Luckily, a combination of the Beast from the East and a bewildering plethora of cup competitions, in the West at least, made the compilation of 2018’s itinerary a reasonably easy task. However, this may not always be the case in future; firstly, the increasing incidence of 4G pitches in the Juniors, which is something to be applauded, will result in less games called off because of waterlogged pitches. Secondly, and of considerably more significance for the East Region, the decampment of 24 of the 60 clubs who have competed this season to the senior ranks in the East of Scotland League for 2018/2019, to follow in the wake of Kelty Hearts who left the Juniors last year and were crowned champions this May, really does threaten the strength and quality of the Junior game on that side of the country. While it is encouraging to see clubs wishing to better themselves by moving within the glacially evolving Scotch pyramid, the burden of trying to get many ramshackle Junior grounds up to minimum standards will be an onerous and costly one. The 36 remaining East Region clubs will be split into a Premier, North and South 3 division structure, which will at the lower level, though perhaps not in the top flight, address the geographical difficulties of having teams spread out from as far south as Dunbar United to as far north as Montrose Roselea. In the West, geographical isolation is not as great a problem, because of the proximity of so many teams, not to mention a better standard of transport and road infrastructure; a testament to the legacy of community inclusion and provision provided by successive Labour local authorities in the days before the Tartan Tories under Jeanette Mugabe discovered their hitherto dormant sense of social justice.

Meanwhile, the East of Scotland League will operate with 39 teams in 3 parallel, loosely geographical “Conferences,” named A, B and C, in 2018/2019, with the winners of each progressing to the Lowland League, no doubt following a tortuous and exhaustive set of play-offs that will require all league games to be over by the end of April; a time of the year when significant numbers of Junior sides still have half their league games to play ordinarily. In the West, which seems to me the real citadel of the Junior game, there is far more brand loyalty, with only Dunipace, geographically anomalous as they hail from Denny between Falkirk and Stirling, of the 64 clubs quitting for the EoS. There will be some tinkering with the structure of the current 5 divisions (Premier, First, Central 1, Central 2 and Ayrshire) for next season, but let’s get this campaign out of the way first.

And so to June 2018’s expeditions. The dying embers of the East Region offered 4 league games on June 2nd, none of which seemed to boast compelling locations, while the following Saturday saw only the East of Scotland Cup final at Linlithgow’s glorious Prestonfield, where Penicuik were to beat Tranent 2-0. Therefore, I decided to leave my East Region collection at 4 (Bathgate Thistle, Linlithgow Rose, Newtongrange Star and Thornton Hibs) and set my eyes on the beguiling pleasures of the West Region, intending to improve upon the total of 10 grounds I’d already ticked (Arthurlie, Beith, Benburb, Clydebank, Irvine Meadow XI, Kelloe Rovers, Maryhill, Petershill, Pollok and Shotts Bon Accord since you asked). Like so much else in Scotland, Junior football and the associated profane language, public intoxication and obsessive need to view life through the prism of late 17th century Irish politics, is so much more intense in the West than the East. Without wishing to denigrate the burghers of Ayrshire and Lanarkshire, there really is something curiously compelling about the sheer vitriol at the heart of everything they say or do and the one fixture that stood out above all others on the first Saturday of the month, did not disappoint.

Somewhat strangely there is a direct train that goes from Newcastle to Kilmarnock three times a day. Other than me in early June each year, I am unsure who would choose to journey beyond Carlisle, when travelling either from the north or east. The recondite pleasure of the route does have the effect of making the tickets competitively priced and so for £24, I booked a return to deepest, darkest Ayrshire; to the home of Auchinleck Talbot (“the Bot”), who had come back from 2-1 down in injury time in the Scottish Junior Cup Final the week before to defeat another Ayrshire side, Hurlford United. If the Bot could win their final game, away to despised local rivals from 3 miles down the road, Cumnock Juniors, marooned in lower mid-table with seemingly nothing to play for, the West Region Premier Division title would be theirs. Anything other than a victory would hand the title to Beith, who were strolling to a 6-0 home win over bottom placed Girvan as the drama unfolded in Cumnock.

The irony was, I got off the train in Auchinleck, where I was collected by the admirable Davey Stoker, because there’s no station in Cumnock, though there is one in New Cumnock, where Glenafton play. Got that? Great stuff. Like many of these former Ayrshire mining towns, there’s not a great deal to recommend Auchinleck in terms of architecture or culture, though it is positively bucolic, festooned as it is in black and amber bunting that represents the Bot’s colours, when compared to the austere, grey, Presbyterian uniformity of neighbouring Cumnock. Davey parked up in Cumnock ASDA and we took in the sights for 10 minutes, which basically consisted of repeated gable end graffiti that told us how was a Junkie, House Tanner, Thief and other such pleasantries. It was a relief to pass through the turnstile of the well-appointed Townhead Park, where a crowd significantly in excess of 1,000 had gathered, including my friends Jonathan Hope and Euan Ramsey down from Glasgow. Because of the numbers attending, the enmity between the teams and the importance of the game, a kind of loose segregation policy was in place, with both sets of fans allocated an entrance and two sides of the ground each. Of course, the toilets and snack bar had no such regulation and the two tribes mingled with little visible or audible confrontation, though it’s always hard to be sure of this as even babes in arms in Ayrshire sound like Mick McGahey in a particularly belligerent mood.

The game, played on a 4G pitch at a relentless pace, was of an excellent standard; certainly, it was the equal of a top-end Northern League Division 1 game. Cumnock started quickly and were denied an early penalty after what seemed a clear trip in the box. Following that scare, Auchinleck took a deserved 2-0 lead, courtesy of two close-range, flicked headers from fast, accurate crosses either side of the break; though there was a suggestion the Nock keeper could have attempted to claim the ball on both occasions. However, despite Beith’s efforts, it seemed as if the title was heading to Auchinleck, until Cumnock woke up and turned the whole game on its head with a quickfire brace of goals just past the hour mark. Firstly, a goalmouth scramble saw the loose ball turned in, before an accurate long pass left the Nock left-winger in acres of space at the edge of the box. With no little bravery, he drew the keeper, held his nerve and slotted home. Pandemonium. This was the cue for 25 minutes of full-blooded, end to end jousting, with numerous chances squandered by both teams. After 5 minutes of injury time, partly as a result of an injudicious knee-high tackle by a frustrated Bot player that resulted in an inevitable red card, the game end level, meaning that Beith were champions. Cumnock’s players appeared to have won the Champions’ League themselves, such was the provocative cavorting they engaged in for the benefit of disappointed Auchinleck fans.

As we queued to leave, the two sets of players became involved in skirmishes on the curiously designed bridge, which looked like something from a willow pattern plate, that takes players from pitch level up to the changing rooms. Meanwhile home fans shook fists, waved V signs and issued innumerable volleys of profane abuse in the direction of their neighbours from down the road. After a significant wait to get out of the ASDA car park, we made it back to the functional Station Bar in Auchinleck, for a quick drink in the company of oblivious locals, before I took my train and headed away, frantically refreshing the forthcoming fixtures section of the SJWRFA website as the train headed for Tyneside.

On Saturday 9th June, I had accepted the offer to read one of my pieces of short fiction at the launch event for Razur Cuts magazine in Falkirk. Initially, I had hoped that local side Camelon would have a game, but as pointed out, the East Region had only a cup final at already visited Linlithgow on offer. Even Stenhousemuir Cricket Club were away. Thankfully the wonderful Mr Stoker came again to my aid, by offering to collect me in Bathgate, drive to a game, and then drop me off in Falkirk for the evening do. This widened the possibilities available for potential visits. Games at Irvine Meadow (the Ayrshire Cup final between Largs Thistle and Kilwinning Rangers) and Yoker (who share with Clydebank) against Wishaw were discounted for the reason I’d already been there. Initially, having surveyed the abbreviated fixture list, I expressed a preference for the Central First Division contest between already relegated Thorniewood United and Shotts Bon Accord. Having sampled Ayrshire football the week before, I thought Lanarkshire deserved a chance to impress me with its take on profanity and belligerence. Davey wasn’t keen, pointing out that such was the irrelevance of the game, the crowd would be minimal and the standard abysmal. I took his word for it.

The game Davey suggested was Cambuslang Rangers against Hurlford United in the West of Scotland Cup quarter final. I was prepared to bow to his superior knowledge, until circumstance threw us a curve ball. On June 2nd, the Central League Cup quarter final between Rutherglen Glencairn and Pollok had been postponed because of a “police incident;” a drug related murder in the early hours of Saturday morning. The winners of the replayed game, Pollok by 3-0, were scheduled to play Glasgow Perthshire in the Central League Cup semi final on Saturday 9th. I’d seen Glasgow Perthshire once before; losing the 2013 West of Scotland Cup final at Pollok to Glenafton Athletic. Their support had been incredibly drunken, foul-mouthed and seemingly stoned that day, judging by the fug of skunk that hung low in the enclosure at Newlandsfield. I knew they played in Possilpark, the most dangerous and poverty-stricken suburb of Glasgow, and so I beseeched Davey into going there. As Jonathan, Euan and other pals including Mickey Hydes were intent on heading for this game at Keppoch Park, how could he refuse an afternoon amid the social deprivation, substance abuse and ingrained sectarianism of North Glasgow? Byres Road it ain’t.

The train up was a bit of an eye opener; packed to the gills with tattooed, middle aged, alpha male rock chicks, en route to the Rolling Stones at Murrayfield. They filled the journey by alternately swearing, vaping and glugging down gallons of Strongbow Dark Fruits. I kept my mouth shut and head down. The Waverley to Bathgate leg was utterly uneventful; soon Davey had collected me, and we were heading way out West, seeing the sights on the way. Depending on which way you’re travelling, Harthill Royal FC are the first or last team in the East. Standing almost on the Lanarkshire border, this is a village that definitely remembers 1690. We drove past but didn’t visit Gibbshill Park. Indeed, we didn’t stop until Glasgow, where we did a bit sightseeing at the old site of Petershill FC. In seems astonishing to think I was at the opening of their new ground 11 years ago now. From Petershill, we took in St Roch’s; there’s not much to see from outside but I really fancy seeing a game at Jimmy McGrory Park, preferably when Larkhall Thistle are the visitors, for cultural reasons of course. Finally, we saw Ashfield’s ground, which seems to have been colonised entirely by the Glasgow Tigers speedway team. Frankly, I can’t think of a more tedious sport than motorbikes chugging round a cinder track, while educationally subnormal lorry drivers cheer then on.

Ashfield’s ground actually borders Glasgow Perthshire’s Keppoch Park, but the confusing one-way system and endless series of blocked roads in the vicinity meant it took us another 15 minutes to get parked up between the Masonic Social Club and Needle Exchange Centre in the sociologist’s paradise of G22. After the intensity of Saracen Street and its environs, the spartan Keppoch Park was almost a tranquil oasis in comparison; well, until kick off it was any road. A sizeable crowd, including the venerable, petit bourgeois Pollok following of well-heeled gentlemen attired as if for golf of games of bowls, was swelled by many English and one Kiwi (hello Katie!) groundhopper, meaning the home side should have made a few quid at least. Of course, there were no badges, programmes or any other memorabilia available; unlike Maryhill, where I’d seen a club clock for sale.

I’d expected Pollok to stroll this about 4-0 and it seemed likely to go that way when Stefan McCluskey popped in the loose ball after home keeper Chris Calder had saved from Adam Forde in the third minute. However, Perthshire were made of sterner stuff and within 90 seconds, Baboucarr Musa equalised with a precise lob. It was a feisty and enjoyable first half where I found myself willing the home side on, partly because they boasted the best two players on the pitch; the aforementioned Baboucarr Musa and manbun-sporting Lee McLelland, who’d gained fame by calling Davey a “fat pudding” on Twitter a few weeks previously and partly because it almost seemed to be a clash of the social classes, with the underprivileged facing down the elite. Sadly, all of Perthshire’s endeavours were undone when, early in the second half after Pollok’s Nicky Little had grabbed who would be the winner with a smart turn and finish, both McLelland, for two fouls, and Musa, for foul and abusive language, were sent off. Perthshire tried, but with a two-man disadvantage, that was the end of their chances and Pollok really could have scored more. Their progress to a Central League Cup final against Cumbernauld United was relatively untroubled in the end. On reflection, I found the game exciting, but of a much lower standard, possibly akin to the Northern Alliance Premier Division, than the Ayrshire Civil War the week previous.

So, the full-time whistle brought down the curtain on my 2017/2018 season; 96 games at 50 different grounds, including 4 new Scottish visits. I’d enjoyed myself tremendously as ever, but it was time to read fiction and drink deeply in Falkirk. I had a brilliant night to match the two brilliant afternoons I’d spent with the Bot and Nock in Cumnock, then the Lok and Shire in Possilpark. My love for Scotland and Junior football remains undimmed; I’ll be in those parts again next season, of that there can be no doubt.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

The Devlin You Know

Despite the Scottish Juniors season sill being on-going and the World Cup on the horizon, many clubs are getting ready for 2018/2019. My beloved Newcastle Benfield have already made a few signings. Here's a piece from Stoke City's Duck fanzine about a young striker, Jack Devlin, who has spent time both in the Potteries and at Sam Smith's Park -:

Saturday 5th May 2018. Half an hour after Stoke City’s relegation had been confirmed, another burning issue in English football’s pyramid system was being decided 170 miles to the north east and 10 divisions below the Premier League. My club, Newcastle Benfield, two days after we’d lost a league cup semi-final on penalties, were playing our 14th Northern League Division 1 game in 26 days at the end of a rain-ravaged season that had promised much, but ultimately left us empty handed. With an injury decimated, exhausted and disappointed squad of only 13 players, we had been cast in the role of dutiful handmaidens, required to dance barefoot at the coronation of already promoted champions elect Marske United. They duly garnered the point needed for the title and the vast majority of the 388 crowd burst onto the pitch at full time, just before 5pm, to carry their heroes shoulder high around the charmingly ramshackle Mount Pleasant ground, but at least we hadn’t lain down and died. The game ended 0-0 and we’d came within 6 inches of denying them the title with a late shot from our number 9, who’d run his blood to water all game, which had scraped the outside of the post with home keeper Rob Dean a stranded onlooker.

So what? Well, the name of our number 9 is Jack Devlin and he’s back at Benfield after a year at Stoke City, via a brief period with the upwardly mobile South Shields FC for whom he made 5 substitute appearances, without scoring. He may not have made the grade with Stoke, but the improvement in his touch, awareness and overall fitness is remarkable. He was a very good player at this level before, but now he’s an exceptional one.

Jack arrived at our home of Sam Smith’s Park (nothing to do with the Tadcaster brewery; this Sam Smith was the chief executive of Rington’s Tea Importers) in November 2016, having previously played for Easington Colliery Welfare and then North Shields in the Northern League, following his release from Sunderland’s academy. I’d first become aware of him when he scored an outrageous lob from 40 yards out, almost on the touchline, when North Shields battered us at our place 4-1 in April of that year. It became clear from talking to Shields fans that Jack was desperate to get back into the professional game; in that sense, he was very much the individual rather than a team player. Blessed with lightning speed and instinctive finishing, he was a marvel at this level and he knew it. When Shields left him on the bench for a couple of games, he decided to leave; passing scouts don’t recommend those left out of the starting XI.

Jack’s first stint at Benfield comprised 7 games and a solitary goal; the winner in a 4-1 triumph over Marske United on his second appearance. He provided explosive pace and the ability to forge chances from nowhere, much to the gratitude of our 40-year-old centre forward, ex Newcastle, Reading and Cardiff striker Paul Brayson, who has hit 40 goals in every one of his 6 seasons with us.  In mid-January 2017, Jack missed a midweek league cup tie at Ashington. Basking in the joy of a 3-2 win, I’d assumed he was cup tied from his North Shields days. Not true; he was eligible but had understandably cried off, having accepted the chance of a week’s trial with Stoke. He was back on the Saturday for a league game, also against Ashington, but didn’t feature in the 5-2 win as the trial had been successful and he’d been offered an 18-month deal. You don’t risk that opportunity by allowing a 17 stone centre half to tattoo your calves for 90 minutes.  As Jack hadn’t been on a contract with us, we received nothing for his services, but he left Benfield with our very best wishes and the whole club was elated when Jack marked his debut for Stoke reserves in a Staffordshire Senior Cup tie, by grabbing the winner against Rushall Olympic, signalling the start of a stellar career as a Premier League striker. Then again, perhaps it didn’t.

Jack is from south of Sunderland, so he didn’t have any real connection with Benfield, other than playing alongside some of his contemporaries from the Black Cats’ academy, such as Dylan McEvoy and James Martin, who are similarly trying to rebuild their careers with us. This is partly because of help from an agency for recently released trainees, Catalyst 4 Soccer; run by Neil Saxton, the son of Bobby, the former Newcastle and Sunderland assistant manager. It also helps that Sax was once our manager I suppose. Everything we’d heard about Jack’s progress was positive, though admittedly it came second hand. Thus, it was a complete shock that one of the casualties following the sacking of Mark Hughes was Jack. His contract was terminated by mutual consent; 5 months early, at the end of January 2018 and he swiftly joined South Shields on a non-contract basis. As South Shields are currently celebrating their third successive promotion to the Evostik Premier Division, with crowds bolstered by disaffected Sunderland fans and regularly exceeding 2,000, it seemed a good place for Jack to rebuild and try again. After all, he only turned 20 in April 2018.

For some reason, it didn’t work out at Mariners Park and Jack returned to Benfield, coming on as a surprise substitute in a thumping 4-0 away win at Seaham Red Star on a freezing Tuesday night in early March.  He marked his return with a superb finish to round off the scoring. Darting from the arc of the penalty area, he came near post and hammered home with his left foot, having shown a speed of thought far in excess of anything defenders at this level are used to.  In total, he appeared in 16 of the final 18 games of the season for us, including 2 substitute appearances in his first two games, and scored 9 goals. The highlights included a glorious hat trick in a 5-1 demolition of Bishop Auckland, with the third being the kind of sublime chip from the edge of the area that only the truly gifted can score at any level, as well as an unerring finish in the last minute to give us a 2-1 win over Dunston UTS. The twin aspects of flair and composure needed for those two goals are what sets Jack above the mundane level of the goal poacher or domineering aerial pugilist, seen so often in non-league.

As I said, Jack missed 2 games for us; we lost them both to FA Vase finalists Stockton Town and then away to Shildon on Tuesday and Thursday of the penultimate week of the season. He had a pretty good absence note, as he was playing in a reserve game and then training with Hartlepool United. On his return, he seemed pessimistic about his chances; not that he’d played badly, but the budgetary realities of a side who narrowly avoided going bust during their first season in the Conference mean there’s not a great deal of cash to throw around, especially to a raw 20-year-old who has been let go by a pair of professional clubs in the past. Of course, I’d love to see Jack back in the blue and white hoops of Benfield next season as we try to build on a sixth-place finish in the league, two cup semi-final exits and a last 16 spot in the FA Vase. However, as a football fan, I know he could and almost certainly will find a home at a more exalted level than Northern League Division 1. It’s just a shame Stoke City never saw the best of him and a symbiotic relationship wasn’t established to help him realise his full potential.