Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Ground 287: Stade de la Licorne, Amiens SC

"I'm planning some international groundhopping," James had mentioned back in mid-November.  "Only €5 to stand at Amiens and their ground looks brilliant."  Artfully lit and seen from the side of a road, the Stade de la Licorne - opened in 1999 and packed to its see-through rafters for a Coupe de France semi with PSG nine years later - looked more botanical garden glasshouse than football ground. "Everything has been designed for the optimal use of players and spectators," the club's website gushed.  "Looks a bit bizarre," thought James.  Closer up, the rust patches and discoloured glass stood out as baldly as our atrocious Gallic accents.  "They're taking it all out soon," James reckoned. "Too expensive to maintain." 


Much like the outside of their stadium, Amiens were a club in palpable decline.  The last trophy they'd picked up was the 1978 Championnat National, the third-tier league they dropped back in to at the end of 2011-12.  After three seasons' failing to keep pace with the promotion pack, the Picardy team were once again treading water, a trio of recent losses leaving them drifting back from leaders Strasbourg, the side who'd also edged them out on penalties in the 2001 final of the Coupe de France. "There'll probably be a decent crowd with it being a derby," I'd optimististically proffered while my head was flopping towards my chest on the afternoon train from Lille, but just an hour before kick off the city centre was fast closing up and the first bar we came to was deserted except for the owner.  "What are you doing here?" he asked after I'd finished stumbling through some rudimentary French. "We came from England this morning.  My friend's wanted to see an Amiens match for a long time."  "Okaaay," he replied, clearly implying he thought we were anything but. "He managed them in a computer game," I tried, but he'd already put our drinks down and was scurrying away to a table in the corner of the bar.


It wasn't until we reached the stadium car park that we found our first groups of fans. "I think everyone else has driven here," said James while I tried to work out what the ticket prices were.  There was a burst of French from over my shoulder.  "Non, merci," I replied.  "Gratis," the bloke said, holding up two tickets. "Eh, oui.  Merci." Inside, it was all open seating and non-alcoholic booze.  "There are two chocolate Santas in that fridge," James pointed out, while we counted up the 21 supporters who'd travelled from Dunkerque.  Their songs were all in diphthongs:  "Ah way ah woah," they chanted, twirling their tops around their heads.  The small turn-out of Amiens ultras was fronted by a panda bear, two blokes in puffa jackets and a third who drummed out the theme to 2001: A Space Odyssey as the teams raced onto the pitch.  "Ah way ah woah," went the Dunkerque end.  "Ah way ah woah."


After a few minutes of half-pressure from the home team, Dunkerque snatched the lead with their very first attack, a corner kick bouncing like a skimming stone before Birmingham's Edwin Pindi thwacked it over the line.   As half the crowd seemed to be more engrossed in scoffing baby-sized baguettes packed to the brim with chips, we decided to beat the rush by joining the queue five minutes before the break. Twenty minutes later, the players had come back out and we were still at least a dozen customers away from the front. "Let's ditch it and get something later," I suggested. "I'm starving," said James.  We raced up the stairs, hearing the first shout on the bottom step, a roar in the middle and an outburst of joy the moment we got a view of the pitch, Aboubakar Kamara knocking in the equaliser after the Dunkerque keeper had made two quick saves.  Despite a late burst of pressure and the unexpected appearance of a man in a rabbit costume, that was as good as Amiens got.


At midnight the restaurants were all shuttered and we were among a street of bars by the gargantuan cathedral, downing 8.5% beers while a group of women strutted their stuff to Chaka Khan.  "A bit different to back home," said James, as we polished off the last free pieces of dry French bread. 

Admission:  Free (usually €8)
Date:  Friday January 29th 2016

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Ground 286: Fairfax Plant Hire Stadium, Selby Town

"I look back on Wembley with a mixture of pride and sadness," Selby's best known player told the Independent 13 years after the event.   Steve Sherwood turned out in "a few games" for Selby BRSC, spent half a decade as third choice keeper at Stamford Bridge and was loaned to Millwall, Brentford and the NASL before switching to a "badly struggling" Watford side in 1976.  Promoted three times in the next six years, by 1983 the Hornets were second only to Liverpool in the Football League; the following year they lost out to Everton in the final of the FA Cup, Andy Gray opportunistically heading a crucial second goal from out of the Yorkshireman's grasp.  "One poor decision killed the game," he remembered.  "There was still a long way to go but it died a death after that."


The club where Sherwood got his break suffered its own demise in 2013, the first and reserve team managers resigning, committee members stepping down and players drifting off elsewhere.  "We were so close to our 50th anniversary. It's a massive shame," chairman, secretary and ex-player Steve O'Mahoney lamented in the York Press. "A sad loss to local football," agreed Selby Town, who, with BRSC gone and Selby Olympia in the 14th-tier York Minster League Division Three, survive as the ex-coal mining town's senior team.


Formed in 1919, the Robins won five Yorkshire League championships either side of the Second World War, four times made the proper rounds of the FA Cup and flogged striker Ken Green to Grimsby for enough money to build a new home ground at Flaxley Road before joining the Northern Counties East League as founder members in 1982.  Relegated from the top division in 2012 after going through three managers and winning the same number of league games, the team have since been stuck to the middle reaches of the NCEL's second-tier.  "We're learning game by game," said manager Dave Ricardo, who was one of 14 different goalkeepers the club fielded last year. "I've played there about ten times before to help out friends," he reckoned.  "Sometimes when you're a manager at this level you have to do things you don't really want to do."


Ricardo's new-look side won 4-0 at Winterton on the season's opening day, scored 12 against Askern in the Vase and set an NCEL record when putting 14 goals past Lincoln Moorlands Railway, who arrived with no manager, eight players and another three who claimed they were stuck in traffic on the way to the ground.  Left waterlogged and without a competitive game for more than a month until the midweek win over Rossington Main, they'd dropped to 12th in the table, one place and 15 goals ahead of Derbyshire's Dronfield Town. "We will have to go game by game," Ricardo told the local paper. "A lot of hard work has gone on to get the pitch in a playable state."


The programme cover, appropriately, had a picture of a roller, the teams chalked to a board by the turnstile and a crowd of around 100 in for Selby's first Saturday home game since November 28th.  There were paved steps down one touchline, a portakabin club shop promising "Low, low prices" and a kit stand behind the far goal with strips of artificial turf piled up at the side.  Advertising hoardings had been tacked to the front of the clubhouse, which had  handfuls of Quality Street laid out on its tables and photographs of Paul Scholes and David Beckham - the latter in his first game since the Champions League final in Barcelona - taken during a friendly arranged to mark the Robins' 80th anniversary in 1999.  I made my way towards the main stand, which had Selby Town FC written out in capitals, three rows of wooden bench seats and a rickety corrugated roof.


The home side started quickly, missing two early chances and forcing half a dozen corners.  "He's on for a blinder," said a bloke with a tartan rug draped over his knees after Dronfield's keeper blocked a third shot with his legs.  Inevitably, it was the visitors who opened the scoring, a diagonal free-kick sidefooted back across goal and turned in on the line.  "Never a free kick," a Selby fan spluttered. "Cheating monkeys," another clapped furiously.  "Come on Selby! They've got 12 men on the pitch, you know."  From besting the game, Selby's composure dropped as precipitously as their supporters' mood.  "Everything fucking quicker," screamed a midfielder. "Heads on," the goalkeeper demanded.  "They're just kicking it anywhere," a spectator grumbled.  "What do you think of the game so far?" asked a passing club official.  "Rubbish," said a fan.  "Missed three at yon end and the one down here should never have stood.  A right bloody cock up."  As he spoke Selby broke down the right, hit an early ball into the centre and Danny Bunch shot across the keeper and into the net. "There you are," said the bloke with the rug.  "We want two," his mate shouted at the pitch.


Selby carried their momentum through the break, Dronfield trying to break up the flow with a substitution which ended with an aggrieved player chucking his shirt against the dugout wall.  The Robins edged closer, the away keeper scrambling to tip a deflected cross on to his bar before a shot smacked against the same spot following a poor kick out of goal.  Dronfield scored from a corner, Selby struck back with one effort the keeper turned away and a second he could only stand and watch admiringly as it smashed off Bunch's boot and into the corner of the net.  The visitors slid a shot inches wide, Bunch thrashed a hat-trick chance straight on to the corrugated roof. "Nine left," said the linesman.  Dronfield hit the bar, tapped a third in on the counter and then struck a last-minute fourth that bounced just over the line.  "Geoff Hurst," said two men simultaneously. "Like a charity match," reckoned a visiting Leyton Orient fan, unfairly.  "Very disappointing," the bloke with the rug said, packing it carefully away into a vacuum storage bag.

Admission: £5
Date:  Saturday January 23rd 2016

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Ground 285: University of York Sports Centre, Harrison Signs

I had an advance return ticket to Garforth, the club where Socrates, past 50, pot-bellied and wearing five layers, a hat, a scarf and a pair of leather gloves, had made his final competitive appearance in November 2004.  By Friday night the chances of play were a bit slimmer than the chainsmoking ex-captain of Brazil had been for his 12-minute, four-touch cameo against Tadcaster Albion in England's 11th-tier.  "The soft ground had a battering during Tuesday night's game," Town's website said, "then had heavy rain and three days of frost."


The expected postponement left me scrambling for alternatives. Just three games had beaten the cold snap in the top-flight of the Minster Engineering League and only one of them was in the city itself.  Riccall United, members of the York League since 1919 and its current defending champions - April's 7-1 whacking of Dringhouses ending a 37-year wait since the green-and-whites topped the division six times from eight in the mid to late-1970s - were at the University of York to play Harrison Signs, who'd won only one game all season and had already leaked 74 goals in the league alone.


Much like Chelsea Riccall's title defence hadn't gone exactly as planned, with early fixtures falling to "cricket commitments" and a pair of defeats to Huntington Rovers leaving the village team nine points behind the pacesetters with over half the season played.  The big game attracted a pair of spectators who huddled on a bench by a footpath and a third who picked a spot next to a lamppost.  Some rope, two canvas dugouts and four yellow and black corner flags marked out the confines of the pitch.  "Heads on it, lads," Harrison's captain encouraged.  "Has anyone got a ball?" asked the referee.  "Let it do the work," shouted the home goalkeeper when one was eventually hoofed across.


The champions had the first chance, a curler that was touched around the post and brought a groan of dismay from the player who had to splash through the mud to retrieve the ball.  "Make the next one count," urged a Riccall player, but 25 minutes had elapsed and a pair of free headers had been deftly positioned over the crossbar before one of his teammates could get the ball in the net.  A header hit a post, the rebound smacked an ankle and the resulting cross was eventually nodded in.  "Yard on," complained the scorer when the linesman raised his flag.  "Bust a gut," demanded the relieved Harrison's goalkeeper.  "That's a let off, isn't it?  Plenty of chat."


Riccall's next attack ended with a player being chairlifted to the touchline and the keeper palming a penalty away from his goal.  "It's gone," muttered a striker, while the bloke who'd won the kick slowly removed a boot and hobbled off alone to the changing block.  The home team almost managed a shot on target and then stuck the ball in the net from offside before the visitors scored the game's first goal with an hour already gone.  Moments later, a deflected free kick left the Riccall keeper flapping at air and the scores were level again.  The attendance was swelled by a couple of Koreans, tempted to linger as they cut past the pitch from the campus over the road, and a bored kid who was swinging on a gate.  United had a corner sidefooted off the line and a free kick clawed away, but Harrison Signs, heroically, held them at bay. "Get in," yelled their keeper when the whistle finally sounded, a Riccall attack ending with a player booting the ball over his bar. For the home club it was only their third point since beating Brooklyn FC all the way back on September 12th.     

Admission:  Free
Date: Saturday January 16th 2016

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Ground 284: Manse Lane, Knaresborough

At 11 o'clock it was looking very much like another blank weekend.  The Northern League hadn't managed a full programme since the end of November, only a pair of FA Vase ties and a single Division Two fixture beating the wet weather.  South Shields against Morpeth was postponed for the sixth time, leading Julio Arca, the winning captain in the 2001 U20 World Cup, to turn out in a friendly on a 3G pitch at a local comprehensive school. The games I'd earmarked for Leeds had already gone the same way as Newcastle United's chances of a trophy this season, and the options nearer York were shrinking with every passing minute.  "Still waiting," tweeted the luckless Tadcaster Albion.  "No game in 28 days," lamented Selby Town. By some miracle Knaresborough had been gifted "clear sky and sunshine", a combination latterly as rare as a ministerial mea culpa or a goal glut at St James' Park*.  "Great pitch drying weather," the town's football club promised.  "Fingers crossed," replied Teversal, their prospective opponents at Manse Lane. "It was on and then it started throwing it down and it could have been called off," Knaresborough boss Paul Stansfield said later. "A lot of effort went in and we had to repay it."


Stuck between semi-detacheds, a petrol station and an industrial estate, the ground - improved to meet grading requirements when the club were promoted into the Northern Counties East League in 2012 -  is neat and tidy but doesn't score much when it comes to aesthetics.  There are a couple of metal stands straight out of a box, a portakabin, pale-brick clubhouse and a corner squeezed off limits by the back wall of a playgroup building.  A bloke in a fluorescent jacket squelches gingerly along the touchline as the teams warm up on some nearby grass.  "Churn that pitch up and there'll be hell to pay," someone jokes as the officials set out on a pre-match jog.  "Is it working?" wonders a voice as the tannoy crackles on.  Postponements elsewhere push the crowd up to 130, the second highest of the day in a step 6 league. "What do you think we'll be watching today?" one spectator says to his mate,  his face turned to a page in the programme recalling previous January fixtures against the likes of Border Regiment, British Railway Nomads and Harold Styans.  "Touch and go," a bystander states in a tone that brooks no prospect of dissent. "It'll be a wonder if any of them can stand up."  Two men in tweed debate the merits of Klopp's gegenpress.  "What do you think of our manager?" asks one. "Well, the players are a lot fitter than last year," muses the other.


The home team whack an early chance against the goalkeeper's legs - "If you want to get out of this division those are the ones you have to stick away," one of the tweeds reckons - and tuts and groans are more and more audible as passes run out, goalkicks drop short and bodies thud to the sodden ground.  "Keep hold of the bloody thing," yells a bloke pessimistically sporting wellies as Teversal dispossess one Knaresborough attacker before gifting it to a second, Brad Walker steering the ball away from the keeper's limbs and into the net. 

The referee swiftly becomes the main object of ire, showing the first of six yellow cards within minutes of the goal.  "You'll have to show one of those for every single tackle," rages one spectator.  "Give yersel' a shake," a second spits out furiously.  "Cloth head!"  "Wooah, woah," cautions a third, "you know what the conditions are like, referee."  A fourth helpfully suggests he should "Grow a pair".  "Dire," thinks a fifth. "He hasn't got a clue."  Somewhere amid the flurry of bookings Walker heads a second goal when the Teversal keeper leaves a cross he assumes is going out only for it to bounce back into play off the top of the bar; with 20 minutes to play the striker thighs in a hat-trick.  "Proper team performance," the man in wellies exclaims as the improving home side wrap up a fifth win in sixth games.  It's a whole lot better than Town managed during their two seasons in the Northern League: their first, in 1909-10, notable mainly for the fact they outdid York City, who propped up the table after registering 746 different players.  Twelve months later Knaresborough had emulated their neighbours with six points from 22 games and dropped back into the Yorkshire Combination. "Could still go up yet on this form," a fan enthuses.  If they do, it'll be the highest level Town have played at since those weekly pre-war hammerings around the pitches of County Durham.


"It's this metal that makes your feet cold," someone moans, banging his heels against the few steps of terracing.  The rain starts falling again, the pitch gets even slippier and two players crash into each other, Knaresborough's Joel Freeston attempting what looks a lot like a leap over a Teversal sliding challenge.  The ref races over and pulls out a red card. "Eh? Eh?" wellies wonders aloud. "Shove it referee," a now familiar voice shouts out.  "You bloody cloth head!"

Admission: £4
Date:  Saturday 9th January 2016

* Except on the very same day I wrote this, obviously...

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Ground 283: St Helen's Road, Dringhouses

Third time lucky and six weeks late, I finally make a game at the Dringhouses Sports and Social Club, stop five of the fifty-ish pitches in the York Minster Engineering League. Like Osbaldwick and York Railway Institute, Dringhouses are among the competition's heavyweight outfits, winning the championship 12 times since deposing Olympia Cake & Oil Selby in 1932-33.  Much of their more recent success stems from the work of stalwarts such as Colin Mole and Frank Prole, who stepped down from the club's committee in 2005 having amassed 53 years and 33 trophies between them.  Mole was once a schoolboy player at Middlesbrough, Prole arrived by way of Accrington Stanley, Scarborough and RAF Command.  "I'll still be there every Saturday to support the team," he promised the York Press. "It'll be nice to go into the bar after a game and instead of selling raffle tickets, I can enjoy a few pints."


The first things you see from the bar are a railway line and cricket field.  There's a conifer hedge half screening the train traffic, a sign prohibiting "the exercising of dogs" and a fishing net propped against a dugout, used to scoop balls out of a muddy stream of water by the side of the football pitch.  Named after a go-kart track, the visiting team, F1 Racing, clatter and squelch out of the changing rooms, forming up in a huddle as one of their players jogs across from the obligatory pre-match piss against a tree.  "All the best," the two managers say.  "Plenty of talking," instructs the referee.  "Straight in, boys.  Pressing, yeah?" shouts a defender as the Dringhouses keeper belatedly ambles over from halfway.


"Pieces" and "Feet" urge the home dugout as Dringhouses gather up a loose ball and work it down the wing.  "Travel," someone advises.  "Options," says the manager as the cross comes in, adding "Drive" a split-second before it's headed into the net.  "Wake up," screams an F1 player.  "Alert," claps the Dringhouses bench.  They're two ahead with their very next attack.  "That keeper's rubbish," a kid says to his dad.   Dringhouses take matters into their own hands, their goalkeeper chucking the ball out and then watching as it sails almost immediately back over his head.  "Terrible, that," says the home manager, the error so grave it almost stings him into a sentence.  Both sides push forward relentlessly. "Get the fucking thing in the net," an old bloke advises as the ball richochets around the penalty box.  Just before half time, a corner squeezes through the F1 keeper's legs.  "Easy as that," the old bloke claps.


"If in doubt, just don't worry about it.  Know what I mean?" reckons the Dringhouses manager at the break.  "Effort, workrate, squeeze further on and chase everything."  An injured player limps his way along the touchline.  "You want to get some physio on it," says a bloke with a stool on a metal spike.  The sun comes out, tempting a few more spectators away from the bar, but nothing much happens until there's a bust-up in the penalty box and the Dringhouses keeper says something to a foreign player that's audible to everyone besides the referee.  "Ey, ey, ey," admonishes the F1 left-back, "Ey, ey, ey," adds a spectator, wagging an index finger over the touchline rail. "We all heard it," the victim tells the ref, who mutters something about being distracted as he swiftly backpedals away.  People are still pointing at each other as Dringhouses break through midfield and tap in a fourth, and though F1 score again late on the remainder of the game peters out along with the daylight.  "They need to stop the crosses and work harder tracking back," an F1 fan tells his son as they walk towards the car park. The kid hoofs his ball in the air and looks back at the pitch, slowly formulating a response. "Can't we watch a more successful team?" he finally asks.

Admission:  Free
Date:  Saturday December 19th 2015     

Friday, 13 November 2015

Football Art: Brian Clough in Albert Park

"I was the kid who came from a little part of paradise, to me it was heaven. Everything that I've done, everything I've achieved, everything I can think of that has directed and affected my life - apart from the drink - stemmed from my childhood". 

It was the first weekend of September and summer was barely clinging on in Middlesbrough's Albert Park.  An elderly couple shuffled past the sunlit bandstand,  a bloke was showing his son the South African War Memorial and a cannon captured in the Crimea, and two women traded gossip under the branches of a tree.  "Get away, he never! He'll be alright if they win this afternoon."

A little way off stood another figure, seven-foot high, cast in bronze and with a familiar twist to the mouth.  "I want no epitaphs of profound history and all that type of thing," Brian Clough had once commented. "I contributed - I would hope they would say that, and I would hope somebody liked me."  Three years after his death, and over three and a half decades since he'd left his hometown club, there were enough there who still liked him to make up over half of the £65,000 a statue in his honour had cost.  "It's in recognition of one of the greatest people to ever come from Middlesbrough," said the chairman of the fund-raising committee.  "There was a deep reservoir of feeling for Cloughie in this town and they don't want him to be forgotten".


Clough, Albert Park and football went back a very long way.  It was there that Middlesbrough had played their very first matches, using the archery strips for pitches until they were kicked out for making a mess of the grass.  Born on one side of the park at 11 Valley Road, he would, wrote Jonathan Wilson, "race home from school every night, change into old clothes and then dash (straight there) to play football or cricket".  Later, even after moving from games with Acklam Iron and Steelworks Athletics to a professional contract, he'd return to the playground of his youth with a wheelbarrow and cart wallflowers home to his mother's garden.  "We spent many sunny days in ths park, so it's really appropriate that it's here," thought Clough's widow when the statue was unveiled in May 2007.


"When Clough left for Sunderland, the town wept," Daniel Gray wrote in  Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters, his magnificent account of football in England's lesser-visited provinces.  "The only thing I enjoyed during my six years there was scoring goals," Clough recollected in 1973. "From Saturday to Saturday I was very unhappy.  My ability was never utilised, by me or the management.  Only goals kept me sane.  That was my only pleasure."  Nonetheless, the man always remembered the place that had shaped him. "Wherever we went, Brian made sure everybody knew he was from Middlesbrough," his widow said. "I think if his success as a manager had happened here, that would have been his ideal.  But life is not that perfect."


Unlike the sculpted tributes at Derby and Nottingham, Teesside's Clough is young and lithe.  "Twenty-four and in training gear," wrote Gray, "his boots slung over a shoulder, purposeful, on the way to training or a match".  It's placed on his route from home to Ayresome Park - two pitches' length away from the statue - and now part of a waymarked trail that passes the street where a second managerial genius was raised.  Don Revie left at 17, fleeing poverty and the spectre of the Holgate End workhouse. "He used to talk about taking baths in the sink," said one friend. "It was a poor upbringing and that left him determined that everything went well later on the monetary side".  For all his flaws, Clough was a man of the people, sticking around long enough to become the Holgate's idol and leave behind a legacy of a phenomenal 197 goals in just 213 games. "He would have been absolutely amazed at the very idea of a statue and he would have been so touched at the different ways you have raised the money," his widow told the crowd at Albert Park. "You have done him proud and I thank you from the bottom of my heart". 

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Tow Law's Brazilian and Other Northern League Exotica

Early-November and already the English weather is playing havoc with my Saturday afternoons.  With my planned trip to Dringhouses falling victim to a saturated pitch, here's something I wrote for this afternoon's Jarrow Roofing programme instead.  

When Julio Arca became, as Harry Pearson put it, “the only U20 World Cup winning captain ever to score against Stokesley”, it was far from the first contact between overseas footballers and stalwarts of the Northern League. In August, Fabian Otte, ex-starting goalkeeper for New Zealand's Western Suburbs and formerly of Bayer Leverkusen U23s, turned out for Bedlington Terriers against Whitley Bay, while recent years have seen, among others, Laurent Sanson move from France to Newcastle Benfield, Mateusz Halambiec go from Morpeth Town to the Polish second division, ex-AS Roma junior Matteo Faiola play for Roofing and Bishop Auckland, and Tow Law field Gustavo Silva, the league's first jogador do Brasil. “He knows all about the weather,” Lawyers secretary Steve Moralee promised. “He's trained here in the snow wearing shorts.”

The movement hasn't always been one way. While West Auckland's Lipton Cup exploits are well documented, Bishop Auckland toured Belgium for the first time in the year that West made their inaugural journey to Turin and made it as far afield as Hungary as early as 1912. Jack Greenwell's Barcelona hosted Crook the following season and employed a second ex-Northern League man when Harold 'Collie' Stamper – a 1912 Olympian and FA Amateur Cup winner – joined as a coach from Stockton. Stamper went on to Genoa; Greenwell, more famously, played 88 times for Barca, managed Espanyol and Valencia to league championships and guided Peru to a Copa America title in 1939. “The Peruvians were well served by their English manager, who out-thought Uruguay tactically in the final match,” wrote Andreas Campomar in his magisterial history of the Latin American game.

The Northern League's first foreign-born player was Arthur Wharton. “His father was half-Scottish, his mother was related to the Ghanaian royal family,” wrote the Northern Echo of a pioneer whose career achievements included an FA Cup semi-final and a world record time for the 100-metre sprint. Now recognised as the world's first black professional footballer, the goalkeeper won a Cleveland Challenge Cup with Darlington, was signed by Preston North End and later understudied William 'Fatty' Foulkes at Sheffield United. A less celebrated figure, Billy Charnock was born in Serphukov, 62 miles south of Moscow, to a family of textile factory owners who orginally came from Leek. In addition to playing for Bishop Auckland, Charnock also captained Russia in their first international victory, a 3-0 win over Norway in 1913.


As clubs continued to look outwards – Crook toured Norway in 1962 and lost by a single goal to the Indian national team 14 years later - Northern League imports have arrived from places as seemingly implausible as Atletico Madrid, who supplied Stokesley SC with Asenjo Bravo in 2012, and Japan. "In 1991-92 Durham City registered Yoshinobu Uchida, though the sole surviving reference in print or online merely reveals he was 'from Tokyo, a student at Durham University' ” I wrote in a programme column last year which also referenced the curious case of Yosuke Suzuki's time at Whitley Bay. In 2008, Owen Amos had a piece in When Saturday Comes on Brandon United's BJ Heijmans, “who, by a series of happy accidents, found his home in deepest County Durham”. Amos caught up with Heijmans at a training session: “We play the Dutch way, from the back. We have conceded 63 goals this season, and 50 were from individual mistakes. But we are young, and that will improve.” Among the onlookers that “cold Thursday night” was the Argentine Gus Di Lella, recently sacked as manager by Horden Colliery Welfare. Di Lella is now coaching at Seaham Red Star, who've also recently had a Bulgarian and a New Zealander on their books. Bedlington, of course, have close ties with the USA through president and Buffalo Bisons owner Bob Rich, while Durham City are owned by Olivier Bernard, once of Lyon, Newcastle United and the Champions League.

So next time someone writes disparagingly about the Northern League's insularity and isolationism, remember Heijmans and Wharton, Crook Town playing to 100,000 people in Calcutta, Suzuki, Uchida and the nomadic Jack Greenwell, born in Peases West in 1884 and buried, by way of Italy, Spain, Turkey and Peru, in a Bogota grave that is forever south-west Durham. 

As the rain swept on from York, Roofing's game with West Allotment Celtic was called off with most of the club's volunteer matchday staff midway through a 12-mile charity walk. "Some good stories, anyway," messaged the club's media manager and goalkeeper coach. "Bird shat on me, the secretary slipped on dog shit and we spent 30 minutes in a bus stop sorting out the postponement." The full programme, plus insert, will be on sale for £1.50 at the re-arranged fixture, or via email for whatever you want to pay.