A Little League Love Affair -1- ” We’re the greatest non league football team the world has ever seen…”

“But Mam, Martin’s going, Jeff’s going, Malcolm’s going…” I was eleven years old. All of my friends were leaving for the football and I’d been persuaded that this would be a better use of my time than sitting in front of the tv. I was easily persuaded; Scooby Doo had finished. Ten minutes earlier and they’d have had no chance.

I had resorted to begging. “Please mam. Pleeeeease mam…” Jeff, who was around four years my senior so practically grown up, promised my mother faithfully he’d look after me. Eventually, with a sigh borne mainly of concern that I might whine all the way through Crossroads if I didn’t get my own way, she relented and prized open her purse. A fifty pence coin was placed into my clammy mit. I gazed at it in awe. Untold riches. The chimes of Gabrielle’s Ice Cream van brought me back to reality. How much could I get from Gabby with 50p? A 99 with monkeys blood, two bags of Tudor crisps and a packet of spearmint Pacers! “Oi, Townie, the bus’s coming.”

We boarded the OK Town Service bus, paid our 5p fare to dumpy Doris the conductor, and off we went to Kingsway, where Jeff, my kindly protector, immediately abandoned me. Terror overtook me; at least until I realised that I knew exactly where I was and could walk home in twenty minutes, at which point I relaxed. After all, it wasn’t very likely that I was going to run into the Ghost of Captain Cutler on Vart Road.

Three hours later and I was hooked. The noise. The swearing. The pervading odour of bovril, stale Cameron’s bitter and liniment. The half time chips from Rumblin’ Tums Takeaway in Princess Street. The score? Bishop Auckland 0, Consett 0. The match? Utterly forgettable. Try as I might- and I have tried, repeatedly- I can’t remember a single thing about it. But I recognise it as a significant moment in my life, as there began my love affair with Non League Football. A love affair with its share of break ups and make ups, but one that has been a constant part of my life for the intervening thirty six years.

It was Martin Russell’s fault. Martin was our leader. Martin lived next door. He was two years older than me. He was cool. He was the Cresta Bear to my Koala- I was shorter and smelt vaguely of eucalyptus; well I did tend to have a bad chest most of the time. Martin was born self assured. He exuded confidence and control. The girls got giggly when he was around. The boys showed off to try and be his friend. When we played football, he was the captain. He was Kevin Keegan, I was David Fairclough. When we played cricket, he was Ian Botham. I was the bloke that held the jumpers. If we built a camp in Tindale Wood, he was General Russell, and I collected dead wood for the campfire. You get the picture.

Martin’s dad was the club secretary at Bishop Auckland FC. So far as we were concerned, that made him one of the most important men in THE WORLD. He once introduced me to Peter Lorimer; a moment in my life which I can still replay now, and still I can feel the hair on the back of my neck stand up as I do so. Peter Lorimer! The man with the hardest shot in football! I only asked him one question; and what a stupid question it was. “Excuse me Mr Lorimer…what’s Allan Clarke like?” Mr Lorimer looked right through me, signed my autograph book without a word, and then went back to his pint of Strongarm in the social club. I should have warned him; according to the graffiti in the social club gents, “If you think the bottom’s fallen out of this world, try the Strongarm…you’ll think the world’s fallen out of your bottom.”

He must have survived relatively unscathed as later that year he opened a sports shop-the creatively named “Lorimer Sports”- in Newgate Street, and we used to stand outside and peer through the window hoping to see him. We never did. My parents later bought me a Leeds United kit from that shop, and asked for a number 8 to put on the back, “like Allan Clarke.” Maybe it was just as well that he was never behind the counter.

So I became a Bishop Auckland supporter as well as a Leeds United supporter. The latter was probably Martin’s fault too. Although I’d always had a hankering for Leeds United, perhaps borne of sympathy when I was five years old and they lost the FA Cup Final to Sunderland (I mean, who lost to Sunderland?), I tended to support whoever he supported. At that point, he supported Leeds. He later transferred allegiances to Middlesbrough and as such is not only responsible for creating my misery but for creating even more for himself.

Good. He deserves it.

So, apart from the occasions when my Mam refused to give me any money, I’d be at Kingsway for every home game. Me, Martin, Foss, Walker, Provan and occasionally Mally when he couldn’t find a bicycle to take to bits or wasn’t otherwise engaged chatting up my cousin. I was the baby of the group and they took advantage by using me as an easy target for a wind up. I didn’t understand the offside rule (and unlike them I was stupid enough to admit it). As a good catholic boy I got embarrassed when they spoke to girls in a way that today would be seen as innocent but in the late 1970s was incredibly risqué. I wouldn’t try to sneak in via the back gate in case I got caught. I was respectfully polite to Arthur Legg the gateman. He had one leg longer than the other and a severely built up boot for balance. They called him “Arfa.” I called him “Mr Legg.” He seemed to hate me more than them, despite this.

Kingsway-uncredited picture from google images
Kingsway-uncredited picture from google images

I loved Kingsway. Well, I’ve always liked history, and this was an ancient relic. Bishop had played there since 1886, and it looked its age. You entered through turnstiles that emerged opposite the social club and the snack bar, turned left, and there was the corner flag directly ahead of you. The ground, when I think of it now, was rather strange in its design. It had a shallow bank of terraces behind the goal at the Kingsway End (Kingsway was also the name of the street it stood on); terraces which continued around the corner until meeting with the grandstand. The design was peculiar in that the terraces behind the goal must have had perhaps six rows, but by the time they turned the corner there were perhaps double that- so the ground grew considerably in height from corner to corner. The grandstand was anything but grand. An enormously high wooden construction (or at least it seemed enormously high to me) which these days would be instantly condemned as a fire risk- particularly as most of those sitting in it seemed to be continually flicking hot ash from their woodbines- it frightened the heck out of me to ascend those stairs into its rickety, paint peeling interior. But ascend them we did, just as the second half kicked off, because after 45 minutes you didn’t have to pay an extra ten pence to sit down. We’d sit in the far corner and try to watch the game, whilst Walker and Provan held competitions to see which of them could spit the furthest.

Underneath the stand there was a paddock. Usually this was thought of as a family space. It was fairly sparsely populated most of the time; unless it was raining, when it filled up rather dramatically because it was the only standing space in the entire ground which was under cover. Then, beyond the grandstand but still at the side of the pitch, there was a separate section of steep terracing which reached to the far corner flag. This could only be accessed by a walkway behind the stand, which could be a point of tension when changing ends at half time- though unless we were playing West Auckland or Blyth Spartans there tended to be few away fans to have any ‘tension’ with.

Behind the far goal there was a large grassed area, with trees. Along the other touchline stood the ground of Bishop Auckland Cricket Club, the offices and changing rooms, and the aforementioned social club. Kingsway, from a fans perspective and if you discount the people who never left the bar and watched the game through the window (if they could drag themselves away from the horse racing on tv), was effectively two (and a half) sided.

The ground had once apparently held sixteen and a half thousand people- more than the then population of the town- for an FA Cup match with Coventry City in 1952. To this day I have no idea where they put all of those people. But I suppose we didn’t have an obesity crisis in 1952. Looking at the size of non league football supporters today they’d have had to limit the crowd to 1500. By the way, I resemble that remark.

Supporters tend to be proud of their club. Bishop Auckland supporters took this pride to a whole new level. We were fans of “The Greatest Non League Football Club in the World.” This was a line which was trotted out by the local media whenever we had a big game- i.e. we failed to get knocked out of the FA Cup in the first qualifying round- or when there was an anniversary of some notable moment to celebrate. The youngest of our number probably didn’t understand this, but we certainly reveled in it. Bizarrely, this claim may have been outlandish but it did have some basis in fact. Back in the days when the Guinness Book of World Records was an essential Christmas gift, football fans from a small section of County Durham would glory in the mention of the fact that Bishop Auckland had won the FA Amateur Cup a record ten times. They would then conveniently forget that the last of these notable victories had been in 1957, and that with the exception of a solitary Northern League Championship and a Durham Challenge Cup victory they’d won nothing since, and go back to taunting those West Auckland supporters who claimed they’d won the ‘World Cup’ and as such were far more famous. Later, Dennis Waterman tried to prove that the latter were correct, without- on this occasion at least- writing and singing the theme tune. Instead he simply played it badly on a Moog synthesizer whilst wearing a flat cap and talking in an incomprehensible accent; though my memory may be misleading me here.

The Bishop Auckland that I loved were generally mediocre. I can say that now and know it to be factually correct, though if you’d said it to me at the time I’d have protested until my voice broke. They were usually near the top of the Northern League, never out of the top seven, but without ever really making much of an impact and always losing to Blyth Spartans. Blyth Spartans! Even now their very name sticks in my throat. If they weren’t winning the league every bloody year they were getting to the 5th round of the FA Cup. Smug, superior bastards! Even their name spoke to me of arrogance. I mean, it wasn’t like they took weak babies and left them on top of a slagheap to die, was it-instead they gave them football boots and sold them to Newcastle United. And they had that annoying elderly fan who would shout, in a nasal voice, “Come on Blaaaaathe” every ten minutes throughout a game whether he needed to or not. I hated that stupid grassy bank at Croft Park where a terrace should have been. I hated their stupid green and white striped shirts that made them look like a mouldy Newcastle United. I hated the fact that they never had any Tudor Pickled Onion crisps in their snack bar. I hated the coach trip back from Croft Park with the players every time we lost, which was every time.

Sorry. I got a little carried away there. If you’re a fan of Blyth Spartans and reading this, I’ve never, at any point, wished you any physical harm. Though I’d be quite prepared to laugh if- for example- you dropped your car keys down a drain and ruined your trousers whilst retrieving them then missed the only game your team was to win during the entire season because of the delay.

Perhaps I’ve been thinking about that for a little too long.

There was only one season during my childhood when mediocrity took a back seat. For around five months, from October 1981 to February 1982, even Blyth became irrelevant. We had bigger fish to fry than any that might be landed at Blyth quayside; we were going to win the cup. Well, a cup. The glory years were back!

A Little League Love Affair- Chapter 2- Wellies, Wales, Wycombe and Wembley

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