A Little League Love Affair – 2- Wellies, Wales, Wycombe & Wembley

The record books may say differently, with a seventh place finish, but 1981/2 was something special if you were a fan of Bishop Auckland FC. We hadn’t really seen it coming. During the previous season, despite finishing third, the football had generally been so tedious that we’d found far more entertainment in firing half polo mints from rubber bands at the Boys Brigade Band. Their HQ was just over the wall of the terrace, and they always seemed to practice their marching on a Wednesday night, emerging from their hall just as the half time break started. For a seemingly quasi-military organisation that was terribly poor planning.

Our league form during that memorable season was, as usual, consistently average. Our cup form, however, was entirely different. We started our FA Trophy campaign in the Third Qualifying Round with a tough away draw at highly fancied Morecambe- a game few expected us to win- yet came home with a creditable 2-0 victory. A visit to Frickley Athletic came next in the First Round proper, and another victory was recorded; 1-0 this time. It would be overstating the excitement to say that we began dreaming of the twin towers at this point; we were more stunned than elated.

In the first qualifying round of the FA Cup. Ossett Albion were put to the sword, 4-0. Four more goals came at Emley in the second qualifying round. The third qualifying round saw Frickley Athletic dispatched once more, 3-0; they must have hated the sight of us.

The next round saw us playing an international match. We had to travel to Wales. Take that, West Auckland Town! As we boarded the coach for Caernarvon one of our number was missing. Provan had failed to show. This wasn’t really a surprise, his timekeeping was legendary, and of course in the days before mass telecommunications we had no way of getting in touch with him. I suppose we could have sent smoke signals- I think at this point Martin was experimenting with smoking rolled up newspaper as it was cheaper than cigarettes, and twice he almost set himself on fire, so we probably had both the fuel and the ignition. Anyway, we considered asking the coach driver to wait. We considered it. For all of twenty seconds.

Almost seven hours later, we were just awaiting the start of the second half when Provan arrived. He’d made the 224 mile journey by train and bus. “I saw the coach leaving and I ran after it but none of you bastards noticed!” His epic feat of endurance was later featured in the Northern Echo, and the players, touched by his dedication, had a whip round to help pay his fare, the proceeds of which were presented to him at half time during the next home game. They’d collected about half of what he’d spent- which must have hurt, because in an attempt to fit the Scottish stereotype neatly he was as tight as a gnat’s proverbial. Caernarvon went on to win their league that season, beating the later-to-be-almost-mighty- Colne Dynamoes into second place, but they had no FA Cup glory to go with it, as the mighty Bishops marched on into the first round proper with a 2-0 victory.

For perhaps the first time in my life I was actually excited by the prospect of the FA Cup First Round draw (well, Leeds at that point had never been in it. Sadly, we all know how that one turns out). We crossed our fingers that we’d get Fulham, Sheffield United; though we’d have been happy with Darlington or Hartlepool. Imagine our excitement when Nuneaton Borough came out of the pot. We were beside ourselves with apathy.

As the match got closer, however, we became far more engaged. We were playing Nuneaton Borough. We might just win. Then it got even more exciting. Martin’s dad asked me if I’d mind being a ball boy. That meant I’d get in for nothing and I’d be famous. Obviously, fame was relative. I thought about it. The shy fourteen year old me said no. The “I’ll save the entrance fee and my friends might see me in the paper” me said “yes please.”

Saturday 21st November was the big day. Bishop were kicking towards the open end in the first half, and I- along with Walker, who’d also signed up to be a ball boy- took our places behind the goal. There were very few Nuneaton fans at the game, which surprised us as we’d heard they had a large away support. Borough had the first chance, but Phil Owers in the Bishop goal was equal to it. I pointed out to Walker that Nuneaton looked better than we did. Walker replied by making a rude comment and the Nuneaton keeper, who by that point hadn’t touched the ball, laughed. He then seemed to choke on his laughter, as, looking to his left, he saw the approaching hordes. Charging across the cricket pitch; hundreds of them. We later found that the Nuneaton football special had been delayed by a signal failure- well, a signal failure and the fact that they’d smashed up their own train on the way. Walking from the station to Kingsway took them past the cricket ground. This gave them a view of the pitch, and they decided that the old tradition of paying for entrance to the game wasn’t for them. As they ran towards us en masse, heading for the empty terrace to our right, Walker and I looked at each other in terror. Then legged it. We ran the entire length of the pitch until we were safely amongst the home contingent behind the goal. My one and only ball boy experience lasted ten minutes. We weren’t blamed, but we were never asked again.

About seventy minutes later the entire Nuneaton Borough support left the way they’d arrived. Across the pitch, once more interrupting the game. They were 4-1 down by this point. We were delirious with joy (if a little worried that we’d meet the Nuneaton hordes whilst walking home). Not only had we played in the first round of the FA Cup, we’d won the game.

The Second Round saw Bishop drawn to face Carlisle United away. Carlisle included amongst their ranks a young Peter Beardsley, along with former Sunderland stars Bryan ‘Pop’ Robson, Jack Ashurst, Bob Lee and Trevor Swinburne. They sat in second place in the Third Division, kept off the top only on goal difference by the mighty Chesterfield. But we didn’t care; we had the three magnificent Newton brothers (player/manager Brian and his brothers David and Malcolm), flying winger Kevin Cross- who’d scored two of the goals against Nuneaton- and a rugged, mustachioed girl called Lynn in defence (to be fair, Lynn Rutherford hardly looked like a girl, but had a girl’s name so it stood to reason). We were confident of causing an upset.

On the day of the match- Saturday December 12th- the heavens opened. Two coachloads of supporters arrived to see a Brunton Park pitch perhaps more suited to hosting the world bog snorkeling championships. We were stunned when the game got the go ahead; though not as stunned as we were when the referee called it off after seventy minutes with the score an 0-0 and Bishop on top. The conditions were appalling; yet they seemed somehow less appalling with twenty minutes to go than they had seventy minutes earlier. We weren’t quite robbed, but we’d been confident of a home replay. Later in his career Kenneth Walmsley famously sent off Ian Rush after a goalless draw between Liverpool and Manchester City for “foul and abusive language.” After the words used towards him when he blew his whistle at Brunton Park, you’d have thought he would be used to it. A pox on his preposterous moustache.

A few days later the snow started. And refused to stop. The match was rearranged, then rearranged again, then again. This happened seven times. We were into January and it was beginning to look like it would never be played. Third Round day dawned and we hadn’t yet managed to play the Second Round. Eventually, it was decided to move the match to Workington. Only 34 miles from Carlisle, but apparently snow free.

Carlisle Utd v Bishop Auckland Jan '82Saturday 9th January, and the north was either snowbound or waterlogged. Apart from Workington, apparently. I looked at the weather forecast- rain and snow- and surveyed my extensive wardrobe. I’ve always had a poor sense of balance and am famous for falling on my backside during periods of inclement weather, so I made what I thought was an inspired decision and chose wellington boots. Teamed with my fake fur trimmed camouflage green parka coat, I might have walked straight off the catwalk. Well, I was dressed suitably to clean up after cats.

“What the f*** are you wearing?” It seems that my back seat colleagues weren’t overly impressed with my choice of footwear. “Why have you come dressed as a fisherman?” And the charming, “Christ, you look like a right w******.” The problem was that, in hindsight, they were right. I’d taken my usual cautious nature to a whole new level, and now I was going to pay. And pay I did, as they spent the entire journey trying to flick fag butts down the top of my wellies, before one of them charmingly flicked a lit specimen into my hood, where it burnt both a hole and my neck. That was the high point of the day. Workington was perhaps the ugliest place I’d ever visited. The football was awful. Carlisle, who’s supporters had travelled to the game on coaches provided by E. Titterington & Son, my juvenile brain seems to recall, won the game by its single goal. Afterwards some charmless Carlisle fans decided to try and pinch my scarf and I couldn’t run properly because of my preposterous footwear so I had to be saved by an elderly chap who threatened to set his Alsatian on them if they didn’t leave me alone. I was too out of breath to say thanks. In truth, we didn’t feel too deflated. We’d had a great cup run, and there was still FA Trophy glory around the corner. Time for a trip to the mighty…Chorley.

Chorley. A local town for local people. At this point, they were kind of mighty in their own way; they hadn’t lost a home game in over a year. We’d never heard of them. We’ve never forgotten them since.

The 1980′s was the heyday for football hooliganism. At Bishop, we talked about being “hard” but we were no more than a bunch of teenagers trying to live up to what we thought northerners- and football supporters- should be like. In reality, we were about as hard as a Bassetts ‘Tom and Jerry’ Nougat bar from mad Mrs Rose’s Corner Shop. We’d have run a mile from trouble.

The town was fairly non descript and non threatening. A little depressed, perhaps, but you could have said exactly the same about Bishop Auckland. The red brick terraced houses around the ground could have been picked up from Cockton Hill (stop sniggering). Victory Park was very much a period non league ground; enormous grandstand down one side, one covered end, bordered by houses and a school.

The football wasn’t particularly outstanding. The records will show that Bishop Auckland won the game 1-0. What the records don’t show -unless you’re perhaps reading a slightly yellowing copy of the Northern Echo- is the violence that followed the final whistle.

Lancashire hospitality? We soon found out what that meant.
Lancashire hospitality? We soon found out what that meant.

Some of the Chorley fans didn’t take defeat with the magnanimity usual from the non league football fan. As a result, they decided to run across the pitch and launch an attack. En route they punched our goalkeeper, Phil Owers, unconscious. Now there were no more than 50 away supporters. Many of those were schoolchildren. Many of them were old men. That didn’t seem to matter. Luckily there were a few of our supporters who were able to protect the rest whilst the stewards and the massed ranks (2) of the local constabulary regained control; but it was left to some of our number to rescue our prostrate keeper and carry him from the pitch to the changing rooms, where our team had locked themselves in. History suggests that Chorley fans haven’t changed much with time; there was a similar reaction to a 1-0 home loss to Chester in February 2011.

Afterwards, once fear and incredulity subsided, I recollect clearly the hope that the Northern Echo wouldn’t feature a report anywhere other than the sports pages. My parents didn’t like sport. So long as the events weren’t reported in the front half of the paper, or anywhere near the death notices (which they read avidly as if they needed to assure themselves that they weren’t featured), they wouldn’t notice. If they did notice, I’d likely be barred from away matches for the foreseeable future, and I didn’t want to miss another moment of our inevitable march to Wembley. Wembley! I’d never been, and I so wanted to go (Sadly, and not wishing to ruin the end of this part of the tale, that was a dream I wouldn’t realise until 1985, when Bob Geldof and his band of travelling minstrels- and a firm ideological belief that I was changing the world- took me to Live Aid).

When we drew Wycombe Wanderers in the third round we were even more convinced that the final was our destiny. Wycombe had been one of our great rivals in the post-war years. Even I, at fourteen years old, knew the story of our 2-1 FA Trophy final victory in 1957. The names of players I’d never seen play tripped off my tongue as if they were old friends. Bobby Hardisty, the Stanley Matthews of Non League football. Harry Sharratt, the extraordinary goalkeeper who was the subject of many folk tales; such as those which alleged he’d swing from the crossbar- or even sit on it- during quiet periods, and once built a snowman on the goal line during a game, so bored had he been with the lack of activity at his end of the field. Warren Bradley, who went on to play for Manchester United and England (Hardisty and Derek Lewin, too, played for United after the Munich disaster, after an extraordinary request from Matt Busby, direct from his hospital bed). I could mention many others, but would instead direct you to Alan Adamthwaite’s extraordinary book, “Glory Days,” which tells the story much better than I ever could through the eyes of one who was there. *

This was only the sixth time we’d ever played Wycombe. We’d won the other five; four in the Amateur Cup, the last one a friendly in 1966 (under the leadership of a pre-Southampton Lawrie McMenemy). We’d beaten them in the quarter finals, the semi finals (twice) and the final; so it was about time we knocked them out in the third round too. The name of the competition may have changed, but the competition was the same- and it was OUR competition.

Wycombe W v Bishop Auckland 270282Saturday 27th February 1982 dawned cold and damp. My dad had reluctantly agreed to do my paper round for me, but I was still wide awake at 5AM. We were leaving early; Buckinghamshire was a long way from Bishop Auckland- indeed, this was to be the furthest I’d ever travelled in my life. Cosmopolitan I was not. I was convinced that High Wycombe was part of London- it was “down south” so it stood to reason- and I have a vague recollection that upon arriving I expected to see the London skyline in the distance. Mind you, when we walked down the hill from the ground to the town centre I was also convinced that we must now be in “Low Wycombe” until I was advised otherwise (as Martin kindly explained, “You really are a f****** idiot”), which should make clear to anyone reading this that Mr. Scales had done an appalling job of teaching me geography.

I used to fall asleep in geography. Mind you, so did Mr. Scales. That said, I had to get up early every day for my paper round- what was his excuse? Actually, he had to teach bunch after bunch of bored teenagers about the Australian wool industry; he didn’t need an excuse.

On this occasion, I had made sure that the sartorial errors of Carlisle were consigned to the jumble sale of history. No more wellington boots. Trainers, jeans and my most prized possession; a brand new baby pink pullover. In winter 1982 pink was the new black. All my friends owned items of pink clothing. It had taken a lot of effort to persuade my mam that this was a good idea (“you’ll look like a big girl’s blouse, man”) but eventually she relented, and this was the first outing of my new metrosexual persona. I picked up my parka (green, orange lining, hole burnt in the inside of the hood), my scarf (light blue and dark blue squares, saved by an alsation from being the property of a Carlisle fan), and off we went to Kingsway.

The first thing we noticed about High Wycombe was just how many Bishop Auckland supporters had made the trip. It was truly a spectacle. As our group of around half a dozen walked down the hill from the ground to the town centre to find our dinner (lunch to the rest of you), there were people everywhere with scarves just like ours. It was as if Cup fever had really taken hold of our town and brought them south in droves. Appetites sated, we entered the ground at around half past two and looked for the away fans. We couldn’t see anyone we knew, which was a surprise, but we decided that most of them must still be in the pub. The ground rapidly began to fill. Excitement was at fever pitch by five to three. As the teams ran out, we broke into song. “The Auckland, The Auckland.” Silence reigned around us. Who were those blokes on the pitch wearing Bishop’s kit? Then, fresh from sounding his new air horn and impairing the hearing of everyone within a fifty mile radius, Mally said “why’s Dennis Foster (our star striker) wearing red?” The penny finally dropped. We looked around to find we were the subject of several hundred malevolent stares. Have you worked out why? Then you are much quicker on the uptake than we were. At this point I demonstrated how I had famously won the 75 metres sprint at St Wilfred’s School Sports Day, 1977, leaving Tony Green and Andrew Ward trailing in my wake. We found the rest of the away contingent- around a hundred of them- near the corner flag at the top of the hill. A number of them were rather bloodied; it seemed they’d made similar mistakes to ours but hadn’t been quite so quick- nor, perhaps, quite so willing- to run away.

By the way, you may have been confused by the words “at the top of the hill?” Loakes Park was a rather unique ground. Non League grounds, of course, aren’t usually up to the standard of those used by their professional counterparts. We’d seen poor playing surfaces a-plenty. For example, we’d watched Chris Waddle plying his trade for Tow Law Town at Ironworks Road, where the pitch sloped gently but perceptively from end to end. I can’t recall whether he had the mullet at this point, before you ask. Well, Loakes Park didn’t slope gently from end to end. It sloped dramatically from side to side. I’d never seen anything like it before, or since. I assumed that if you took a corner from the top of the slope, you wouldn’t have to lift the ball as it would be head height by the time it reached the middle. The gradient really was that severe; the lower touchline was eleven feet below the upper.

The teams should have been fairly well matched. Wanderers at that point were in second place in the ‘Berger Isthmian League’ whilst Bishop were fourth in the Northern League (it didn’t have a sponsor at this point. Berger, it seems, made paint). Unfortunately the match didn’t work out that way. Wanderers were quickly on top, and stayed that way for the entire 90 minutes, running out 4-1 victors. Bishop worked hard, but were always second best. The pitch surely didn’t help, but the best team won.

The coach was quiet on the way home. We were proud of the team, they’d given their best- but we realised that the season was as good as over. Blyth would undoubtedly win the Northern League again. Whitby Town were currently top, but there was as much chance of their remaining in pole position as there was of Southampton, the current leaders of Division One, becoming English Champions, Kevin Keegan notwithstanding. We stopped at a service station somewhere on the M1, and had an impromptu kickabout in the coach park. Mally decided it would be fun to let off his air horn again, this time in the left ear of mad Melvyn, who jumped in the air and knocked me over. My one item of semi fashionable clothing now covered in oil, it is an appropriate memory with which to leave the day. I felt both dirty and disappointed. A appropriate metaphor for my entire teenage years, perhaps.

The rest of the season was undoubtedly an anti-climax. Indeed, it may be said that, for Bishop Auckland, the next thirty plus years have continued in that vein. They left Kingsway on 20th April 2002, ostensibly in preparation for their move to a new ground, however this took eight and a half years to be built, a period during which they fought off financial disaster with regularity and played the part of wandering nomads, with home games at Shildon, Spennymoor and West Auckland. Finally the new ground, Heritage Park, opened with a friendly against Middlesborough on 2nd November 2010. Fittingly, Heritage Park stands on the former site of Tindale Wood, a five minute walk from my childhood home and a place where I spent much of my childhood.

My obsession with Bishop Auckland FC ended along with the 1981-82 season. By the time the 82-83 season dawned I was almost 15; almost grown up, or so I thought. There was a train leaving Darlington for Leeds at 1201 every Saturday lunchtime, arriving at 1324, and I was going to be on it. Like many young men I’d been seduced by the glamour of big name football; though not so big as I’d hoped. Leeds, managed by my hero Allan Clarke, had been relegated to Division Two.

I still watched Bishop occasionally, but it wasn’t the same. My friends were all older than me, and as such were now far more interested in girls than football. I’d also have been interested in girls, if only I could have persuaded any girls to be interested in me, but failing that, I had Leeds United. 1981-82 was special, though. It was the last season we all spent together before we were torn apart by new interests, new responsibilities and, particularly, our hormones. I don’t believe we ever attended a match as a group again.

But the season was an important milestone in my life. It instilled in me a love of live football which remains even today. It broadened my horizons. It helped me develop a self reliance without which I’d never have had the confidence to travel to Leeds, let alone to move myself to London in pursuit of a dream five years later. Whilst my relationships with my friends were never the same after its end, 1981-82 was pivotal to the man I would become.

All roads lead from here.

Perhaps they also lead back.

* As a sad postscript, I met Bob Hardisty when he was in a hospital bed in Bishop Auckland General Hospital in 1985. He’d had a leg amputated due to circulation problems. I was a volunteer with hospital radio collecting music requests. I saw him there, in that hospital bed, looking frail, tired and old-he wasn’t old, he’d have been 64- and I immediately wanted to tell him what he meant to me and to the town. But he looked exhausted, and I felt embarrassed about disturbing him, so apart from agreeing to play him a record (I have some vague recollection that he chose something by Sinatra) I said nothing to him of any note. He died the following year, I never had the chance to speak with him again, and the fact that I didn’t express my feelings at that point has been a lasting regret.

The district council later named a new and entirely nondescript new road after him. You drive down ‘Bobby Hardisty Drive’ on the way to the supermarket and the railway station. I realise that this was meant as an honour, and I don’t want to denigrate any of those who made the decision, but I think it’s a travesty. At the very least there should be a bronze statue of the man in the Market Place outside the Town Hall. There would be no point putting it at Kingsway, which would be the most appropriate place, as this is now a housing development. Bobby Hardisty deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as that other giant of North East football, Jackie Milburn. He isn’t, because he played all of his football as an amateur, but he should be.


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

A Little League Love Affair Chapter 3- ‘I still haven’t found what I’m looking for…’

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