Non League Daily

CHAIRMANS BLOG: Compulsory promotion, a friend remembered and more ground inspections

April 6 2015.

Have you seen Non League Zone? I mean, have you seen Non League Zone?

This morning there’s a thread on there so thick you could twine it together and abseil down Durham Cathedral and almost every word of it is in praise of the Northern League chairman.

Just about the only generous term that’s missing is “good looking.” The rest is handsome, indeed.

“It’s like Noah’s Ark, years of pouring rain and then brilliant sunshine,” says Sharon, and that’s almost appropriate because this afternoon I’m at Esh Winning v South Shields on the most glorious Easter Monday afternoon.

Just five days previously I’d walked through Waterhouses, where Esh play, is biting wind, bitter cold and snow flurries. Now the bairns wear sun hats, the buggies have parasols and the tea hut, usually Oxo-insulated, is selling ice lollies.

The crowd’s bigger than usual, too, filling the sun-blessed array of benches – the posh end, they call it – behind the top goal. There, too, is our former sponsor Ann Barkas, given the cancer all-clear last week. Great news, and wonderful what these days can be done.

There’s a delightful six mile walk up the path of the Deerness Valley railway from Broompark, along which the single-carriage train would steam up to Waterhouses – finally just once a year, on Durham Big Meeting day.

The only disappointment is that, half way along, the Lion’s Den tea room – described as “shabby chic” is closed. The Big Lottery funded gent’s is open, though, and that’s a relief.

Given the heat, the game’s entertaining. Shields win 2-1. Charlie Ryan and his crew at Esh are as wonderfully hospitable as ever. I’ve a feeling they think I’m not bad in a devil-you-know sort of a way, either. By now it’s probably all over Non League Zone.

April 5 2015.

Strange, worrying and perhaps crucially relevant news arrives from north of the Border. Highland League champions Brora Rangers have been told that they must contest the Pyramid play-off clash with Edinburgh City, the Lowland League champs, though they don’t want to be promoted to the Scottish League.

It’s particularly relevant because rumours persist that the FA is going to introduce compulsory promotion at our level – a move which could be seen as assisted suicide. (A lawyer might upgrade the charge.)

It’s especially worrying because those at the FA whom I’ve asked to confirm or deny that it’s being considered continue to evade or to prevaricate (or both.)

Such evasiveness merely fuels the suspicion – and the belief that there are those around the country who want to see the Northern League brought down a peg or two.

Certainly it’s the case that the FA is considering a second promotion place from our first division level – and that that place should go to the winners of play-offs.

What if the Northern League didn’t have four play-off candidates? What if clubs thought it simply wasn’t in their interest to play in a league with five or six times the geographical footprint? What if they were simply enjoying themselves where they were?

Should Brora beat Edinburgh City, and then Montrose – the Scottish league’s bottom club – they would then face 600-mile round trips to the likes of Berwick Rangers and Annan Athletic. The Brora chairman says that both the board and the players want to remain in the Highland League. “We’d hoped that we could opt out, but it’s been made clear that we can’t.”
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? These are dangerous days.

April 4 2015.

Just about the first thing I decided upon assuming this historic office in 1996 was that clubs would never be able to say that they never saw the league chairman. (Whether they wanted to see the league chairman is, of course, something else entirely.)

So this afternoon’s match, Willington v Heaton Stannington, completes the set of all 40-odd grounds for the 19th successive year and is my 84th game of a busy season. 100? Maybe one or two short.

There’s no reason, of course, why Willington should be last. Rather the opposite. They’re good people and what folk call a “proper” football ground – perhaps one of the few in the middle of town that’s not under threat from potential supermarket or housing development.

Yet more rare at this level, Hall Lane now has cover on all four sides, the latest stand named in honour of Bob Nichols, the club’s chairman, long serving and still actively involved.

A note in the programme records real progress since Rob Lee (aided by half his family) became team manager before the last game of 2009-2010 – when they finished bottom of the Wearside League with just ten points. Statistically they’ve improved every season since, were promoted with 101 points in 2012-13 and raise this season’s points total to 56 with an entertaining 2-2 draw against Heaton Stan.

In that wonderful old board room, a football gem, the half-time hospitality is marvellous, the visiting officials particularly taken by the tea. It’s Rington’s.

The conversation turns to cricket. There’s a tournament at Langley Park on Sunday. Sounds like I only just completed the set in time.

April 3 2015.

To the ever-lengthening list of things banned from the nation’s football grounds should be added umbrellas. Not only are they a potential offensive weapon, however accidentally, but they block the view of all around.

Why go to a football match, in any case, if you’re not prepared to get a bit damp occasionally? I’m with the whiskery hero of The Wind in the Willows: “What’s a little wet to a water rat?”

The rain at the Durham Challenge Cup final, Gateshead v Shildon at the Hetton Centre, is persistent but by no means torrential. There are more golf umbrellas than the 18th gallery at Gleneagles. The late Ernest Armstrong, our president from 1981-96, would once again have told his favourite joke about the chap not getting his best cap wet.

If the things are to be allowed at all, then the maximum circumference should be (say) 3ft – the furl Monty, as it were – with an additional £5 entry charge for each additional six inches. The umbrella enforcement officer could operate next to the half-time draw seller.

Arthur Clark, league chairman for 21 years before me, always told the story of the club – Peterlee, memory suggests – which issued umbrellas at the gate to get around the “covered accommodation” regulations. I fancy it was apocryphal.

Shildon, walking wounded in some cases, prove too strong for a youthful Gateshead side, though monopod goalkeeper Kyle Hayes is added to the injured list. When last did the Railwaymen win the Challenge Cup, or anything else, two years running? Good on them.

The crowd’s a healthy 618, so they can’t all be fair weather fans. So why the up and under? Why so many bally brollies?

April 2 2015

When Brooks Mileson’s magnificent, half-million pound sponsorship ended tragically in the early summer of 2008 we were faced with the near-impossible task of finding a league sponsor at no kind of notice.

Instead we “raffled” sponsorship rights at £250 a ticket – an idea which, when I now look back at the file, appears to have been Mr John Elliott’s. It raised a quite remarkable £30,000, inevitably mostly through corporate generosity.

John Brown was one of few private backers. He lived in Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire, had spent time on Teesside and had a historic allegiance to Stokesley SC, for whom he played in 1940 before joining the Royal Engineers and rejoined after the war. He wrote letters by hand. I’d never hitherto come across him.

That file marked “sponsorship” also contains a letter from John dated January 2010, sending a £200 cheque to help fund the “Just Give it a Go” initiative – “I haven’t made you a donation this season” – and getting very excited about Srokesley’s second division campaign. “Needless to say it’s still the first result I look for in the Non League Paper,” he wrote.

He was born on November 11 1918 – “a significant date in our history” says Pete, his son– and has just died. Pete recalls being next to his dad at the 1966 World Cup final, attributes to him his own love of sport. “I’m a great believer in supporting the team nearest to where you live and have been a Wycombe Wanderers season ticket holder for many years.”

His email is headed “John Brown: Friend of the Northern League.” As Easter approaches, it’s perhaps worth reflecting upon how many really good friends this league has, and how many tremendous, selfless people still belong to the ever-growing football family at our level.

May John Brown rest in peace.

April 1 2015.

Save for the occasional quid on the dominoes, I’m not a betting man. Mugs’ game. For some time, however, there’s been a fiver with Penrith secretary Ian White on the outcome of the general election.

Since it’s only his team who are the Blues, it’s thus somewhat surprising that Ian emails with the news – and via the Telegraph, of all things – that Ebac chairman John Elliott is one of 103 business leaders who’ve signed a letter backing the Conservatives and claiming that a Labour government would “threaten jobs and deter investment.”
It would be imprudent to comment further. Perhaps impolitic, too.

By day there are more ground inspections, including one at what for now had best be termed a mystery venue – so mysterious that it’s one of precious few football grounds in the North-East upon which I’d not hitherto set foot.

At night to Shildon v Dunston UTS, where veteran ticket seller Eddie Airey has an immediate confession. “Last Saturday I mistook Ian White for you,” he says. “Same walk, same looks, same dress style.” Maybe not quite the same politics, though.
Dunston win 3-0, goalkeeper Liam Connell’s 100th clean sheet for the club. They plan a presentation on Saturday. It’s yet another twist in the most intriguing first division title race in memory. The permutations seem endless – and you wouldn’t really want to bet on any of them.

March 31 2015.

Out on the 7 30am bus for a day of ground inspections. The sun’s dancing off the sea at Easington, Norman Stephens is hoping for a Northern League return at Horden and it’s so blowy at Norton and Stockton Ancients that they’ve rigged up a jaunty washing line beneath the cover at the near end. The kit’ll be dry in no time.

At Billingham Synners they’re confident of having configured an answer to a ground grading problem, at Billy Town – where a hut roof’s blown off – they’re hosting Hartlepool Reserves v Rotherham Reserves, 2pm kick-off. Scouts outnumber the crowd, apparently. Last time they took £42.

At Shildon it’s snowing, which is appropriate because club secretary Gareth Howe is looking even more hirsute than ever in preparation for playing an unseasonal Santa Claus – “I even have a selection box,” he says – for a little boy who’s very ill.

Thereafter a bracing walk – “muddy marvellous” as the red tops would have it – from Crook up to Stanley Hill Top, on to Waterhouses and Esh Winning and thence a bus via Durham to Chester-le-Street. I arrive at 7pm – just as the match with Seaham is called off.

The best bit about that is that referee Andy Dodds declines both his expenses and the half-fee to which he is entitled. Chester chairman Joe Burlison insists upon the half-fee but on his way out, Andy hands it back again. Good on you, Mr Dodds.

Finally back home there’s a day emails, the blog and, getting on midnight, NVNG to recall from the printer after the terribly disappointing news arrives of Blyth Town’s promotion interest withdrawal. More of that on the home page.

On Wednesday I’m on the 7 30am bus for a day of ground inspections.


TABLES, FIXTURES, Results, Team News & MORE