North-East Double – Fri/Sat 17th/18th August – 883/4

‘Although nobody actually knows where Midsomer is, it seemed prudent to rope off the crime scene just in case Inspector Barnaby showed up…’

I’m not the world’s most prodigious reader but when I do pick up a tome it’s usually something either warfare-related, or possibly about heritage railways, or else it’s a good biography. The world of fiction is lost on me (OK maybe I do like a bit of the Sci-Fi stuff now and again but usually only on-screen).

My most recent brain fodder has been ‘My Magic Carpet Ride’, an autobiography by Forest legend Gary Birtles, and whilst not exactly the most riveting of reads, it did remind me of a few things from the Reds’ ‘Glory Days’, not least of which was the team’s attitude towards referees. Mr Clough Senior would not countenance any dissent from his players towards match officials, not even on the notorious occasion when the Man in Black had clearly been ‘nobbled’ (allegedly!) in a UEFA Cup tie against a team from Brussels.

Brian’s attitude was, despite a perceived injustice, that ‘a decision has been made, we will just accept it and get on with it!’ Surely sound advice for anyone else taking on a team from Brussels!

Sadly, in football at all levels nowadays, few people follow the Clough creed. You can have the words ‘Respect’ printed as large as you like across your playing strip, but nobody appears to show any. I see hard working referees and assistants putting in a real shift and getting most of the stuff right. But what happens when they don’t? Simply just get on with it, I say. But until the FA livens up and introduces Rugby-style punishment for dissenters – free-kicks moved forward ten yards, Sin Bins for persistent offenders – then that’s never likely to happen.

My two games this weekend are little different to any others I have watched in recent seasons. Most have been refereed to a competent level, at least from my neutral standpoint, but the officials have still copped for plenty of grief from players and supporters – plus club officials – with parochial axes to grind.

My appearance at Tow Law Town on the Friday night is unplanned. At 6.45pm I am sitting in the covered section of the stand at Durham CCC’s Riverside Stadium waiting for T20 Blast action, which has been delayed by the persistant heavy drizzle which continues to fall. A Clash song flashes into my head. ‘Should I Stay or Should I go?’  I decide on the latter, beating the mass exodus from the slippery car parks, with the Sat Nav set quickly for the distant Northern Division 2 ground. Reassuringly, it tells me I will be there before the 7.30pm kick-off. Just!

I had visited Tow Law once before, in the 1980s with my girlfriend at that time. I’d been fascinated by the place since reading football books as a youngster, with the village’s team having enjoyed some cup success in the Sixties, and as we were camping locally, decided to check out the village pub, The Surtees. This turned out to be one of those joints where strangers might just as well have been aliens, as everything stopped as we walked in and we were obviously the main topic of conversation until we quickly supped up and left.

Thirty-odd years on I’m back, there’s no sign of The Surtees, but I do find the football club’s Ironworks Road ground tucked away down a side street of the same name, and I am immediately engaged by the character of the place. The pitch has a decided side-to-side slope, with the small main stand of a certain vintage straddling the halfway line on the lower side, and rudimentary covered terracing behind the far goal. On the upper side is a strip of uncovered stepped terracing, while the clubhouse occupies much of the area behind the other goal. The 5,500 who crammed in to see the FA Cup win over Mansfield Town in the 1960s must have found it a tad cosy!

The game itself is against Brandon United who have the temerity to score first, but that’s about as good as it gets for them, with the home side sweeping forward in a generally one-sided first half and notching four in reply before half time. It’s a little tamer after the break but another three goals are added to the final score, with just one of them to the visitors. An entertaining start to my weekend.

Day 2 dawns with a trip to the Spoons at the Gateshead Metro Centre before heading out to the east coast, and the Meadow Park ground of Northern Division 1 side, Sunderland RCA. The prefix is a bit of a misnomer in that the club is actually based in Ryhope, not Sunderland, and was acquired when two sides amalgamated back in the day. The RCA suffix stands for Ryhope Community Association – not to be confused with nearby rivals Ryhope Colliery Welfare – which is where the club is based.

The ground wouldn’t be encountered by chance, being situated at the end of a maze of winding streets in a modern housing complex. Like Tow Law last night, the pitch has a decided slope, but this time from end to end, and all of the spectator accommodation, save for hard standing, is on one side the ground. The centrepiece is a basic but adequate cantilever main stand, and an area of covered flat standing, part of which is currently out-of-bounds. There’s a comfortable clubhouse where the barman makes my day by producing a chilled bottle of Black Sheep Ale just when I thought my options would be Carling or John Smith’s Smooth.

The home team is up against Dunston UTS, who have started the season well, and it’s an entertaining see-saw five-goal encounter which is only settled at the death when a goalkeeping indiscretion gifts the visitor a soft penalty. But the level of aggravation throughout the match targeted at the officials from players, supporters, and the odd club official alike, is what led me to open this blog with the Clough anecdote. Respect is in seriously short supply today.

Perhaps the local chap standing near me towards the end of the game has the answer to everything. He launches into a tirade at a Dunston club official who himself has just given the referee a real mouthful.

That he does so without provoking any aggressive response from the club official might have something to do with the brute of a dog he’s got with him. So there you go, equip the referee with a snarling rottweiler, or a belligerent Staffy, for an assistant and dissent would be reduced to a bare minimum. Respect would be the new norm, unless you wanted a ragged hole in your shin pads…..

Programmes: Tow Law Town – £1 (I think) at the turnstile. 36 pages of which 15 are adverts. Nice glossy cover and plenty of info & stats. Sunderland RCA – £1 (delivered to me in the bar, many thanks!) 32 pages on very thick card, of which 11 are adverts. Once again full of stats and info. Both very commendable publications.

Floodlights: Both clubs have eight pylons.

Club Shops: No

Toilets: Behind the goal at TLT and next to the stand at RCA

Birdlife: Just the odd seagull.

What’s In A Name: RCA’s utility player Dom Moan is not happy to be sat on the bench, whilst midfielder Dimitri Limbo is not sure whether he’s playing or not. Defender John Jury has a judgemental view about both….


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