Into the secret valley

Remote, undisturbed and rammed up against the Scottish border lies a stunning expanse of Northumberland, little known even to those from round about.

The mysterious College Valley slices through the surrounding Cheviot Hills, overlooked by Iron Age forts and the sites of crashed World War II aircraft, its tranquility broken only by the babbling College Burn.

It’s difficult to picture it now, but dozens of Allied and German airmen perished in these scenic hills.

Caught out by poor weather, basic navigation equipment and lack of familiarity with an unforgiving landscape, the rolling peaks topping 1,500 ft proved a barrier 19 aircraft could not pass.

A stunning, recently renovated memorial in polished granite and bronze in the shadow of Cheviot ensures they will never be forgotten, in a place where time seems to have stood still for generations.

College Valley memorial dedicated to the lost British, American and German airmen

It’s oh so quiet

College Valley is quiet, eerily so for urban visitors attuned to a digital life of surround sound and background traffic hum.

The scale of the hills overlooking the valley floor for visitors like me from low level living draws the gaze upwards and keeps it fixed there.

Its solitude, reached via a ‘B’ road from the A697 north of Wooler, means it’s often bypassed by visitors intent on reaching the Scottish Border and Coldstream, lying out of sight and mind for many motorists.

It’s a place I first heard of as a youngster living in Morpeth, 40 miles south. A place I’d always wanted to go to, but unsure whether it actually existed.

Strange local names like Yeavering Bell, Trowupburn, Madam Law and the appeal of supposedly being able to walk out of the valley into Scotland, rather than crossing the border sitting in the back of a Ford Fiesta driving past Berwick, only heightened its allure.

War memorial

Back in 1995 I missed out on the opportunity to visit College Valley for the first time.

A ceremony was held in the valley to remember the Allied and German airmen lost when their planes crashed in the treacherous hills that overlook the valley.

Working as a journalist way out west in The Journal’s Hexham district office meant I couldn’t report on the Duke of Gloucester unveiling a memorial to the lost airmen 50 years after the end of the war. My colleague, and top writer, Christine Harle, had that honour.

Then a few years later, my interest in the valley was piqued further when Matt Baker took the BBC Countryfile programme into its pristine beauty, triumphantly stepping over a hillside fence, standing half in Scotland, half in England.

As a Northumbrian, I felt duty bound to get there – trumpeting his county roots in his Twitter biog but with next to no knowledge of such an untouched expanse of the county.

And get there I eventually did, finally dragging my carcass to the valley in my late 40s – and discovering it to be a special place indeed.

Into the valley

The long and winding road into College Valley begins at the car park at Hethpool village – a cluster of stunning cottages built by a rich Tyneside industrialist, some of which look as if they’ve been transplanted from The Cotswolds.

Welcome to the secret valley

Cars beyond this point deeper into the hills are restricted to special permit only, to preserve the peace. The valley sits within the Northumberland National Park and is managed by a dedicated team.

As you step out into the valley, look to the skies and if you’re lucky, you’ll see gliders being towed into place by a bi-plane from a local air club.

Riding the currents from the valley floor in total silence, they circle the hills like modern day pterodactyls, offering what must be an unparalleled view over Cheviot and into Scotland.

The valley below is a wildlife haven, home to Peregrine, wild goats, Roe Deer, hare and Curlew. Its isolation is a commercial opportunity in itself and resourceful locals have tapped into the lucrative wedding and hiking visitor markets.

Tying the knot at Cuddystone Hall – surely one of the UK’s furthest flung village halls – offers a backdrop to die for with late night noise complaints from neighbours highly unlikely.

Wedding bells – as loud as you like out here

At Mounthooly Bunkhouse even further up the head of the valley, there’s self-catering accommodation with wi-fi to boot, nestled at the foot of Cheviot.

Aircraft graveyard

The memorial garden overlooked by Cheviot, lists the crash sites, the aircraft and the crews who lost their lives. Remnants of a B-17 ‘Flying Fortress’ US bomber are still to be found on the summit 2,600ft up.

A Spitfire, Hurricanes, Avro Lancaster, Vickers Wellingtons and Mosquito fighter/bombers are included on a stunning new memorial plaque, pinpointing the areas they crashed and the dates they came down.

Seven planes ploughed into Cheviot alone – while two German bombers, a Junkers 88 and Dornier, were lost nearby.

Final resting place – the aircraft lost in the Cheviot Hills

The Dornier which crashed into Madam Law peak was most likely damaged as a result of being engaged by night fighters at Kelso, unable to climb over the hills as it headed back south.

The heavy toll of lives lost proves just how dangerous these remote hilltops were to war time aircraft. A nightmare to navigate in poor weather and in the dark for men inexperienced as pilots, unfamiliar with the remote terrain – and wrestling with the most basic of flying technology.

In total, 58 died in 19 crashes peppering the Cheviot Hills between 1939 and 1946. Sixteen of their colleagues managed to escape the wreckage with their lives.

The aircrews lost in World War II crashes

The newly refurbished memorial stones stand in a tranquil walled garden.

The elements had eroded the original slate memorial – replaced in 2018 after a £25,000 Royal Air Force campaign led by the Alnwick and Rothbury branches of the RAF Association.

Twenty-three years on from his first trip north, the Duke of Gloucester was back to unveil a new polished granite and bronze memorial.

The time taken to research the flight crew and list all their names is striking, as is the quality of the craftsmanship. The absolute stillness of the location a contrast to what must have been the noise and chaos of the aircraft pitching into the hillsides above 75 years ago.

A series of ‘Crash Trails’ are available on an app for hill walkers courtesy of the national park, keeping alive the memory of men forever part of the valley’s history.

Heading to Scotland

There’s something about borders that fascinates me – maybe it’s the anticipation of what lies beyond, yet to be discovered.

Despite casting a disdainful eye down the years at tourists stopping for photos at the A1 border crossing point lay-by, the prospect of walking into a new country off the beaten track is one I’ve always wanted to savour.

College Valley visited, several times. Tick.

Cross the hills into Scotland. Pending on the to do list.

There’s a canny boozer, The Plough over the hills in Yetholm, Scotland, apparently, waiting to rehydrate knackered Northumbrians staggering over the Cheviots into town.

Too lazy to do anything about it to date, content to read about it or watch a You Tube video from someone more adventurous.

But no more. After lockdown lifts I intend to finally right this wrong and cross into the ‘mysterious wilds’ of Scotland, via a route like this. 🙂

Next stop Scotland
You take the high road…

So, the challenge is clear, and the excuses have ran out. Hardly K2 without oxygen, but a challenge nonetheless.

When the lockdown straitjacket is finally removed, I’ll be back to enjoy the silence.

Memorial garden – crook, but no shepherd

In bed with Seve – when Ballesteros came to Teesside

Propped up on top of the bed, back to the headboard, legs straight out in front of him, Severiano Ballesteros is talking about life, love and loss.

Next to him, mirroring his position, is Paul Kimmage, award-winning sports writer and ex-pro cyclist of some renown.

Not quite Eric and Ernie, but the scene between the pair in a North East hotel bedroom borders on the comical.

Seve immaculately attired in logoed golf gear, jousting with a journalist probing way beyond the normal safe questioning of press conferences.

Me – I’m stood about four feet away, trying to act as if media interviews on the double beds of sporting superstars are regular events I take in my stride…

Sporting genius

The talents of Seve are playing to fans old and new during the Coronavirus lockdown.

His three Open wins are being aired by golf’s governing body the R & A across social media.

Tributes flooded in from around the world on what would have been the Spanish superstar’s 63rd birthday earlier this month.

A record 50 European Tour wins, including five Majors and the heartbeat of Europe’s Ryder Cup team, Seve was the driving force of European golf in the 1980s as it overturned decades of US dominance.

All flair and feel, Seve’s skills propelled him to world number one and to global adulation way beyond his sport.

In the twilight of his career, and in what would prove to be the final years of his life, Seve made the surprise decision to stop off in North East England and bring his star spangled show to town.

The Wynyard Club golf course on the edge of industrial Teesside to be exact.

Ignoring the obvious allure of courses and regions steeped in golf history, he chose the newly built parkland layout in a relative golfing backwater as the home for his eponymous trophy.

Parmos and Pintxos

The Seve Trophy was the Ryder Cup’s unofficial ‘little brother’.

It brought together the cream of Europe’s golfers in a four-day competition based on the Ryder Cup format – Great Britain and Ireland versus Continental Europe.

Recreate as near as possible the Ryder Cup cauldron, and out of it you get your strongest team to face the Americans the following summer.

A pretty successful formula as results from the noughties verify.

So why choose Wynyard for the 2005 event after previous visits to Sunningdale, Druid’s Glen in Ireland and Spain?

North East England had two trump cards to play: The economic firepower of the regional development agency One North East and an unmatched passion for sport.

One North East made early contact after hearing the event was looking for a home for its next edition. The ambitious Wynyard Club was vocal about its desire to stage what would be by far the region’s biggest ever golf tournament.

Seve and his Amen Corner team, led by his nephew Ivan Ballesteros, ran the rule over the Teesside course set in one of the region’s most exclusive housing estates.

A meeting hosted by One North East and club officials over Pintxos and more traditional local fare in the clubhouse helped seal the deal after Ivan played the Wellington Course and gave it his stamp of approval.

One North East would be the event’s main sponsor, with its acclaimed ‘Passionate People, Passionate Places’ tourism branding for North East England being promoted across national media as part of the build up to and during the event.

And the crowds would come they were promised.

Seve and his team loved hearing about the North East’s passion for sport – its Premier League clubs, Euro ’96 hosting success, tales going back as far as Ayresome Park staging the epic North Korea v Italy World Cup clash in 1966.

On the tee…

Was the North East ready to welcome Seve, Colin Montgomerie, Jose Maria Olazabal and 22 of the world’s greatest golfers with all the paraphernalia that entails?

No, not really, but as Richard Branson famously said: ‘If someone offers you an opportunity and you’re not sure you can do it, accept it and learn to do it later.’

A few eyebrows were raised about the venue and whether the course and facilities were up to the standards expected by pampered Tour pros.

And what about the North East weather in late September when the event would tee off? Would it lash down for a week and prove a washout? Some things are beyond control, but others aren’t.

A £750,000 investment by The Wynyard Club extended the clubhouse – work completed courtesy of a Trojan-like effort by Stockton Borough Council’s trades team ensuring the players would feel right at home.

Lengthening the Wellington Course, adding new bunkering and preparing the greens to European Tour lightning fast standards took place over a year.

Wynyard ops manager Chris Mounter and MD Gary Munro embark on course improvements

A marketing and PR blitz ensued across media, the centrepiece a news conference at Hardwick Hall Hotel in Sedgefield, County Durham, headlined by Seve to herald the countdown to the event.

A team of creative experts – featuring the talents of Lisa Liddell, Chris Lines and Ian Ramsay with top advertising agency Different – seized the opportunity to showcase the region’s charms to a national audience.

Offered the chance by my employer One North East to lead on public relations for the event, I found myself with barely believable access to a man who had been my sporting idol for 25 years. Luck, chance, circumstance, all rolled into one!

Lost in translation

Northumberland meets Pedrena, London as go between

The success of the Seve Trophy from the North East’s perspective hinged on Seve, his charisma guaranteeing crowds and media coverage.

I found him a fiery, complex man struggling to accept his days at the pinnacle of the game were gone and never to return. But hugely charismatic with it – his effect on people incredible to witness.

On my first encounter with him (pictured above), he told me to stop talking, struggling to understand my nervous Northumbrian twang, asking if I was from Scotland.

I didn’t disagree, incapable of meaningful conversation.

‘Caddying’ for him for three holes in a report for Sky Sports, I merely handed him the clubs he wanted and watched with a sense of melancholy as he recreated his famous fist punching reaction to holing the winning putt on the final hole at St Andrew’s in the 1984 Open.

Seve liked what he saw at Wynyard: “I’m very happy that I’ve been able to see the course – it is a fantastic place and it was good to choose a place like this,” he told reporters.

“It is more a combination between links golf on the back nine and parkland on the front nine and it reminds me very much of my course back home.

“I hope the North East public will come to the event. They will see some great golf and I’m looking forward to watching Jose Maria play against Monty – I might even caddy for Jose Maria!”

At Hardwick Hall Hotel, Seve’s appearance outside to speak with TV crews turned a grown man into jelly.

Nipping outside for a cigarette break to escape a dull corporate seminar, he did a comedy cartoon-style double take before asking child-like if he could have Seve’s autograph.

The great man agreed and a lifelong story to tell was guaranteed for one beaming punter.

Other grown men were unable to speak, frozen when around him. Seeing Seve is shock enough, but bumping into him mid-week in a County Durham hotel. No chance!

Faded glory

Seve cut a lean, trim figure for the 2005 event.

On a strict training regime of daily cycling and swimming, he was in preparation for a return to play the Open the next year, convinced – despite media incredulity at the packed news conference – that he could recapture his former glories.

He was non-playing host at The Wynyard Club, his troublesome back still causing him problems, prompting him to hand over the Continental Europe captaincy to Olazabal with Montgomerie leading Great Britain and Ireland’s charge.

Seve was the man about Teesside in the run up to the event. Hosting a golf clinic at Wynyard for youngsters, guest of honour at a dinner at Ormesby Hall and unveiled to Middlesbrough fans at half-time on match day at the Riverside Stadium.

It was clear during unguarded moments that back pain was troubling him, as it had plagued much of his career.

His rapid fall from the top of the game to hardly being able to hit a fairway surely the result of crippling immobility.

He stretched out in obvious discomfort leaning from a wardrobe door in his room before meeting with Paul Kimmage, granted a one-to-one audience by top media man John Collard of Sports Impact representing Amen Corner for the event.

Londoner John (pictured centre above) found the array of North East accents as big a challenge as Seve and his entourage – Queen’s English at a premium all week as I translated for him at meal times.

Room service

Looking for a quiet space away from fans and other reporters after the news conference, retiring to Seve’s small bedroom seemed the only logical option.

Once in there, a lack of space means the bed is the obvious choice for the two to get to know each other better!

I watch on, pretty much redundant, John at the side of the room, as two masters of their respective crafts go toe to toe.

Their interview is fascinating. Nothing it seems is off limits. Love, life, golf, winning, losing, the collapse of his game.

His fiercest rival Nick Faldo is never far from his thoughts. Nor is the second shot to the 15th at the 1986 Masters, dumped into the water, and with it his chance gone of fulfilling a promise to his dying father of winning for a third time at Augusta.

On reading the interview again 15 years on, it is unsettling to learn of Seve’s curiosity about dying and what lies beyond.

He’s not sure what heaven is, that’s why he’s curious. But he tells Paul he’ll come back once he’s gone and let him know.

The interview’s appearance as a feature in the Sunday Times helps Paul pick up the prize as the interviewer of the year at the British Sports Journalism Awards once again – an accolade he would win five years on the bounce.

Game on

Seve hands the spoils of victory to Monty. Picture by Evening Gazette.

The lure of Seve attracted a star-studded turn out to the pro-am the day before the tournament start for real.

Alan Shearer, Michael Owen, Jonathan Edwards, Steve Harmison, Mick McCarthy and Paul Collingwood are the North East sporting greats lining up with the professionals playing the course 24 hours before the first blows are traded in competition.

“Real Madrid will never be as big as Racing Santander, Michael.”

Two and a half thousand people turn out to see the action – stunning Seve’s team, one telling me that’s more than for a day’s action at the tournament proper at previous venues.

Seve Trophy hits the headlines

Over the four days of the event, 40,000 fans pack the course to follow the stars. On the final day, crowds ten deep line the first fairway. The pros speak about how it has a Ryder Cup feel and they revel in the atmosphere.

There’s controversy for the tabloids to get stuck into: Seve angers pros with comments about modern day stars – Seve clarifies remarks.

Monty rows with Poulter. Monty gives his team a ‘positive rollicking’.

The European Tour roadshow is in full swing at Wynyard – tented village, media centre and manufacturers’ huge equipment vehicles. Sky Sports’ fleet of production lorries and a thousand miles of cabling line the course.

TV ratings on Sky Sports are great, executives loving the fact it is outstripping viewers tuning in for the prestigious President’s Cup being played in the States.

The local economy cashes in to the tune of a seven-figure sum boost generated by visitor spend from the event.

Even the weather holds fair – no sane punter would have backed against it raining or blowing a hoolie on Teesside in early autumn.

On the course, Great Britain and Ireland land the spoils with a five point win.

And behind the scenes a collective sigh of relief from the North East team deprived of sleep and with signs of premature ageing brought about by a year’s worry and anticipation.

The North East’s unbridled love of sport has played out once again.

The 19th hole

There was talk of the Seve Trophy making The Wynyard Club its spiritual home, to return in 2007. It didn’t.

Instead it went to Ireland watched by underwhelming crowds and then on to France for three more outings. The last event – with Seve’s name watered down by a sponsor’s branding in the title – took place in 2013 and there are no signs of it returning.

While The Wynyard Club blazed the trail for big name top flight golf in the North East, it’s Close House, Newcastle, which has taken up the reins, due to host the hugely successful British Masters for the second time in three years later this summer.

For Seve, of course, there was to be no renaissance.

A brain tumour diagnosed in 2008, cruelly cutting short his life three years later aged just 54.

His genius lives on, his swashbuckling triumphs and gifted shot making reaching a new generation in a digitally connected age.

Teesside and Seve were good for each other. Right time, right place.

The North East unexpectedly touched by his magic as he chased one final tilt at glory.

Morpeth to Midi-Pyrenees: Simon’s culinary journey

He looks every inch the confident French Michelin starred chef, living out his dream of running his own restaurant in a beautiful corner of south west France.

Only his surname betrays roots 1,000 miles distant from his business, a culinary journey beginning in Morpeth, Northumberland, heading due south via a stint as head chef at London’s Savoy Hotel.

Simon Scott is very much a part of the community he calls home in the gorgeous seventh century town of Castres – population just 45,000 but with a huge reputation as a rugby union powerhouse on the European stage.

Married to Marie-Helene for more than 20 years, they run Bistrot Saveurs with a team of eight, acclaimed by locals and beloved of rugby fans for the quality of Simon’s cuisine which earned the eatery a coveted Michelin Star just a year after opening.

Fish and chips

It’s all a far cry from frying scampi and chips in the kitchen of the Queen’s Head Hotel in Morpeth as an 18-year-old lad, skiving classes on his cookery course at Ashington Technical College, keen to learn his craft cramming in extra shifts at the busy hotel.

Simon, 52, grew up in Crown Street, Morpeth, with his brothers Derek and Dale, taking his love of cooking from their mother Sallie who worked in the Rendevouz fish and chip shop, then sited next door to the Waterford Lodge Hotel in the 1980s.

“I suppose becoming a chef seemed quite natural as I helped my mam a lot bringing up three boys alone as unfortunately I lost my father when I was a young boy,” said Simon.

“And as mam used to work at the Rendezvous chip shop, I would help out cutting spuds and frying fish.”

Morpeth Queen’s Head Hotel

It was in the Queen’s Head kitchen as a college student in 1985 that his passion for cookery was lit by the stories of colleagues well travelled and with contacts that would prove invaluable to his career.

“At the Queens I did more or less everything,” said Simon. “I often skipped off college to help out.

“The chef at the Queen’s, Derek Finlay, had worked in London many years previously and along with John and Peter Wilson, my teachers at Ashington Tech, both excellent chefs who also worked in London at famous hotels, they would peel off story after story.

“So coming to the end of my college year, John took me to one side and asked me if I would be interested in going down to London for an interview? ‘Yes of course!’ I bit his arm off!”

A1 south

A week later and Simon was off down to London to meet chef Brian Steele at the Marriott Swiss Cottage, a good four star hotel, where he worked for nine months.

It whetted his appetite for more.

Working in London put Simon on a completely different stage where his nerve and self confidence were tested every bit as much as his culinary skills.

“I went to the Britannia Intercontinental at Grosvenor Square, Mayfair,” he said.

“It was a completely different animal. I went from the Marriott where I think we were about eight or nine chefs in the kitchen, to the Britannia where there were about 30 to 32 chefs, most with Michelin or big hotel experience.

“I was shitting it! I started as third commi (the lowest rank in the kitchen) and finished chef saucier, highest position below sous chef. 

“I also met Marie-Hélène who would become my wife!”

A year, or two, in Provence

After three years at the Britannia and after gaining an advanced City and Guilds at Westminster College, the couple decided to go to France in search of work and a culinary dream.

“To cut a long story short, we drove down to Avignon, in Provence, with what little belongings we had.

“My old chef from the Britannia gave me a contact to go and see, his old chef Jean-Claude Aubertin, who had held two Michelin stars but had just opened his own restaurant called Aubertin in Villeneuve Les Avignon in Provence.

“It was a very small restaurant with 25 covers, great produce, markets – Jean-Claude was very creative and during this time I met many famous chefs. I was a bit of the odd one out, the English boy who wanted to do and know everything.”

London Calling again

Simon was lured back to London from the Gallic sunshine by an old colleague, now head chef at the Ritz Hotel who offered him the chance to work alongside him.

“It was too good to pass up and as Marie-Helene loved London too we decided to go,” said Simon.

“So we headed back to London but somehow I knew I would be back to France one day.

“I started as junior sous chef in 1993 but within a year I was executive sous chef, number two in the kitchen.

“I stayed four years when I got the chance to become executive head chef at the Savoy Grill in the Savoy Hotel – a great honour as I was only the third British head chef there in 150 years.”

French dream rekindled

Simon and Marie-Hélène married in 1998 , still holding onto the dream of returning to France to run their own restaurant one day.

“Then in 2001 I got itchy feet and during a summer holiday we came across this fabulous property,” said Simon.

“It was a 19th Century farmhouse in 15 acres of land, but the reality is not always as easy as the dream.

“We created Les Saveurs de St Avit and after six very difficult years, we were awarded a Michelin Star!”

Master chef at work

At the time Simon was one of only two British chefs in France to hold a Michelin Star – the other being Gordon Ramsay.

“My dream was now a reality but business was still difficult as we were very isolated, 20 kilometres from town,” said Simon.

“So in 2009 we sold the farmhouse and found premises in Castres town centre and created Bistrot Saveurs which with great pleasure recieved a Michelin Star in 2010.

“Bistrot means a more relaxed restaurant, Saveurs means tastes. For me, my food is fine presentation with a melting pot of tastes.

“In the restaurant we are a team of eight, including two apprentices. The kitchen is semi open plan so all can see how we work as a team.”

Castres life

It’s a decade since Simon and Marie-Helene relcoated to Castres in the Midi-Pyrenees region.

They’ve stopped working weekends, not just to savour the rugby at Castres Olympique but to enjoy a better quality of life.

Simon and Marie-Helene enjoying Castres’ win at rivals Toulouse

The club lifted the French championship two years ago and Gallic greats such as Thomas Castaignède, Thierry Lacroix and Raphaël Ibañez have all worn their colours.

“We are huge rugby fans, but quality of life is very important for us and our staff,” said Simon, still a big Newcastle United fan who also dreams of the Newcastle Falcons meeting Castres in European competition.

“We have a very busy schedule Monday to Friday lunch and dinner, being in town we have a much more regular fan base if you like.

“We are fully booked lunches and busy dinners too. We change our menus every week according to the markets. I have no à la carte, just menus.

“Food is very important as you can imagine to the people of Castres.

“Busy markets, top producers, they come to me now to ask what they should plant for me which is very humbling.

“The rugby plays a big part in our lives, matches, events – most of the players come to eat so we all know each other well.

“Castres is a small town with 45,000 inhabitants, very much like a big village and if you think we get crowds of 11,000 most games, that’s how big rugby is in this region.

“Plus we’ve had three finals and championship wins in recent years. Their success coincided with our arrival in Castres so we’re looked upon as good luck!”

Match day at Castres

Lockdown life

Coronavirus has hit France hard.

Social lockdown means Simon has time on his hands for the first time in many years and is using it to pass on his gastronomic flair to thousands of people via Facebook instructional videos from the Bistros Saveurs kitchen.

Stunning cuisine at Bistros Saveurs
If you happen to be in Castres, stop by at Bistros Saveurs for treats like these

“With the Coronavirus, we’ve been closed for two weeks now on lockdown,” said Simon.

“We started to a Pasta Challenge amongst friends, making videos to help people during this difficult time and give them recipe ideas. I got over 23,000 views for my video on Facebook, that’s really cool and helps to keep us positive.

“In the early years it wasn’t always easy for me being an Englishman here as English food didn’t have a great name but that’s all changed now.

“I know they are proud of what I do, our Michelin star was the first in Castres in 43 years!”

So after nearly two decades living abroad, does Simon consider himself a Frenchman, or an Englishman?

“Yes very much English! I had a nightmare Six Nations this year in Paris with 15 French friends as you can imagine!”

Simon and Marie-Helene’s dream turned reality – Bistro Saveurs

Waddle: Video thrills of radio star

For many fans, Chris Waddle is the Geordie BBC radio pundit, prone to a post-tournament England rant, rounding off his vowels to make his analysis more easily understood.

He did actually play a bit back in the day. As a mate of mine remarked on Twitter recently, his football opinion is open for discussion, but what isn’t is his God-given talent for the game.

Early days

I was lucky enough to see him play many times for Newcastle United from his earliest days in 1980 through to rising star and England international.

Lauded but never loved at St James’ Park – adoration he would later find from supporters elsewhere – his unique playing style, permed mullet and how he came to life with the ball at his feet, marked him out as my favourite player.

Watching from a freezing, concrete Gallowgate End, a local lad exhibiting skills more associated with continental exponents, quickened the pulse and stood out like a duffel coat in the Bigg Market on a Saturday night.

Nearly 30 years ago, Waddle made a bold move which would allow his full talents to unfurl on the European stage, finding his football home in the unlikely venue of a Mediterranean French port with a reputation for its volatility.

Everyone needs a home, a place where they are totally at ease to express what they feel, a stage on which to perform.

It took Chris Waddle nearly a decade and a 1,000 mile journey south to find the place where he could fully remove the shackles imposed on him by the rigidity of the English game.

French Tricolore

France’s Ligue 1 and Marseille’s Stade Velodrome were tailormade for Waddle.

Waddle celebrates another Marseille strike

A little more space, a little more time and crucially a licence to go out and “just play” gave him the freedom he craved.

But this was no easy Gallic joyride for the Geordie. Olympique de Marseille boasted a formidable side, packed with stars and a first team place was anything but assured.

Waddle’s creative mastery was coveted by owner Bernard Tapie as a key piece in his masterplan to build a team to win the European Cup.

Boli, Tigana and Stojkovic did the spade work to set Waddle free to exhibit his feints, shoulder dips, step overs and slalom dribbling which ignited Marseille’s quest for the domestic game’s biggest prize.

Such was Waddle’s impact that he was recently voted Marseille’s second greatest player of the 20th Century, behind Jean-Pierre Papin, the free scoring striker who fed off the five star footballing cuisine served up by the Englishman.

French President Emmanuel Macron, David Ginola and Thierry Henry have all cited his impact on their formative years in a Marseille side which caught the country’s imagination.

For a couple of years in 1990/1991, Waddle was as good as any player in world football.

Flying under the radar back in his pre-internet homeland, focused as ever only on its own affairs, Waddle carved open all-comers in the French league and ran rings round top quality opponents in European competition.

Video compilations show a gifted player performing totally free of inhibition.

Supreme skills

For a big man without blistering pace and predominantly left-footed, the right wing didn’t appear to be his obvious home.

But that’s the position Waddle instructed his manager Gerard Gili to play him, able to cut inside onto his stronger foot – or go outside his man onto a right foot which dispatched AC Milan en route to the European Cup Final.

His stunning volley, scored while suffering the effects of concussion from hefty challenges meted out by Milan’s notoriously mean defence, is a thing of beauty.

Waddle’s unique brand of football was never fully appreciated back home in England.

Off the ball, a round-shouldered, seemingly off balance and disinterested spectator, he frustrated some but enthralled many more.

His lumbering gait often reminded me of Roger Patterson’s famous ‘Bigfoot’ footage!

The outside of the boot was used as frequently as his instep to prize open defences and pick out centre forwards with precision crosses.

His ability to contribute more than his fair share of goals as an attacking midfielder/secondary striker made him a highly prized asset by the mid 1980s.

England woes

Waddle though struggled to replicate his club form at national level. A rigid 4-4-2 system stuck out on the right wing with no freedom to roam meant a series of below-par performances which got the ‘boo boys’ on his back.

Much like his singing partner Glenn Hoddle and fellow winger John Barnes, Waddle’s precocious talents remained largely under lock and key at international level.

But unlike Hoddle, a move to France imbued Waddle with the confidence to eventually express himself in an England shirt.

Waddle came of age in an England shirt in the 1990 World Cup

Italia ’90 – while unquestionably belonging to Paul Gascoigne – saw Waddle bloom on the international stage, his crashing drive off the inside of a post against West Germany agonisingly close to firing England into the World Cup final.

The first signs that a rough diamond was polished had come alongside Kevin Keegan, Terry McDermott and Peter Beardsley in the first incarnation of Newcastle United’s ‘Entertainers’.

Learning from these three stellar talents, Waddle would go on to play centre-forward for the Magpies as he matured into the black and white stripes.

He served notice to a national audience of his lavish gifts scoring a superb goal at White Hart Lane in a defeat to Tottenham in early 1985.

Waddle’s run and precise finish undoubtedly cemented Spurs’ determination to sign him – and they did just that in the summer of that year, much to the chagrin of Toon fans.

Some never forgave his move to the Big Smoke.

London calling

The Toon’s loss was Spurs’ gain and he began to fulfil a special talent first spotted and nurtured by Arthur Cox at St James’ Park in the early 80s.

The “sack of coal” Cox said hung from Waddle’s shoulders was finally removed and he began to revel in a Spurs team packed with attacking talent.

He supplied many of the bullets for Clive Allen to fire in his incredible 49-goal haul for Spurs in 1987.

Linking up with fellow Geordie and Newcastle-transferee Paul Gascoigne the following year gave Spurs a season to remember with sumptuous football from two of Europe’s supreme midfield talents.

Such was their potency that Gary Lineker was moved to leave Spanish giants Barcelona and head to White Hart Lane, drooling at the prospect of delivery from his England teammates.

Waddle, as he’d shown by leaving his native North East behind to move to the capital, was also ambitious and not afraid of making the big decisions needed to fulfil his goals.

A surprise close season call from France, a £4.5m fee – huge in 1989 – and the prospect of showcasing his skills in the European Cup English clubs were banned from – convinced Waddle and Tottenham that his future lay by the Mediterranean.

Freedom of expression

Playing in Europe is still a big deal for British players today. Thirty-years ago, leaving these shores for continental football was the preserve of an elite.

Few, like Lineker, cracked it. Far more – Ian Rush at Juventus, Mark Hughes at Barcelona to name but two – failed to replicate their proven talents on foreign soil.

A big money move at 28-years-old to an obscure club operating on the fringes of English football fans’ knowledge, appeared as bizarre a transfer as it was unexpected.

But Waddle was cut from a different cloth to most of his contemporaries, and soon had Marseille fans adopting him as one of their own.

Outsiders, passionate with a ferocious reputation, Marseille bristled at having to play second fiddle to arch-rivals Paris politically, socially, economically – and in football.

They revelled in Waddle’s joie de vivre on the pitch.

European Cup high – scoring the winner and celebrating victory over Milan

All flair, spontaneous, Waddle was etched into Marseille folklore with an audacious back-heeled winner against Paris Saint Germain in a first season ‘Le Classique’ derby at the Velodrome after chesting the ball down and lobbing the keeper.

His dismissal of the sophisticates from the North ignited the fires within a fan base desperate for success.

Football-crazed Marseille had a new hero. ‘Le Rosbif’, ‘Magic Chris’, ‘Crazy Legs’. Affectionate nicknames for an Englishman abroad leading their charge to be crowned France’s top team.

Waddle spoke little of the lingo. Just slowed down Geordie brushed with a French glaze.

Parlez-vous Francais?” “Half past three mate.”

But his connection to the fans was incredible. Traffic wardens waived scores of parking tickets in exchange for an autograph, drinks were never paid for and his haircut was sported by many a Marseille Ultra.

Glittering prize

Three French league titles were reward for Waddle’s brilliance. But the ultimate prize of European champion was to elude him.

Pipped by an uber cautious Red Star Belgrade in a stinker of a 1991 European Cup Final was as close as he got to hoisting the trophy his contribution to the club surely deserved.

A series of dazzling displays en route to the final had most of Europe sitting up to take notice, all that is bar England manager Graham Taylor.

He flatly refused to name Waddle in his dour squad, insisting his style of play would unbalance the side.

Waddle’s England career was over at 62 caps, probably 20 short of where it should be. The victim as much of an English footballing mentality which ludicrously labelled him a ‘luxury player’, the national side consistently failing to embrace individuality in favour of power, discipline and pace.

Marseille would finally go on to lift the European Cup in 1993, building on the foundations laid down by Waddle.

Welcome home

Waddle himself was back in England, wowing Sheffield Wednesday fans with the full repertoire of skills honed in the Mediterranean sunshine.

A Football Writers’ Association Player of the Year Award at Wednesday was scant reward from the English game for a man who Match of the Day pundit Alan Hansen hailed as “worth the entrance fee alone.”

A cabinet full of silverware may have eluded him.

But Chris Waddle was one of that rare breed of ‘once seen, never forgotten’ players, a trailblazer for a new generation of English talent now looking to foreign shores to further their own careers.

#Marseille #OM #SheffWed #NUFC #COYS

Danger: Genius at Work. Lomachenko

When was the last time you discovered a sportsman you’ve never heard of who made you sit up and take notice simply because of their sheer brilliance?

In this social media saturated age there’s something especially satisfying to find Vasyl Lomachenko – who up until a few months ago, I knew precious little about.

“A Glitch in The Matrix.” “The Picasso of Boxing.” “The New Mayweather.” Legendary promoter Bob Arum has called him the greatest boxer he’s seen since Muhammad Ali.

Lavish praise. Hyperbole from those blinded by the dollar signs of big fights and marketing deals to come?

Lomachenko’s dazzling skills will play out to a primetime audience to decide when he locks horns with brilliant lightweight king Jorge Linares in their eagerly awaited clash at New York’s Madison Square Garden this weekend.

A BBC Five Live interview with Steve Bunce and John Rawling before his last world title success alerted me to a new boxing superstar. When two broadcasters of their renown sing the praises of someone out of leftfield, I had to find out more.

Lomachenko is still in the first flush of his professional career and has a lot of leather to dish out and take before his record stands comparison with the all-time greats. What is without doubt is his astonishing talent perfected during a stellar amateur career.

In just a few short years he has taken the old boxing maxim of “hit and avoid being hit” to a whole new level.

Lomachenko is rapidly becoming to boxing what Roger Federer is to tennis and Lionel Messi to football.

His movement and balance is breathtaking. His hand speed and punch accuracy dazzling.

Opponents cover up not knowing from which angle the next punch will land to scramble their senses. Natural gifts honed through thousands of hours of gym work with his father as his trainer.

An artist but without the canvas of huge media exposure as boxing struggles to reconnect with fans lost to the more brutal and hyped UFC and attract a new younger audience whose time has a million and one different distractions.

His sustained volume of punches carry the sting to sicken fighters – Lomachenko’s last four opponents quitting on their stools allowing the Ukranian to revel in his new moniker Vasyl ‘NoMas’ Lomachenko.

Despite arresting pro displays and an incredible amateur record, Lomachenko is still an enigma to all but the most ardent boxing fan.

The 30-year-old hailing from the shores of the Black Sea emerged into the global spotlight to grab two Olympic golds at Beijing and London, the summit of an astonishing amateur career which saw him lose just once in 396 fights. He went on to defeat his victor, twice for good measure.

Lomachenko has tasted defeat in his pro career, losing a highly controversial second fight when he battled for the world featherweight title. A world title shot in just his second pro fight!

Lomachenko new boxing star
Destructive: Lomachenko in full flow

But he’s blasted his way to featherweight and super featherweight crowns since. Different opponents, same outcome.

Lomachenko gliding around the ring like he’s on castors, circling before probing for weaknesses, switching shots, avoiding artillery and refusing to give his antagonist a moment’s respite.

Pros quitting in their corners is not how fighters call time. If they have to lose, then they go out on their shields or at least until the ref steps in.

Sickened to the point of not wanting to re-emerge from the sanctuary of their corner is testimony to the impact of boxing’s shining new light.

Whether he has the star power to take his talent beyond his sport and into the mainstream remains to be seen.

Moving up in weight to fight Linares is a risk. But a calculated one. The Venezuelan is an artist, a big name, and, like Lomachenko, as skilled in avoiding blows as dishing them out.

Linares in Madison Square Garden – the US spiritual home of boxing – is the card-topping fight on ESPN to propel Lomachenko’s renown to a whole new audience.

Victory would bring the widespread acclaim his talent deserves.

Finding those in future prepared to step through the ropes to take on a man hailed as a genius by many hardened observers of the sport, may be more difficult.

Who wants to try and hit what seemingly can’t be hit, or be pummelled senseless in a flash of Ukranian blue and yellow?

Phil Mickelson: US Open Dream Reborn?

He’s the most resilient man in golf. Beaten down but risen again more times than is feasible.

And at 47-years-old, Phil Mickelson is riding the sport’s hottest streak towards a flaming June date with golfing greatness now more than just the pipe dream of a player in the twilight of his career.

Mickelson lies second going into the final round of this weekend’s World Golf Championship event in Mexico, trading blows with a new generation of players, some of whom weren’t even born when he was lifting his first titles on the US PGA Tour.

Allied to three top ten finishes in his last three starts this year, his rich vein of form points to Mickelson possibly achieving the one thing in golf that has eluded him – winning the US Open.

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Hot streak: Phil Mickelson heads to the US Open full of confidence

His national championship has been the stage for some of his most thrilling golf, but ultimately a source of crushing disappointment.

Six runners-up finishes at some of the game’s greatest layouts would have done for most players. But time and again golf’s ‘Mr Bounce Back Ability’ has dusted himself off, saddled up and got back on board his ride,  heading off once more into the fray.

The historic Shinnecock Hills on Long Island, New York, is the venue for this year’s US Open.

Mickelson has previous there. Pipped by a sensational putting display from South Africa’s Retief Goosen in 2004, Lefty knows he has the game to tame the British-style links.

A US Open crown would open membership of golf’s most exclusive club to Mickelson. Only Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods have won all four of golf’s majors.

Entry into this most of exclusive of clubs is by appointment with the golfing gods only.

Tom Watson couldn’t get in, a PGA championship escaping him as it did ‘The King’ Arnold Palmer, their places set at the top table of the game ultimately left empty.

The US Open urn is the glaring omission in Mickelson’s trophy cabinet. Three Masters, a PGA Championship and an Open won in dramatic fashion at Muirfield in 2013 are the stand out wins on Mickelson’s glittering CV.

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Three Green Jackets for Master Phil

Sipping from the Claret Jug nearly five years ago is his last tour win. All-American Mickelson, still something of a mystery to British fans, proved the depth of his game and sheer brilliance in taming the ferocious Edinburgh links to win the major that many pundits said was beyond him.

His high ball flight and wildness off the tee were supposed to cancel out any chance in squally British weather on parched fairways fringed with heavy rough.

Very much like what he will face under foot at Shinnecock in June. Turn the volume down on your tele and the course looks like it could be on Scotland’s east coast.

Only the New York accents give away its Long Island location, not far from the Big Apple itself.

US golf fans love Phil Mickelson. New Yorkers in particular love Phil Mickelson. He won his PGA Championship at Baltusrol in neighbouring New Jersey.

His all-out attack style of play seems to fit their psyche. He’s never reined in his game. Simply refuses to do what doesn’t come naturally to him.

Protestations that his ‘go for broke’ style would mean he’d never fulfil his fabulous talent fell on deaf ears.

He’s shortened his swing a bit, thinks more clearly on the course but his attacking instincts still underpin everything he does.

His flop shot should be trademarked. Who hasn’t gawped in amazement at the sheer gaul of a full swing just yards from the green, the ball elevated into the jet stream to land and sit like a dog in front of a roaring fire just inches from the cup?

Mickelson plays the game every hacker dreams of. Free, uncluttered and spectacular. Take it on and triumph.

In reality, his meet it head-on approach has cost him many titles and multiple majors. A case in point his last hole US Open disaster at New York’s Winged Foot in 2006, slashing a tee shot into corporate hospitality and running up a double bogey when a par would have secured him the crown he covets most.

Mickelson knocked on the door of the US Masters for years before finally being admitted into the Butler Cabin and eased into a Green Jacket in 2004.

The 2013 Open was the scene of what up until now is surely his greatest triumph. Even the ultra confident Mickelson doubted if he had the game to conquer 72 holes of championship links golf.

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His greatest triumph? The moment Mickelson sinks the final putt to win the 2013 Open

But his Muirfield win, and two Open second places at Sandwich and Troon, the latter his epic gun fight with Henrik Stenson, proved beyond doubt he has the skills and mental toughness to tame the oldest form of the game.

This evidence is added to a growing case file this season to convince that the US Open dream for Mickelson at Shinnecock is a real possibility.

Fifth, second and sixth in his last three Tour starts. He’s averaging under 70 every time he sets foot on the course and his birdie stats place him fifth on Tour.

Mickelson appears to be managing the debilitating arthritis which blighted him several years back, especially evident in a fragile putting stroke which now looks back on track.

He still hits the ball a mile, a smidgeon under 300 yards on average to stand comparison with the young guns who ease the ball into the stratosphere as if they’re shelling peas.

Nearly 30 years on from his first Tour victory – beating the pros as a prodigious amateur in Tuscon, Arizona, in 1991 – it’s testament to his extraordinary gifts that he is still able to mix it with the best in an era when power hitting has taken golf into a new dimension.

Shinnecock Hills has been remodelled a bit and lengthened by 500 yards since Mickelson last strode its fairways.

But Mickelson remains essentially the same player. Crunch it off the tee, pick up the pieces if needs be with a short game that should get its own season on the Las Vegas Strip.

Mickelson will celebrate his 48th birthday on the Saturday of the Shinnecock US Open, his big day and the title he seeks most seemingly entwined by fate.

If he were to win it, he’d become the second oldest man to lift a major. He’d certainly be the most popular.

If he doesn’t, then doubtless he’ll continue to go for broke, just because he can.






If you can’t play, at least look the part

Bjorn Borg’s Fila tracksuit, the Brazil 1970 team colours and Adidas World Cup 1982 boots.

All classic kit which has stood the test of time. Even the most rotund male can carry this clobber off, in mind if not in reality.

Reaction to a tweet of Borg’s rivalry with McEnroe and their tracksuits for the ages at the 1980 Wimbledon final, set me thinking about the classic sportswear which still cuts it – and the threads that don’t.

As a kid, trotting into the school gym for PE lessons in a France 1984 European Championship winning shirt or slide tackling the games teacher in Puma Kings, more than made up for the fact that you were crap.

At least you could look the part if you couldn’t play the part.

If Trevor Francis could carry off the European Cup in that Adidas Nottingham Forest shirt, then maybe so could you…

Here’s my shufty through the clothes rack of classic sports gear. The nearest I got to most of this lot was a pair of Winfield Madrid football boots (blatant Adidas World Cup rip-offs for one thousandeth of the cost) and a Carlisle United 1975 home shirt from the bargain bin at Jim Alder Sports in Morpeth.

Adidas World Cup football boots


Just look at them man. Nothing more to say really.

Inter Milan shirt

Inter officials approach you: “100k a week in Serie A, an apartment in Milan and the life of a lord in Europe’s suavest country. And you get to wear this strip every week.” I’ll have a bit of that…

Newcastle United – Adidas meets Brown Ale

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Broon Ale. Adidas. Newcastle United. Memories, light the corners of my mind…

England World Cup 1990 shirt

Gazza, Beardsley, Waddle, Platt’s late winner, New Order, Turin – and that kit. What’s not to like?

Greek giants’ green

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Love this. (Worn it on me hols, sadly) Panathinaikos football shirt. More than a nod to the Irish, but as Greek as Feta, Mythos and Ouzo.

Sergio Tacchini v Fila

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Borg and McEnroe sporting tracksuit classics before their epic Wimbledon final clash in 1980

Off the court, every bit as big as Mac v Borg on it. Fila or Tacchini? The ultimate dilemma for a 1980s football casual. Never a decision I had to make. Geordie Jeans and a Galini rip-off my ‘threads of choice.’

Italian football team tracksuit top

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Belgium team cycling top 

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Forget the bike. Beer in hand and watch them go by.

And maybe not…

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Coventry City away strip 1978. Presumably sponsored by Cadbury’s Dairy Milk.

Carlisle United top 1975


I liked it. Wore it for a school trip to Flamingo Land. Carlisle in their First Division pomp, if not me.

Jimmy White thrown career lifeline

Jimmy White’s professional career will continue for two more years at least after he accepted a tour wildcard from snooker supermo Barry Hearn.

Hearn’s tour invitation – to coincide with 40 years of the world championship at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre – ensures White will continue to enthral his legion of fans in the twilight of his career as the game’s elder statesman.

Screen Shot 2017-04-18 at 19.38.17.pngIt’s an unlikely mantle for a player with a wild past but one who the sport’s governing body realised still has an important part to play in its future.

The Whirlwind, 54, and 1997 world champion Ken Doherty were the beneficiaries of Hearn’s benevolence.

White accepted his wildcard during a special televised Crucible 40th anniversary ceremony, with Hearn in the audience looking on.

“I’m definitely going to be playing for the next couple of years,” confirmed White.

“I haven’t won the world championship, but I’m not finished yet. This is such a great place for snooker.

“I’ve seen snooker go from the top in the 80s to a small decline in the 90s, but now it’s in the best shape ever and to be a young professional now, it’s the greatest game to be in.”

White’s 37-year professional career appeared to be over when he failed to qualify for this year’s world championship.

The six-times runner-up wrote his name into Crucible history in his pursuit of the world crown – seeing his dream dashed by greats Steve Davis, Stephen Hendry and John Parrott.

The world title is the only prize missing from his glittering CV, which includes the world amateur title and Benson and Hedges Masters.

White amassed ten major titles during a colourful career – the UK crown in 1992 the pinnacle of his achievements, establishing him as one of the most recognisable faces in British sport.

His tour invitation means he can side-step snooker’s Q school in the summer and look forward to pitting his wits against a new crop of tour snooker talent – most not born when his quick fire game first burst onto TV screens in 1981.







Liverpool v Newcastle 21 years on: A Coming of Age

The defining league game of the new age of satellite football celebrated its 21st birthday a few days back.

“Collymore closing in!” and all that. Poetry to Liverpool fans, purgatory for Newcastle supporters.

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For me, the glamour surrounds of a Northumberland workingmen’s club was the vantage point for a never-to-be-forgotten night of goals, elation and heartache.

The squall of spilled Carling Black Label and McEwan’s Best Scotch which greeted strikes from Les Ferdinand, David Ginola and Tino Asprilla was all part of a wild night when the wheels came off Newcastle United’s title challenge.

Watching highlights of the April 1996 top of the table clash, reveals a game from a different era, one which has aged well in many respects, but is increasingly a museum piece.

The juggernauts of Liverpool and Newcastle United collided spectacularly in a 4-3 thriller widely acclaimed as the most exhilarating match ever seen in the Premier League.

In any era, either side would have been worthy league champions.

Fowler, Redknapp, Barnes and McManaman could grace any team, as could Ferdinand, Ginola, Beardsley and Asprilla.

But both ultimately flattered to deceive, their challenges snuffed out by Alex Ferguson’s perennial party-poopers.

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As a Newcastle fan, watching Kevin Keegan’s side back then was like getting an access all parks pass to Disney World.

He had no pretence of doing anything other than meeting Sir John Hall’s brief of winning Newcastle its first league title since Hadrian visited the North East for a long weekend.

No dynasty building. Just assembling the heavy artillery needed to deliver the maximum firepower possible to land the title as quickly as he could.

In doing so, Keegan and his team connected in a way no other Newcastle side has done before or since with fans who crave the acknowledgment of knowing their devotion is appreciated by those lucky enough to represent them.

‘Toon’ live games in the mid-1990s were the very definition of ‘appointment to view television’ for fans.

Days were built around them and watching the match in the boozer – if you weren’t lucky enough to be able to get into St James’ Park – took off in a huge way.

Sky Sports’ business model appeared to be constructed on the foundations of mega live clashes involving Manchester United, Liverpool and Newcastle.

Standing room only

Getting a seat in the old Morpeth Social Club the night Newcastle rolled into Anfield proved more difficult than usual.

A refurbishment of the main bar downstairs meant the little-used upstairs bar was to be the amphitheatre for the masses to watch the gladiators do battle.

Its 1950s-style wall seats and furnishings were relics from a different era – a lot like the likely lads who descended on it that night craning to see the drama unfold on a fatback tele mounted on a wall bracket.

Shoehorned into the tiny room,  the place was absolutely rocking.

Christ only knows what passers-by outside thought. Grown men leaping around framed against condensation soaked windows – best not go there.

Game on

The game itself was simply superb. It still raises the heart rate all these years later.

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It encapsulated all that was so good and yet so bad about Newcastle at the time. Rapier-like attack, powder puff defence.

When Fowler – then the most dangerous young striker in the country – stole in to plant a header past Pavel Srnicek in the second minute, it was hardly a surprise.

What followed was thrust and counter thrust. Caution thrown to the wind by two sides front-loaded with talent.

Asprilla’s goal in particular had blokes around me on the tables, hanging off each other as he cartwheeled over to the Toon fans in celebration.

Dinking the ball around David James with the outside of his right boot for it to spin sideways off the turf into the net was typical of a player who no-one could quite get a handle on.

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Only Newcastle United could accommodate Asprilla.

Their Las Vegas team was built on gamblers – even full-backs Steve Watson and John Beresford were given licence to spin the roulette wheel, marauding forward in a way only out and out wingers dared attempt. Fantastic to watch, but it came at a cost.

I swear the television camera is nearly rocked off its gantry when Collymore scores his last gasp winner.

The crowd roar is at a higher octave, more like that heard in South American games, such is their total absorption in the drama.

Commentator Andy Gray was moved to say it was a privilege – he stressed it twice – to witness it. It didn’t feel like it at the time to me, but I eventually came to realise he was right.

For those distraught, face down on tables in Morpeth Social Club, we knew our chance had probably gone.

Games against Blackburn and later Nottingham Forest would deliver the final blows and extinguish all hope of winning the ultimate prize in English football.

Modern times

So what is the game’s relevance today? In some ways it’s like unearthing a time capsule, the game recorded on a video tape, lying next to a Sega Mega Drive and pair of Adidas Predator boots.

Free-flowing football with players trusted to adapt to changing situations as they unfold on the pitch. Not your standard Premier League fodder nowadays.

Just look at England mark 2016. Footballers lost when their opponents suss Plan A. Without the wit to know why or how to cope.

Player athleticism and tactical analysis are king in the era of big bucks. They trump all. At its expense are skill and flair – and often excitement.

Seeing two teams cancel each other out through superbly plotted managerial plans has a certain appeal.

But it seems there are few gamblers at the top level anymore, willing to concede in the pursuit of scoring more.

Of course, as a Toon fan the Liverpool-Newcastle game was going to move me more than many other football supporters.

But apart from England’s 1990 World Cup semi-final exit, I can’t ever remember being so completely gripped by a game or being carried along on the wave of emotion that went with it.

Its impact stayed with me long after the game ended. Working as a press officer at Northumbria Police, I was used to speaking with reporters about matters other than criminal investigations.

The number of journalists – months later – from outside the North East who told me exactly where they were the night of the Anfield game, the impact it had on them and how Newcastle was the result they looked for after their own side’s, stuck in my mind.

All telling me this because I supported Newcastle United. Maybe more in sympathy than anything else, they wanted to talk about my club.

The power of football to bring strangers together never ceases to amaze me.

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Times change of course, even Morpeth Social Club – the old boozer – is long gone, replaced by a cracking bar, conference and gig venue called the Riverside Lodge.

Newcastle meanwhile stand on the cusp of yet another return to the big time and all that entails. Time to look forward.

No harm though once in a while, of turning back the clock 20 years to a time when we had joy, we had fun and a couple of seasons in the sun.



Jimmy White: End of an era?

The career of one of the biggest names in British sport may have come to an end last week.

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It probably passed you by – barely troubling mainstream media – but the days of Jimmy White as a professional snooker player could well be over.

Defeat in the qualifying tournament for the World Championship means White has dropped out of the tour’s top 64.

For his 37-year career as a pro to continue, he’ll need to go to snooker’s version of Q school – or rely on a wildcard for events from a benevolent Barry Hearn, the sport’s supremo.

As it stands, it’s up to ‘The Whirlwind’ to decide if lugging his cue to a backwater to face off with hungry young whippersnappers desperate for a slice of the action he has enjoyed for so long is an ordeal he’s prepared to put himself through.

What’s not in dispute is White’s contribution to the popularity of a sport whose 80s heyday rode on the back of his unparalleled connection with the public.

Streetwise and self taught, White was the antithesis of his nemesis Steve Davis. Practice, abstinence and mineral water weren’t part of White’s pre-match routine.

Gambling, cigarettes, alcohol and – as he admitted in latter years – worse, fuelled a wildly talented player who followed in the footsteps of his idol Alex Higgins.

Safety play was simply ignored. White backed himself to pot his way out of any trouble he found himself in – and invariably did.

The careful, considered play of stalwarts Eddie Charlton, Cliff Thorburn and Ray Reardon won many a-title. But it was deadly dull. Ice Ages came and went while they pored over safety exchanges with the baulk cushion their location of choice.

White in full flow in the early 80s was as talented and attacking a player as the game has ever seen.

Left-handed, intuitive – he had the ability to assess a table and make decisions before his latest Embassy Regal had barely settled in its ashtray.

I remember seeing White play for the first time against Steve Davis in the first round of the 1981 World Championship. His all-out potting, anti-establishment style captured me and my mates absorbed in a sport enjoying wall-to-wall BBC TV coverage.

White should have put Higgins to the sword in their epic World Championship semi-final the following year. Leading 15-14, he broke down on 59 with a final spot all but secured.

An inspired Higgins though produced what is widely regarded in the game – and by White – as the greatest pressure clearance in the sport’s history.

The 69 break crushed a 20-year-old White who lost the deciding frame, but established himself as the hottest property in the UK’s hottest sport.

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White took the game to new heights in his 1984 Benson and Hedges Masters semi-final against Kirk Stevens.

An evening session at the old Wembley Conference Centre was a home fixture for the Tooting boy.

A century from White was answered by a 147 from Stevens who somehow wrestled the cue ball around awkwardly positioned final colours to complete a stunning maximum.

Up breezed White for frame ten, unfazed. He promptly knocked in a quick-fire 119 featuring two baize searing ‘flair’ shots in dispatching the final pink and black.

White landed his first major crown the following day, seeing off Griffiths and officially announcing himself as Davis’ main rival for the world title.

A Davis in his pomp though pipped him three months later at the Crucible 18-16. ‘The Nugget’, as White called him, always seemed to have his number in the crunch encounters between snooker’s two heavyweights.

White didn’t do easy. Winning was always fraught. Ripping the Mercantile Credit Classic from a devastated Thorburn in 1986 when needing a snooker on the pink and black, was a case in point.

Losing was equally dramatic. Being a sport’s ‘best never to have’ player is a huge burden to carry.

Sergio Garcia managed to rid himself of that monkey after 70-odd Major attempts and 18 years of trying at last weekend’s US Masters.

Millions willed White to do likewise at The Crucible for two decades.

To have watched a dominant Davis at the table would have been challenge enough. But then to see him replaced in the 90s by Stephen Hendry was just plain cruel.

Out of his six world finals, White realistically should have won two. His 18-14 defeat to Hendry in 1992 saw him sat ashen-faced for a couple of hours, helpless as the Scot reeled off ten frames on the bounce.

Two years later, when in prime position, he cracked and missed a black off its spot in a final frame decider, handing victory to Hendry and with it, his last chance of lifting the game’s biggest prize.

There’ve been flashes of his old brilliance since. A ranking title in 2004. Victory over Ronnie O’Sullivan. He’s won all the sport’s glittering prizes – bar the big one.

Longevity is a barometer of sporting greatness. White has been at the top of his for the thick end of four decades.

He was a pioneer of an attacking game now taken on by a fresh generation to its ultimate conclusion of one knockout blow per frame. Potting taking precedence over strategy.

The new breed owe much to a man who always did things his way.









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