Rather fancifully, I had hoped to interest my old newspaper, The Northern Echo, in this slice of nostalgia brought bang up to date by Shildon’s night of potential glory. A win at Bedlington Terriers tomorrow evening (Wednesday) is all that stands between them and a first championship since 1940 in the Northern League, 126 years old and the world’s longest surviving league after the Football League.
The Echo declined, alternatively offering a little space for a retrospective that I fear I may have no time to provide. So I must keep my Echoes of the past, at greater length than I would have sent to the newspaper, for Salut! Sunderland (and Salut! readers at a couple of other places: francesalut.com and salutnorth.com ) …
From the North East of my youth to the south of France, nowadays home for half the year, anyone will tell you I am a passionate if perpetually downtrodden Sunderland supporter.
But there was a footballing life before Roker Park, the Stadium of Light and the 60-odd away grounds in which I have stood or sat and watched my team over the past 54 years.
For much of my boyhood, I was a regular at the games of Shildon AFC, for two very good reasons: it was my home town and my father, Ernie Randall, was the club secretary.
Dad would be 106 if still alive today. But if it is true that the departed spin angrily in their graves, aghast at what has become of the world they left behind, his soul will equally now be purring in serene contentment.
Tomorrow night, Shildon will win the Northern League title if they beat Bedlington Terriers in their final game of the season. It is a tough challenge against a side that has five championships to its name, won consecutively even before the splendidly named US billionaire Robert E Rich Jr traced family roots to the area and became the club’s president and shirt sponsor.
But the terrific run that has taken Shildon to the brink of glory must offer hope that the final hurdle can be cleared and the finishing line reached. The maths are simple: win and the title is theirs, lose or draw and they must settle for second place to Marske United.
With Sunderland – yet again – facing relegation from the Premier, it is a prospect that offers this Shildon exile consolation as well as filling him with excitement and pride. If I am honest, it hurts more that I cannot travel from southern France to south-east Northumberland to roar them on tomorrow than that I am also unable to make it to the Stadium of Light for Sunderland’s nervous encounter with Southampton three days later.
As a Cockney who had joined a reverse form of Britain’s work migration – he was a tailor and the textile jobs were up north – Dad cut an improbable figure as a pillar of his chosen County Durham community. He overcame the funny accent and threw himself wholeheartedly into Shildon life, serving for many years as secretary of Old Shildon workingmen’s club as well as putting an enormous amount of time and effort into his work for Shildon AFC. We barely saw him at home.
Back in those days of the late 1950s and early 1960s, his was a role that mattered in the game.
Dad was the small-club equivalent of today’s chief executive, running the administrative side of the club and even negotiating the “boot money” that amateur football routinely used to sidestep rules forbidding the payment of players.
Our Saturday rituals were cast in stone. Home ties meant selling matchday programmes to the men making the short walk from Old Shildon club along Dean Street to the ground.
Occasionally, I’d “run copy” for a local newspaperman, Dennis Robinson, known affectionately as “Tiddler” because of his short stature; he needed a willing young lad to race to the phone box with his updates for the “Pink”, the football special of the The Northern Echo’s sister evening paper, in those times called the Northern Despatch. The shilling-a-time I collected from Dennis provided useful pocket money; flogging programmes was an unpaid filial duty [with modest bribes: M Salut’s sister recalls the young Randalls – Sandra, Colin, Phil – being rewarded with free entry, plus a friend each and maybe a Bovril at half time].
Away games were reached in the team bus, the honour of being in such lofty company slightly tarnished by the constant threat of travel sickness on the bumpy, windy journeys.
Memory may play tricks but I certainly recall more defeats and draws than wins. Shildon’s heyday, not unlike Sunderland’s, was already by then a long time in the past. The club record matches Bedlington’s, five Northern League championships, but all were won between 1934 and 1940.
Still, they were my under-achievers. Half a century and more later, I can still recite at least one regular line-up: Peacock; Swan, Nelthorpe; Ayre, Swift, Brown; Hopper, Ridley, Curran, Douglas, Thompson.
There was also the thrill of a trip to mighty Oldham Athletic, Fourth Division no less, in 1961. Anorakish detail: from that starting 11, you can almost certainly substitute Mick Gilhooley – later to move to the Netherlands in his job and also help create, of all things, a Dutch cricket association – for Peacock in goal and I have friends who would make further corrections.
All of 13, I heard of the draw in the FA Cup First Round Proper when Doug Weatherall, then the Daily Herald’s football man in the North East, telephoned our house for a quote. Dad was out so Dougie quoted me instead; it was my first appearance in a national newspaper, an event seeming all the more significant – despite the absurdly optimistic babble I’d spouted – because the Herald was the paper Dad took along with the Echo.
I naturally predicted a famous Shildon win. Logic, more naturally, prevailed and, after a tremendous start in which Shildon took the lead, the game ended in an honourable but emphatic 5-2 defeat.
Later that same season, Dad was responsible for the start of my Sunderland allegiance, taking me to Ayresome Park for a game won by Brian Clough’s headed goal. I could barely see past the tall blokes’ heads in front of me on the terraces, but I was instantly hooked and Roker Park became my second home.
Remember that Sunderland was then a town, not a city, and was located in County Durham; everyone knew Sunderland as the county side and Shildon was no less part of the catchment area than Murton or South Shields. Pete Sixsmith and I would get up to home games by a combination of bus, train and foot, stopping in Durham on the way home for steaming coffee and meat pies while waiting for the Sunderland or Newcastle football specials to appear on the street corner before climbing back up to the station.
And yet I remain a Shildon lad, Like Dad, I began life many miles to the south but it was my home for 23 of my first 23-and-a-quarter years. The Northern Clothing factory where he worked, and the railway wagon works where I had my first job as a junior clerk in the loading bay, closed decades ago. But I take pleasure in having eased the town’s name into print, for different reasons, three or four times in my career as a national newspaper reporter.
My great friend and journalistic mentor Mike Amos, another product of Shildon and chairman of the Northern League, has done his best to lure me to Bedlington for the big game. There have been promises of a bed, a pint and even a pie.
The temptation is strong. Sadly, I can do no better than keep on ice a bottle of Provençal rosé to toast, unaccompanied by pie, the joyful news I hope to hear from the Doctor Pit Welfare Park. The lad has been taken out of Shildon; Shildon remains in the blood.