The international break usually means a week off for most SoL regulars. But for obsessives like Pete Sixsmith, it’s an opportunity to visit new grounds, drink in unfamiliar pubs and catch up on news of old players and their offspring.
As regular readers will know, this writer has a peculiar obsession with ticking off football grounds and/or watching copious amounts of non-league football. Like the groups of men gathered on the platform ends at Doncaster station, it’s an enthusiasm that causes most sane people to glaze over after 30 seconds of discussing the merits or otherwise of the Pyramid system.
However, it does throw up unexpected opportunities to bump into famous names. A couple of Fridays ago, I was at Sunderland Ryhope CA’s home game with Tow Law, and I was able to renew my acquaintance with George Herd.
George is 74 years old and looks as fit and sprightly as a man 20 years younger. He has been involved on the coaching side with RCA for a number of years and is a well known figure around the Northern League Second Division grounds.
He stands, arms folded, barking advice and instructions to his players and occasionally lapsing into the kind of expletives that persuaded Mr Ken Stokes of Newark to send him to the Boothferry Park dressing rooms for an early bath in that tumultuous FA Cup Fifth Round Second Replay with the Damned United in 1967.
For those too young to remember him, let me assure you that he was a very, very good player in the days when Scots populated the top division of English football in huge numbers. He joined us as a Scottish international from Clyde in 1961, for the then huge fee of £40,000, and became the engine room of a side that eventually clambered back into the top league in 1964.
He was a steady goalscorer, with 47 in his 278 games for us, but his real skill was in that short killer pass that would open up a defence. Brian Clough, Johnny Crossan and Nicky Sharkey all benefited from his skills and bagged goals galore in the early and mid 60s.
My abiding memory of George is of watching him slot home the 2 goals that carried us to victory over Rotherham United on Good Friday 1964. Colin and I were stood in the (uncovered) Fulwell End, part of a crowd of 56,000, willing the Lads to promotion. His two goals, beautifully taken, almost confirmed it and we left in high spirits for the walk back to Sunderland station and the train back to Durham and the ritual of frothy coffee, meat pies and the still green Football Echo – which probably didn’t publish that day, but let’s not let the facts get in the way of a good wave of nostalgia.
Poor George had to stand and watch his RCA charges blunder to yet another defeat in a difficult introduction to the Northern League’s first division. Defensive lapses and glaring misses sent his blood pressure racing, but he retains an enthusiasm for the game that is wonderful to see. A real hero!!
Saturday saw a train trip to the charming Derbyshire town of Chesterfield to “tick off” their new stadium. By splitting the journey, I got a very good deal on the rail tickets and arrived in the town of the crooked spire looking for a decent pint and a good lunch.
I found both in a fine pub called the Rutland in the shadow of the Parish Church of St Mary’s and All Saints and its crooked spire. Legend has it that a virgin was about to be married in the church and this was such an unusual occurrence that the spire twisted itself to have a look. Or perhaps the wood warped. Or not.
Anyway, it’s a nice town and I had a good mooch round before taking in Chesterfield’s Division Two (4 in old currency) clash with Lincoln City, at their new B2Net stadium.
They are the fourth oldest Football League club, having been founded in 1867 and they played at Saltergate from 1871. I went there in the Third Division season where a late John McPhail penalty gave us a draw, but I (and millions of others) have seen the ground, since it appears in multiple guises in the film The Damned United, mostly as Derby County’s Baseball Ground.
The new ground is a pretty decent one, a smaller scale version of Wigan’s DW. The capacity of just over 10,000 is ideal for a club of Chesterfield’s size and they made a good noise as the home team gained a deserved 2-1 victory over Lincoln City.
The Imps chose not to wear their traditional red and white stripes making it easier for me to lean towards The Spireites. I enjoyed watching their style of football; no kick and rush here, but plenty of quick balls for players to run onto. The midfield worked very hard, particularly the two in the middle but there were very few balls wasted.
Up front they had local legend Jack Lester. He set up the decisive goal with as good a through ball as you will see, and departed early to a rousing ovation. He’s such a good player that you wonder why he never made it in the top league, but Chesterfield love him and with every justification.
The friendly couple sat behind me offered my weary bones a lift back to the station and revealed that two Roker Legends have sons in the Spireites’ youth system. Chris Waddle’s son Jack is currently turning out for the Under 18s (and scored in the recent 4-3 win over the mighty Burton Albion), while Paul Lemon’s son is part of the new intake. They couldn’t remember his name, but I don’t think it was Jack.
So, a good day out away from the hype of the Premier League. Next week, we are off to the DW stadium and our first glimpse of Asamoah Gyan. Paul Wilson in today’s Observer calls it the most adventurous signing of the window for “a club not regarded as glamorous and a manager not regarded as adventurous”. This could be the signing that propels us to that next level – as long as it’s not another Tore Andre Flo.