THE funny thing about South Bank, or at least about South Bank railway station, is that it smells exactly as it did all those long gone years ago when we’d pitch up for the football.
It’s a hokey-cokey, smokey-blokey, almost okey-dokey sort of a smell.
Time has not camouflaged it, nor perfumed it, either.
The reason for being back on once-teeming Teesside is that it was at Normanby Road, South Bank – there and at Birtley Football Ground – that the Northern League, the world’s second oldest, kicked off 125 years ago on September 7.
South Bank beat Auckland Town 3-0, Birtley saw off Elswick Rangers 4-1. They thought they had, anyway.
There was also a game at the Heaton Junction ground, Newcastle East End v Darlington, but that started 45 minutes late because Darlington’s train was late. Nothing new under the sun?
South Bank, founded in1868, were the first English football club north of York. They contested the first FA Amateur Cup competition – alongside Spurs, Ipswich Town, Berwick and the Boro – in 1893-94, won the trophy in 1913 and reached the final on two other occasions.
The ground, said The Northern Echo on September 9 1889, was full-sized, well fenced and conveniently situated. It became a nursery for countless top players including Wilf Mannion, drew 8,005 for an Amateur Cup tie with Bishop Auckland in 1946, reeked of atmosphere as it reeked of industrial emission.
The club also holds the record for the highest Northern League score, a 21-0 win over North Skelton Rovers in 1895 – also at Normanby Road.
The Bankers lasted until 1993, crashed contentiously. On history’s eve, how fared the dear old place?
The area’s much changed, of course. For the better? Who knows?
Much is shuttered, even the pubs, though Woof Woof ’s doggy salon survives. St Peter’s church, where Mannion was an altar boy – and for whom he played football – has Masses just twice a month. Even the Fat Katz night club appears to have fallen upon lean times.
Alongside the A66, Asda has swept up small businesses, though not the underpass which links it to the old town. A horse (shall we say) had been there.
Normanby Road overflows with memories: the barrel-roofed houses, St John the Evangelist’s church, the wonderful, heroic, rough-hewn ground.
It’s now Golden Boy Green – community centre, skateboard park, basketball court – named in proud and proper acknowledgment of the great Mannion. Nothing remains of the original ground, not even the twopenny turnstiles.
The new fence, a sort of wrought iron requiem, recalls the iron age, municipal trams, hammer and tongs. The pedestrian gate is dedicated to Mannion himself, a pair of well-studded boots and a number 10 shirt.
It’s without offence to Wilf – a Golden Boy who truly glistered – to wonder why nothing at all appears to acknowledge the Bankers, and their home for more than a century.
There are just ten days to a truly historic milestone in sporting history.
Lest we forget, is there yet time to remember?
THE same night, not wholly coincidentally, to Birtley v Chester-le-Street, Ebac Northern League second division. History records only that the match 125 years ago was at Birtley Football Ground and that Elswick started as they meant to go on, by whingeing.
They protested at the game’s validity. The Northern League committee, with a sagacity that was to become legendary, decided that the score should stand but that the game would be recorded as a draw.
Thus encouraged, Elswick protested after all but one of the games they lost – which was almost all of them – that season.
Birtley’s present ground sits alongside the East Coast main line – but where, we enquired diligently on Tuesday evening, was the original one?
Some thought the back of the brickyard, others the back of the baths. Some supposed the back of beyond.
None, in truth, had a clue. Nor, seemingly, does the internet. It’s down to Backtrack readers now.
Elswick, incidentally, finished bottom of the ten club league.
Served them blooming right.
...and finally, last week’s column recalled the great West Indian crickerter Learie Constantine and offered a two-part question.
In Scotland a learie is (or was) a lamplighter – there was a picture on the front of a Broons annual –and in North Yorkshire, the peer known to his neighbours simply as Constantine is Lord Normanby, otherwise the acclaimed author Constantine Phipps.
Readers are today invited to name the first Scottish player to be named European footballer of the year.
Perhaps with more on the events of September 7, the column returns in a fortnight.