Blackhall v Dawdon: the greatest game

11:26am Friday 8th February 2008

TWO days after the Munich air disaster, fifty years ago today, football wasn't just numb, it was frozen, too.

The country was said to be in the grip of the worst snow chaos since the wicked winter of 1947, all but one of the North-East's league football games and every Amateur Cup tie postponed.

Though Darlington struggled across the Pennines to Workington, it was without centre-forward Ron Harbertson, stranded in Bedlington, and centre-half Ron Greener, up to the oxters in Easington. Thus, involuntarily, ended Greener's run of 132 consecutive appearances.

Winger Keith Morton, said in the Echo to have been "stuck in the fastnesses of Consett", walked several miles to catch a bus.

Sunderland might also have been better had they stopped at home by the fire, losing 7-1 at Luton despite "fantastic"

saves from Willie Fraser.

"Sunderland will have to do better than this to beat relegation," read the Echo's headline, somewhat self-evidently.

They didn't and went down for the first time, below Newcastle and Portsmouth on goal average.

The Echo also reported that a lamb had been born at Sadberge - which in the circumstances seemed pretty reckless of it - while the blizzards posed problems for "Wanderer", who wrote the Trimdon Sport column in the Durham Chronicle.

"There was no outdoor sport in the area last Saturday," his report began, "apart from a little snowballing by children and youths."

On the Durham coast, however, they were made of sterner stuff - which explains why Steve Jones still considers the Durham Challenge Cup replay between Blackhall CW and Dawdon CW, exactly five decades ago, the finest of the 600-odd football matches in which he made an upfront appearance.

Canny lad, Steve, Now 69, looks a lot younger, still cycles, still runs and does press-ups on Seaham beach, played fivea- side until a hernia job a couple of years ago. He also helped organise the weekends, in 1989 and 1990, when Liverpool legend Billy Liddell - 500 appearances, 28 Scotland caps - played in vets' games against Seaham.

Something of a wanderer himself, Steve played in the Wearside League for Ryhope, Dawdon, Murton, Easington with Albert Rich - "great player, it was him or Jack Charlton for Leeds' centrehalf"

- and for Stockton.

The Teessiders were managed by the lately lamented Johnny Spuhler, their centre-forward the prolific John Burton, perhaps better remembered as constituency agent to a former Prime Minister.

"John was quite a good player," says Steve.

His Northern League debut was for Ferryhill against Bishop Auckland, scoring despite the close attentions of the great Lol Brown, later of Arsenal and Spurs.

He also played for Shildon with the still-familiar Keith Hopper - "dark-haired, good looking lad," he recalls, KRH will like that - and up at Stanley United when Allan Ball, to become a king at Queen of the South, kept goal.

"Stanley gave him free fish and chips, all sorts," recalls Steve. "He still went to Scotland."

In those 600 games, he himself was never so much as cautioned. "I went to Ryhope Grammar School where Mr Hoggarth, the headmaster, instilled sporting discipline into us, a lesson which lasted.

"Football was a man's game then, but it didn't mean it had to be a dirty game, or a foulmouthed one. We didn't dispute decisions, either, what good did that ever do?

"I made a county-wide network of friends that way."

LATER a Durham County Council education welfare officer (nee kiddy catcher), Steve had done a six-hour shift in the wages office of Seaham colliery on the morning of February 8, 1958.

"I came back home, saw all the snow, was convinced there was no chance of football and had two big bowls of my mother's broth, dumplings the lot. I was amazed when someone came to the door telling me to get a move on, because the bus was setting off for Blackhall."

Singe file, the bus struggled through the snow.

Like Darlington, they'd two players who just couldn't make it; unlike Darlington, they'd no reserves. Dawdon played with nine men.

"There were only two or three inches of snow on the pitch so it really wasn't a problem," Steve recalls. "In a way our minds were more on Munich than the Durham Challenge Cup. Everyone was still in a state of shock, still wondering if Duncan Edwards would pull through.

"The best team in England had been decimated, it somehow made Dawdon CW seem not so important."

Nine-man wonders, Dawdon were soon ahead, then 2-1 up. After 90 minutes it was 5-5, and Steve Jones - "irrepressible," said the Durham Chronicle - had scored four. After extra-time, still nine against 11, he'd hit a fifth. It ended 6-6.

"It was Roy of the Rovers stuff, I just seemed to be waltzing round defenders," he recalls. "They were proper goalkeepers in those days, not Mickey Mouse goalkeepers, but everything I hit seemed to go in."

For years he treasured the Chronicle cutting. When someone permanently "borrowed" it, he went to the County records office for a replacement. "It's the one match I remember after all these years," he says - and with a full complement they lost the replay 3-1.

Move from Wardley Villa to Aston Villa set Ball rolling in tragic tale

THE murder at Brick Kiln Cottages - and not many top professional footballers may these days have an address like Brick Kiln Cottages - was said to have caused a sensation in Midland football circles. It stirred the North-East, too.

Tommy Ball, the victim, was born in Chester-le- Street in 1900, brought up at Usworth, near Washington, won his first medal as a 10- year-old with the school team, was down the pit at 13 and at 20 moved from Wardley Villa, to Aston Villa, already six times champions since the Football League's formation.

It was a house swap perhaps unessayed before or since.

Tommy Ball was the supposed answer to Tuesday's question: the only Football League player ever to have been murdered.

There's an objection, however. Neil Mackay in Lanchester proposes the inclusion on that lugubrious list of Ted Robledo, left back in Newcastle United's FA Cup winning side who - says Neil - was thrown to his death from a train.

Our correspondent is thus all at sea (or not, as the case may be.) Robledo, a Chilean who was four when his family fled to England, was signed by Newcastle from Barnsley in 1949, though (and this may sound familiar) United didn't really want him.

The target was his brother, George, deemed the better player. So great their fraternity, however, that one wouldn't move without t'other. George was also in the Wembley side, the first time that two foreign players had been in the same Cup winning team.

After retiring from football, Ted worked on an oil tanker, posted missing in what were said to be "mysterious circumstances." Though it was rumoured that he had been thrown off the ship and drowned, no charges were ever brought or body found.

Neil's case must thus be found not proven, as the Scots would have it, and we return ruminatively to Tommy Ball.

Settled in Birmingham, he'd married Beatrice Richards - daughter of a well-known pork butcher, pie maker and lard refiner - and swiftly became Villa's first choice centre-half.

England honours were confidently forecast.

Ball's arrival could hardly have been better timed, for Frank Barson - a somewhat abrasive character with the perhaps unique distinction of being sent off in his own testimonial - had been transferred to Manchester United.

Tom and Beattie lived in Brick Kiln Cottages, one of an isolated pair in Perry Barr. George Stagg, their 45- year-old landlord - a former Birmingham policeman who'd been wounded and gassed in the war - occupied the other half.

Stagg shot him in the late evening of Armistice Day 1923, the day after Villa's 1-0 win at Notts County had moved them up to a challenging third in the old first division.

That Sunday evening, Tom and Beattie had been for three halves of mild at their local in Perry Barr, returning shortly after 9.

30pm, which in those days was closing time.

While Beattie made the supper, Tom went out into the garden to exercise the dog.

Stagg didn't like the dog, it was subsequently suggested, nor greatly approve of his neighbours' chickens scrattin' about the place, either.

As the Northern Echo put it the following Tuesday morning, an altercation followed.

Stagg didn't even try to flee the scene, poor Ball's body found on the sofa, with his killer awaiting the police.

The first shot missed, it was said. The second had passed straight through the victim's chest, leaving a hole the size of a half crown.

We'd also reported that November morning that Middlesbrough had won just six out of 33 games in 1923, that Durham City had beaten Crewe Alexandra 3-0 in the Third Division (North), that South Shields were improving in the second division and that Coxhoe Pottery FC had disbanded, leaving just five teams in the Mid-Durham League. The previous season it had had two divisions.

At this point, however, the story is taken up by "The Murder of Tommy Ball, an Aston Villa Tragedy", a little book written by Paul Lester, published in 1996 and kindly loaned by that wellknown arch-Villan the Rev Leo Osborn, chairman of the Newcastle upon Tyne district of the Methodist church.

Tommy Ball, says Lester, quite literally had the world at his feet.

"It is not too much to suppose that he would have gone on to become a player of acclaimed greatness."

Lester also includes a contemporary poem about the incident, which could almost be sung - perhaps it was - to the tune of the Trimdon Grange Explosion.

It began: Twas on a Sabbath evening In drear November days, Two friends were heard creating', In Perry Barry's byways, High words just fed the anger, Now this young man's life is fled, A shot and then another!

And Thomas Ball lies dead.

Lester's sceptical of the "pet hate" theory. Rather, he supposes, that on Armistice Day of all days, Stagg was feeling a bit sorry for himself and probably a bit envious, too.

Ball earned £8 a week, plus a regular £2 win bonus, and could afford his halves of mild at the Church Tavern. Stagg was on a pittance police pension, plus a few shillings more because of his war wounds.

Stagg claimed the shooting was accidental, which didn't altogether explain what he was doing in his garden late at night with a loaded shotgun.

Found guilty, he was sentenced to death despite the jury's recommendation for clemency.

After an appeal, the sentence was commuted to penal servitude for life.

They blamed the soft new Labour government.

Tommy Ball was buried in Perry Barr cemetery, his once-ornate grave - footballs on every corner - now much vandalised. George Stagg was 87 when he died, in a mental hospital, in 1966.

"It was the saddest football tragedy of all time,"

said the Birmingham Sports Argus, but that was 35 years before the terrible events of Munich.

SO FINALLY....

Brian Shaw in Shildon today invites the identity of the only 20th century footballer to captain three FA Cupwinning sides at Wembley.

Heading east, the column reports from Lowestoft on Tuesday.

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