CANON Bob Spence, among the region’s best known and most devoted Newcastle United fans – at least until a lifetime’s faith was threatened by the Wonga business – retires from the Roman Catholic parish priesthood next week. He’s 80, and will feature more expansively in next Tuesday’s column.

Almost 20 years in Darlington, a similar spell up in Lanchester, Canon Spence has been sorting through eight decades’ possessions.

“I thought you might like this,” he says with characteristic generosity, handing over the programme (£6) from the 1998 FA Cup final, Magpies v Gunners.

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We’d been to Wembley the week previously, Tow Law immortally in the FA Vase final, this time headed south with the bairns – three ruddy artillerymen amid the mighty Black and White Army.

“Arsenal is a lifetime’s affiliation, not regional treachery but filial loyalty,” the subsequent column felt obliged to explain.

The train was dry, the mood relaxed – “as peaceable as a Sunday School outing with a three-card brag school attached.”

Newcastle fans had the bigger bellies, Arsenal’s the better songs – the immense Vieira serenaded to the tune of Volare, recorded by Pat Boone many years before.

Seats were £65, Abide With Me sung by someone from Spandau Ballet – a rival to the Sadlers Wells, presumably – Arsenal in front after 23 minutes through Overmars and by half-time Newcastle hadn’t had so much as a corner. Though they picked up in the second half, Anelka’s strike secured the double.

The Toon Army headed forlornly back to Wembley Park station, a man with a megaphone urging them to be patient amid the throng. “Patient?” retorted a Geordie voice, “we’ve been patient nearly thutty year.” Impatiently patient, they await yet.

THE death last week of former Hartlepool United skipper Bill Green recalled a pre-season match in 1991 between Crook Town and Blackpool, managed by the late and lamented Billy Ayre – another Hartlepool favourite. Bill was manager of Scunthorpe United, showed some sort of pass and was regarded coldly by a stone-faced Cerberus on the gate. “Pundtwenty,” said he. Bill hesitated and was lost, the turnstile as immoveable as its granite guardian. “Pundtwenty you say?” said Bill, and paid up with a smile.

LAST week’s note on Andy Potts’s e-book about a year in the life of the Northern League really should have mentioned the most improbable tale of all, overheard behind the goal at Northallerton Town. When Town won a corner, a home supporter loudly quoted Ezekiel 25:17.

Chapter and verse, that bit of the Old Testament reads: “And I will execute great vengeance upon them with furious rebukes; and they shall know that I am the Lord, when I lay my vengeance upon them.”

What in heaven’s name would he have cited had they scored?

MOOCHING around Masham, brew town, we stumble serendipitously across a cricket match, North Yorkshire v Durham at under-15 level, first day of two. North Yorkshire are 73-2 when we pitch up, 77-6 ten minutes later.

“You can come again,” says Jackie Wrightson, one of the Durham entourage. One to watch? “Jonny Bushnell,” insists Jackie.

Though the cricket club promises “scrummy” cakes we lunch, very agreeably, at the Bay Horse before returning for the afternoon session.

Like his champion, Jonny’s a Sacriston lad. In the first innings he takes 4-19 and hits 47, in the second scores exactly half of Durham’s 100-6. A young man called Luke Donleathy appears also to have an outstanding game. Durham win by four wickets.

The Northern Echo:

THOUGH our enduring old friend Jonny Barnes, pictured above, had a disappointing day on the cricket field on Saturday – one wicket and one run in Darlington’s heavy defeat to Stokesley – he may have found consolation that Jonny Barnes did at least win the 2 45 at Goodwood. They are not thought to be related.

ANDERS Johansen, perhaps the most colourful of all the great global ground hopping circus, has spent the last two weeks revisiting the North-East – maybe the only man alive to take in Percy Main Amateurs (2 30pm) and Sunderland (5 30pm) on the same afternoon.

A Norwegian with perfect English, the self-styled Viking Hopper was at Thornaby last Tuesday, his 431st English ground and part of a meticulously planned itinerary of 27 games in 24 days.

Originally a Reading supporter, he took to the rolling English roads after becoming bored, he says, with sitting in Berkshire pubs between matches.

No game may have been more memorable, however, than that five days earlier between St Helens Town and Abbey Hulton United in the North West Counties League.

It was St Helens first game back on their “old” ground for six years, kick-off delayed for 25 minutes after the visitors became stuck in traffic.

After 90 minutes it remained goalless. In the fifth and final minute of added time, Abbey Hulton were awarded a penalty. Before it could be taken, and on the stroke of ten o’clock, the lights went out – an automatic cut-off point generated by planning conditions.

“A curfew,” translates Anders.

Officially the match remains abandoned. The league says that the circumstances are being investigated. Further enlightenment soon.

….AND finally, the team which has entered all 20 football World Cup competitions without ever once getting beyond the qualifying stages (Backtrack, August 24) is Luxembourg.

Chris Orton today invites readers to suggest the unusual condition written into goalkeeper Stefan Schwarz’s contract when he signed for Sunderland in 1999.

The answers’ improbable but, they reckon, quite true. We take off again next week.