TRAINS of thought and all that, the column a couple of weeks back noted that pre-war LNER steam engines were named after Sunderland, Middlesbrough and even Darlington football clubs but not, curiously, after Newcastle United.

We were mistaken. Now it becomes curiouser and curiouser.

Proudly named Newcastle United, handsome new nameplate proclaiming in black and white its allegiance, class B17 No.

2858 left the North Road workshops in Darlington on May 28 1936.

Ten days later, 2858 had got as far as a railway exhibition in Romford. The "Newcastle United" nameplate had disappeared in a vapid hiss of steam, the least enduring naming in railway history.

Instead the engine had become The Essex Regiment, the Newcastle United nameplates never officially to be seen again. The finger of suspicion pointed at the Arsenal.

For putting the column on the right lines - though there is to be another departure yet - we are grateful to Jimmy McKinney in Merryoaks, Durham, and to his work colleague Colin Bell, known as Griver for reasons which doubtless can be spotted.

Gricer's a Sunderland fan. "He disagrees with your account, though he wishes it were true, " says Jimmy, who also encloses a copy of the December 2002 issue of Railway Magazine, which tells the whole sad story.

The London and North Eastern Railway originally allocated "football club" names to 14 B17s, at once provoking cries of "Foul" and "How, Ref" and similar imprecations from those railway towns who'd missed the connection.

"The locomotive names were subject to almost as many transfers as the clubs' players, " noted Railway magazine, and no more skullduggery than at North Road shops, where Sheffield Wednesday - then in the first division ? suddenly became Darlington, of the Third North.

Other notable omissions from LNER territory were York City and Ipswich Town. "Clearly, " said Railway Magazine in 2002, "the staff at York works didn't have the same clout as their Darlington colleagues." Sunderland also came close to derailment, the loco of that name under repair when the team reached the 1937 FA Cup final.

Nameplates were swapped with Derby County; "Sunderland" hauled the train to Wembley.

Long treasured by the Quakers, the "Darlington" nameplate was sold when times were hard last year. Though the club won't reveal a figure, the market price is reckoned around £25,000.

None of the train spotters' manuals included Newcastle United, sidelined for 65 years until Magpies' fan David Tyreman - one of the Northallerton Tyremen and 40 years a railwayman - decided to restore the club's good name.

David, who now lives in the city, is also North-East branch chairman of the Railway Correspondence and Travel Society.

"My theory is that one of the LNER directors was an Arsenal fan, " he says.

"We'd beaten Arsenal in the 1932 FA Cup final, the allegation that our equaliser came from a cross that was over the line before the lad hit it.

"They never forgave us, but it was a very dirty trick. So far as I can gather, the United nameplates just went for scrap." David, dismayed, paid more than £500 from his own pocket for a replica, which in January 2003 the Magpies gratefully and ceremonially accepted.

Though it still hangs in the main foyer, the club has flat refused the column permission to photograph the benefactor - or any other living soul - alongside it.

It is yet another chapter in the great Newcastle United mystery, yet another obfuscation. Wheels within wheels, as probably they say on the railways.

The February 2005 Railway Magazine includes a splendid montage of "Newcastle United" with the Tyne Bridge in the background and two Magpies - for joy, what else - above the nameplate.

It's produced by Ian Wright Cards of Burnley, but since no photographs of the Toon nameplate are available, Newcastle are based on Norwich City.

Ian began four years ago by selling prints of the "Football club" locos, demand so great that he now does everything from umbrellas to fridge magnets and much else in between.

Details from Ian at 134 Casterton Avenue, Burnley BB10 2PE, email babs@barbarahunt. fsnet. co. uk

FEBRUARY'S Railway Magazine also carries an evocative five page photographic essay by Bedford Town fan Ray Schofield on how he and friends caught a football special to Newcastle, FA Cup third round, January 4 1964.

"The Eagles were just a small non-league team, did I really want to watch a thrashing?" he recalls.

No he didn't. Fanning the dying embers of steam, Schofield and friends set off instead on an afternoon tour of sheds and sub-sheds in Tyneside and Wearside, returning in triumph to Newcastle Central with 210 cops and not a single policeman.

Awaiting them on the platform, Bedford's real fans were quite pleased, as well. Magpies 1 Eagles 2.

Memories stirred of young Geordie Johnny

NOT just steam engine smoke may get in readers' eyes today: that series of footballing fag cards we reproduced before Christmas continues to waft nostalgically.

George Foster in Spennymoor recalls Hebburn lad Johnny Dixon, Aston Villa's captain and inside left in the 1957 FA Cup final and joyously pictured holding the trophy, memory suggests, on the dust jacket of that year's Big Book of Football Champions.

For two wartime seasons, however, the young Geordie had played for Spennymoor United - said yesterday to be in danger of folding unless a new backer comes forward.

"We used to call them Dixon United, he almost beat other teams single handed, " says George. "To my mind he was the best player we ever had." Now 81, Johnny retains a Tyneside accent despite almost 60 years in the West Midlands - and George Foster, the kid who idolised him from the Brewery Field terraces, has long been his friend.

"I wrote in about 1950 asking for a signed photograph, " says George, who's 73. "We just seemed to get on and still regularly keep in touch." Johnny lived next to Hebburn Gospel Hall, attended Newton School in Station Road, worked at Reyrolles during the war and helped Spennymoor to successive North Eastern League and Durham Challenge Cup victories.

"He's a great bloke, never sent off or booked in his career, " says George. "After they beat Manchester United in the 1957 final I couldn't speak for ten minutes, I was just so pleased for him."

Johnny stayed for 15 years, scoring 131 goals in 392 Football League appearances - the last in his swansong, a 4-1 win over Sheffield Wednesday. "So many people wanted to pat him as he left the field he had to go to the hospital with his back the next week, " insists George.

Though still in good fettle, as they probably used to say at Reyrolles, Johnny hasn't been available because of a family illness.

He remained another nine years on the coaching staff and still has a hospitality suite named after him. Truly a hero and Villan.

SAM BARTRAM started all this, and it's Sam whom Alan Wild in Shildon plays again.

While on National Service with the Northumberland Fusiliers between 1960-62, Alan played for Whitby Town against York City Reserves - City then managed by Bartram, the legendary Charlton goalkeeper - and was invited shortly afterwards to play for City's Reserves against Middlesbrough Reserves at Ayresome Park.

Boro won 5-0; Alan enjoyed the experience. Afterwards, the City manager not only shoved a couple of quid into his hand but paid for the taxi back to Fenham Barracks in Newcastle.

"Truly, " he says, "a gentleman."

BY changing the name of their ground to Kit Kat Crescent, as reported in yesterday's paper, York City may not be having the break with tradition that is supposed. Having checked his records, a reader in Bishop Auckland points out that in the 1930s, City's official colours were chocolate and cream halved shirts and white shirts. "I think they stopped using them in the war when shirts were bad to get, " he says, "but the Rowntree's connection was there, even then."

THE talented Harry Pearson, author of The Far Corner - among the funniest football books ever written - has a new thrust to his sporting activity, we hear. He's taken up fencing.

"I was getting so fat and so sluggish, I just had to do something, " reports non-driver Harry, so rapier keen that he travels by train from his home near Hexham to weekly classes at Durham School.

Many others, says Harry, are starting to see the point. More fencing, fewer puns, quite shortly.

BARELY a week after we reported his arrival in the North-East, controversial jockey Sean Fox returned to the saddle for Brancepeth trainer Richard Guest on Wednesday.

Suspended for 21 days last March after allegedly jumping from his mount at Fontwell, he was exonerated six months later but, overweight, had found races hard to come by.

First ride back, he was second at 28-1 on Dargaville - delighting trainer and jockey but disappointing the lads in his local at Quebec, west of Durham. None of them, says our man at the bar, had invested so much as half a crown each way.

AN e-mail from Ray Morton, manager of Norton and Stockton Ancients and detective chief inspector with Cleveland police, reports that Billingham Synthonia's record appearance holder Andy Harbron has hit a hat trick from centre back in the Over 40s League - "more than he ever managed in his entire Northern league career, " says Ray.

The evidence suggests otherwise. Harbron, says Synners' historian Dave Lealman, made 649 appearances and scored 75 goals. The defence rests.

And finally...

THE four English cricketers before Graham Thorpe who had taken 100 test match catches (Backtrack, January 18) were Ian Botham, Colin Cowdrey, Graham Gooch and Wally Hammond.

Martin Birtle in Billingham today invites readers to name the 1,000th footballer to be selected for England - once with Man United and Nottingham Forest but last heard of working as a postman.

We're round again on Tuesday.

Published: 21/01/2005