Long in Edinburgh but among the most knowledgeable Newcastle United fans alive, Paul Joannou yesterday launched his latest book on his beloved Magpies.

"Shirt of Legends" is a treasury of Newcastle's number nines - the one thing more important to a Geordie than a bottle of brown ale, the Sunday Times once observed.

Joannou, the club's official historian, still commutes to every game. "Few clubs in Britain possess a shirt so richly dipped in tradition," he said.

Born and raised on Tyneside, his early heroes were Barrie Thomas - 50 goals in 78 games between 1962-64 - and Ron McGarry, known as Cassius and not necessarily because he floated like a butterfly. The famously immodest McGarry had business cards printed with the legend "Have goals will travel" which he liberally handed out.

Joannou's teenage hero was Malcolm Macdonald, though the all time great may perhaps (he says) be Alan Shearer - a view shared by Peter Beardsley.

Though not officially dressed up to the nines until 1939, when numbered shirts were introduced, the book traces the Magpie line back to Willie Thompson, who scored a hat trick in the first League match at St James's, a 6-0 win over Arsenal.

"It's the shirt every Geordie kid would die for," Shearer once said. Failing that, they can buy Joannou's characteristically comprehensive and richly entertaining book (Mainstream Publishing, £15.99)

Ten nines . . . some striking revelations from Shirt of Legends.

* Bob McColl, United's centre forward from 1901-05, helped his brother form the nationally successful RS McColl confectioners and newsagency chain. He was known as Toffee Bob.

*Scottish international Hughie Gallacher received a written half-time death threat after destroying the Irish League in Belfast. Afterwards a bullet narrowly missed him.

"I'll have to extend my stay in Belfast. It seems I still haven't taught the Irish to shoot straight," he said.

* Billy Cairns was the first United player actually to wear the number nine on his back, in 1939. "The numbers gave the crowd a laugh," the local press reported. The first man to wear the number against Newcastle was Hughie Gallacher - for Gateshead in a Jubilee Fund match.

* Chilton lad Charlie Wayman, who joined the Magpies during the early years of World War II, was the unwitting subject of questions in Parliament over the ease with which he left the pits.

* Jackie Milburn, never cautioned in his 14 years in the top flight, played two wartime games for Sunderland - but he kept his goals for Newcastle.

* The late, great Len White was once kicked off the St James' Park treatment table by gambling man manager Charlie Mitten - because his greyhound needed attention from the physio.

* When Malcolm Macdonald joined United in 1971, his wage was an unheard of £70 a week, plus bonuses and a £9,000 cut of the £180,000 transfer fee. When Supermac left five years later, he was earning £300 a week.

* Mick Quinn, whose autobiography was called Who Ate All the Pies, was a jack-the-lad who served time for drink driving and, while at Stockport County, moonlighted for the University of Liverpool history department under the name of Kenny Dalglish.

* Bristol City were unable to complete Andy Cole's transfer to Tyneside because the player couldn't be found. He was eventually tracked down to the local launderette, where it all came out....

* Alan Shearer's appearance alongside Les Ferdinand for England against Poland in 1996 was the first joyful time that two Magpies had formed an English strike force. Two Shearer goals gave England a 2-1 win.

Unaccustomed as he is, former England amateur international George Brown will be holding forth at Tow Law FC on Friday November 19 in an attempt to help fill the gaping financial hole left when half the pitch collapsed.

"The only time I've spoken in public was at my mate's wedding and I made a right pig's ear of it," says Geordie, a free scoring centre forward feared in the 1960s throughout the Northern League.

There are some great tales, nonetheless, some more printable than others - and once he gets going, he's terrific. Admission's free.

Steve Moralee, polliss and assistant club secretary, has also been filling us in on the hole. Tens of thousands of tons of liquid concrete later, they're still making a "curtain" around the crater, before addressing the greater problem.

The polliss continues to look into the matter. "I doubt," he says gloomily, "if we'll be back there this season."

Chris Waddle, another Tow Law player whom the club hopes will rally to the cause - Paul Joannou's book puts his Magpies' transfer fee at £1,000, the Lawyers' recollection is that it was £1,000 fewer - was interviewed last week on Radio 5 Live. After discussing the European progress of Middlesbrough and Newcastle United, he was asked what he thought of the outcome of the regional government referendum. "I live in Sheffield," he said.

John Marsh, for many years a familiar all round sportsman in south Durham, has died, aged 84. His funeral is at Shildon Methodist church at 1pm today.

Born on Stanley Hill Top and educated at Wolsingham Grammar School, John moved to Shildon in 1949 and spent 22 years, mainly as a bowler, for Shildon BR cricket club. He had also played in both the Deerness and the Mid-Durham Senior leagues for Stanley, a team mate of future House of Commons deputy Speaker Ernest "Sikey" Armstrong.

"I can still see his bowling action. He took an awful lot of wickets for us and he was a really lovely man," says BR president Jack Watson.

As an army footballer, John opposed the likes of Tom Finney, Bryn Jones and Andy Beattie - a triumvirate of home internationals - returning to work on the railways and to play briefly for Stanley United, Shildon United, Witton Park Institute and for Brussleton, who may hardly have had enough residents to raise 11 men.

"We didn't win many but we much enjoyed the experience," he once wrote.

There was much more to John Marsh's life, though, not least in the Methodist Church - and there'll be more of that in the John North column on Thursday.

Brooks Mileson, the Sunderland born entrepreneur who has embarked on a free spending love affair with Gretna Football Club, reports that not only has more money been placed on their winning the Scottish third division than any other bet in British football, but that the biggest single wager is on the same outcome.

Brooks, who recently sold his Peterlee based Albany Group for £46m, denies that the two events are connected. "It definitely wasn't me," he insists. "I'm not a gambling man."

All bets could, in any case, be off after this Saturday when Gretna host top of the table Peterhead in front of an anticipated 2,200 capacity crowd.

Brooks has no doubt of the outcome. "Gretna," he says, rhapsodically reverting to the Wearside vernacular, "are as great as owt."

A happy little custom in the Over 40s League entails a special presentation to anyone scoring in the first minute - though Blackhall's Stephen Routledge, who put through his own goal after 17 seconds, may have mixed feelings about it. "We weren't sure whether to give him anything," says league secretary Kip Watson. "Blackhall insisted."

Thirty years after the North Yorkshire Schools FA was formed, one of its teams is to play at York City. The first footers will be girls, the under 16s against Northumberland on November 22.

"The standard's pretty high," says retired Richmond teacher Eddie Roberts. "There are two or three who are really good and others who just kick the ball about. The girls' game is growing all the time."

The first club to offer a venue for the match wanted £300; City are giving Bootham Crescent free. "It's a brilliant gesture," says Eddie.

...and finally

The only two European footballers of the year to manage a Premiership side (Backtrack, November 5) are Kevin Keegan (1978, 1979) and Ruud Gullit, who claimed the honour in 1987.

Mike Rudd in Bishop Auckland, among those who knew their way around Europe, today invites readers to name the nine European footballers of the year who have played for an English club.

We're again off the continental shelf on Friday.

Published: 09/11/2004