Tommy Blenkinsopp, a footballer from an entirely different age but remembered with enduring affection by this one, has died, aged 83. He will be buried this morning in his native Witton Park.

Tommy, by every account, was one hell of a right half, starred for Middlesbrough after the war, had an England trial and twice represented the Football League. By every account he liked a drink, an' all.

"My dad used to talk about the Saturday afternoon when Tommy had to be carried from the pub to a taxi, got taken to Ayresome Park and played a blinder," insisted one caller this week.

"If his brains hadn't all been in his boots he'd have played for England without question," said a second.

"They used to call him Mucky Blenk," added another, though that was probably because of all the clarts.

While reports of his breath may greatly have been exaggerated - "if you were drunk they'd have smelled it a hundred miles off," he once told the column - there was no question that Tommy had a considerable thirst for a family man earning £12 a week.

Even some fellow professionals knew him as Mr Bass, and not because of his singing voice, either.

He'd begun with Witton Park Institute in the Stanley and District League, so shy that when they won the championship he sent his mother to the village hall dance in order to collect his medal.

Afterwards he had a brief Northern League spell at West Auckland, transferred to Grimsby Town before the war and in 1948 joined the Boro, where he was to make 98 League appearances in four years.

We first met in 1991. Having naively assumed that he'd be home in Witton Park we eventually found Tommy - a former Green Howard - in the DLI Club in Bishop Auckland.

He'd walked the three miles into town, as usually he did, a couple of pounds in his pocket and an incorrigible twinkle in his eye.

"We'd go to the Corporation Hotel before the game all right - me, Wilfy Mannion, Dickie Robinson and Billy Whittaker - but we'd have two raw eggs, good for your wind, and two glasses of sherry. Everyone thought that if you were in a pub you got drunk.

"The directors were there, too, you couldn't even have butter on your toast because it was greasy. We were professionals, I never went onto a football field with beer in me belly, never."

He'd still vividly recall his first Football League appearance - Ditchburn, Ramsey, Robinson; Blenkinsopp, Hughes, Arthur Wright; Matthews, Morris, Milburn, Shackleton, Langton - just as his former teammate Johnny Spuhler, now 86, recalls Tommy's England trial.

"Everyone came all dressed up, suitcases and everything. Tommy and Dickie Robinson, our right back, arrived with their boots wrapped in newspaper. They were a right couple."

Tommy had in 1991 recalled going with Johnny Spuhler to a darts presentation evening at the Princess Alice in Middlesbrough - "we had four halves all evening, but by the time we got to the bottom of the stairs we'd had ten pints". Johnny, in turn, talks warmly of his old friend.

"He played and drank, played and drank, but he never lost his temper, never lost his smile and gave you 100 per cent every game. He was hard as iron, you know, and he had a wonderful reputation at Middlesbrough Football Club."

Once, he recalls, Tommy had wandered off on his own for a few beers, caught the bus to Osmotherley - getting on 20 miles south - and walked back over the fields.

"We were getting quite worried about him, thought we'd lost him for ever. He was a great character, Tommy."

After a season at Barnsley, he returned north to play for Blyth Spartans and then contentedly settled back in Witton Park, the former ironworks village where they'd send two bus loads, not to watch Middlesbrough but to watch Tommy Blenkinsopp. Until he was 65, he still helped train the Institute.

Jackie Foster, another Witton Park football legend, recalls a smashing feller. "He was always the same, Tommy. You always knew where you were with him, and he'd never hurt a fly."

Witton Park historian Dale Daniel bought a cigarette card of Tommy just three weeks ago. "His great loves were football, the village and a pint of beer, though I'm not sure in what order," he says.

Suffering from Alzheimer's disease, he had recently been in a nursing home, though occasionally seen in the village.

His funeral is in Witton Park church at 9.30 today, his dementia more likely the result of heading a ball than hitting the bar. Tommy would smile about it all: a little of what you fancy, he'd say, had never hurt a soul.

Nancy Spuhler worries about all the head injures, too, though Johnny - to whom she will have been married 65 years in November - is as fit and as vigorous as man of 86 could ever hope to be.

She recounts a list of famous old footballers who have suffered Alzheimer's, including their old friend Harry Potts, the Hetton-le-Hole lad who led Burnley to the 1960 first division championship.

"The balls were so heavy in those days, especially when they were wet," says Nancy, 85. "It's peculiar how many old players have suffered, it does seem more than coincidence.

"The least the FA should do is give a substantial sum towards the Alzheimer's Society."

She and Johnny met on a tram when he was a young reserve at Sunderland and she was still at school. "The other lads plagued the life out of him for going out with a school girl," she recalls.

They married on November 11, 1939 - "Peace day. and we've been arguing ever since."

Johnny had watched, tanner a time, for the Fulwell End, won two England schoolboy caps - the school had a whip round to buy him a suit - made 35 Football league appearances for his native Sunderland before the war intervened.

After it he signed for Middlesbrough for £2,000, Nancy crying all the way down the A19 - or whatever linked the two in those days - because it seemed so far from home.

"Everyone said what a queer place Middlesbrough was. It was Yorkshire," Johnny once recalled.

Boro also gave him a club house with a telephone. Because he didn't know anyone similarly connected, Johnny had it taken out again.

He scored 69 goals in 216 Football League appearances, finished his career at Darlington - 67 games, 19 goals - and managed teams as far apart as Shrewsbury and Spennymoor before for eight years running Yarm post office.

After many years in Barnard Castle, further up river, the couple moved last year to Fishburn, near Sedgefield, to be nearer their family. "Everyone's been very good to us here, we're looked after very well, given a lot of respect," says Johnny.

He also regularly watches the Boro, including Tuesday's Carling Cup truimph over Arsenal - the team against which as a 17-year-old he'd made his Sunderland debut.

Their grandchildren are chartering a plane to Cardiff; Nancy says it's too far for an a man of 86. "She's an absolute angel but she's also stopped me driving, not because I'm a bad driver but because there are too many other cars."

His grand daughter drove on Tuesday - "a smasher, you should have seen everyone's head turning" - and left highly delighted.

"It was wonderful, absolutely wonderful. They really showed Arsenal a thing or two, deserved everything they got.

"I'll be quite happy to watch it on television, so long as we win. A cup's a bit overdue now, isn't it?"

All wasn't entirely lost for Arsenal fans at the Riverside - or at least not for the younger chip off this block.

Home specially for the semi-final, he was chosen to represent the Gunners in the half-time fans' quiz, beating "Alex from Swainby" 4-2 in front of 28,000 fans.

The prize was a Boro goody bag containing programme, bar of chocolate and mug - he'd hoped for a shirt - for which a Boro supporter offered a fi ver.

The deal was done. "At least," says the bairn, "we didn't go home empty handed."

Just a couple of months before the golden jubilee of the greatest ever Amateur Cup final - the twice replayed epic between Bishop Auckland and Crook - we hear also of the passing, on Sunday, of Crook goalkeeper Fred Jarrie. He was 81.

Fred, Hartlepool lad, appeared for the 'Pools in 1947-48 before playing for Crook Colliery Welfare, as then they were, in the run to the 1949 Amateur Cup semi-final.

He spent six seasons at the Millfield, including a the 1952 quarter-final for which 17,500 were squeezed into the Crook ground, but nothing matched 1954.

Jimmy McMillan, Crook's outside left in four winning finals, recalled an outstanding goalkeeper with shovels for hands. "He was a bit unorthodox but brave as a lion and the life and soul of the dressing room - the perfect man to have in the team."

Tuesday's column was mistaken in supposing that Coxhoe's was the only North-East match to survive sodden Saturday. There was also a game in the Darlington and District League - the appropriate home team was Lakeside.

A second PS to our piece on the Rev Brian Rice, retiring as Hartlepool United's chaplain and for four years chaplain to Durham County Cricket Club.

Stan Wilson in Thirsk recalls the cricket match at Hartlepool when the chaplain's guest was again the Rt Rev Alan Smithson, the Bishop of Jarrow. Brian introduced him to ubiquitous cricket fan Tony Day, known universally as Jesus because of a perceived physical resemblance.

Stan Wilson was nearby. "He's an impostor, your Grace," said Stan.

"Thanks," said the twinkling bishop, "I think I'd realised that already."

And Finally...

The six Premiership players whose first name and surname end with the letter "o" - Backtrack, February 3 - are Paulo di Canio (Charlton), Christiano Ronaldo (Man United), Noberto Solano (Aston Villa), Dino Baggio and Lorenzo Amoruso (both Blackburn) and Maurico Tarrico of Spurs.

(However, as the clued-up sports desk quite rightly point out Dino Baggio is no longer at Blackburn Rovers and is back in Italy playing for Ancona after his Ewood Park loan spell was cut short last month).

Another today from Bob Foster in Ferryhill: the only club in the English or Scottish leagues whose names contains none of the letters in the word "mackerel."

Fishy business? The column returns on Tuesday

Published: 06/02/2004