IT was a two-week magic carpet ride, the most improbable passage to India since Neddy Seagoon pitched up in Darjeeling.

They were just journeymen footballers, most of them, Northern League lads and a few pros kicking round the lower divisions. Yet for a feted fortnight they became superstars.

"If we'd been Manchester United we couldn't possibly have had a more ecstatic reception, " recalled Charlie Gott, the team captain.

They were Crook Town, and last Thursday they gathered for a reunion. Gotty, everyone said, looked nee different.

It was 1975 when someone first suggested to Arun Banerjee, Crook GP and club doctor, that the five times Amateur Cup winners should tour India, the doctor's home country.

"Why not?" said Dr Banerjee, who'd played for Mohun Bagan, said to be India's Arsenal.

The tour was in May 1976, not just all-expenses paid but with £30 a man spending money and maybe even a little bit on the side. (The little bit on the side should not be confused with the unfortunate incident involving a taxi driver, a policeman and a brothel. That's another story. ) What happened next is chronicled - irreverently, irrepressibly and altogether irresistibly - in Steve Chaytor's new book, Can You Get Bobby Charlton?

The little he misses out - like when Eric McMordie invited a young lady to the pictures and was somewhat discomforted when mother came too - was related at the affectionately attended reunion in Crook's clubhouse.

"The story was more wonderful than ever I could have imagined, " said Steve, Sedgefield lad, who last year published One Dead Ref and a Box of Kippers, quirkily potted biographies of south Durham men who'd played league football.

Half a million spectators watched Crook's six games, two of them on Eden Gardens, Calcutta's Test cricket ground. "I was a cricket enthusiast, a big Denis Compton fan, " recalled Billy Horner, long with Hartlepool United.

"I never thought I'd play on the same ground as Denis, and certainly not play football, but the heat was such I only lasted 20 minutes."

Another match was on a pitch cut into a Himalayan hillside, watched by 40,000 with neither crush barrier nor pitch perimeter fence.

"People had walked for days through the mountains to see us, " said Gordon Jones, the team manager.

"Everywhere we went the crowds were incredible, offering garlands, just trying to get a touch, and policemen with big sticks really whacking them to keep them under control."

Steve Chaytor's book tries to explain: "Gordon was regarded almost as a new deity, " it says.

There was usually a band, too, always the same band, always playing Waterloo by Abba. "They got it into their heads that Waterloo was our theme tune or something, " said Clive Nattress. "We had Waterloo coming out of our ears, we bloody hated it."

The book's title relates to the Indians' wish to have at least one of the 1966 World Cup team in the touring squad, preferably the younger of the Ashington brothers.

Dr Banerjee and assistant secretary Ronnie James met him at a Manchester hotel, where everything seemed to be agreed. "The last thing Bobby did was put his hand on my arm and say 'Don't worry, I won't let you down', " says Ronnie.

That he did let them down was, insisted Charlton, because of injury.

Though the Indian organisers offered him £1,000 just to come and wave at the crowd, Charlton stayed at home.

Dr Banerjee, not known as a man of few words, was said to be "not best pleased."

Gordon Jones, the long-serving former Middlesbrough and England Under 23s full back appointed Crook's manager just weeks earlier - "I think there was an ulterior motive" - admitted surprise.

"I knew Bobby quite well and he was always a man of his word. We were at panic stations, but I also knew Terry Paine, who'd played one England game in 1966, and he was as good as gold."

Paine flew out for the final match of the tour - "I'm not saying how much we paid him, mind, " said Gordon - though the sub-continent's belief that Bobby Charlton would still somehow materialise resulted in Ronnie James several times being mistaken for him.

"The only similarity, " said Ronnie, "was that neither of us had much hair."

Another Indian request, that the 1975 FA Cup final referee should be recruited, proved rather easier. Pat Partridge lived a few miles away in Cockfield.

Pat went with his wife, remembered it well. "I was used to international football, but if someone had said there'd be crowds of 100,000 to watch Crook Town I'd have said they were off their rocker.

"Six games in 14 days in that heat was a bit much, but it was an absolutely fabulous trip."

He'd been allowed to choose his own linesmen from a pool of Indian officials. "To say they were in awe of him was like saying Marilyn Monroe was a tidy bird who appeared in a couple of feature films, " says Steve.

Crook players included familiar Northern League names like Charlie Morrison, Peter Wetherell, Bobby Agar and Terry Turnbull.

Jones made up numbers with Darlington players Clive Nattress, Colin Sinclair and Eric Young, Hartlepool's George Potter and Graham Richardson and McMordie, then with York.

"I picked all the rogues, " said Gordon. "I didn't want any straight-laced sods."

Many were back for the do, some worn better than others, all rich with memories of that extraordinary Indian summer. Dr Banerjee even produced a tour video, rapturously received though dubbed with music of the day - which explains why they ran out to the tune of Hawaii Five-O.

For Ronnie James, however, the highlight came a year after they got back to Co Durham.

New York Cosmos had toured India the following year; someone sent him the paper. They'd been no less rapturously received and hadn't played badly, either, but the Cosmos - concluded the Calcutta media - would never be in the same league as Crook Town.

Can You Get Bobby Charlton? and One Dead Ref and a Box of Kippers are both available from bookshops (Kipper Publications) or via kipperpublish@aol. com

Backtrack briefs...

While the Tyne and Wear Metro decanted thousands at Kingston Park, the column carried on to Callerton - Newcastle Blue Star v Ashington and in the footsteps, it transpired, of yet another celebrity.

Girls Aloud singer Cheryl Tweedy, recently sentenced to 120 hours community service after an unfortunate altercation with a nightclub toilet attendant, has been serving her time at the Wheatsheaf ground.

On a perishing day she'd turned up with T-shirt, designer handbag and immaculate nails and had to be loaned a jacket by a probation officer before being set on scrubbing benches.

Newcastle blue star? "Well she was very polite," reports club secretary Jim Anderson, "but I'm afraid she wasn't very happy."

Usually jaunty, if a member of the ecclesiastical hierarchy may so be described, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Middlesbrough had an even broader smile when we encountered him on Friday evening.

The Rt Rev John Crowley is an avid Arsenal fan and had watched the Inter encounter. "Just fantastic," he said.

From the generally sober-sided Church Times, meanwhile, another agonising question: "Which is the greater sin: to receive surreptitiously a text message during the parish communion giving the score of the England-France rugby match or to insist upon telling the result to other people who'd set their videos to watch the match much later."

Answers are still awaited.

Quart and pint pot meant that it was simply impossible to attend the funeral last Thursday of Owen Willoughby, the indomitable 84-year-old who still combined scouting for Spurs with being the inspiration behind generations of junior footballers around Trimdon.

Mourners overflowed the church, into the ground, even - it was cold outside - into Trimdon Labour Club. "It was a proper Catholic funeral, everyone with their chests puffed out singing their heads off," reports one who squeezed in.

It would, in any case, have been impossible to better Fr Anthony Hastie's opening line: "Owen had a wife, three daughters and a thousand sons...."

Brooks Mileson - sporting philanthropist, chief executive of Gretna FC and rescuer of unwanted animals - has several new additions to his menage.

Brian Wake, the former Tow Law striker, has signed for Gretna from Carlisle but awaits international clearance - Gretna's 15 miles away - while a pair of breeding marmoset monkeys has arrived at the Mileson wildlife park.

Gretna's financial controller rang him. "I hear we've got a new striker."

"What," said Brooks, "Brian Wake?"

"No, the monkeys," said the finance man, "as usual we're only paying them peanuts."

It was, adds Brooks, pretty good for an accountant.

Much excitement around Chester-le-Street, where the under 18 team play at Pride Park, Derby, tonight in the FA Youth Cup third round - further than any other North-East non-league side has ever progressed.

The Chester lads have already beaten Hartlepool and Port Vale, plus several youth teams from more senior clubs. "It doesn't have to end at Derby, we honestly believe we can win," says team manager Andrew Muxworthy.

Middlesbrough have loaned their team coach, Derby County their academy. Twelve of the 19 squad have had professional club trials this season, eight are in the Durham County side. Nineteen in the past four years have progressed into the Northern League.

"People say that Derby's our cup final but I don't see why it should be," says Muxworthy. "We have a realistic chance."

And finally...

The four Premiership clubs whose record defeats were against Blackburn Rovers (Backtrack, November 28) are Man United, Middlesbrough, Birmingham and Aston Villa.

Fred Alderton in Peterlee today seeks the identity of the English club which in 1984 lost a European match to Partizan Belgrade after taking a 4-0 first leg advantage.

We're at home again on Friday.

Published: 02/12/2003