If a football team plays on its stomach, as an army marches in its, the England fooball team should put in a great performance against Slovakia next month.

IF the demented ghost of Bessie Surtees haunts the Redworth Hall Hotel - and everywhere worth its saltire has a resident spirit these days - the old girl must have scared everyone off when we were there.

In the bar, Tetley's Smoothflow £2.40, the tape played Has Anybody Hear Seen My Old Friend Abraham and might have added "Or anyone else for that matter" in parenthesis.

Staff outnumbered customers. Porters, dressed rather like we remember them on Shildon station all those steam hauled years ago, looked round anxiously for something to port.

Just one other family was taking Sunday lunch in the restaurant and by coincidence we not only knew them but knew them when they had nowt. Now they could not only afford £13.95 a head - perfectly good value, we considered - but came regularly on Sundays.

"There never seem to be many here," they said.

It was two days before the announcement that England's football team, an Alice band aristocracy worth meretricious millions, was to lay its collective and carefully coiffed head at the Redworth before next month's international with Slovakia at Middlesbrough.

The column, so to speak, was ahead of the game for once.

The hotel, between Shildon and Darlington, has a health club, extensive grounds and a lawn out the front that would have been perfect had there been a set of goal posts, the great David Seaman and our bairns on it.

The dining room is large, airy and efficiently run save for the extra bottle of mineral water inadvertently added to the bill. (We mention it partly to underline the column's present abstemiousness, partly the refusal to pay £2.40 for rough with the Smoothflow.)

Starters included a Caesar salad which The Boss thought a bit anaemic but good and spicy fish cakes with a lemon chilli.

Five main courses: roast beef - the eleventh commandment seems to ordain roast beef on Sundays, but is surely ripe for repeal - chicken chasseur, tomato and red pepper cannelloni, suckling pig with a black olive sauce and salmon with a mussel and prawn brose. (Brose - who knows? - but the lady considered it an excellent choice.)

The pork was rolled almost into a pork pie shape, with crackling antennae sticking out the top.

"Doesn't it look like Bugs Bunny?" said The Boss.

"No," said the waiter, with abundant justification.

The sauce worked particularly well, perhaps with a hint of orange somewhere, the potatoes were fresh and carefully cooked, the other vegetables might have been a touch sharper.

Puddings came in vast quantities: fresh fruit salad in a brandy snap basket, perhaps, or the best fruit crumble and custard in adult memory.

Coffee is included, served in a handsome lounge out the front: civilised, relaxing, worth overall the couple of bob extra and further entertainment from the other family's nine-year-old trying to recite The Jumblies, who went to sea in a sieve (they did).

A light breeze blew pleasantly through the room. Was it that someone else had at last arrived, or simply the spectre at the feast?

THE England squad will prepare at Middlesbrough FC's secure and state of the art training complex at Hurworth, south of Darlington - a chance to tell again the story of Mr Des Coulson, sandwich maker to the stars.

Des, who has a business at Leeming Bar, provides butties and things for staff at the Boro academy.

He is also a Football League assistant referee, but became quite concerned after appointment to a Premier Reserve League game at Middlesbrough's Riverside Stadium.

Des rang the Premiership. Should he declare an interest? They told him it was his bread and butter; he'd probably be all right.

WHEN not tucking into Dessie's prawn with iceberg ("really good," he reckons) England's boys will find several pubs within skiving off distance of their training ground.

Among them is the Bay Horse in Hurworth, which scores in several respects but suffered one of those own goals which it's almost impossible to defend.

It's a very pleasant village pub - bar, beamed lounge and conservatory restaurant out the back - four real ales including excellent Magnet and something called Pride of Romsey IPA.

Wasn't Earl Mountbatten from Romsey? Perhaps that's what prompted a chap in the lounge to recall the quote usually attributed to Churchill - of whom F E Smith in turn said that he spent the best years of his life writing his impromptu speeches - when accused of being drunk.

"Drunk I may be," retorted Churchill, "but in the morning I shall be sober and you will still be ugly."

None of the four or five quotations dictionaries in this office has any truck with it, however. Did the old boy really come out with it, and if not Miss Bessie Braddock, to whom?

We moved into the restaurant, which was a mistake. The menu is extensive, with Eastern influences, though the chef appeared to be called Bazza and in any case it wasn't the food which was the problem.

The Boss started with lemon chicken strips in a thick and rather glutinous curd. The cream of wild mushroom soup was strong on lemon and pepper, too, and on what may have been Thai spices. Though it was very palatable, however, the mushrooms must have been so wild that they'd upped and offed.

A huge pork parmesan with melted mozzarella came with good chips and veg - honest, robust, good value. Likewise The Boss's spicy fishcakes, quickly cleared.

The problem was the people on the next table, and specifically the racket they made. Had it been a football match, they'd have been marched out by the stewards.

The big noise was American. It's probably just the way they speak, alternately in holler and guffaw, and he wasn't even aware of it. His companions, equally automatically, raised their voices, too.

One of them had a mobile phone which beeped every time Sunderland scored. If he'd spent the season with this guy, it would have been possible to suppose that they'd never scored at all - which, come to think, isn't too far from the truth.

Across the road, the bells of All Saints pealed ding and dong, but never ding-dong, so great the struggle to be heard.

We forewent pudding and coffee, fled back to the sanctuary of the lounge. The bill was around £25; a quiet night out it wasn't.

OTHER matters, and firstly to Grand ambition, greatly to be applauded. The Grand Hotel in Bishop Auckland holds its first beer festival this weekend, May 23-26.

"It's brilliant of them to give it a try," says the near ecstatic Alastair Downie from Wear Valley CAMRA.

Nine ales include Jasper from the Anglo-Dutch brewery in Dewsbury, Daleside Mild, Hill Island bitter, Timothy Taylor's Landlord - much loved by Madonna, apparently - and a valedictory chance to try Feethams Farewell, from Darwin.

The Grand is in South Church Road, near enough the new Morrison's supermarket and a 250 yard walk from the railway station. The Mo-Jos Blues Band plays on Saturday night. The event deserves to succeed.

THEMSELVES once beloved of Wear Valley CAMRA, Keith and Jackie Kyte held a jolly party, free beer all night, to mark their retirement after 14 years at the Red Lion at North Bitchburn.

A short flight, the Kytes are now in that part of Witton Park known as The Baltic - but why, we asked Witton Park historian Dale Daniel.

"Dunno," said Dale, though he suspects a link with the brass monkey weather prevalent thereabouts.

California's half a mile up the road: Dale can't explain that one, either. Readers may be able to help.

SEVERAL characteristically helpful readers ha ve been on about the search for Old Mother Riley videos, chronicled - don't ask why - last week.

Most leads point towards America; Mr Bowman in Spennymoor may offer greater hope. Somewhere at the back of the cupboard he has a collection of 8mm Old Mother Riley films, one of those good ideas at the time.

If they can be transferred to video he'd be happy to help; if they can't but someone has an 8mm projector we might organise an Old Mother Riley charity night. Technical advice would much be welcomed first.

...and finally, the bairns wondered if we knew a hen's favourite television programme.

The Eggs Files, of course.