Norman Lees attends tomorrow's Farewell to Feethams with memories of the night he avoided a possible fire disaster.

"It could have been another Bradford, I've no doubt about it," says the former Quakers defender.

The affable Geordie had gone to retrieve the ball for a throw-in - night match he thinks, probably 1974 - when he noticed flames licking around the bottom of the old East Stand.

"It was all wooden and the fans used to stand in front, in the paddock. Someone must have dropped a cigarette behind them and set light to all the paper and rubbish beneath.

"They were shouting at me to get on with the game and I was shouting back that the bloody stand was on fire."

Among those alerted was legendary Darlington trainer Dickie Deacon - bucket of water inevitably to hand.

"It was just about all that was needed, but I hate to think what might have happened if I hadn't spotted it," says Norman.

"It said in the paper the next night that there'd been more action off the field than on it, and I think that was true. I still think we saved the stand."

Now 54, back on Tyneside after almost two decades in Australia, he began his Football League career with Hull City before moving to Hartlepool in 1971.

"Hartlepool wanted my mate Stuart Pearson, but he wouldn't go, later signed for Manchester United and won 12 England caps. They got me, instead."

Len Ashurst swiftly succeeded John Simpson as manager, Hartlepool successfully applied for re-election for the tenth time, Norman moved inland to Darlington where he made 120 first-team appearances and got on, as it were, like a house on fire.

"To be honest, we should have done better with the players we had, lads like Allan Gauden, Alan Harding and Peter Graham, but George Tait was chairman and you know what he was like."

Fire works notwithstanding, his next most memorable match was when entertainer and psychologist Paul Trevillion promised to transform the struggling team's fortunes, pulled a week of stunts - including giving away fivers in the town centre - and turned up with singer Kathy Kirby for the home match with Cambridge.

Darlington won 6-0. "I not only scored one of me goals, and there weren't many of those, but I could got a lovely cuddle off Kathy Kirby, an' all."

After leaving Darlington he went to Australia, teamed up with Esh Winning lad Jimmy Shoulder and played and coached ("a lot of the time with teams on the pools coupons") for 15 years.

"It's a wonderful place, a lot of North-East people there and about 150 Australians now playing professionally in Europe. They're really starting to churn them out."

In 1992 he came home for a holiday to mark his dad's 70th birthday, stayed for seven years ("domino effect") and after another spell in Australia now works for a print company on Tyneside.

Accent as broad as ever ("it's funny how you slip back into it") he joins dozens of other former Feethams favourites in a parade around the ground at 1 45pm tomorrow.

Tomorrow's encounter with Leyton Orient isn't the last big match at Feethams, or the last hope of a whiff of nostalgia.

The Albany Northern League Cup final, Billingham Synthonia v Shildon, kicks off there at 11am on Bank Holiday Monday- and this one's only £3.

Darlington were founder Northern League members, stayed for 18 years, played all their home games at Feethams. "We're really grateful to George Reynolds for letting us come back there," said ANL secretary Tony Golightly.

Among those on familiar ground will be Shildon player/coach Phil Owers, 125 games between the Quakers' sticks, and leading scorer Lee Ellison who made 115 appearances in the 1990s.

Phil, 48 this week, played for Shildon in Wednesday's ANL game with Dunston, 32 years after his debut.

"He never put a foot wrong," says Shildon secretary Mike Armitage.

A commemorative cup final programme reproduces on the cover the painting "Goal" by Mackenzie Thorpe, South Bank born but internationally acclaimed, whose football themed exhibition The Game of Life is now touring Britain.

Wendy Bowker, director of Thorpe's Arthaus gallery in Richmond, will present a print to the winning side.

Brooks Mileson, Albany Group chairman and former four minute miler, hands over the other trophies.

Published: 02/05/2003