NEIL Tarrant, whose nomadic football journey has been followed step by step by The Northern Echo, has flown off to play in Seoul. It is, of course, a Korea move.

Though the language barrier presents problems, he can just about understand the Busan Icons FC manager - 56-year-old Ian Porterfield, a Sunderland hero in happier times by the Wear.

"It's a long way but the chance of a lifetime, especially the way football over here is at the moment," says Sue, his mum - and the Far Eastern promise has had a dream start.

His departure last Friday was a particular blow for East End Workmen's Club in Darlington, for whom the five times capped Scottish Under 21 international and former Aston Villa player had been turning out on Sunday mornings.

"He was a bit out of our class to be honest, you could tell that just by looking at his posture," says East End secretary Steve Savage.

"Neil was scoring a lot of goals for us and we'll miss him. You don't often get Under 21 internationals in the Sunday morning league."

Neil, still just 23, became a £40 a week YTS apprentice at Darlington in 1995 - "a lovely left foot for shooting," said Jack Watson, chief scout at the time - but was released by manager David Hodgson without playing first team football.

Turning out for his home town club remains one of his ambitions, however.

After loan spells with Auxerre and Shamrock Rovers he finally joined Ross County in the Scottish third division - and they thought that was a long way from home.

In his first season he hit 12 goals in 16 games, in the second 24 in 33, including three hat tricks, as the side won the championship. Neil himself won three player of the season awards and another from the league.

Transferred to Aston Villa for £250,000, a record for Ross, he spent two and a half years in the Midlands during which he was loaned to Ayr United, successfully, and Motherwell, less so, but never played in the Premiership.

After Villa freed him he returned to Ross, played in the Conference for Boston and was latterly at Unibond Premier division side Barrow, managed by Billingham lad and former Hartlepool midfielder Kenny Lowe.

Kenny had supposed it to be a two year deal worth £90,000 a year. It proves to be a pre-season trial with a contract in mind.

"It's a shame for us because he was showing everyone what a good player he is, but fantastic for Neil," says Kenny, who still commutes across the Pennines from Teesside.

"I offered him another fiver a goal but it still didn't swing it.

"He's in line for a great deal, a company car and a flat, will be playing in some of the World Cup stadiums and I'd have given him a piggy back to the airport to get there."

Neil was only told of the offer last Wednesday, arrived on Saturday after a 22 hour flight, came on as a 65th minute sub on Monday and scored the clincher in a 4-3 win. "He's been well received and is fitting in nicely," says Alex McLaughlin, his agent.

"Mr Porterfield says he has the sort of attitude they're looking for. We're all very hopeful," says Sue Tarrant, back in snowy Darlington.

Should the Icons proved iconoclastic, however, there'll always be a game back home.

"If things don't work out in the Far East," says Steve Savage, "there'll always be a game, and a pint, at the East End."

Backtrack Briefs ...

The answer to Tuesday's poser - the former Football League club which played on a public park - was Aldershot. The man who'd have known was Len Walker.

Len, Ferryhill born and former Mainsforth Colliery electrician, made 450 Football League appearances for the Shots, became assistant manager and then manager for nine years, was sacked (by letter) two days before his benefit match against Arsenal and still lives happily in Hampshire.

Among the players he signed for Aldershot was Steve Claridge, otherwise Wurzel, who ragged him ungratefully in his 1997 autobiography.

"Len wasn't exactly the best looking bloke in the world," he recalled. "If you wanted to make yourself look better, you always tried to stand beside him in the team photograph."

"Wurzel hadn't much to talk about himself," replied Len.

Though the Recreation Ground was legally a public park you couldn't exactly walk your dog over it. "Me and 22 players might have chased you if you did," he says.

He began at Spennymoor United, made a single League appearance for Newcastle, played cricket for Bishop Auckland and Mainsforth and after a spell as coach became Darlington's £6,000 a year manager in 1978.

When the Quakers sacked him eight months later, three weeks after being assured that his job was safe, he became the first manager to take his club to an industrial tribunal. They settled for nine months wages out of court.

After Aldershot he became Fulham's assistant manager and then youth development officer, now scouts part time for Everton but rarely gets up north. Last time he did he bumped into veteran scout Jack Watson in Morrison's caf in Darlington. People usually do.

Though Aldershot are resurgent, he only visits the Rec - "the old club owed me money" - when Chelsea Reserves play home games there.

From childhood, his other love is Sunderland. "Even from down here," says Len, "things are starting to look a little bit bleak."

Evenwood Town submerged, Tow Law blown away, we headed third time lucky on Tuesday night for Marske United v Newcastle Blue Star. Quite clement by the sea.

Marske's record this season is extraordinary. In midweek they've won 14, drawn two and lost just one - to Conference club Scarborough in the North Riding Senior Cup last week.

On Saturdays they've won just one, drawn five and lost the other 12.

"It's got to the stage where the name of the day before Sunday has been completely banned from the dressing room. The sequence is utterly baffling" says never-on-Saturday club chairman John Hodgson.

Since it was five days before Sunday, United won 1-0.

The train left Marske at 9.33pm, passing the Riverside Stadium 15 minutes later. The last one out seemed already to have switched off the lights.

Among those who did stay until Boro's bitter end, however, was the Rev Leo Osborn, arch Aston Villa fan and chairman of the Methodist Church's far flung Newcastle district.

"We were awesome," he reported next morning, though really it was an excuse to beg a church mouse copy of that day's paper.

So what did the Middlesbrough fans make of it all? "I'd love to tell you," says Leo, "but by half past nine everyone else had gone home."

Entrained to the seaside, we also bumped into the woolly hatted John Goodall, known as Darlo John to differentiate him from fellow groundhopper John Dawson.

That he's barely seen 100 games all season may be something to do with the fact that, having visited almost every ground in the North, he's now ticking off all those in the Ryman League, down south.

Travels become even more complicated because he doesn't drive, an overnight National Express the usual weekend ticket.

Last weekend he went to Aylesbury, change at Milton Keynes, checked the night before that the match was on and was somewhat disconcerted to discover at 2.15pm on Saturday that it wasn't.

Darlo complained, Aylesbury ducked. "Sorry, the referee is god," they said.

"I can think of better things to call him than that," said John morosely, and caught the first of several buses home.

News that Kate Adie is leaving the BBC recalls her first ever outside broadcast, as a mini-skirted young thing for Radio Durham. It was a football match at Evenwood, Kate's half-time report full of colourful details but a little short on fact. Finally the producer cut in. "Yes, yes, Kate, but now coul d we know the score?"

And finally...

Len Walker became Darlington's manager on December 13, 1978. Readers may care to suggest the identity of the Sunderland manager appointed on the same day.

The column tries to manage again on Tuesday

Published: 31/01/2003