Northern League clubs could be unable to enter the FA Cup if Chelsea chairman Ken Bates has his way.

Nationwide Conference club Farnborough have been accused of undermining the spirit and image of the FA Cup by switching their fourth round tie to Arsenal for safety reasons after their Cherrywood Road ground was deemed as unsuitable for the game.

And at a recent FA Council meeting, Bates, who is on the FA Cup committee, said that the committee will be considering action for future seasons, and it could deny clubs access to the Cup if they don't sign a document, counter-signed by the local authority, stating that they will stage ties on their own ground.

FA councillor Mike Armitage said: "I fear this could have a dramatic effect on the smaller clubs who could be excluded from the competition because they cannot stage a tie that might crop up only once in fifty years."

Northern League clubs have made a considerable amount of money from the Cup in recent seasons, especially as the prize money for winning an early qualifying round tie has risen to £7,500.

The danger of the Northern League indirectly losing clubs because of the proposed expansion of the Nationwide Conference appears to have receded at least for the time being.

The Conference has proposed an expansion to its 22 club format, possibly introducing a north and south division, but the FA's Sanctions Committee has blocked the move, at least for this season.

The Committee backheeled the suggestion for the start of season 2003-04 because "it was not in the best interests of football," and instead have referred the matter to the National League System Committee, which has been asked to work with the Conference.

The NLS committee has just finished work on reshaping the top end of the non league ladder - it gave up trying to reform the game at Northern League level - and the feeling in some quarters is that the process is back to square one again.

"If the Conference expansion went ahead, there would be a serious knock-on effect throughout the rest of the pyramid," said FA Councillor Mike Armitage.

And should the UniBond League lose clubs to any expanded Conference, then the chances are that the Northern League would seek parity with the UniBond League First Division.

Brandon defender Jamie Carfoot returned to the side for their League Cup tie against Horden on Tuesday night. Brandon boss Kenny Lindoe recalled the player, who is still on the transfer list at his own request, and he went on as substitute in the second half. It had been thought that the player had quit, but this was incorrect.

Brandon face Durham tonight in a league game at the Welfare Ground as they try to stay at the top of the table. Brandon are without midfielder Steve Huggins, while Durham will be close to full strength.

Crook Town joint manager David Taylor stepped down from the post last week, with Les Langley taking over as the sole team manager.

Secretary Kieron Bennett said: "He's decided to step down as manager because of his work commitments, but he'll still be a valuable member of the playing staff."

Taylor and Langley took over as joint managers two months ago when David Buchanan left.

And there was more bad news for Crook from the league's management committee, because they have been deducted three points for using Aaron Scott in their team when he was already registered with another club. They will have another three points knocked off, because they won the game in which he played against Willington, who have asked for a replay as they are entitled to do under the league rules.

The Durham Challenge Cup semi final between Horden and Wearside League club Birtley has been arranged for Tuesday, February 4. The other semi final, between Billingham Synthonia and Dunston, has been arranged for the following night. No date for the final has yet been fixed.

The Northern League's magazine, Northern Ventures Northern Gains, has gone full colour.

The magazine has been around for nearly 14 years, and still costs the same as it did originally - 30p.

Northern League chairman Mike Amos said: "We want to get across the message that it is a quality product for a quality league. It's certainly within everyone's price range.

"Thanks to outside support the magazine still breaks even. Well-meaning people have begged us to charge more but not everything in football needs to be a rip-off."

The magazine is supported by The Northern Echo and the Football Association, and is published by the University of Northumbria.

Ashington could be reluctantly on their way out of their home ground, Portland Park.

The local council has been carrying out surveys in recent weeks about the viability of bulldozing their ground, and building a shopping mall on the land instead.

This would mean that the club would be moved 200 yards away in a new ground which would cost £500,000.

However, the club is unwilling to move, because of the amount of time and effort in improving Portland Park in recent years.

West Auckland's failure to find the net at Guisborough on Saturday was only the second time this season in which they had failed to score - the first being at home to Guisborough back in October. West are the leading scorers in the First Division with 59 goals.

Billingham Town defender Stuart Jackson is going to be out of action for another six weeks.

Town were hoping that the former Hartlepool player, who suffered a broken arm last year, would have been ready for their Vase tie at Gorleston last week, but complications have set in, and they have been told that he won't be able to play again until March at the earliest.

Bedlington joint manager Tony Lowery feels that the season is just beginning again. After a five week break because of the weather, the five times champions have failed to win either of the two games they've played, against Consett and Whitley Bay.

"It's been like the start of a season for us, and sometimes we're slow then," he said.

"We were looking a good team before the break, but now we're back to square one. We're hoping that a win will spark us off again."

Billingham Town boss Allan Robinson was delighted with new signing Anthony Lee on his debut on Saturday.

Full back Lee left Spennymoor last week just a few days after the departure of his father Tony, and Robinson snapped him up in time for the game at Brandon, which Town won 2-1.

"Anthony had a very good game, and gave us a professional display.

"He helped us bounce back from the Vase defeat at Gorleston, and sets us up nicely for the rest of the season.

"I have told the players that I don't want it to peter out. It's a pity we lost the six points for playing an ineligible player, otherwise we would have been right up there."

Jarrow Roofing manager Richie McLoughlin revealed that a pre-match rollicking worked wonders for his team at Esh Winning last week.

Roofing ended a run of poor results with a 6-2 victory at Esh, with Paul Chow scoring a hat trick, and fellow striker Craig Nelson another two.

"Our front two have had problems in recent weeks, in that they've only been feeding on scraps. There weren't many good balls going into the opposition penalty area.

"But I had a few words with the players on Saturday, and told them to improve the quality, and it worked. Paul and Craig have a very good striking partnership, but they need the service."

Chow has now scored 24 league goals this season, and his striking partner 12

latest performance of the week awards are: 30th November Seaham Red Star for their 2-0 win at Nissan; December 7th Northallerton for their 6-3 Vase win over Shirebrook; 14th December Morpeth for a 3-2 home win over Willenhall in the Vase, 21st December Thornaby for a 4-0 win at Northallerton, 28 December Seaham Red Star for an 8-1 win at Murton; 4th Jan no awards because of the bad weather; 11th Jan Billingham Town for their 6-2 home win over Tow Law; 18th Jan Billingham Synthonia for their win on penalties against Gateshead in the Durham Challenge Cup.

Dunston centre half Steve Holmes scored at both ends as his side beat Esh Winning 3-2 in the league cup on Tuesday night. Holmes put through his own net to put Esh ahead at 2-1, but he equalised at the other end five minutes later, with Micky Farrey getting the winner from the spot.

Willington striker Brett Cummings gave his side a much-needed boost with a hat trick as they beat Crook Town 4-1 in the Craven Cup.

Thornaby striker Jamie Clarke also scored a hat-trick in their 6-0 win over Nissan, again in the Craven Cup.

The League cup tie between Evenwood and Ashington was postponed again because of a waterlogged pitch.

Leading scorers (league only)

First Division

Paul Chow (Jarrow Roofing) 24

John Milner (Bedlington) 20

Roy Allen (Bedlington/West Auck.) 19

Lee Ellison (Shildon) 15

C. Chillingsworth (Billingham Town) 15

Ben Chambers (Washington) 13

Andy McKenna (Tow Law) 13

Lee Alexander (Marske) 12

Second Division

Adam Johnston (Washington Nissan) 24

Jamie Clark (Thornaby) 16

Alan Hogg (Ashington) 15

John Wightman (Washington Nissan) 13

James Swordy (Alnwick) 13

TONIGHT'S FIXTURE - Division One: Brandon v Durham City

TOMORROW'S FIXTURES - Division One: Bedlington v Esh Winning, Chester-le-Street v Guisborough, Dunston v Billingham Town, Morpeth v Consett, Newcastle Blue Star v Billingham Synthonia, Peterlee v Whitley Bay, Prudhoe v Shildon, West Auckland v Tow Law

Division Two: Alnwick v Thornaby, Crook Town v Hebburn, Eppleton v Kennek Ryhope CA, Evenwood v Ashington, Horden v Washington Nissan, Northallerton v Norton, Seaham Red Star v Penrith, Shotton v South Shields, Whickham v Murton, Willington v Easington