Just nine months after temporarily hanging up his football boots, Leo Smith celebrates his 80th birthday tomorrow.

"The arthritis has got really bad now, but I'm hoping for a knee replacement next month so maybe I can start again," he says.

The first of two parties ("I'm not daft") was held on Saturday night at the Copt Hill near Houghton-le-Spring, former Sunderland captain Bobby Kerr's pub.

"I surprised everyone by putting on a free bar all night. Only Bobby knew about it," says Leo. Ex-Sunderland players Gary Bennett and Eric Gates were among those who looked in; the column, regrettably, couldn't make it.

Leo's been a Backtrack favourite since 1990; The Sun caught up with him ten years later.

He last played 11-a-side football when he was 71, trained every day on the cliffs near his home in Seaham, played five-a-side until April.

"One of the priests at our Roman Catholic school in Sunderland told me that whatever I did when I left school, I should keep on playing football," he said.

"Being a good Catholic I did as I was told."

For 12 years he also organised a Good Friday charity match, in which six of Sunderland's 1973 FA Cup winning team appeared.

His greatest claim to the cuttings library, however, is the Amsterdam tour where - subbed for the first time in 58 years football - Leo, then 71, set fire to his boots in the hotel room and activated every smoke alarm in the building.

"Now I'd just be grateful for a ten-minute kickabout," says the retired bookie. "Maybe the operation will work."

Anticipating Saturday's reunion of Darlington's 1965-66 promotion winning squad, long -serving right back John Peverell recalls how extraordinarily enduring they were.

Pev, goalkeeper Tony Moor, left back Brian Keeble and winger George McGeachie played in every game, rugged Ray Yeoman missed just one and when big Bobby Cummings bagged the number nine shirt in October, no-one again got it off him.

"We were very lucky with injuries, but the game was totally different in those days," says John, 61. "Our great strength was that we were a totally honest team."

Prompted by Hetton-le-Hole born Alan Sproates, on holiday from Canada, the old boys will be club guests at the game with Kidderminster.

Bryan Conlon and Trevor Atkinson are dead; they'd still welcome the whereabouts of Barry Hutchinson, Norman Cardew, Don Ratcliffe, Ken Allison, Jimmy Connor - ex-Stanley United - Billy Hopper and Pat Hughes. We'll happily pass on information.

Another happy reunion, Bishop Auckland Cricket Club are still seeking former players - all levels - for the do on April 12 which will help mark the club's 150th anniversary.

The oldest back on parade so far is Mattie Hutchinson, now in Middleton Tyas, who played for the Bishops before the war but left after becoming a polliss in West Hartlepool.

Our old friend Gordon Nicholson is therefore but a junior, though he first kept wicket in 1941 and made his final appearance 43 years later. He will be 77 in May and is keeping, as they say, very canny.

The reunion is in the clubhouse. Details from John Atkinson on 01388 602245.

The Barmy Army returns in good order. Richard Thurston, first to dismebark, reckons that 16,000 of the 19,000 at Sydney on the last day of the fifth Test were Brits.

"The Aussies were a bit put out," adds Richard, from Stockton, though he reckons the numbers of Us and Oz evicted ("too much amber nectar") were about equal.

Amongst the flags he spotted were the Sedgefield Booze Boys, Peterlee and Darlington FC and one from the Cally (which he correctly assumes to be a pub) in Darlington.

Fatigues permitting, more from the Barmy Army next time.

The retiring Dave Morrison, of whom we wrote in October, is on the move yet again.

Forty years a wicketkeeper in senior league cricket in the North-East - mainly, diligently, with Darlington RA - Dave, 59, is leaving the Builders Arms in Darlington for the more rural charms of the Black Horse in Kirkby Fleetham, near Northallerton.

He will continue, he insists, in the new role of cricket manager at the RA. "I'm merely spreading my scouting net into North Yorkshire," he insists.

...and finally

The club of which Eric Gates was assistant manager after finishing playing (Backtrack, January 10) was Hartlepool United. "Lovely feller to work with," says Jack Watson, chief scout at the time.

Apart from Somerset and Durham, Ken Biddulph's two teams, three other teams in cricket's County Championship have never won the title.

Readers are invited to name them. We also run again on Friday.

Published: 14/01/2002