The Northern League being under several feet of water, we spent Saturday watching Arsenal against Oxford United instead, in the convivial company of Mr Tommy Miller (senior).

Once the Shotton polliss, Tommy is now Hartlepool's full-time chief scout. His bairn - Tommy junior, 24 next week - stirs East Anglian passions in Ipswich Town's resurgent midfield.

Tommy watches opponents two weeks before Pool play them, compiles a 12 A4 page dossier for the manager - right flank corners, left flank corners, attacking free kicks, defensive free kicks - sends someone for a second opinion the following week.

On January 18 Hartlepool play Oxford. Tommy was a Highbury virgin; it was a change for both of us.

His own playing career was as a Wearside League left back at places like Handenhold, where they changed in a pigeon cree, though he was also Durham City's stand-in manager for one game.

"They had no manager and no team. I signed fower pollisses," he recalls.

Durham drew 1-1 with Brandon. Tommy retired undefeated.

Now he scouts assiduously, though usually at humbler homes than Highbury.

Far from the marble halls, the most likely place to find a scouts' convention before a Third Division match is in the nearest Tesco, where lunch may be had for £2, and with a bob or two left over for the gas meter.

At Arsenal we were greeted by a commissionaire - nowt so luminous as stewards - hospitably directed to the cocktail lounge (canny ham sandwiches, coffee a bit cold, mind), thence to the directors' box.

You could tell it was the directors' box because the armchairs had individual ash trays, like they used to have at the pictures. Gentlemen were requested to wear jacket and tie, ladies to be "suitably attired".

Tommy wondered if they'd miss a roll of carpet. Scouts' honour (and other things) suggested he shouldn't try it.

It's only 15 years since Arsenal played Oxford in the top division. Now 6,000 visiting fans crowded vociferously beneath the Highbury clock - "more than they get at home," said Tommy. Home supporters were quieter, more studious. For Oxford it was to be a steep learning curve.

The U's were 18-1 to win a two-horse race, with skipper Andy Crosby, once at Darlington, 50-1 to score the first goal. The odds may have been similar at Feethams, where he hit four in 211 appearances.

Oxford striker and Arsenal fan Jefferson Louis, filmed in the dressing room after the third round FA Cup draw with nothing more than a ha'penny hankie to hide his delight, was relegated to the bench.

The Gunners did what they had to do. Bergkamp hit his 100th, the public address decently declining to identify the scorer or the big screen to repeat the action after an own goal sealed a no-sweat 2-0 win.

Jefferson Louis, a 12-month prison sentence recently behind him, rose from the bench but was unable to get Oxford out of jail.

Tommy's notebook remained little occupied, a scout unlikely to earn writer's badge - neither right-flank nor left-flank corner kick in 90 minutes football and precious few attacking free kicks, either.

None doubted, however, that Oxford would greatly have enjoyed their day.

"I just wish that it had been us," said Hartlepool's chief scout - better yet, a Northern League club next time.

The previous Saturday to Willington, and the board room there an' all. The coffee was hotter, the mat a little less luxurious.

In 1950 Willington won the Amateur Cup; 30 years ago played Blackburn Rovers in the FA Cup. Now they're fighting relegation from the Albany Northern League second division and have appointed former East Hetton collier and Newcastle United favourite Alan Shoulder hopefully to perform the rescue.

He's 50 next month, a first- time grandfather at Christmas, a big managerial job on hands accustomed to hard shifts.

Among the most pressing needs is a physio - "magic sponge or magic wand," muses the admirable Alan. He's on 01388 601253.

Sunderland fans finding it difficult to stand the heat may care to get into the stadium kitchen - where toil Patrice Lesca, the Black Cats' head chef, and head porter Ben Peacock.

The Stadium of Light brigade helped the Halfway House - a pub in Southwick - to a first win of the season in the Over 40s League fourth division, Ben hitting a hat-trick in the 5-2 roasting of third- placed Houghton Mill.

Team manager Mickey Little, known for fairly transparent reasons as the Flying Window Cleaner, is convinced it's not a flash in the pan.

"They just phoned asking for a game but they've made a big difference to us," says Mickey in the manner of a man who can't get too many cooks.

There's one small problem with the kitchen unit, however: they're needed elsewhere when Sunderland have a home game on a Saturday.

* The story, as usual, is from evergreen league secretary Kip Watson - Mickey's second appearance in the sports pages. "The last time Kip put me in the paper," he says, "I'd been bitten by a Jack Russell."

Simmering gently, the Sunderland fanzine A Love Supreme notes that following the Manchester City "debacle", Howard Wilkinson's post- mortem with the players was in the seriously opulent Seaham Hall Hotel.

ALS would have preferred the inquest to have been in the VIP area of Joan's Caf - "a much-needed reality check."

Small world and all that, the column had cause a couple of times in 2002 to mention Subutteo. It hasn't passed unnoticed.

John Briggs, our man with his finger on the table football scene, was surprised over Christmas to receive a call from a Newcastle-based BBC researcher who'd found his name on the Internet.

"We're doing a piece about nude Subutteo, can you help?" he asked.

Apparently it's the miniatures, not the menfolk, who get their kit off for the lads, though John is unable to reveal any more.

We in turn have failed to discover why the BBC has a sudden fascination with two-inch nudes.

A skin flick, as it were.

The Jurgen Klinsmann story (continued). Readers may recall (as did the Backtrack annual round-up on December 20) that West Auckland FC was trying to give a free copy of Herr Klinsmann's biography to every spectator - and still had hundreds on the shelf.

Keith Pybus in Darlington had a similarly painless experience when visiting the dental practice founded by the late Lance Robson, the Quakers' affectionately remembered centre forward through most of the 1960s.

A heap of the books sat on the waiting room table. "Help yourself," they said.

The explanation may lie with a Klinsmann kinsman, Keith believes - "I think his agent needed urgent medical attention" - though Lance's widow Barbara suspects the answer is closer to home.

"There was someone who gave us rather a lot of copies but I think he was English," says Barbara.

The remainder? We continue to investigate.

And finally...

Back to Oxford United, Football League members since 1962.

Readers may care to recall whose place they took in the old fourth division - and also the identity of the next newcomers to the League.

The answer, and more learned friends, on Friday.

Published: 07/01/2003