An annual invitation, the Crook Games League's annual presentation was made yet more pleasurable by bumping into our old friend Doug McCarthy, long time England darts international and former world number 13.

We'd last met at Christmas 1999 when Doug, decidedly unfestive, was awaiting an operation for stomach cancer and not (as they say in these parts) over clever.

Unlike his beloved darts, however, he refused to throw in the towel.

At 58 he is not only recovered - though one or two problems remain - but back in the Durham County team for the first time in 15 years.

"After 30 weeks chemotherapy I can't begin to explain how good it is to be back," says Doug, County singles champion in 1982 and 1983 and winner with John Lowe of the Guinness Golden Pairs competition.

Born in Tow Law, he was given his first dartboard when he was eight, still has two of the darts with their original flights, made his league debut when he was 17 for the Earl Derby on Stanley hill top.

"I don't suppose I told them how old I was," he concedes.

He'd last represented the County in 1986 ("I wasn't dropped, we had a disagreement"), played just twice for the B team after his treatment ended before being reinstated to the senior side. Recently he won three tournaments in eight days.

Among those happiest at his recovery is his old friend and England colleague John "Bonner" Thompson, 62. "It's just brilliant to see him enjoying his darts so much again," says John.

Though the league had its usual panoply of trophies to present - and several teams who preferred the cost of the cups to be given to medical charities - Doug got no further than the semi-final of the pairs, all four contestants living within 70 yards of one another in Crook.

It didn't matter a jot. "When you've feared the worst as I have, you're just ecstatic to be alive," he said - a man on double top of the world.

Paul Knighton, pride of Witton Park and another England darts man, was also at the presentation night - five and a half stones lighter than when last our paths had crossed.

We'd first met in 1994, league night at Tindale Crescent Workmen's Club. "I'm glad you've come to write about him," the Tindale captain had said, "because you haven't enough paper to draw him."

"If he doesn't play darts for England," someone else suggested, "he could eat for England instead."

Paul, known as Butch - as was his dad before him - has slimmed from 22 stones 10 lbs to just over 17 stones. A lovely feller, like Doug McCarthy, he still manages a few beers but has had to reel in the fish and chips.

There's still one heavyweight problem, however, and one which could earn a sports scientist a doctorate. "Since I lost five and a half stones," says Butch, "my darts has been absolutely shot."

At a do at the Daleside Arms in Croxdale on Wednesday evening we fell in with a Canadian who'd recently visited a pub called The Cricketers in Orlando.

On the walls hung a huge collection of cricket ties, including one from Hunwick CC, near Bishop Auckland. Many, but not Hunwick's, had been given. Hunwick's was sold.

"Little feller, kept wicket, umpired," they'd recalled, as if they could possibly forget.

The little feller who kept wicket and later umpired was the column's dear old friend Harry Dobinson, who died in August 1999 and who could have sold a Hunwick Cricket Club tie to a conger eel.

For his neck, and for very much else, he is remembered with the greatest affection.

Harry Pearson, celebrated author of The Far Corner, has provided his end of season report for the July issue of When Saturday Comes. Several sections involve the Albany Northern League, like the trip to Dunston Fed when the conversation turned to Jackie Charlton.

"What," a woman replied, "that feller in the Kung Fu films?"

Spotting the Northern League floodlights twinkling in the dusk he is reminded, he says, of his old history teacher who compared the monasteries in the Middle Ages to "little points of illumination in the darkness, where the flame of civilisation still burns."

Perhaps it was rather more difficult to imagine it at Portland Park, Ashington - Jack Charlton country - where Harry had heard the false rumour that the Colliers' promotion chances from the ANL second division could be endangered because of concerns over ground safety.

It was whilst contemplating the apparent injustice - "I mean, who the hell could possibly regard a place like this as dangerous" - that he tripped over the terracing, fell down three tiers and ended in an undignified heap.

"I reckon it's a real sign of getting old," says Harry, "when no one who witnessed the scene laughed."

Great Ayton lad by browtings up, Harry had also gone to watch Boro against Bradford with an Israeli journalist called Shaul. At half time, Shaul returned from the Riverside Stadium gents wearing a big smile - "I've just seen something amazing, something I've never seen anywhere in the world," he said.

"What?" said Harry.

"Men drinking beer and peeing at the same time," said Shaul.

Niall Quinn knew who Jack Charlton was, all right, though the feeling may not have been mutual. Big Jack, then manager of the Republic of Ireland, knew him simply as Arsenal - the team for whom the affable Sunderland striker played when first he joined the international squad.

Niall was also featured in a questionnaire in a recent Lansdowne Road programme:

What's been your best ever purchase?

Cois Na Tine, a racehorse.

Your worst ever purchase?

Every other horse I've ever bought.

A double for Hartlepool United: two of the star players marry within an hour of one another tomorrow.

First up the aisle - at St Michael's, Norton-on-Tees - will be left wing back Ian Clark and his bride Lindsay Baverstock, accompanied as bridesmaid by their three-year-old daughter, Megan.

They met on a night out six years ago. "It's taken me a while to convince him," says Lindsay.

Their wedding date was fixed ages ago. When teammate Mark Tinkler announced his own close season marriage to Julie-Anne Peacock - at St Andrew's church, Bishop Auckland - he discovered that his colleagues were already committed.

"I don't like them, anyway," insists Mark, whose daughter Olivia will be bridesmaid at that wedding - and who has been voted 41st in FourFourTwo magazine's top 60 third division players last season. Hartlepool's Tommy Miller was fourth, Paul Stephenson 33rd.

Mark, a former England schools captain from Byers Green near Spennymoor, admits that making a wedding speech scares him more than any of his Wembley appearances. Ian Clark has no such qualms, though the same may not be said of Pools central defender Graeme "Spike" Lee - his best man.

"You look at him and think he'd be scared of nothing," says Linsday. "So far as standing up and making a speech goes, he's absolutely petrified."

After the FA Cup final, it may be recalled, Albany Northern League referees' secretary Ted Ilderton - and thousands of others - was obliged to wait in boiling heat for three hours outside Cardiff Central for a train to Newport, ten miles away.

After an even longer wait, Ted has now had a reply - medical men would call it a placebo - from a lady in the FA's customer relations unit.

Though they have no control over stewards and travel arrangements, she says, they will be trying to get everything back on the rails before the Charity Shield, in August.

"Your views will form an important input into the discussion," says the FA lady.

Final reparation? "I don't believe a word of it," says Ted.

the unusual thing about Alan Brown's appointment as Sunderland manager in 1957 (Backtrack, June 5) was that he was an Englishman. Since 1898, the first six managers had been Scots.

Today, back to Doug McCarthy whose nine-year-old grandson Jonathan Staff plays football for Riverside Boys, based at the Riverside sports complex in Chester-le-Street, and attends Sunderland's academy.

Formed two and a half years ago with just one team, Riverside will have seven sides next season. The under nines are unbeaten and have just won the R&T Tours tournament in Blackpool for the second year.

That's young Jonathan receiving his trophy in Blackpool from Trevor Brooking (top left) - which prompts (at last) today's question. For which North-East club did Brooking play league football?

More Hammer blows on Tuesday