Monday morning at the Victoria Ground, January 1972. Hartlepool have lost 5-0 at Stockport County two days earlier, the chairman strides across the pitch to where manager Len Ashurst and George Herd, his trainer, are putting the team through its impoverished paces.

"It was very rarely we saw the chairman on a Monday, I thought we were for the high jump," recalls Len, now 66.

The news was almost as bad. The chairman said they had to sell to survive, and if they didn't do it by the end of the week, they'd be bust.

"I couldn't believe it," says Len. "We were bottom of the league and had lost 5-0 at Stockport. We were crap and he's telling me to sell a player."

Other managers clearly shared his surprise. When none proved saleable, Len went down to the Last Chance Saloon and in it, as he hoped he would, found one of his predecessors.

First division Derby County, managed by Brian Clough and on the way to that season's title, found £2,500 for central defender Tony Parry. It paid the weekly wage bill.

We'd mentioned Len in Friday's column on the back of a new version of Never Say Die, the song which he and the Pool squad recorded in February 1972.

He can still sing both it and Who Put Sugar In My Tea, the flip side. Never Say Die, he says, was wonderfully appropriate.

After 450 first team appearances for Sunderland, he'd become player/manager at the Vic in 1971. It couldn't more greatly have resembled the deep end if they'd thrown him in the fish dock.

"We were at a really low ebb," recalls the ever-affable Scouser. "You wouldn't have thought it was a Football League ground, the stand was falling to bits and half the time they couldn't even afford to have the grass cut."

It's also recalled by former top Football League referee and Quarrington Hill pollisss Peter Willis, into whom we bumped at a do at the weekend. "The worst thing was the tin bath in the referee's room," says Peter.

"It was like when we were kids in Newfield, but at least in Newfield we had a coal fire to get bathed in front of."

Len also recalls in all its incendiary detail the aftermath of a 1-0 defeat at Exeter. "We were so skint we'd travelled there and back in a day, about ten hours each way in those days.

"We finally got back, dropped off the gear in the drying room and went home to bed. About four o'clock the fire chief rang my house to say he had bad news, that the drying room and changing rooms were blazing and that it was in danger of spreading to the stand.

"I told him it was great news and to let it burn. People think we started it deliberately but I can assure the folks and the fire brigade that we didn't. It was the best thing that could have happened, even so."

The electricity board sold them two portable buildings on the cheap, one became Len's office. "It was wonderful. In the previous place there'd been room for me, a desk and one player, usually getting a bollocking. In the new one, I could get the whole team in."

Soon afterwards, Pools won 2-0 at Newport County, their first away victory since December 1970. Their final 14 games brought nine wins, lifted them clear of the relegation zone, helped establish Ashurst's reputation.

He subsequently led several clubs to promotion, took Newport County to the quarter-final of the European Cup Winners' Cup and Sunderland to the 1985 League Cup final.

Now he's back in Whitburn, works for the Premier League as a match delegate, walks, plays golf, does charity work and sometimes watches Hartlepool. "The ground's magnificent," he says. "I could hardly believe it was the same place."

Tony Parry, the man who unwittingly saved the club, made just four starts for Derby and a single substitute appearance for Mansfield Town. Saviour or not, his Football League career was over.

Friday's column on the Hartlepool song - is this a record? - prompted Maurice Heslop in Billingham to dig out both the old 45 and the accompanying words.

Eleven braw lads from the far off north

You'll notice we're still bottom of the Forth....

"It sounded like they'd thrown themselves into the river in Edinburgh," says Maurice. "Sometimes they probably wish they had."

Bishop Auckland Referees' Society held its centenary dinner in the town hall on Saturday. That the venue boasted several cardboard cut-outs of Laurel and Hardy was, of course, entirely coincidental.

The Society was formed at a meeting in the Mitre Hotel on October 26 1905, the minutes (published ten months later) noting that membership was open to all south Durham referees for the sum of two shillings annually.

No longer a two bob job, Saturday's event was highly convivial, nonetheless - some old enough to remember when Bankfoot FC, Houghton-le-Spring way, arrived at the Durham Minor Cup final at Spennymoor with two pigeons.

One winged its way homewards with the half-time score, the second repeated the exercise after 90 minutes.

Others switched reminiscence back to the Little House on the Prairie, where Stanley United led Stockton 1-0 in a Durham Challenge Cup game on an afternoon of Inuit extremity.

In the last minute, Stockton had the ball in the net. At once the linesman - who shall remain nameless, but who was a lovely little feller and very canny wicket keeper - raised his flag.

Game over, the referee wondered about the decision. "You surely don't think," said the linesman, "that I was going to freeze through extra time, an' all."

There were also presentations - FA, County FA, Referees' Association - to former Football League linesman Roly Croysdale from Gateshead, for 50 years service to refereeing and to Colin Burnikell, for 30.

That the Bishop society thrives owes much to former Football League referee Terry Farley, its elderly secretary for 43 years. So many public suggestions were made that Terry had indeed attended that inaugural occasion in the Mitre that the column feels obliged to repudiate them.

His first meeting wasn't until 1907.

No mention of Bishop refs' kicking-off in The Northern Echo next day, possibly because much of the sports page seemed to have been given over to the pursuit of hare coursing.

The news pages of October 27 1905 reported, however, that Frederick W Ross of Stockton had been fined 30 shillings by the town's magistrates for working as a fixed odds bookie - on football - at the back of Parliament Street.

"It is a serious matter if gambling on football is going to take place in the same way as gambling on horses," observed Ald R Hind, the chairman.

"We live," added Ald Hind, "in a progressive age."

Table manners properly polished, the World Skilful Dominoes Championship kicks off at Tow Law FC on Friday evening - another qualifier on November 25, final on December 8. It's now sponsored by Mulligan's Skip Hire of Stanley Hill Top, with £150 plus trophy for the winner and cash prizes down to fourth. Entry is £5, and there are still vacancies - details after 7.30pm from Kevin McCormick, (01388) 731443.

And finally...

The five Sunderland players whose surname has ended with the letter "O" are Flo, Macho, Dichio, Munro and Dominic Matteo, the one who unwittingly caused all the trouble.

A suggestion from the general direction of St James' Park that they missed the "p" off Flo may be discounted.

Matteo signed on loan from Liverpool, but due to a registration error - they blamed Mick Buxton, the manager - played while ineligible in the first division game at Barnsley on March 23, 1995.

Sunderland were fined £2,500, but spared a points deduction which could have meant relegation. Buxton was sacked after the game, replaced by Peter Reid. Matteo, who never again played for Sunderland, is now with Blackburn Rovers.

John Briggs in Darlington today invites readers to suggest what, in later life, goalkeepers Barry Siddall (Sunderland), Peter Bonetti (Chelsea) and David Harvey (Leeds United) had in common.

Safe hands again on Friday.

Published: 15/11/2005