Albert Picker, the sort of man without whom village cricket would long since have perished at the roots, has died. He was 76.

A lovely man, Albert had spent most of his life with Esh Winning Cricket Club - captain of first and second teams, assistant secretary, chairman, jobbing builder - through he did have a few seasons with Bearpark when he was in his 60s and they were a bit short.

He was also a quicksilver sprinter - "always wanted to run at Powderhall, never quite made it" - says his brother Ronnie, and a flying local league winger, once scouted by Fulham.

Though he had cancer, both he and Ronnie had already bought their season tickets for Sunderland, as they had since the war. "I think I'll be asking for a refund," says Ronnie, sadly. "It just won't be the same without him."

Maureen, Albert's late wife, was also Esh Winning's tea lady for many years - "a true supporter in every way," says Ronnie.

Joe Lawler, lifelong friend and cricket club colleague, recalls the dark days of 1975 when the club was struggling for cash and support, decided they needed a clubhouse and faced the biblical (if metaphorical) problem of making bricks without straw.

Albert, a qualified civil engineer who was by then with Durham City Council's recreation department, helped take down two council prefabs and to re-erect them as a substantial part of the new building.

"He put literally thousands of hours in," says Joe. "If Albert had been paid for every hour he worked for Esh Winning cricket club, he'd have been a millionaire."

Principally a bowler - "he could slog a bit if he had to" - Albert took his last hat-trick when he was 58. When at last he retired he became a Durham County League umpire - "a good 'un, too," says Joe, "took pride in knowing the rules."

The column had several times attended the annual presentations - "any more and you'll be getting a game in the second team," Albert had said - including the infamous occasion when the MC went on for 75 minutes, the turn fell asleep in the bottle store and had to be woken to do his second spot.

The loquacious culprit was Bobby Hull, all-round sportsman and former Esh Winning village polliss, now running a health food shop in Chester-le-Street.

"Albert was a fabulous fellow," says Bob. "Apart from all that he did for the cricket club, he was really helpful to me when I first became the policeman there."

Though unable to walk, Albert had last watched his beloved cricket team just five weeks ago at Willington, pushed in his wheelchair by Ronnie.

"He was still happy just to be there," says Joe Lawler. "No one loved his cricket more than Albert."

His funeral is at Esh Winning Methodist church at 11am on Tuesday July 24.

First stirrings of the football season, Tow Law played Weardale on Friday evening for the John Noddings Cup, the No. 1 bus as ever in attendance.

At Sunniside, perhaps England's most inappropriately named village, you could hardly see across the road; at Tow Law the fog had lifted a bit, so that the incessant rain alone threatened imminent postponement.

Eventually the referee decreed 35 minutes each way. They played with an orange ball, the sort usually kept for snow; perhaps they'd hear something we hadn't. The crowd included a little group of Ukrainian kids, who'd doubtless have felt at home.

John Noddings, great guy, died during a benefit match at Tow Law in 2003, aged 57. Since then there's been an annual memorial game in aid of the British Heart Foundation.

Marilyn, his widow, also made a presentation to Charlie Donaghy, who assiduously organises the event.

Weardale triumphed 5-3 or so, the British heart Foundation made £320, the column came away with a bottle of red wine which appeared to have been bottled by Messrs Broadley and Coulson, chartered surveyors.

Tow Law's micro-climate notwithstanding, last Friday everyone was a winner.

Further insights into the career of Eaglescliffe-born John Agnew, the 1950s Darlington outside left whose son Alex (Backtrack, July 13) is Belgium's top stand-up comedian. We'd suggested that young John mightn't have set the Feethams turf alight, a theory confirmed by Annick Ruyts, the Belgian television researcher making a programme on Alex. "Even then," she says, "Darlington fans knew him as Agony."

Onward and upward, Sharon Gayter is preparing for the World 24 event in Quebec on July 28/29 while putting the finishing touches to her MSc dissertation. Perhaps inevitably, it's on sport and exercise.

The 44-year-old Guisborough lass, overall winner of the Echo's Local heroes award last November, may have to cover 230k to be among the medals - her personal best's 217 - but reckons she's running to fitness at the right time.

Two weekends back she broke by 18 minutes the course record for the 26 mile Osmotherly Phoenix run, finishing just seconds behind the first male despite marathon clarts.

Smashing the Lands End to John o' Groats record last year has immensely increased her confidence, she says. "Running through the pain barrier will never be the same again."

Later this year she's eyeing the world 100k, the Spartathlon -155 miles from Athens to Sparta along the route taken by the Greek messenger Pheidippes - and then a world record attempt at the world six-day event in Colac, Australia. The confidence is showing. "I just need to run around 520 miles for that one."

Sparked by last week's sponsored walk, Bishop Auckland FC have been further enlightened by the gift of two dozen floodlight bulbs from Manchester United. Now, of course, they just need a ground on which to erect them.

Replacing the Old Trafford lights, United offered bulbs to the five non-league clubs presenting the most persuasive argument - Bishops simply going back to the dark days after the 1958 Munich disaster when Amateur Cup heroes Warren Bradley, Bob Hardisty and Derek Lewin all signed for Matt Busby.

Bradley, who died last month, became the only player to win amateur and professional caps in the same season.

"It's a brilliant reminder of the closeness between the two clubs," says Bishops' secretary Tony Duffy.

"Sir Alex knows his history. When we were at Old Trafford for the FA Trophy draw, he remembered what happened after Munich. It was a really nice touch."

Derek Lewin, now the sole survivor of the 1950s trio, said it was a "fabulous" gesture. "It just shows the connection we have."

Hartlepool lads Bill and Frank Reid, the region's best known football twins, celebrated 100 years - between them - last Thursday. "There are still plenty of miles in us yet," says Frank. Both were on the Northern League line, both continue as Sunday league referees, both work as assessors - and after 50 years, it's still damn near impossible to tell them apart.

By coincidence we also hear from former Hartlepool ref Stan Evans, after Friday's recollections of the Bishop Auckland police team, the boys in two-blue.

Stan refereed North-East police football in the 1950s, recalls lads like Tommy Nevins, Arthur Uden, Bob Mohan and the "unforgettable" Chesney Brighouse. "What a b****y" handful he was," writes Stan, "a rather 'robust' player but a nice chap, all the same."

He also recalls refereeing a North Eastern League game at Stockton, being followed all the way back to the railway station by an irate supporter and being grateful - "I was getting a bit concerned" - when the polliss marched the guy off to the cooler.

Stan remains fit and well - but whatever happened to Chesney Brighouse?


the particularly illuminating thing about the 1954-55 FA Cup second replay between Darlington and Carlisle at St James Park (Backtrack, July 13) was that it was the first game in the competition proper to be played under floodlights.

George Alberts, now in small-world Thailand, was first up with the answer - one of the 32,000 crowd at the time.

Readers are today invited to name the first footballer - Hartlepool and Sunderland connections - to complete the unwanted hat-trick of being sent off in League, FA Cup and League Cup competitions.

Early bath as always, the column returns on Friday.