SLIGHTLY delayed because the principal guest had undergone thyroid surgery – “they couldn’t find anyone willing to cut my throat,” he says – a dinner the other night saluted John Topping’s 25 years service to Durham FA, the last 22 as company secretary.

For the past 12 years he’s also been a vocal member of the FA Council nationally. “When I’m down there I’m certainly not quiet. I shout for grassroots football, always have and always will” says John.

“I’m lucky because I enjoy meetings and I like to have my say. I can’t understand people who don’t say a thing; I just wonder what the hell they’re doing there.”

What also irks him, he says, is the FA men who work and think 9-to-5. “They’ve no understanding of the grassroots game.”

Durham FA runs the grassroots game between Tyne and Tees, its headquarters in the substantial shadow of the county cricket ground at Chester-le-Street. John Topping’s name is on the correspondence, and on the charge sheet.

Just as the criminally recidivist are said to be in Durham, so football’s incorrigible are hauled before Durham, the summons synonymous with John C Topping.

His profile, for all that, is surprisingly low. Google the name and a criminologist, a climatologist and a funeral celebrant in Teesdale all join the queue before he does.

The first reference, indeed, is to a Backtrack column ten years ago when he planned a charity fire walk over wood embers heated to 1200 degrees Fahrenheit. “It was either that or refereeing this weekend,” he said at the time. “I thought fire walking would be easier.”

ALWAYS a football man, for many years a goalkeeper – “not bad for my height but my main strength was my mouth, I was always a good organiser” – he worked for 18 years at Laing’s shipyard in Sunderland.

While still playing in the Over 40s League, he recalls a game at Cockfield in which one of their players was sent off – “incorrectly” – and thereafter was said to have kicked a hole in the dressing room door.

Cockfield secretary and long serving Durham FA man John Priestley duly reported the incident. “Our lad slipped when he was coming off the field and his boot accidentally collided with the door,” says John, wryly.

The defence didn’t work.

John became voluntary secretary of the Sunderland and District League and a local charity cup competition, joined DFA as assistant secretary in October 1993.

John Walsh, then the secretary, had worked in the same shipyard and also been Sunderland League secretary.

Back then the offices were on the waterfront in Durham, sandbags frequently in place to keep the rampant river at bay. “If John Walsh came in and tapped on my desk as he passed, it meant that there was a problem and he wanted to know what I knew about it,” he recalls.

“To John a rule was a rule, there was nothing either side, but I couldn’t have had a better mentor.”

Appointed to the top role, he let clubs and leagues know that while the rule book remained paramount – “I love rules, rules are my forte” – the county was “approachable.”

IT was in its infancy, administration all pen and paper and clattering keyboards. Now almost everything’s electronic, his staff mostly self-taught.

“FA and IT don’t go together. The chairman himself admits it,” he says. “The change in the game has been massive, and we’ve had to change with it.”

He stopped playing in his late 40s – “one or two would have been a bit too keen to kick me” – took up refereeing and for the past 12 years has been chairman (“chairman through marriage”) of Jarrow FC, in which time the club’s number of teams has jumped from two to 24.

On Saturday mornings he coaches the under-7s and under-8s, on Saturday afternoons watches Sunderland, on Sunday afternoons helps train the tots. “If it means putting the nets up at half past seven, that’s where I’ll be.

“It’s the same if we’ve a tournament at Durham. I won’t let anyone else do what I wouldn’t do myself. I’m often here at 7am, and don’t leave until nine at night.

“I love it. I tell the staff all the time how lucky they are to work in football be paid for it. That’s something I never forget.”

DURHAM FA is known for the magnificence of its trophies, often solid silver. On the company secretary’s filing cabinet, very much smaller and more tarnished, stands the cup he won in 1982 for being Sunderland’s domino champion. “I haven’t played for ages,” he insists, but a gauntlet’s been thrown down, nonetheless.

THE paid workforce has grown in 25 years from eight to 19, many engaged in developing young people’s and small-sided football, the balance increased from around £50,000 to £2.8m.

More than £1m of that is earmarked towards development of a football centre next to the offices, with both 3G and grass pitches catering for all ages.

It’s what football folk like to call growing the game, though John readily and almost helplessly admits the inexorable decline in men’s Saturday afternoon football.

We start to list lost leagues: the Auckland and District and the Darlington and District, the Hetton and the Hartlepool, the Stanley and the Stockton. The Crook and District and the Wearside, which is sub-regional, now alone cover the county.

“I also worry about Sunday morning football,” he admits. “We’re losing clubs all the time. Leagues are going to have to consider merging.

“When I played, we’d go out until midnight on Saturday and still play football next morning. These days they don’t even go out until midnight.”

It’s not helped by a shortage of referees. “They tell me all the time that they’re fed up of giving up three or four hours for all that abuse and just a few pounds.

“I wouldn’t say that there’s been an increase in the number of reports, but there’s been an increase in the number of serious reports. The battle’s lost, but it remains a serious problem.”

Though assiduously and successfully developed, the youth game also has issues – usually in the shape of parents. “They want to win at all costs. Half of them seem to be expecting the kids to be paying their mortgage for them in a few years. Their behaviour, frankly, is awful.”

DURHAM FA is itself unable to boast a clean sheet, following a county youth cup final against Bedfordshire at Darlington Arena in 2006.

Down to nine men but stoutly defending a 2-1 lead with ten minutes remaining, Durham were pulled back by a serious of contentious decisions by referee Anthony Taylor – later a Premier League man – and, ultimately, lost.

By the time they reached the dressing room “three or four” had been sent off and the company secretary – with whom visibly the episode still rankles – was having words with the ref.

The upshot was that the parent FA fined the County FA £1,800. We’d asked his biggest disappointment. That was it.

HE’LL be 65 next month, hopes to see the current business plan through to 2021 and to have in place another three-year plan.

“I love it. You sometimes have to have a thick skin but there are some very good people. Only a few might want to do something with that knife.”