THE Railroad to Wembley has rather been delayed this season, problems with what might be called the permanent way.

Though the breakdown gang has yet to put in an appearance, save for a few prescriptive permutations, the annual excursion orgy finally got under way last Saturday. It was the FA Vase first round proper, Longridge Town v Crook Town.

Longridge – which should not be confused with Longbridge, that’s where they make cars – is a town of 8,000 or so people eight miles north-east of Preston in Lancashire and was among the Sunday Times’s best 100 places to live in the UK, a mixed blessing to which we shall return.

If the internet is to be believed – and who, of course, could doubt it – the distance by road from Darlington to Preston is 103 miles and the journey time an hour and 49 minutes, which suggests that they caught the A66 on one of its less nerve shredding days.

By rail the journey is longer in both respects, changing at York for the Blackpool train and calling at B-list places like Bradford, Blackburn and Burnley. Lovely autumnal run over the Pennines, though.

With a senior railcard, the fare’s very nearly £50. For Mr Harvey Harris, who makes the same journey but splits it into two – Darlington to Leeds, Leeds to Preston but without leaving the train – it’s £37. Train ticketing is absurd.

The two-coach Blackpool train is crowded like the Tower Ballroom on grab-a-granny night, probably as courteous and not so much as a twopence ha’penny tea trolley.

Mr Gary Brand, headed north on the 6 05am from Euston – quicker, cheaper – rings at nine o’clock to report that he’s in the Twelve Tellers, the Wetherspoons in Preston. Whatever anyone else may suppose a Wetherspoons breakfast to be, for Mr Brand it’s two pints and a double vodka.

AMONG the things which the two towns have in common is that their railway stations have disappeared into the steamy mists of time and that both are served by the No 1 bus, though only that from Preston passes the North End ground and Her Majesty’s prison.

Longridge’s station, which brought stone from Tootle Heights quarry, was closed to passengers in 1930. Crook’s lasted another 35 years before Beeching’s blood axe, the site now a medical centre.

Further research reveals that Longridge’s most famous son may be John Farnworth, described as a “freestyle” footballer and whose eight Guinness world records are said to include the fastest London Marathon time while simultaneously playing keepy-up. There may not be too much competition.

Crook’s No 1 old boy may be Constantine Scollen, an Irishman who moved there to hew coal, trained as a Roman Catholic priest at Ushaw College, near Durham, and spent long Victorian years as a missionary to the Backfoot and Cree peoples of Canada.

He may never have been to Longridge, though.

THE town appears pleasant, interesting even, though it’s tempting to wonder if one of the criteria for Sunday Times inclusion is the proportion of shops selling stuff that no one really wants.

“Stockists of Britain’s No 1 flea and tick treatment,” says a notice in one window. They wouldn’t boast about it in Crook.

From the top of Longridge Fell it’s possible to see the Welsh mountains, it’s reckoned, though some of us struggle to see our feet.

In the town council window, a letter from the chairman talks of the challenges which all the new housing presents – chiefly a result of its top 100 listing. The best of Times and the worst of Times, as Charles Dickens once observed.

In the friendly bar, where copies of Women’s Weekly and Good Housekeeping suggest they appreciate gender balance, it’s reported that Longridge are 1-2 with the bookies and Crook 9-4.

“I’m surprised you got here at all,” says another chap. “Floods closed all the local railway lines last night.”

It’s also the venue for one of Mr Nigel Brierley’s famed “true or false” quizzes – the maximum depth for a golf hole is four inches – interspersed with occasional anagrams.

How couldn’t we have known that synthetic cream is an anagram for Manchester City – or, sink or swim, that four inches is golf’s minimum.

LONGRIDGE, simply known locally as The Ridge, were three years ago in the West Lancashire League, won the North West Counties League second tier last season and now sit top of the premier division – that of Bootle, Burscough and Barnoldswick Town. Crook are fourteenth in the Ebac Northern League second division and have recently found life a bit of a struggle.

A most oddly edited history in last Saturday’s programme mentions just one of the club’s five FA Amateur Cup triumphs, the twice-replayed final against neighbours Bishop Auckland in 1954 after which it’s said that folk who lived on Newton Cap Bank inn Bishop threw “unpleasant things” at the returning Crook coach.

Folklorists have no doubt what the unpleasant things were, or the receptacles from which the unpleasant things were despatched, or that it was from upstairs windows.

This time the team and its supporters have travelled unsullied by Weardale Coaches. Once those guys never got beyond Rookhope, or Killhope Wheel on a summer Saturday, now they’re all over Europe.

Since it’s Non League Day, they’ve also sent a picture of their departure to Football Focus and are delighted when it comes up on the screen.

Conspicuous by absence, however, is the column’s old friend Vince Kirkup, Crook’s tireless (and loquacious) chairman, who’s off getting the sun somewhere exotic but has been anxiously texting all morning.

“He may be 1,000 miles away,” someone says, “but you never hear the last of Vincey.”

THE chairman will also have been told that regular goalkeeper Ronan Makepeace has broken his thumb the day previously, that his deputy had work commitments and that star striker Christian Holliday – known as Bisto, apparently because of the excellence of his gravy when an Army chef – has had to don the gloves.

The lad does well but is beaten after ten minutes – so much for an 82nd minute golden goal ticket – and the Ridge lead 2-0 at the interval. Colin Johnson, another Crook man, is known universally as Smiler. He doesn’t look very happy.

The elder son, well brought up, has phoned from Shildon at five past three. “One up already,” he says.

Dan Maddison’s diving header pulls one back for Crook while several supporters are still in the half-time clubhouse – drinking it dry of Newcastle Brown – but when referee Ockleshaw (good Lancs name, that) awards a contentious third, the game seems up.

Joe Smith’s second for Crook is followed by an indisputable fourth for Longridge, sending them comfortably into the last 128. There’s just time for a last one in the Twelve Tellers before heading back across the Pennines and to the permanent waiting room.