A month before that great and glad event, the celebration of Kip Watson's 90th birthday began at the Over 40s League meeting on Tuesday evening.

Almost as extraordinary, a meeting in which 70-odd clubs were individually represented was otherwise over in 17 minutes.

"The monthly meetings used to be longer and more bad tempered but then we got wise," said Vince Williams, the league secretary. "We elected all the trouble makers on to the committee."

Kip helped form the Over 40s League 27 years ago, was for much of that time league secretary and remains its indomitable and incomparable inspiration.

Physically he may now be a bit femmer, mentally he is as bright and as resonant as an Acme Thunderer freshly whistled up from the sports shop.

The league started with just five or six teams, unofficially for its first season. They advised him to affiliate to Durham FA and then everything would be all right - folk have always said that about Durham FA, of course.

Kip remains referees' organiser, PR man, copperplate compiler of wonderfully anecdotal league reports for the region's sports pages - in the Pink, if ever - and father, grandfather, figure to them all.

It must also be said that he talks the league up, too. None could accuse Kip Watson of being a man of few words.

A former teacher, he is Sunderland-based, like the league, though that Phylosan fraternity now fortifies every part of the North-East and waxes, season by season.

Among those still playing is former Hartlepool United director Austin Elliott, now 62 and also the league's treasurer. "I love it when I can get a game, it helps keep me young," he said, and there are many more who've found that ageless elixir.

The presentation was a surprise. "He thought he was just coming along to fine a few people," said Vince, though the Over 40s - older and wiser - don't much go for the smack in the wallet, either.

They gave him champagne, a cake with his photograph - it seemed familiar - and a cheque to pay for a coach holiday. Kip and Mary take nine a year, back from the "tinsel and turkey" trip before the rest of the nation had scattered Guy Fawkes' ashes. Inevitably they gave him a standing ovation, too.

It was also announced that the Villa Real Cup, contested every season to raise funds for the special school of that name in Consett, will now become the Kip Watson Villa Real Charity Cup.

"I can't tell you what all this means to me," said Kip, a wee dram to settle his emotions.

The meetings are held at Sunderland Catholic Club, which sponsors the league, attendance encouraged and friendship fostered by the pint chitties given to delegates as they walk through the door.

It's all extremely well run, perhaps most of those 17 minutes occupied over the number of tomorrow's matches - Saturday morning kick-off - postponed because the Wear-Tyne derby begins at 12.45pm.

Some teams had six or seven season ticket holders in their squad, said Vince, and league rules allowed games to be postponed for important reasons. "Whether you think the Sunderland v Newcastle match is an important reason is another matter," he added.

"Aye," said a cheery voice from the back, "I was thinking that mesel'."

There was a money draw, a complaint about an "extremely officious" referee - "if our lad had taken his ring off like the referee wanted, he'd have had to have tekken his finger off, an' all"- and a team of the month award for the appropriately named Norton and Stockton Ancients.

Nothing else. Seventeen minutes. There's a lot to be said for the old guard, and an awful lot for Kip Watson.

Entirely coincidental that, wearing an Arngrove Northern League badge, I'd spent much of the rest of Tuesday at a meeting with the FA in London.

Though it's doubtful if it achieved as much in four hours as the Over 40s sped through in 17 minutes, for once we didn't come away empty-handed. There was a free pen from the Sussex County League.

Originally they'd ordered 100, discovered that "Leageu" was spelt like that and were given 200 by way of apology. The second batch spelt "Leegue" like that. Then they were given 300.

That's how we all got one. Write on.

There seemed little local relevance when John Briggs in Darlington forwarded a report of a cricket match in America in which a player had shot and seriously wounded an opponent who threatened him with the bat. Police said there'd be no charges because the gunman had a concealed weapon licence. Then, on the way to the train on Tuesday, we spotted the Echo contents bill outside the paper shop in Victoria Road: "Man hid carrot in trousers." As the constabulary would put it, the two cases may be connected.

Today's column looks like the old, old story. Talk on Tuesday of the upcoming history of Spennymoor United reminded Stan Evans in Hartlepool of the mid-50s occasion when he was a linesman in a two-legged Durham Challenge Cup final between Spennymoor and Consett.

The first was at Spennymoor, evening kick-off. "I remember having to run like hell to catch the last bus back to West Hartlepool or our lass would be playing hell, wondering where I was."

The second match was on a Saturday at Consett - change buses at Durham.

Though Stan's memory may be faulty about the occasion - it could have been a replay; finals were one-legged, usually at Football League grounds - there's one remarkable statistic.

The referee was George Todd, the other linesman Ron Davies-Evans, both from Darlington. George will be 96 in February, the oldest living former Football League referee; Ron is 86. Proof that refereeing is good for you, all three still prosper.

Thanks also to Mr A M Brown, Spennymoor's secretary in the 1950s and still in the town, who recalls that the flag we featured was given by Miss Nellie Downes in around 1954, shortly after he'd taken up office.

Memory suggests that Alfred H Lister, occasional Hear All Sides correspondent and gentleman about Guisborough, is in his 80s, too. He pops up among the young 'uns in the letters column of Fly Me To the Moon, the equally enduring Boro fanzine.

Alf's critical of the proposal to introduce smart cards on the Riverside turnstiles. "As proven by so-called smart cars and smart weapons, items that boast of a particular mental capacity are only setting themselves up for a fall.

"So far as I can remember, there is not one word in the Gospels in praise of intelligence."

Ahead of tomorrow's derby, Northern Cross - the newspaper of the Roman Catholic diocese of Hexham and Newcastle - reveals that Magpies' goalkeeper Shay Given carries a phial of holy water from Lourdes in his glove bag.

The man they dub the "holy goalie" kept 12 clean sheets in 17 on-loan appearances during Sunderland's 1996 first division championship season before moving up the road.

Also granted a Papal blessing by Pope John Paul II - himself a bit of a goalkeeper - for his wedding in 2001, he is said to have had a hand in raising around £2m for charity. Injury, unfortunately, prevents his appearance tomorrow.

When there's little else about which to get excited, arch-Sunderland fan Paul Dobson in Bishop Auckland takes comfort from the reserves' 8-0 win against Wolves on Tuesday evening. Carlos Edwards and ex-England man Andy Cole both scored. That it wasn't Wolverhampton Wanderers but Wolviston - half way down the Wearside League - doesn't deter him. "Newcastle United," says Paul, "watch out."

The recent note on Subbuteo - big international tournament at Darlington Arena next May - reminded Ian Andrew of boyhood days in Blackpool, where they formed a Subbuteo league.

"The great thing about it was that so little was needed, just permission to use your parents' dining room table and an ex-army blanket for a pitch."

The main rules were that no team could be tangerine and white, because being Blackpool lads they all wanted to be, and none could play in navy blue and white, which were Preston's colours.

Ian, now in Lanchester, was Celtic - "my other great love" - but since someone else was Plymouth Argyle, he had to have change colours, too. "I was black and white stripes, it's all they had in the shop."

On big match days the crowd could be as many as six - "that is, everyone in the league."

Bowler who bent it like Beckham

Just a month after he joined former Crook Cricket Club colleagues at a memorable reunion, Doug Hopper has been killed in a car crash. He was 78.

The column on October 9 recalled how Doug, for four decades a familiar and a formidable local cricketer, had once taken 5-0 against Newton Aycliffe. "I think I got lucky," he said, "though I'd never have admitted it at the time."

After many years with Crook he moved up the road to Willington where he played, joined the committee and was still a frequent visitor to watch his three grandsons - Angus, Fergus and Oliver - in action.

Former Willington captain John Coe recalls a skilled left-arm swing bowler who was a "natural" number 11 bat. "Doug was a groundsman's delight, never made a mark on the crease. He could bowl all day and you'd never know he'd been there.

"He could really swing the ball, bent it like Beckham. Doug was always up for a bit crack, always telling jokes. Everyone's going to miss him terribly."

Roy Coates, Durham County League secretary and Crook veteran, also recalls one of life's gentlemen. "Doug was totally unassuming, but if he was proud of taking 5-0 he had every right to be."

The accident happened on Monday afternoon, near North Bitchburn. Doug's wife Ethel, also in the car, escaped serious injury. The funeral is at St Stephen's church, Willington, at 10.45am next Tuesday.

...and finally

The team which lost Wembley showpieces in three successive seasons under three different managers (Backtrack, November 6) was Newcastle United - 2-0 to Arsenal under Kenny Dalglish in 1998, same score to Man United the following season under Ruud Gullit and, with Sir Bobby in charge, 2-1 to Chelsea in 2000. Peter Haden from Newton Aycliffe was again first in with that one.

Terry Wells in Whitton, near Stockton, today invites readers to suggest what was unique about the 1996 FA Cup tie between Pickering Town and Bishop Auckland.

Unusual, if not unique, the column returns on Tuesday.