FACING yet another frustrating season in football's fourth tier, Darlington FC hosted on Saturday a version of the game's Little Big Time.

This was a Subbuteo "rankings" tournament, played by men who believe that small is beautiful and watched by a crowd which may most kindly be described as commensurate.

Save for a seriously underemployed barman, in truth, it was watched by no one at all.

Just ten players, all finger flicking good, had travelled hundreds of miles for a chance to inch up the world ratings, leaving organiser Mike Parnaby from Guisborough facing a personal bill of around £250.

They seemed admirable lads, all of them, from bit bairns like Sam Day to 54-year-old Richard Pepper from Wakefield, known as the Lion of Ludlescu after twice scoring England's winning goal in tournaments in Austria.

Only those old enough to remember the heroic Nat Lofthouse, the Lion of Vienna, may fully understand.

"It's a game you never grow too old for, too fat for or too out of condition for," said Richard.

"There's no great energy required, it's universal in all sorts of ways.

"It's certainly a game of skill, not strength, but a lot of the flight has gone. It's more of a straight-lines game now."

Players carried their teams, and associated paraphernalia, in the sort of little box in which a Freemason might closet his pinny. Dave Butler's gilt-edged case said "Paradise Lost" on the front.

"It's to deter the burglars," he said. "They'd want to steal my Subbuteo team but I doubt if they'd want to pinch John Milton."

Colin Fletcher from Nottinghamshire wore Quakers shirt and matching bandana, acknowledged the occasion but wished - "too many injures"

-that he'd been going to Wembley instead.

Colin had been a Darlington fan since 1972, the year after he started Subbuteo. "My first season I was Stenhousmuir, but Stenhousmuir were crap."

The game is reckoned a combination of football, chess and snooker, index-linked to darts only in that players are allowed liquid refreshment. You could tell the Scots; they drank something called Carling top, but maybe because there was no Irn Bru.

Jim Law, Motherwell fan, had reached the European championship semi-finals in 1990, at the time unbeaten for two years in domestic competition, played parks football instead but returned to Subbuteo when legs and wind threatened simultaneously to expire.

Subbuteo, if nothing else, is a level playing field.

"It's as good as the real thing, just as tactical and you get to make all the decisions yourself,"

said Jim.

A difference may be that most players start with six or seven players in a straight line across the back - "It's so fast, you can't afford to push too many forward," said Jim - another difference that Subbuteo players don't swear at the referee or, indeed, at anyone else. It's not always the case.

Though around 70,000 sets are still sold annually in the UK, we've been overtaken once again by those overseas, and especially by Italy.

In Italy, Subbuteo is Serious-A - players who are semiprofessional, teams fully sponsored by the likes of Napoli, participants who aren't, let's say, terribly English.

In Italy, it's whispered - and not all that quietly - there are even players who cheat. When push comes to shove, there are Italians who might even do that.

"There are players who'll shout and bawl, who'll intimidate, who'll be in your face every time they score a goal," said Jim. "It's not that we don't take it seriously, just that we prefer it to be friendly."

The Maltese get Subbuteo folk cross, too. The Belgians.well, they invented cheating. The English have table manners.

Saturday's event, for players outside the top 200 in the world rankings, was organised by Mike Parnaby, a 47-year-old local government officer, on behalf of the North East Table Football Alliance.

He'd started playing as an 11- year-old in 1976, his Teesside Phoenix team once reckoned third in the world, made his first England appearance - they don't have caps, or shirts or lucrative media contracts - after 30 years.

The problem, whatever the perception of child's play, is attracting the young uns.

"We'd love to have more, so that they can play one another instead of having to meet more experienced players all the time," said Mike.

"It's like boxing, if you're always getting a leathering, you'll pack up. If it's done properly, they'll be Subbuteo players for life."

■ More information on NETFA's excellent website - www.freewebs.com/netfa THEREAFTER down to Barton, where Mr David Morrison - he of the Anglepoise hands - was marking his 65th birthday by keeping wicket against Middleton-in-Teesdale and by getting his pipe, quite literally, in the equipment hut.

For the purposes of the act, the equipment hut may be considered an open space.

It was also noticeable that, like Jemima Puddleduck, Dave went barefoot - a trick he picked up, he says, from former Duirham and England opener Wayne Larkins.

"I told Wayne I always had cold feet and he advised me not to wear socks. It works."

Barton won by the length of the dale, the birthday boy bagged another stumping and then all adjourned for a knobbly knees-up in the Half Moon. The column, alas, had to make excuses. The day was yet young.

SO TO Durham FA's 125th anniversary dinner, where I'm charged with proposing the toast and, more difficult, staying out of trouble.

The Association was formed at a meeting in the Three Tuns Hotel, Durham, on May 25 1883.

Just nine clubs - Birtley, Bishop Auckland, Castle Eden Colliery, Darlington, Hobson, Stanley, Sunderland, West Hartlepool and Whitburn - attended.

Now there are 2,386 affiliated teams, almost a thousand of them contesting 11 different county cup competitions.

A perusal of The Northern Echo for May 26 1883 revealed nothing of the momentous occasion, however.

They had typhoid in Crawleyside, measles in Rookhope and scarlet fever in Wolsingham. Tow Law church bazaar had raised an extraordinary £136 and the Queen of Romania had written another book of verse.

Several inches apart we also reported the arrival of the Blue Ribbon Temperance Mission in West Hartlepool and a "desperate affray" at the Middlesbrough Hotel, also in West Hartlepool. Clearly the Mission hadn't its troubles to seek.

Buried near the foot of a page, the Echo also noted that Surrey's 650 against Hampshire at the Oval was the highest score ever made in county cricket. Times change: those three-and-a-half lines were the only sport in the paper.

DURHAM FA vice-president Tom Harvey, 75, refereed last Thursday's match between Hartlepool Referees and Bishop Auckland referees - "fitter than half of the players,"

reports John Dawson, King of the Groundhoppers.

"I told you I was making a comeback," said Tom.

For John, Hartlepool lad himself, it was a home game - across the road from where he lives. Despite recent heart surgery, however, the retired postman continues enthusiastically to seek out foreign fields.

Most of his 40-odd new grounds last season were in the south - overnight bus from Middlesbrough to London, overnight bus back again. His seasonal total will be around 140 matches, barely half-his all-time record.

He's 66 and maybe starting to feel the pinching cold. "Oh aye," says the king, "I'm just a part-timer now."

...and finally

THE goalkeeper with two European Cup winner's medals despite playing in just nine minutes of the finals (Backtrack, May 23) is Jimmy Rimmer, Manchester United and Aston Villa.

Among these who knew was the Rev Leo Osborn, Villa fan and chairman of the Newcastle upon Tyne district of the Methodist church, and Peter Haden from Newton Aycliffe, who's also a Villan.

"Rimmer was wonderful. It's just a shame he had to play for some poor teams before he got to us," he says.

David Wright in Bishop Auckland was on the ball, too, not least because Rimmer was in his Subbuteo team until replaced by the immortal Charlie "The Cat" Carter, he of Melchester Rovers.

On the bench for Man United in the 1968 final, Rimmer lasted those nine minutes in Villa's final 14 years later, was injured and replaced by Nigel Spink.

Martin Birtle in Billingham today invites readers to name the England football captain who was born in Singapore.

We're back on the bridge on Friday.