Saturday, 7 November 2015

Tow Law's Brazilian and Other Northern League Exotica

Early-November and already the English weather is playing havoc with my Saturday afternoons.  With my planned trip to Dringhouses falling victim to a saturated pitch, here's something I wrote for this afternoon's Jarrow Roofing programme instead.  

When Julio Arca became, as Harry Pearson put it, “the only U20 World Cup winning captain ever to score against Stokesley”, it was far from the first contact between overseas footballers and stalwarts of the Northern League. In August, Fabian Otte, ex-starting goalkeeper for New Zealand's Western Suburbs and formerly of Bayer Leverkusen U23s, turned out for Bedlington Terriers against Whitley Bay, while recent years have seen, among others, Laurent Sanson move from France to Newcastle Benfield, Mateusz Halambiec go from Morpeth Town to the Polish second division, ex-AS Roma junior Matteo Faiola play for Roofing and Bishop Auckland, and Tow Law field Gustavo Silva, the league's first jogador do Brasil. “He knows all about the weather,” Lawyers secretary Steve Moralee promised. “He's trained here in the snow wearing shorts.”

The movement hasn't always been one way. While West Auckland's Lipton Cup exploits are well documented, Bishop Auckland toured Belgium for the first time in the year that West made their inaugural journey to Turin and made it as far afield as Hungary as early as 1912. Jack Greenwell's Barcelona hosted Crook the following season and employed a second ex-Northern League man when Harold 'Collie' Stamper – a 1912 Olympian and FA Amateur Cup winner – joined as a coach from Stockton. Stamper went on to Genoa; Greenwell, more famously, played 88 times for Barca, managed Espanyol and Valencia to league championships and guided Peru to a Copa America title in 1939. “The Peruvians were well served by their English manager, who out-thought Uruguay tactically in the final match,” wrote Andreas Campomar in his magisterial history of the Latin American game.

The Northern League's first foreign-born player was Arthur Wharton. “His father was half-Scottish, his mother was related to the Ghanaian royal family,” wrote the Northern Echo of a pioneer whose career achievements included an FA Cup semi-final and a world record time for the 100-metre sprint. Now recognised as the world's first black professional footballer, the goalkeeper won a Cleveland Challenge Cup with Darlington, was signed by Preston North End and later understudied William 'Fatty' Foulkes at Sheffield United. A less celebrated figure, Billy Charnock was born in Serphukov, 62 miles south of Moscow, to a family of textile factory owners who orginally came from Leek. In addition to playing for Bishop Auckland, Charnock also captained Russia in their first international victory, a 3-0 win over Norway in 1913.

As clubs continued to look outwards – Crook toured Norway in 1962 and lost by a single goal to the Indian national team 14 years later - Northern League imports have arrived from places as seemingly implausible as Atletico Madrid, who supplied Stokesley SC with Asenjo Bravo in 2012, and Japan. "In 1991-92 Durham City registered Yoshinobu Uchida, though the sole surviving reference in print or online merely reveals he was 'from Tokyo, a student at Durham University' ” I wrote in a programme column last year which also referenced the curious case of Yosuke Suzuki's time at Whitley Bay. In 2008, Owen Amos had a piece in When Saturday Comes on Brandon United's BJ Heijmans, “who, by a series of happy accidents, found his home in deepest County Durham”. Amos caught up with Heijmans at a training session: “We play the Dutch way, from the back. We have conceded 63 goals this season, and 50 were from individual mistakes. But we are young, and that will improve.” Among the onlookers that “cold Thursday night” was the Argentine Gus Di Lella, recently sacked as manager by Horden Colliery Welfare. Di Lella is now coaching at Seaham Red Star, who've also recently had a Bulgarian and a New Zealander on their books. Bedlington, of course, have close ties with the USA through president and Buffalo Bisons owner Bob Rich, while Durham City are owned by Olivier Bernard, once of Lyon, Newcastle United and the Champions League.

So next time someone writes disparagingly about the Northern League's insularity and isolationism, remember Heijmans and Wharton, Crook Town playing to 100,000 people in Calcutta, Suzuki, Uchida and the nomadic Jack Greenwell, born in Peases West in 1884 and buried, by way of Italy, Spain, Turkey and Peru, in a Bogota grave that is forever south-west Durham. 

As the rain swept on from York, Roofing's game with West Allotment Celtic was called off with most of the club's volunteer matchday staff midway through a 12-mile charity walk. "Some good stories, anyway," messaged the club's media manager and goalkeeper coach. "Bird shat on me, the secretary slipped on dog shit and we spent 30 minutes in a bus stop sorting out the postponement." The full programme, plus insert, will be on sale for £1.50 at the re-arranged fixture, or via email for whatever you want to pay.


  1. Hi. Liked the column. Was especially interested in the bit about Billy Charnock. I did a bit of poking around to find out more about him, and it seems the Charnock family history comes in a few versions. The view in Russia is that the Charnocks were a bunch of Blackburn Rovers fans who fetched up in Orekhovo-Zuevo, another town in Moscow Region, and began to promote football there. The team in O-Z, these days wonderfully known as 'Krasnaya Znamiya', or 'Red Banner', claims to be Russia's oldest (and limps along in Div. 2 (West) with little prospect of success). There has been football in Serpukhov (I once saw a lower division game between Nika Moscow and Zvezda Serpukhov, because I'm quite sad like that!) but I'm not aware of the game's early history there. That said, I did track down a reference to 'Vasily' Charnock skippering a Russian Empire (Moscow) team in a 3-0 win over Norway in 1913 ( This was an unofficial international, so Charnock and another English player, Jones (no. 2) could play. The 'Field of the Sports Club Across the Moskva River', which hosted the game, is long gone. Sad - I love a nice poetic name like that.

    A week after Charnock's game Russia and Norway played out a 1-1 draw, officially this time, with no foreigners, on the same field. The English coach, Maskell, is also replaced by the not very Russian-sounding duo of Gyorgy Duperron and Robert Fulda (the latter may have been from the Baltics, I suppose).

    I've struggled to find any record of Charnock at Bishops, though - according to a couple of other Russian sites the family left Russia in 1919, fleeing via Finland as revolution and civil war crept in, but the trail in Russian seems to stop there. A couple of pieces argue that the Blackburn connection is why Dynamo adopted Blue and White as their colours: the O-Z team was taken over by the secret police in the early USSR, the secret police then established the Dynamo sports clubs and kept the colour scheme, if not the halved shirts. That could easily be a Sunderland-Bilbao kind of myth, though.

    Anyway, enjoying your blog and would love to hear more about Charnock's connections with Bishops.

    All the best,

  2. Thanks a lot for that, Andy. The reference to Charnock and Bishop Auckland comes from Northern Goalfields, the centennial history of the Northern League. Just a single sentence which said he "played for two seasons". I couldn't find anything else relating to his time there online. As you've re-piqued my interest, I'll try and get in touch with someone connected to the club or DAFT (the excellent Durham Amateur Football Trust)and see if they can track anything more down.

  3. Ah, DAFT is holding a talk-in at Shildon on Friday evening. Might pop along to that and see what they kind find. It's got me interested as well - I spent a long time working in Russia, despite coming from Co. Durham, so I'm looking for a few stories connecting the two that I could pitch to some of the titles I worked with in Moscow. Just spent the morning at Durham Miners' Association talking to Davey Hopper about the Chopwell banner.