As Len Shackleton walked out to bat at Whitburn there were words of encouragement from the many spectators who had come to see him play for Wearmouth. “Go on Shack!” “Good luck Shack!” “Shack, you’ll show them!” As he arrived in the middle the wicket-keeper took his glove off, put out his hand to offer a shake and said “The name’s Emmerson. And who might you be?”
There are many in the world of cricket who can say they were born into a cricketing family. But by the time I took the wicket-keeping gloves for Whitburn Under 13s, at the age of 10 in 1982, I was the fifth member of our family to become a wicky.
Daily Mirror reporter Clive Crickmer, a stalwart of South Shields Cricket Club, wrote about it. I think it went in The Cricketer and I believe it also featured in his book Grassroots, which was about the history of his club and the Durham Senior League.
My granddad Ron Emmerson helped Clive with some of the stories in the book and he did the illustrations as well. He was a very good artist and in later life turned his hand to sculpting. His bronze sculpture of a batsman playing a cover drive was handed out annually to the Durham Senior League player of the year. The story about his meeting with Len Shackleton initially appeared in Grassroots and was then borrowed years later by the excellent writer Harry Pearson, in his book Slipless in Settle. If you haven’t read it you should!
Years later when I was considering a career in journalism I went to see Clive for advice. “Get as much work experience as you can. And buy UK Press Gazette every week.” I did both and after a year at journalism college in Darlington I started as a trainee reporter for the Shields Gazette just a few weeks before my 18th birthday.
My first paid work in journalism was actually for Cycling Weekly Magazine though. I started writing for them while still at college and covered races in the North East for them. It also led to columns in The Journal and Sunderland Echo. Decent pocket money for someone at college.
My succession to wicket-keeping duties was generations in the making. My great grandfather Robert Emmerson was born in 1881. He was a professional footballer for Stockport and a decent wicket-keeper by all accounts. He also worked as a football referee and stood as an umpire. There was one game for Durham County Cricket Club as a keeper as well.
His brother, Samuel Story Emmerson, played wicket-keeper for Ryhope and had a spell with Surrey at one point. My granddad duly followed in their footsteps as a wicket-keeper for Hendon and then Whitburn. He won the Durham Senior League in 1950 and the coveted Saunders Cup in 1956. By the time Whitburn won it again my dad Barry owned the club, along with Matty Roseberry. It was 1990.
My granddad was once given out in a match by his own father. I wonder how many times that has happened to players over the years? His Saunders Cup win came against Hartlepool at Ashbrooke. My dad played in two finals and lost both. I never got near the competition. In fact, when it comes to winning trophies I only managed the one in my playing days.
The Whitburn team of the 1950s featured a number of famous South African footballers who played for Charlton. Stuart Leary and Sid O’Linn were lured to the North East by Jimmy Seed, along with Ken Kirsten. Seed played cricket for Whitburn in the run up to WW1.
O’Linn played test cricket for South Africa. Leary played as a centre forward for Charlton and represented England at U23 level. However, the FA banned him from playing for the full side because he wasn’t born in England. He also had a career in First Class Cricket with Kent.
Freddy Lucas also came to the North East. He was a midfielder with Charlton. He was born in Kent and was on the staff at Kent County Cricket Club for a while, playing for their second team.
Jimmy Seed was the Charlton manager who led them from the Third Division to the First Division in successive seasons. In their first season in the top-flight they finished runners-up. They played in the first two FA Cup finals after the Second World War and won the second of those in 1947, beating Burnley 1-0. He remains their most successful manager.
Sam Bartram was born in Jarrow and played as a goalkeeper for Boldon Villa. Jimmy Seed took him to The Valley. There is a statue of him outside the ground. He played a record 579 times for The Addicks, in a spell which lasted 22 years.
Jimmy Seed grew up in Whitburn and played for Sunderland reserves before WW1 broke out. He was released by Sunderland after the war because of fitness issues. He had been gassed in a German attack in Belgium and it affected his lung capacity for a while. However, he was lucky because around 50 of his colleagues died in the same attack.
He went on to resurrect his football career in Wales with Mid Rhondda, a side which only existed for a short period and played in Tonypandy. He was sold to Spurs and when fans in Wales heard the news they threatened to riot. He had to go to the ground and plead with them to calm down. He also played for Sheffield Wednesday and five times for England.
Jimmy ended up managing Clapton Orient and then Charlton from 1933 to 1956. Sadly his last game in charge of them was a heavy defeat at Roker Park, witnessed by members of his family from Whitburn. By the time he went to see them in the Directors’ Box after the game he had already been sacked. They lost 8-1 that day but it was a poor start to the season which led to his departure.
His nephew Cas is a good family friend. He grew up in Whitburn before moving to London. I lived with him and his family for a period while working for BBC Radio 5 Live in London in 2004. Cas is a massive Sunderland fan and one of only a few who has had the misfortune to see them lose away eight nil on three occasions. I was with him at the last one in Southampton in 2014.
Mind you, at nil nil Sunderland should have had a penalty. And then Southampton were helped by one of the best own goals I have seen. A thunderbolt from Santiago Virgini which left his keeper with no chance. Fine margins!
The away end at Charlton is The Jimmy Seed Stand. I have sat in that a few times too. And by sheer coincidence I ended up being the voice of Jimmy Seed in a radio play produced by BBC Radio Wales a couple of years ago. I am yet to hear it though.
My granddad remained part of the fabric of Whitburn Cricket Club for years. My Nana Anne made the teas for decades. A pre-cursor to Nana Borthwick, perhaps? My granddad dabbled in cartoons for a period and had a number of his cricket-related drawings published in The Cricketer in the 80s. That also earned him an invite to the TMS box at Headingley during one test.
My dad also played for Whitburn for years as well and in the late 80s, when it looked like it could close, he bought the club with Matty Roseberry. Matty was one of the directors of Durham and one of the people who helped to push the club towards First Class cricket in 1992.
I played against his sons Michael and Andrew numerous times. Michael went on to captain Middlesex and opened the batting for them. A three-year spell at Durham was not the best and before long he was back at Lords’ again. When Matty bought a number of pubs from Newcastle Breweries in the early 90s, he became too busy to be involved with the cricket club and my dad’s business partner Peter Myerscough took his place.
Matty built the indoor cricket centre at Houghton. It was a copy of the school at Lords’ where Michael went for training on a regular basis. He also owned a house building company and nothing annoyed him and my dad more than when a spurious story appeared in a local paper suggesting he only got interested in Whitburn Cricket Club because it was a prime piece of land to build homes on. The fact it was in a conservation area was overlooked!
When Matty died in early 2020 my dad provided the eulogy at Sunderland Minster and I have to say he did an exceptional job in such difficult circumstances. Lockdown came just a few weeks later and overnight the world became a different place.
Back in the late 80s and early 90s it was tough trying to run a cricket club, particularly in the winter months with few people coming through the door. Because it was a private members’ club it could not be opened up to the public either and by about 1994 it returned to the ownership of the players.
My debut for Whitburn U13s came at Durham City one fine Sunday morning in 1982. Other than Whitburn and its lovely surroundings. I used to think Durham was as good as it got from a cricket ground setting. The way the River Wear curves around the ground with the trees on the far bank lining the hillside in beautiful.
I wasn’t playing wicket-keeper that day. By then I was keeper for the school team and captain. But the two things I remember about that debut are as follows. I made two not out and was chuffed. You had to bat in pairs for four overs and I hardly faced a ball. But I wasn’t bothered. And I was fielding at square leg when I reduced the opposing umpire to tears of laughter. I asked him to move because I couldn’t see. That stopped the game for a few moments.
At some point that summer I did take over the wicket-keeping duties. But I can’t remember when. I was then chosen to play for South Tyneside Schools against Northumberland. My “Town Team” debut came at Clara Vale. I had absolutely no idea where it was and we seemed to be in the car for hours.
The final approach to the cricket ground was through the colliery yard. I hadn’t seen anything like it. I can’t remember if we won or lost but I do recall being bowled around my legs. My leg side would continue to be a weakness, as Dougie Hudson of Gateshead Fell would discover to his joy on many occasions!
The other match we played that summer for South Tyneside was against Sunderland Schools. Andrew Roseberry got me LBW in a game at Boldon Cricket Club. The match was so one-sided and over so quickly that day we ended up playing them twice and lost both. I think I top-scored in the first game with nine runs.
By the time I was 13 or 14 I had been enrolled onto a cricket coaching programme run by Bill Parker, the South Shields opener who was also a Durham Minor Counties player. He was a teacher too. Bill was a lovely bloke and knew his stuff. He always seemed to have a glint in his eye and loved cricket. By this point I was a batsman/bowler.
We trained every Monday and Friday and it was intense. My granddad used to drive me through to Mortimer Comprehensive in South Shields for the indoor nets. It was for the best players in the borough but I hated it. When batting in the nets there was rarely a bad ball. It’s as close to county cricket as I probably got.
The training sessions we had at Whitburn, which were run by Wilson Emmerson (no relation, but a near neighbour) and Eric Smith, were fun. Very enjoyable. But Bill’s sessions were regimented, almost militaristic. And they were tough. I began to resent them. Particularly the Friday night element when I knew my mates were having fun elsewhere.
And eventually I didn’t want to take part in them anymore. I think it upset my granddad quite a lot. And probably my dad too. Maybe it was a sign I was starting to lose interest in playing the game which had been part a big part of my life since I was a little kid?
When my dad bought the cricket club with Matty in 1989 one of the first things they did was arrange two days of matches at the end of the season in which a Durham Senior League 11 played Leicestershire on the Saturday and Middlesex on the Sunday. I think Andrew Roseberry was at Leicestershire at the time and their team included Phil DeFreitas and David Gower. On the Sunday Mike Gatting was part of the Middlesex side. These players were England stars at the time!
It was the last cricket my granddad saw. He died two weeks later aged 70. In contrast my nana nearly made it to 100. She outlived everybody of her generation and then slipped away in hospital just a few years ago, calling out my granddad’s name.
Years later, in his role as MCC President, Mike Gatting joined me on air in Abu Dhabi for the Champion County Match between MCC and Durham. That was in 2014. We spent hours chatting. He was great.
THE PENNY DROPS
One Sunday morning at Whitburn we were putting the nets up and it was taking ages. Eric Smith said “howay lads, let’s try and get these nets up before the tide goes out.” Wilson Emmerson was in stitches. The rest of us looked on blankly. No idea why that was funny.
I only got the joke about 25 years later. I was driving along the St Lawrence Seaway in Canada with my wife Julia. We were heading from Riviere Du Loup to Kingston when I spotted lots of nets in the water, but close to the riverbank. Line after line of them. They went on for miles. And then it hit me. I burst out laughing. She looked at me with real concern on her face as I pulled the car over to gain my composure, before explaining I had eventually got the joke all those years later.
My dad, who was known as The Fat Wicky in The Durham Senior League, insists to this day I packed in playing cricket at Whitburn when I was 13. He says I was left out of the team for a cup semi-final, having been on holiday the week before and burst into tears, vowing never to play again. I have no memory of that at all. But I do recall playing for the U15s regularly. I captained the school side every year from the age of 10 to 15 as well.
A number of things combined to end my early years as a cricketer. Batsman, bowler, or wicket-keeper. One day I tried to hook a shot and got a top edge into my mouth. That knocked my confidence quite a bit. There was blood everywhere. Then in the summer of 1987 I was revising hard for my O Levels and had little time for much else. And on my 16th birthday my mum bought me a new racing bike. The Tour De France started the same day and I was hooked.
By the end of that summer I had ridden well over a thousand miles and had a new hero. Gone were the likes of Ian Botham and Viv Richards. Step forward genial Irishman Stephen Roche. The Carrera rider won The Giro, The Tour De France and the World Road Race Championship that year. I joined Sunderland Clarion Cycle Club but would quickly realise I had no chance of emulating him.
When I started to work for the Shields Gazette in 1990 I was a cricket spectator only. One day Whitburn were playing in a cup semi-final and it began to rain heavily. They wanted to come off the pitch. It was lashing down. But one umpire, who let’s say was known for his authoritarian approach to the game, refused the request.
As the rain got heavier the game slipped from a position of promise to certain defeat. The players were angry and the next day I wrote a match report for the paper. The Sports Editor John Cornforth had an eagle eye for detail. He is a great bloke. His son, also John, played for Sunderland. For a laugh I wrote “the umpire, by now wearing his waders, decided the conditions were fine and ordered the game to continue, despite the water lapping around his ankles.”
I expected John to spot that, laugh and delete it. He didn’t. A few days later the paper received an official letter of complaint from the umpire’s group. We had to print an apology. “We would like to point out, contrary to our report, the umpire was not actually in waders.” That was as far as it went.
A few months later Whitburn signed Ash Patel as their pro and I agreed to write a piece for the paper. John looked at my copy and said it could go on the back page which was quite the thing. Whitburn also had a third team stalwart called Alfie Battell.
I mixed the two names up in my head as I wrote the story. The headline said: “Battell signs for Whitburn.” John Cornforth brought me a copy of the back page that day, “blown up large so Whitburn could frame it and put it on the pavilion wall. Your dad will be chuffed!” This was rather unusual but I also thought it was a nice touch.
I handed the back page to my dad later that day. “Bloody hell, what have you done? It’s Patel, not Battell! How could you get something so simple so wrong? We are going to look like fools now!” A panicked phone call to the sports desk followed. “Ah, hello Marty, I was wondering when you were going to call,” said John. “We’ll call it one all, shall we?” For the record the back page carried the name Patel that day and not Battell. Alfie never had his day in the sun.