TRUE FAITH’s roving reporter Sam Dalling (and Cricket fan) thought he’d kill two birds with one stone by tying together his shared love of football and cricket with Ashington’s very own Mark Wood of Durham CCC and England. 

Many thanks to Mark for giving us his time.

Asprilla!’ ‘Ketsbaia!’ Cries that rang out with verve across Tyneside schoolyards throughout the late ‘90s, young pretenders emulating their heroes. Not though, commonly audible during Lord’s Test matches.

Enter Durham’s Mark Wood. While attempting to run-out batters of soon-to-be World Test Champions New Zealand last summer, he rolled back the years.  “A little nostalgia!” he explains bursting out laughing when asked why. Wood chuckles plenty, the smile never too far from his face.  “(Faustino) Asprilla was the first that came to mind.  The lads were laughing about it, so I changed it up to (Alan) Shearer and I ended up with (Temuri) Ketsbaia”

“I was trying to keep the North East roots in there. Jos Buttler loved it and egged me on.  So, whenever the ball fell on my left, because he played on the left side…I know he wasn’t left footed… I’d say (David) Ginola. And whenever it was on my right and I could really smash it, it was Shearer. But if it was more of a placed finish, it would be Asprilla.”

And the man notorious for committing GBH on the advertising hoardings post-last-gasp winner against Bolton Wanderers in 1998? “If I boot the stumps down, have to pull my shirt off after, and maybe give a bit of an angry look to the batsman, that one has to be Ketsbaia doesn’t it?” 

Surely the Georgian’s name is alien to some of England’s young’uns? “I think Zak Crawley believes there were only world beaters in the last two or three years, so he needs a bit of an education! But apart from that it’s pretty good.  Football is still huge even in cricket circles. It’s the main sport in the country.” 

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Despite a euphoric recall of The Entertainers, Wood is no Newcastle fan.  Somewhat oddly, his allegiances lie much further south. Some might say crazy far: “When all my friends were getting ‘Shearer nine’ printed on the back of their Newcastle shirts at Christmas, I was getting Marcus Gayle, Robbie Earl or Vinnie Jones printed on my Wimbledon shirt.

“Neal Ardley, who actually managed AFC Wimbledon, was my favourite player at the time. And Carl Cort when he was at Wimbledon was one of my favourites. When he moved to Newcastle, I thought he’d do really well, but he didn’t kick on.” 

A hesitations, and then Wood continues: “Obviously there is Joe Kinnear…I’m not sure if you want to mention him or not though?! At Wimbledon I thought he was alright but then at Newcastle he lost the plot a bit. Maybe he’d lost the plot at Wimbledon but just fitted in with everybody else in the crazy gang!” 

Wood’s first Wimbledon game was a 6-2 drubbing by Tottenham at Selhurst Park back in 1998, Jurgen Klinsmann grabbing four.  He was also, following an Ashes victory,  a guest of honour when AFC Wimbledon took on Liverpool in the 2015 FA Cup.

But growing up he spent many an afternoon either at St James’ Park or watching Newcastle United on TV at his Uncle’s. His first trip was special for many reasons: “It was against Wimbledon and was Shearer’s [home] debut. He scored and I remember thinking ‘wow…this is so loud’. Obviously when everyone else was jumping up – including me Mam and Dad – I was sat in my seat.   

“I’ve always had a soft spot for Newcastle. But yeah, it’s a bit bizarre having an Ashington accent and then telling people that you support Wimbledon!” 

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Wood is Ashington born and bred. A small town with a rich sporting history. He and Stephen Harmison are both Ashes winners, while Bobby Charlton, Jack Charlton and Jackie Milburn need no introduction.

Harmison turned out for Ashington FC as a teenager, returning to manage the Northern League side between 2015 and 2017. His brother Ben, formerly of Durham and England U19s, is the club’s current centre-forward.

There are also Newcastle United cricketing connections. Jonjo Shelvey has become friendly with a few of the locals, Karl Darlow occasionally can be found at Ashington CC, and Rob Elliot once dismissed Wood for a golden duck.

Slightly further afield, Sean Longstaff takes the new ball for Tynemouth in the summer. “He’s got a bit of gas as well apparently so I’ll big him up.  Maybe one day we can swap roles and he can charge in, and I’ll try and ping a few passes!” 

Wood spent time with the Toon Academy as a youngster, Tom Cullen, most recently of Hartlepool, and Jack Colback amongst his peers. The latter would face Wood in the Cramlington versus Bedlington derby, doubtless sideways passing his way to glory. Wood was a central midfielder used out of position: “I’m right-footed but they used to play me at left-back. Clearly, I was one of those players they thought just fill him in somewhere; ‘anywhere you can, just get him in’.” 

But aged 11, he got released owing to size. Or lack thereof: “They were probably right to be fair! I got asked to go back for a trial when I was 14 but because I was burnt from that first experience, I was like ‘I can’t go back Dad, I can’t go back, I just want to play for fun!’” 

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Cricketers love their morning football. But it has courted controversy and – following “a few dicey challenges” – is now banned pre-England games.  Michael Vaughan, Joe Denly, Matt Prior, and Jonny Bairstow, and Rory Burns are amongst those to miss international duty owing to football-related ailments.  “Every time we turned up to training it would be football, football, football,” Wood told True Faith.  “Who’s a good player?  Who do we need to get? Who’s first pick? If your team lost, you’d be in a foul mood for the rest of the day. But if you won, you’d be bouncing around. An extra spring in your step!” 

Who took it most seriously?  “Jos Butler was one of our best players, and if his team lost, he was not happy. It took him at least 2 or 3 hours to snap out of it”.

“Stokesy (Ben Stokes) was one of the most competitive, as you can imagine. We have a rule where you can tackle but it’s meant to be you just sort of stand there and don’t do anything. Stokesy was the one that would sway that rule a little. Luckily as a Durham teammate, I always tried to get him on my team.” 

Best player? “The most underrated player was Joe Root.  He’s a centre-forward and creates a lot of space for other people.  His movement is really good, and he does little things quite well – people just don’t notice”.

“Chris Woakes is a lovely player, but does not tend to get involved if he’s bowling…likes to save energy.  But Woaksey is like silk on the ball; beautiful to watch. He’s good at everything to be fair, bowling, football, and his hair is never out of place!” 

There is always one who fancies themselves as Maradona but has a margarine touch. “Sam Curran.” The reply is instant. “It’s actually funny because he ran someone out last year kicking the ball at the stumps. He talks a good game, and about Chelsea a lot, but needs to work on his skills.”  

And no kickabout between friends is complete without that one person who forgets his surroundings: “Jos is definitely like that,” says Wood, quickly as any of his bouncers. And they are rapid. “Moeen Ali has got a quick tongue too – very witty. He’s a big Liverpool fan and sees himself in that sort of defensive midfield role. He’s prone to the odd chirp here and there at the referee. Often, it’s quite funny.

 Wood’s mind then returns to a time when Roy Hodgson, then England manager, was invited to address the dressing room: “Everyone was very respectful and listened to what Roy said…he made a great speech about England v Australia.    Mo had pulled his cricket socks up as high as he could and tucked his shorts into his top just to make sure Roy was looking at him. It went quiet and he took it upon himself to say ‘thanks gaffa’. That went down really well. Roy loved it.” 

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Wood, with 102 England caps and counting, is the latest in a long line of international pacemen to emerge from Durham’s Academy. Before him came Harmison, Graham Onions and Liam Plunkett.

But whereas once the Chester-le-Street dressing room was dominated by Black & White, the likes of Scott Borthwick, Ben Raine and Chris Rushworth mean the balance has tipped: “Funnily enough, they don’t seem to mention Newcastle United much at the minute. They haven’t got loads to shout about!” 

They do though whistle to a Geordie tune: “Wor team song at Durham is still the Blaydon Races.  We’re very proud to represent the whole region. I know we represent County Durham but ye kna’…Northumberland, Durham, Cleveland and that whole area…we represent them all. Blaydon Races rings out true whenever we win.” 

And winning is becoming habitual again.  The halcyon days of Durham’s three County Championship titles between 2008 and 2013 were followed by a well-documented fallow period.

Following the 2016 campaign Durham were relegated to Division Two, the price of an ECB funded financial package that saved the club’s existence (effectively a £3.8m bailout). Durham started the 2017 season on minus 48 points.

Slowly but surely a rebuild, headed by Marcus North, has taken place. Now it feels like the club is competing again, with 2021 seeing Durham narrowly miss out on a place in Group 1 of the temporary red-ball structure. They were also beaten finalists in the Royal London Cup.

“There were obviously some troubles in the boardroom with money problems that no-one really saw coming,” Wood recalls. “But then we’ve managed to turn it around, sort the other things out and get back to our roots”. 

“We’ve got a North East based side again – a lot of lads coming through from the area. And I think that helps with togetherness, with the values and the way we want to play on the field. In a way it’s like Newcastle – there is optimism around and a sense of excitement that we could do good things.” 

And some of those who left – Borthwick, Raine and Paul Coughlin – have returned. The band is back together. “These are all lads I grew up with, so it’s nice we are all of a fairly similar age, coming back together and trying to win games for Durham.  They left with ambitions to play for England. Having spoken to them all, I know there’s no place like home. They feel extremely passionately about playing for Durham.”

That passion spills over into the stands too, as is the case for all the region’s sporting sides: “I think that’s one thing that stands out in general for the northeast. We support wor sporting teams really well.  At Durham, we always have fans that are very honest and let you know how they feel. But they’ll back you 100% if they see you giving your all. I think that’s all people want”.  

“If we’re beaten by the better team, fair enough. If you’ve given it everything you’ve got, hold the values of your area true and are true to yourself, are honest and realistic in your reflections, I think people like that up here. That community spirit and hard work definitely runs true.” 

Does Wood – currently recuperating from an operation to remove bone and scar tissue from his right elbow – fancy a little county glory before returning to the England fold then?  “If we can keep that north-east backbone of the side, with maybe the odd South African or overseas here and there to dip into a Bovril, or maybe a hot sandwich with extra gravy, or a Greggs pasty, I think we will be alright.” 

Champion. Now there’s a thought.

Interview by Sam Dalling – @SamJDalling

Follow Mark on @MAWood33