Football: Swansong for soccer-mad Sokoluk

The Terrier who hopes underdogs will have their day - before he moves to Canada.
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The Independent Online
IF Bedlington Terriers make it all the way to the endangered Twin Towers in May the FA Cup underdogs will, more than likely, have to contest the final without the player voted man of the match when they sank their teeth into Colchester in the first round. "That's a far cry," John Sokoluk said, tickled though he clearly was by the prospect of the Arnott Insurance Northern Leaguers following in the Cup final stud-marks of Newcastle United. "But if it did happen I would expect at least a ticket from the Perry brothers so I could come back and watch."

The Perry brothers, the manager Keith and chairman Dave, are plotting Bedlington's FA Cup campaign under the imminent threat of losing their right-back. Sokoluk, star man in the slaying of the Second Division team from Layer Road, is emigrating to Canada. When his rubber-stamped papers arrive, and they are due any time, he will be leaving Morpeth for a new life in Montreal. The size six Adidas boots kindly bought for him by the committee at Morpeth Comrades Club will be hung up for good.

What, though, if the Terriers should beat Scunthorpe next Saturday and Bobby Charlton, one-time starlet of the Bedlington High School team, had to guide the Manchester United team coach to Doctor Pit Welfare Park for a marvellous culture shock of a third-round tie? "That wouldn't be a worry," Sokoluk mused. "I've still got to sell my house and that will take at least six to eight weeks."

Sokoluk is happy enough with the less grand prospect of playing in the second round at Scunthorpe. Like four of his fellow Terriers, he was a member of the Blyth Spartans team that won 2-0 at Bury in the first round three years ago. He did not, though, get as far as the second round. "It was a classic," Sokoluk said, chuckling at the memory of how he missed out on the trip to Stockport. "We had a new manager coming in, Peter Harrison. He was just watching at Bury and I felt I played very well in that game. He said nothing to me when he took over at training the following Thursday night. But he phoned me out of the blue on the Friday and said, `You're not in my plans.' I was long enough in the tooth to accept it. I just said, `Fair enough', and left."

Approaching his final whistle at the age of 33, the affable Sokoluk can laugh with genuine affection at the lows he has experienced along with the relative highs, in his life as a part-time player. Not that the football stage is the only one on which he has performed. In his teenage years he was a member of a Cossack dance group. Though a native of Dalkeith, south-east of Edinburgh, he was brought up in the Ukrainian community in the Scottish capital. Like Iwan Tukalo, one of Scotland's rugby Grand Slam heroes of 1990, his father was one of the Ukrainian exiles who settled in the Edinburgh area after the Second World War. "I know Iwan," Sokoluk said. "He used to come along to our community centre, the Ukrainian Club in Edinburgh. I was in the dancing group. We used to go to festivals to perform. I danced with my wife, Vala, actually. Her dad came over here after the war too. Unfortunately my father, Dmytro, died when I was 17. He had a brain tumour. I never really asked him about the ins and outs of how he came to leave the Ukraine. I can remember whenever I wanted a new pair of boots he would say to me, `Ivantsiu [John is Ivan in the Ukraine and Ivantsiu is a youngster], I used to have to go through the fields barefoot in the snow and you want a new pair of boots!' "

In his football boots, the growing Ivantsiu played for Hibernian's youth team and then for East Fife's first team as a 16-year-old before spending five years, split by a two-year stint in Australia, as a Berwick Ranger. He moved to Bedlington, via Whitley Bay and Blyth Spartans, after being transferred to Tyneside as assistant manager of the Matthews Office Furniture branch in Newcastle. "I'm going to Canada," he said, "because I've got a job in a family business there. My sister's husband is an import- export food wholesaler and he wants me to be his right-hand man. I'm also thinking long-term. My daughter, Emma, is three. Canada's probably a better place to bring her up. The opportunities will be greater.

"I definitely won't play over there. I'll be too busy, for one thing. This is my swansong. It's like the lads said in the dressing-room before the Colchester game, `You'd better enjoy it because it could be your last one'. I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of it. All right, we went into the game with nothing to lose. But it was such a convincing win, 4-1.

"All I knew about Colchester was that Jason Dozell played for them. I know nothing about Scunthorpe but I should imagine it will be a tougher game. Apart from anything else, we haven't got the advantage of playing at home this time. A draw would be a cracking result for us. If we bring them back to our little shed and we've got a plum tie in the third round you can imagine what the Cup fever will be like up here."

It would probably be as fevered as it was when the Terriers' Northumberland neighbours, the once-mighty Blyth Spartans, ventured within two minutes of the FA Cup quarter- finals in 1978. If Bedlington manage to go all the way and lift the Cup in May the former pit village will be famous for a breed of dogs other than its poodle-like terriers. According to Ladbrokes, though, it is three times more likely that alien intelligent life will be discovered before the Millennium than the underdog Terriers, against odds of 15,000-1, will have their day at Wembley on 22 May - with or without their emigrating right-back.

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