Those heaving arches beckoning you to the match hold different memories depending on when you were indoctrinated with Sunderland Football Club. Whether it was the towering, roofless Fulwell End or the darkened alleys leading up to Roker Park or the bright brickwork and corrugated steel of the Stadium of Light; the stadium holds an unearthly significance.
Football has changed a great deal in the time my father has watched Sunderland, in the 60 or so years he has followed Sunderland he has seen a transition from a club which was very much the heart of the community through to the riches of the Premier League and now a period of resetting and rediscovering those roots. I took some time to talk to him about his first match and to compare it with my own experiences and those of my son to see if there was commonality and to try and put my finger on what it was that made us sign up to a life of supporting Sunderland. “It was 1961; it probably wasn’t my first match but it’s the one I have the earliest memories of. It’s a strange thing I remember most; the referee’s name. Arthur Luty. He was fat for a referee.” My father has little in the way of a politically correct filter.
“It was a Saturday match, early on in the season. Quite warm. I went by myself, I got the train from Newcastle to Seaburn. It was a ten to train, a diesel train, and it used to get you in for twenty-five past. I walked from Seaburn to Roker Park past the bus depot.”
The thought of a 13-year-old boy travelling from Fenham to Roker Park on his own is a concept which would be alien to many of us now. My father, you see, is a Geordie. He was not born in the right catchment area to support Sunderland; he chose Sunderland. I often wondered why he chose the more difficult travel option when he had a club on his doorstep. His answer transcends generations and rings true to this day. “When I went to see Newcastle their fans were always grumbling. They haven’t changed. It’s Ashley now but it was McKeag, or it was Stan Seymour at the time. They always had a scapegoat at the time that they picked on. Sunderland had a friendlier crowd.”
I am envious of my father, while I have had my idols through the years they seem to pale into insignificance when held up with the players he saw. When he talks about the crowd the nostalgia fills his eyes. “I walked into the Fulwell End, and there was no roof in those days. I was really impressed with all the young people sitting on the barriers. It was the first time I ever saw people wearing football strips at a match. It’s common now but in the day there wasn’t a replica strip market. People just wore red and white tops. In actual fact, the first person I ever saw was a girl.”
“The Fulwell End eventually became the teenage end to be in and when you tipped into the hooligan era it became the hooligan end if you like but they used to mix fans in there. There was a match in the late 60s when Newcastle had one side and Sunderland had the other. Mind there was a bit of a bloodbath that day. That match is very rarely mentioned.”
“The main memories I have though of that day against Liverpool, were queues down the street. As far back as where the Roker Pie Shop is. Everyone paid on the gate you see. There was a guy who used to sell peanuts at the ground. Peanuts as big as coconuts he used to say. He had this aim that could catch the right person by throwing the bag to them. I remember a programme seller with a National Health wig. It was obvious. He used to walk round selling programmes and people used to shout “Alright Wiggy””.
It was a different era, football was grounded. “I thought the club was more innovative. In terms of how it operated. It was more parochial. The atmosphere was more parochial, less about the football more about the people. Colin Nelson was a chemist in his part time. The players worked. It wasn’t heavily subsidised the way it is now.”
I ask about the famous Roker Roar, “When it’s all you’ve ever known you don’t see anything special about it. Roker Park was special. All grounds have an affinity with their fans of course, but Roker was special. We signed some great players around that time. Ashurst was at his prime, Johnny Crossan…” There is a pause and a change in tone, “Charlie”. For a moment I think he’s going to well up at the memory of Charlie Hurley and then he moves on to Stand Anderson. Charlie return though, “I had never seen a centre half come up for a corner before; the crowd chanting “CHARLIE! CHARLIE! CHARLIE!” My grandfather was never loyal to a particular team but he was a football fan, “He told me, that man is the greatest centre half in the world”.
My own experience of my first match is far different. I was cold having flown in from Zimbabwe to visit family for Christmas. It was exciting, no doubt. The ghosts of Roker Park were unknown to me at that point though.
My son, Owain, went to his first match at the Stadium of Light. It was against West Brom. I had picked that one deliberately because he had declared allegiance to Wolves as that is where he was born. He saw PvA score. He describes the excitement of approaching the stadium. He says the crowd were very noisy, he remembers Duncan Watmore getting injured. I say to him that he was a Wolves fan then. He looks, hesitates and says wryfully, “Yeah, but now I’m more Sunderland”.
At the Rochdale game thanks to some incredible hospitality and generosity my father got to go to the match. He sat shivering in his wheelchair with his oxygen tank pumping breath into him. Stewart Donald visited him at half time. He met two of his idols from the seventies. In the second half with Sunderland cruising as he shivered away watching his team I put my hand on his shoulder. To my left Owain sang Sunderland Till I Die.
Three generations, cursed to love this club.