Tell us about your first Sunderland game, they said. Tell us what it was about that game that hooked you on SAFC, and why you stayed hooked, if indeed you did stay hooked. Well, just to complicate things, I’ve got two. Two first games, and one of them wasn’t really a Sunderland game – it just had a lot of Sunderland about it.
Sunderland was always my team, just because they were. It was my family’s team, but by the time I was old enough to go, living 26 miles from Roker meant that unless dad wanted to go, I couldn’t - and he wasn’t that bothered. Anyhow, there was a charity match at Kingsway, home of my local team, Bishop Auckland, and one of the teams was Charlie Hurley’s International XI. Even without having seen Sunderland play, I knew Charlie was the king, and the greatest centre half the world had ever seen. I also knew that another charity team that appeared around that time at Kingsway, probably because the players used Baxter’s Nightclub in the town, Jim Baxter’s Allstars, contained Jim Baxter, ‘cos, even at that tender age, I was quite perceptive. The owner was no relation to Slim Jim, but possibly recognised a marketing opportunity.
Anyway, Charlie Hurley’s XI gave me the chance to see players I’d heard of and read about but never seen play, so off I walked to Kingsway, wearing my red and white scarf. I’ve no memory of the score, or the game apart from Charlie being huge and everyone being in awe of him, but plenty about the altercation behind the main stand that left me without my scarf and sporting some bumps and bruises I had to hide from my mam when I got home. Rather than let that unpleasantness spoil my evening I took home memories of Charlie, and the feeling that I was a proper Sunderland fan because a) I’d seen Charlie play, and b) person or persons unknown had picked on me simply because I was a Sunderland supporter. That night, a connection was forged that you simply can’t get by watching football on the telly or just wearing the shirt. I’d been part of a confrontation about football because of the team I supported, and I’d survived. Somewhere, half a century later, my scarf is probably in someone’s house not far from where I now live.
A few months later, I made my Roker debut - unless you count 1-0 win over Birmingham as a three month bump many years previously. I’d pestered dad to take me, and he relented, taking me into the Fulwell for the game against Wolves on Easter Monday 1968 – probably in lieu of an Easter Egg, I don’t remember. I do remember the view from the Clock Stand Corner of the Fulwell, where we’d gone because we’d left my mam at her friend Brenda’s in Association Road, and they were the closest turnstiles. I remember the smell of beer and tabs, the peanut man, the size of the Roker End, and of the kids lucky enough to have one of those swing things their more thoughtful fathers had hung from the barriers so that they had better views than me.
I remember looking across the Fulwell, especially when the crowd surged forward in celebration of the goals and thinking what a wonderful thing it was to be part of it – even if it was a peripheral part. I wondered if I could ask some of the Big Lads to come back to Bishop, find who’d nicked my scarf, and exact retribution. I remember the singing, the chanting, the high-pitched screams of the hawayhaway man, and the roar when things got exciting. The Roker Roar. I remember the kids running onto the pitch when we scored, and at the end of the game, although I remember little about the actual football.
Of course, Charlie was there again, with the crowd chanting his name when he went up for a corner, as was Colin Todd, who was gaining a reputation as one of the best young defenders in the country. Wolves had Derek Dougan, and he was one of the best target men in the business, but Todd scored in the first half, George Herd in the second, and we won 2-0. Charlie and Dougan had a titanic battle, and left the field together discussing what had gone on - I presume. They might well have been discussing a trip to Baxter’s Nightclub for all I knew, but they probably weren’t. I just remember them battering the living daylights out of each other, in the nicest possible fashion, and wondering how either of them stood up to that sort of physical stuff. I loved it, and I’d been the lucky omen that guaranteed victory. Take me every week, fatha, and we’ll win the league.
I’d gone expecting to see Cec Irwin and Jimmy Monty, because everybody knew about Cec and Len Ashurst, and everybody thought Monty was the best ‘keeper in the country, but Cec and Monty were injured, so Derek Forster played one of his 19 career games for us in goal. Still, it was my first proper game, I could take stories to school to share with others who’d been there, impress those who hadn’t, and pretend to be Colin Todd, number four, in games lessons. I couldn’t be Charlie, simply because nobody could be Charlie – it just wasn’t possible for anybody our age to even pretend to be someone nine feet high and four feet wide who could jump over the Clock Stand and battle people like Derek Dougan. I’d loved it, even if my dad wasn’t keen on the language from the middle of the Fulwell, and there’d been 34,000 others who were there for the same reason as me – to watch Sunderland, to support Sunderland, and we were all part of the Sunderland matchday experience.
As a fan, I still had a lot to learn, but that was me properly hooked.