Every young lad remembers their first centrefold. If you grew up in the 1980s it might have been Brooke Shields or Cindy Crawford, temptresses from across the pond. Had you shuffled onto the mortal coil a decade or so later, you might have borne witness to Kate Moss or Naomi Campbell. Later still and it might have been Lucy Pinder who adorned your (appropriately named) noughties. Whoever, whenever, every young lad remembers.
Mine was…err…Alex Rae (or, to give him his full name, Alex Alex Alex Rae). A half-time perusal of the Roker Review brought into my world the rambunctious Scotsman, bedecked in a glorious red and white number, a few years shy of shaving his head.
On September 21st 1996, Rae’s Sunderland career, much like my entire existence, was in its infancy. He adorned the middle pages of the matchday programme for the visit of Coventry City not because of past glories, rather because he had just signed from Millwall and the club saw fit to show off their new signing.
If my memory is a good barometer of anything, and it usually isn’t, it did the trick. Even now, 22 years on, that centrefold remains one of the abiding memories of my first ever football match. If that seems strange, then an accompanying memory is probably up there too. In the days before electronic scoreboards – okay, we were only a year away from them on Wearside, but still – the old Roker Park board used to detail the half-time scores with a rather convoluted system. The programme would tell you that day’s fixtures, assigning numbers to the respective clubs. The scoreboard then relayed the scores to you utilising those numbers, requiring you to cross-reference between programme and scoreboard. Quite why I gave a stuff about the fact Liverpool were three up at home to Chelsea is beyond me but, evidently, I did.
If it sounds like I was more concerned with the programme than the match itself, you’d probably be right. If I am a bit of a boring bastard now I can at least take solace from the fact it has always been the case. To this day an Uncle of mine refers to me as ‘statto’, an ode to a return trip to Goodison Park that was punctuated roughly every 40 seconds by some nugget of useless footballing information from yours truly.
But we’re here to talk about Coventry at home and, troublingly, I remember little of the pre- and post-match festivities. Being only six years old and never having attended a game before, anticipation was no doubt replaced by a special kind of bemusement. It was, after all, my birthday. The likelihood is that I was more fussed about playing Pogs or watching the latest episode of Power Rangers. Or reading a book.
Whatever my preference, I got no real say in the matter. Whether or not my dad realised the risk he was taking in forcing me to watch Sunderland on my birthday is unclear and, with 20-plus years of hindsight to draw from, there is a good argument to be made that he shouldn’t have bloody bothered. Previous attempts to inculcate me with an obsession for all things red and white had fallen rather flat. Two weeks earlier, my mam attempted to get me to pay attention to Sky Sports One as we welcomed West Ham United to Roker for a rather uninspiring ‘Super Sunday’. The resulting 0-0 draw did little for the prospects of me becoming a lifelong fan; not even a Paul Stewart-inspired goalmouth scramble proved sufficient in moving my interest from toys to the telly.
Undeterred, and living in perennial fear that I’d repeat the request I’d uttered from the back seat as a three-year-old that nearly caused a multiple car pile-up on the A1 (“I want a Newcastle shirt”), my father pressed ahead with his plan. Knowing what I know now, I’d have begged him to wait just a little while longer. After witnessing years of dreadful home form and hope being quashed almost instantaneously, the chances of Sunderland being victorious that day now look to have been as likely as Gareth Hall winning the Ballon d’Or.
Yet fate is a funny thing and, as the sun beat down in late September, the stars aligned and, somehow, Sunderland did win. My memories of the action itself are sparse and, if I’m honest, have been strongly supplemented over the years. By 1996 VHS had long since ousted Betamax as the consumer’s videotape of choice and, for whatever reason, the club produced a half-season review as well as a full one that year. That first video was nearly worn out by the time the season ended and the full-length version came out. Given that the second half of the season saw promise tail off into inevitable relegation, it is a wonder the club bothered.
But they did and, just like the half-year video, the other one is now firmly engrained in my mind. What those tapes told me was that Big Ron Atkinson stood in the away dugout with shades on, Paul Bracewell drew a good save from Steve Ogrizovic, and Kevin Ball saw a pretty tame second half header gathered up by the same man.
Two other memories are present in those highlights but, thankfully, my six-year-old brain noted their importance and kept them without the need for future jogging. The first was seeing a gangly number 17 hobbling around before collapsing to the ground. The sight of Niall Quinn being stretchered from the pitch with a knee ligament injury was all part of the occasion for me, and an event that caused bewilderment at the angst it stirred in those sat around me. Little did I know that I was watching the first season of the club’s record signing – and future chairman, no less – crumble before my eyes.
The other memory was far easier to understand. Steve Agnew, despite being only 30, was follicly challenged even then and, with the glorious weather that accompanied my big day out refusing to abate, it was hard not to hope that he’d dosed up on sun cream before taking the field. Whether he had or hadn’t paled into insignificance six minutes after half-time, when he chested the ball down before thumping a sumptuous half-volley into the top corner, far beyond Ogrizovic’s despairing reach.
It is commonplace in pieces such as these to describe the roar of the crowd, and the subsequent awe it invoked in a young attendee. Yet that’s not exactly how I remember it. Sure, there was a roar; of course there was, those VHS tapes confirm it. But for me the sight of the ball bulging one of the old-style nets, and Agnew belting off to the corner like an animated Belisha beacon, was accompanied by silence. Just for a second, as the world around me erupted, everything in my head dulled, my eyes widened, and my mind tried to compute what the hell was going on around me.
By the time I returned to reality, I was in the air, hoisted up by my dad and hugging the friends we sat with. Those same friends came with me and my dad later that season as I was signed up for my very first season ticket; those same friends sit next to us at the Stadium of Light to this day. I think I’d have been hooked anyway, but that moment certainly confirmed it.
And not only was I hooked, now I was part of a whole new family.