When I heard that Sammy Smith had died, it was as if part of my Sunderland story had gone.
Which it had, because Sammy was a huge part of my early days of growing up as a Sunderland fan. Back in those halcyon days of the late sixties and early seventies of bouncing about in the Fulwell cage, or as near as South West Durham’s fit young men could get to it, that’s where we congregated. Every football club had to have a “leader” – the mad bastard who the told you where to go and what to do as a bairn learning the ways of following their club. Fifteen years old, being told to “stand, Sunderland, stand!” in the face of what seemed like ten thousand Boro Boys… it grows you up quickly. In our case, Sunderland, and Sammy, in the nicest way possible, was the maddest of the lot. These days, or even in the eighties, he’d be labelled as a troublemaker and therefore an undesirable, but back in the day, he was the Lad. If you went to an away game, you looked out for Sammy, because you knew he’d look after you. A lifetime ago, he was what you needed to follow in order to get home from an away game with a full set of teeth.
Wherever you went, Sammy was there, usually doing something totally mad, but necessary. Along with his brother Herbie, whose recent passing I’d been sadly unaware of until Sammy joined in that great Fulwell End in the sky, Sammy was just everywhere with SAFC. I remember Herbie turning up in the away end at Ayrseome, when we were split either side of the home fans, carrying half a bottle of vodka and with a face that looked like the Peaky Blinders had been at it, but still roaring the Lads on. It doesn’t sound big or clever now, but that was football life thirty-odd years back, and those two were top boys.
My favourite personal Sammy memory is from way back in August 1975, after a particularly embarrassing 0-3 defeat at Bristol City. It being a night game, there were a raggedy-taggedy bunch of us hanging around Bristol Temple Meads after the game, wondering how to get home. A taxi pulled up, a very pretty young lady climbed out, and Sammy helped with her luggage. “Has anyone ever told you you’re beautiful, pet?” he asked the bemused lass, to the bafflement of her dad, and to which she replied in the negative. “Daft buggers” said Sammy, depositing her suitcases as near the train as he could. Soon after that, he asked me how I planned to get back to God’s country. “Hitch it, marra” I replied, and Sammy’s short reply was the most rewarding of my Sunderland-following career so far: “You’re as daft as me, young’un “ - and, when you consider that his travel plans were to “jump the mail trail and get somewhere near Chester then pull the communication cord” that remains with me as one of the best endorsements on my SAFC CV. Sammy thought I was daft, and that’s stayed with me since.
It was part of our SAFC education to meet up with Sammy at away games, because it meant that you were indoctrinated, and that you were a proper Fulwell Ender. ‘cos Sammy was the man. Sadly, we can’t do that any longer.
Now I’m a Sunderland fan, amazed at what I am – I say what I think that the magpies stink ‘cos I’m a Sunderland fan. You won’t get me, I’m part of the Fulwell, you won’t get me I’m part of the Fulwell, you won’t get me I’m part of the Fulwell, ‘til the day I die, ‘til the day I die.
That’s what Sammy was. And now he’s gone, so has part of following Sunderland.