About a decade ago we published a book called Ganterbury Tales, now that all this madness is going on we thought we’d publish some of its content online…
There have been many visits to the marbled halls of Highbury throughout the history of Sunderland, and many during my time travelling with the Lads. It has carried on in the years since Highbury’s demise, with Ashburton Grove, or the Emirates – call it what you will – now the destination. In my time, apart from some scattered draws and two consecutive league wins in May and November 1983, it’s been a journey that’s brought little, if any, joy.
There was also a memorable League Cup win in 2003, with our reserves coming from two goals down to beat their reserves 3-2. Thanks to my inability to let things lie with an over-exuberant member of the constabulary who decided that having a good time and celebrating our first goal was an ejectable offence, I spent the last half hour outside trying to get back in. So to date I’ve never actually seen us win there, and I don’t even have my ticket from the game I went to when we did win – if you read the very small print, apparently, it states that tickets at all times remain the property of the club, and, in the event of your being hoyed out, the police become representatives of said club, and can take them off you.
Anyhow, for some reason, just as Chelsea or Spurs have always seemed to be the least popular of London clubs for us Mackems to visit, Arsenal has always seemed to be the trip to the capital that Wearsiders put ahead of the others. Maybe it’s the proximity to King’s Cross – an even shorter tube ride now that they’ve moved grounds – or maybe it’s that Grand Old Arsenal thing, the history, the manner in which the club has been run. Who knows, but whatever it is, it makes the tickets for this fixture very popular, particularly amongst exiles in the South East who can’t get to many games.
My little group of travellers, the self-proclaimed Inter City Pisspots (probably one of several groups to have named themselves thus) have always made an effort to make a big day of Arsenal trips. Since the Lamb was discovered way back in 1980 during a tour of London’s fleshpots ahead of a mate’s wedding, it has been the destination of choice when heading to Arsenal. Ten minutes’ stroll from King’s Cross, a couple of stops from there to the match after lunchtime lubrication, it’s been the location of many a happy pre-match congregation of red and whites over the years. In fact, just arrive there before an Arsenal Sunderland game, and I’ll guarantee you’ll find someone I went to school with, plus others from around the land (Colchester and Rutland spring to mind – lads with the same taste in football and pubs who are now met with whenever we play in the South East), with Sunderland on their minds. I’m not telling you the exact address, because it’s ours and we want to keep it to ourselves, but if you like that sort of place you’ll know it anyway. The ICP have had numerous memorable days in the Lamb. It’s just a shame that so many of the games have meant a full-on wake there before dashing back for the train home.
In a footballing sense, the fixture in September 1996 was a disaster, as the brave resistance of the nine was no match for the eleven internationals and the referee. Peter Reid was trying to steady the ship he’d guided ahead of schedule to the promised land of the Premier League, and a trip to Arsenal for our eighth match of the season was always going to be more than a wee bit tricky. Off the field, we had the usual memorable day. Piling off the train full of pies and unsubstantiated optimism, we decided that this was the day the Lads would get one over on Arsenal and surprise the football world with a display of attacking verve and total football that would leave the Gunners shell-shocked and defeated.
We had our usual daft bets on the first scorer (Ball, Scott, and Ord) at King's Cross, when Frankie Dettori would have brought us about £750,000 for the same outlay as he rode seven winners at Ascot – and he’s an Arsenal fan. We should have known that would happen. As we were well ahead of pub opening time, breakfast was at Del's Diner – which had the same staff and cutlery as on our first visit on cup final day in '73. Beneath the arches outside St Pancras station, this splendid hostelry had toilet paper for serviettes, and a bog door that opened straight into the eating area. Not only that, but it wouldn't lock or even close, and was too far away to hold shut. This meant that the only way privacy could be obtained was by standing on one leg with the other at 90 degrees behind you (if you were nine feet tall). Suffice to say number twos were out of the question. We had a waiter who resembled a paler version of Sammy Davis Junior’s uglier and skinnier brother, who had the fattest cockney accent outside of Walford but told us that he came from Wallsend. The food was cheap (I should bloody well have hoped so), plentiful, and good, providing you didn't watch the preparation too closely, as everything was fried on one big hotplate with little cake-rings around the fried eggs - presumably to prevent them making a bid for freedom. We jokingly asked for a plate, but Sammy’s kid brother took it all in good heart. I know it sounds pretty unappetising, but that sort of food sets you up perfectly for football and, prior to that, the next part of the day’s preparations - the liquid part.
Del's Diner had since transformed into Cafe Shiraz, and served toast instead of fried bread. We blamed New Labour for that unwelcome transformation, at the same time giving praise where praise was due for seeing that the lavvy door got mended. Since that transformation, St Pancras has itself transformed, the arches are no longer home to greasy spoon cafes, taxi offices, and gentlemen’s hairdressers, and Del’s Diner/Café Shiraz is no more, its space in the world now occupied by the storeroom of one of the “retail outlets” that populate the semi-underground shopping mall-cum-ticket office beneath the steps of the station. Just a few memories amongst the many that go to make up the football experience, that’s all that’s left. Maybe Sammy’s brother went back to Wallsend and opened up a Greasy Spoon on Scrogg Road. Maybe he didn’t.
The Lamb in Holborn (Oops! Nearly gave it away there) was where we met the remainder of our party, who had travelled from as far afield as London, Bradford, Shildon, Cheshire, and Gloustershire, and some had spent the morning in the National Gallery at an exhibition of paintings by Cheetah, the chimp from the Tarzan films (honest, and they wore the badges all day to prove it). We even had an Arsenal supporter in the considerable shape of Mike Amos of the Northern Echo, who tried his best to out-sing the other dozen of us, but even his formidable baritone stood no chance. Stubber, having travelled from Bradford, wanted a photographic record of his day out, but left his camera in the pub when he nipped out for a look around the ground, and found some interesting shots when he eventually had the film processed (guilty, mate - sorry!) which I doubt he added to the family album.
Remember that daft bet? We’d put it on before having a drink and it seemed less daft after a few pints, but in reality our line-up should have brought us crashing back to sobriety and reality. Apart from Dickie Ord not even being in the squad, thus reducing our chances of a financial return by one third before a ball was even kicked, there was the team on the field to consider. Tony Coton was making his tenth consecutive appearance since arriving from Manchester United, and only two games away from the broken leg at Southampton that would effectively finish his career. In front of him, Gareth Hall and Scotty joined Bally and Melville in defence, and the midfield of Bracewell, Mickey Gray, Agnew and Rae backed up the front two of Lee Howey and Paul Stewart. Frightening when you look back, really, but these were the boys we believed in back then, and if truth be told, they didn’t really acquit themselves that badly, all things considered. Arsenal, boasting the likes of Bergkamp, Seaman, Bould, Adams, Parlour, Keown, Wright, Dixon, Winterburn – shall I stop there? - came at us, we bit back and actually knocked the ball about a bit, but then things went downhill faster than a Mag heading for Greggs. Future Sunderland player Steve Bould clattered into the back of Paul Stewart, who hit the ball with his hand on his way to the turf, and got sent off. Scotty put in his second boisterous tackle of the day and got sent off. Reidy understandably lost his rag and was sent to the stands, presumably so that he couldn’t reach the referee to stick his whistle where the sun don’t shine. Those left on the pitch donned their tin hats, dug their trenches, and did a passing impersonation of Michael Caine and company at Rorke’s Drift. Gray and Agnew were reduced to hoofing the ball to the corner flags, Bridges replaced Bracewell – who was booked and thus likely to be sent off as well – Kubicki came on for Mad Alex, and Craig Russell for Gray. Big Chief Lee Howey gave up being a forward and joined the defence – at least that way he got to see something of the ball. It was football murder, and it is rumoured that this was the day that the last of Agnew’s hair vanished. We scarcely crossed into Arsenal’s half after the break, which at least meant the visiting fans had the ball at their end for 45 minutes. As on that famous occasion in Africa in 1879, those wearing red triumphed in the end, with two late goals. Just to spoil our day out.
If the football was a little disappointing, the officiating of it was even more so. There was less chance of us getting anything out of the game than us flying back to the North East in a Zeppelin. On the hour mark, the two Petes escaped by battering on the gates until the steward decided that the cost of repair was more than his job was worth, and let them out. By the time we got back to the Lamb, they were well down a barrel of Winter Warmer (a well-known light session beer, about 6% ABV), and took a bit of shifting to catch the train.
A lightning raid of the offy adjacent to the station, as Big Pete dished out the orders – “Poskett and Dobson, offy, beer. We’ll get pies” - and we were stocked up and on our way home, treating the non-football passengers to a medley of Sunderland songs from the sixties and seventies - who can forget favourites like "hi ho, hi ho, we're off to Mexico, with Colin Todd and the Engerland squad, hi ho, hi ho"? This singing continued unabated to Darlington, although the bit after Peterborough was a bit of a blur. What is it with Peterborough? On a football train journey, it always signals something – buffet car closed on the way down, buffet car closed on the way back, unruly element ejected on the way back, the list is endless. We do, however, absolutely deny using obscene language at any time, and it wasn't one of us who dropped his keks and caused the next London trip to be a dry one. Sorry lads, we're not rude, just severely musically challenged. We didn't sing in the taxi across Darlo, but we were asked to stop singing in the Number 22 pub - admittedly, we were a little out of tune by then, and didn't quite fit the image of the typical customer. On the last leg of the journey, we howled with laughter as one of our party slid the full length of the upper deck on his back when the service bus stopped sharply at Shildon, Please remain seated until the bus has come to a complete standstill. It is alleged that we had further beers in Bishop, but I'm still not convinced about that one despite experience telling me that it is probably true.
A good day out spoiled by the 90 minutes in the middle, but our motto is and always has been "never let the deficiencies on the field spoil the fun off it."
BOOK INFO: Starting out as a nostalgic look back at following Sunderland AFC far and wide over quiet pint, Ganterbury Tales is a ridiculously detailed recollection of the halcyon days when watching the Lads away from home was usually a step into the unknown. Authors Sobs and Pos bring together a daft story for almost every away game and ground and their experiences will re-ignite long lost memories for those hardy pilgrims who have braved planes, trains, automobiles and coaches to follow our famous club through thick and thin over the years.