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…
Maybe I’m being a little bit guilty of imagining the stereotypical here, but when thinking of Barnsley, I always expect to bump into Michael Palin wearing a huge flat cap, standing outside a tiny back-to–back terrace house, the cobbled back lane festooned with washing, seventeen children screaming on the step, all the while thumbing his pocket-watch while chewing on a barm-cake and kicking his whippet. In reality, it’s not that bad, having given us Jeff Clarke and my mate Burnsy, but for a long time it was like going back in time to the depression of the 1930s. Until the last decade, the attitude of the locals was also typically of the well-balanced Yorkshire variety (large chip on each shoulder), so we would avoid the town centre if at all possible. I did try once, but a tiny flash of red and white stripes on a badge I’d forgotten adorned my jacket, and someone on the pub door – maybe a bouncer, maybe just Seth from Fitzwilliam – informed me that it was home fans only. In reality, it’s always been a good trip, not least because of its relatively close proximity to the North East. In two hours, on a bad day, you could be down the A1/M1 and be shouting “Ayuuup” with the best of them. Hence the inevitability of a large turnout, and the guarantee of locals standing at their gates, arms folded Les Dawson style, commenting to their neighbours on the size and sound of the visitors, while their many and scruffy offspring pointed from their bedroom windows in awe at the number of buses rumbling, wagon train-like, down the road to the ground.
The place hasn’t been that bad to us results-wise over the years – who could forget the snowy evening in April 1999 as we triumphed 3-1 to take the Championship in record breaking style? The club, or rather their manager, was good to me a few years back, when as they went on their famous FA Cup run, we threatened to overrun the ground and were well short of tickets. The gaffer at the time is a cousin of a mate (everybody should have at least one) and he came up trumps with a small brown envelope to be collected, completely legitimately, at the ticket office. The bloke deserved better than to be in charge of Darlington for eleven weeks before resigning by text or email or whatever and moving to Hereford, but we all got seats, and everybody was happy. See if you can work out who the manager in question is.
Due to that perceived lack of hospitality in the town – how much money was denied the local economy by the powers that be deciding that the pubs and clubs should not be allowed to open before several games - we always drink outside of the town, be it Wakefield or somewhere equally fortunate. Way back in April 1990, we were moving through the league nicely in a season that would end in controversial fashion as we lost the Play-off Final to Swindon but were promoted due to their lack of financial sense. As a bonus, we had beaten the Mags in the semi-final after finishing sixth to their third – but you already knew that didn’t you? We needed something from the game to keep our promotion push on the rails. Bearing in mind the likely lack of refreshment facilities in the town, we decided on this occasion to try a pub called the Old Post Office that I had found in the Good Beer Guide. It was supposed to be next the motorway junction, ten minutes up the road before Barnsley. We duly scoured the neighbouring villages without success, and turned back to the M1 amidst threats from Skinner about where he would put my Good Beer Guide once he’d finished rolling it up. On arriving back at the junction, we found the Old Post Office, one hundred yards from the motorway. Boy, was I popular, but when we got in we found it was fine, with a good choice of bevvy, and some nice scran in the form of those giant Yorkshire puddings full of mince. They didn’t appreciate our colourful language, though, and the landlord at one stage commented that “we’ll be going our separate ways shortly.” Skinner’s question in reply – “why, are you going on holiday, like?” seemed to break the ice, but our continued presence was only guaranteed after some protracted negotiations and the promise that we would whistle rather than sing for the rest of our stay.
The excellent brews of Yorkshire had set us up nicely for a good match, but we didn’t get it, largely thanks to a bald gentleman who ran the midfield for the Tykes, and scored the only goal. I said there and then we should buy him, so we did. Trouble was, it was not until five years later that Mr Agnew eventually signed, by which time he’d been to Blackburn and Leicester, and we’d arguably missed his best years. Typical. Agernew, Agernew, Stevie Agernew, he’s got no hair, but we don’t care, Stevie Agernew. Our team was largely that which turned out at Wembley shortly afterwards, with Norman, Kay, Hardyman, Bracewell, McPhail, Owers, Armstrong, Gabbiadini, and Pascoe being the well-known names, the only anomalies being Micky Heathcote, playing the 13th of his 17 games for Sunderland – we’d scored seven in each of his first two games, so he must have thought he was on to a good thing – and Kieron Brady. Even his undoubted wizardry couldn’t save us, nor could the experience of his replacement, Gates. Typically for Sunderland, it was yet another disappointment for a particularly large travelling group of fans. The high point of the game was the Sunderland fans humming the Hovis theme at the home fans. It sums the place up perfectly, but you can understand the locals getting a bit sick of that sort of thing.
I went to our next game at Barnsley, and headed for the Old Post Office again. You couldn’t get parked within half a mile of the place, as it was the midweek disco. When we eventually got in, we found it was the place where everyone in South Yorkshire took other people’s wives (presumably while their husbands were at the football), and, as four lads on our own, we were viewed as potential opposition by the local male population. We assured them that we were only there for the beer and the football.
Approaching the ground from the daft little car park up the hill was like being in the middle of a cattle stampede – thousands of feet raised a thick cloud of red dust from the dirt road to the away end, and the usual pre-match songs were interspersed with cries of “Rawhide” and “Giddyup”. On this occasion, the football matched the beer, and, on a brilliantly sunny early season evening, we tore them to shreds and won 3-0 thanks to Owers, Armstrong, and substitute Pascoe. He’d come on for Thomas Hauser, who’d done all sorts in the penalty box without looking like he would score a goal, but caused enough havoc to allow others to benefit. In all honesty, it could have been ten, but we were happy enough, and even stopped at the Old Post Office to see what the wives of the Barnsley supporters were up to. It looked like they were about to get what their husbands’ team had just got, so we supped off and left with a smile on our faces.
Our next visit was with kids in tow – and Nige. The Old Post Office had signs that stated “no football coaches”, which we thought a little harsh on Don Howe and Terry Venables, and “no football colours” which is fair enough, expect for Nige. Nige had on a Sunderland shirt, socks, and tracksuit – and probably Sunderpants as well. We decided that we’d try a spot of negotiation, as Nige had absolutely no chance of a pint in town. The barman was entirely accepting of our claims that we’d be no bother. Apparently, the signs were there in response to a visit by Millwall on their way to Huddersfield not long before. They had drunk all the spirits, smashed up the bar, broken wind, and tried to nick the bandit. In the words of our new Yorkshire chum “you lot last time drank all our beer, sang a few songs, and were no bother - you’re OK for a pint or two.” Which is how it should be.
We even played there in a friendly to celebrate the opening of their new covered stand, in which we sat next to newly-signed Dean Whitehead’s brother. Well, it was either Deano’s brother or someone in a Deano mask. Fellow new boy Liam Lawrence was refused entry to the club car park that day, because he didn’t have a Barnsley club pass (“look at that blonde ponce” I thought as he roared up in his Audi TT “oops, he’s one of us”). As we waited to enter the ground, we were accosted, in the most harmless of manners it has to be said, by two local youths who were so far out of their collective trees on solvents, a large carrier bag of which they carried with them, that the local polis just laughed, called them by their names, and warned them as to their future conduct. Oakwell, Barnsley – handy for a pint, handy for a point or three, and the perfect place to give a game to someone you hadn’t even registered properly. Step forward Dominic Matteo, brought in to add some guile to our defence. We lost that debacle 2-0, were fined £2,500, and Dom went back to Liverpool without kicking the ball for us again, while fellow debutant Brett Angell managed a solitary goal in his eleven appearances before nine clubs in the following eight years. ‘Nuff said.
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.