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…
It’s a long way away, is Ashton Gate, so a trip to Bristol took quite a bit of planning. Well, it did when I had no money to spend back in the summer of ’75 – no, actually, I was earning a crust selling ice cream, and the truth is that I was simply too tight to spend money when I didn’t have to. Some things never change.
This was to be part of my first ever grand tour of away games – a double header involving Bristol on a Tuesday night, and sleeping rough somewhere between there and Oxford, the venue of our next away game the following Saturday. Oh, to be an eighteen year old optimistic hitchhiker again. The season had started well, with a one match unbeaten run courtesy of a 2-1 defeat of Chelsea at Roker. My folks were visiting friends in Newport, so I travelled down with them on the Monday, spent the night on an armchair in South Wales, and took the train to Bristol on Tuesday afternoon.
It was a pretty small turnout by Sunderland standards – there seemed to be only about 150 of us, standing packed together in the middle of the away terraces, singing our heads off – for a while. The game was an absolute disaster, despite Bob Stokoe making only one change to the side that had triumphed over Chelsea, and it looked like a positive one with Mel Holden moving from the bench in place of Tommy Gibb, who took up the number 12 shirt. Aye, just the one sub back in the good old days. Trevor Swinburne continued in goal, and Jackie Ashurst continued at right back, with Joe Bolton, Jeff Clarke, and new skipper Moncur completing the defence. Dennis Longhorn, Bobby Kerr, and Ian Porterfield were the midfield, and perhaps that’s where Bob got it wrong, as it left us light in the middle of the field, with Pop, Mel, and Vic Halom up front. Poor Trevor Swinburne was horribly exposed by a defence that played like they’d never met, let alone played a solid game only a few days before. Wacky Jacky Ashurst was the chief organiser of this disorganisation, as was no right-back. Now, Jacky was a better than decent centre-half who gave sterling services to the Lads before a long career at Blackpool, Carlisle, Leeds, and Doncaster before winding down at Bridlington. Rochdale, and Frickley, but he was to right-backs what Tom Ritchie was to goal poachers. In short, he could manage it on the odd occasion, but nowhere near often enough to be described as one. Poor Jacky got skinned every time City came forward, and, right in front of the visiting fans, and after ten minutes we were two goals down an dead and buried.
Our unhappy band tried to keep up their spirits by singing, but it didn’t work. Two down at the break, at least the third goal was at the other end of the ground, so we didn’t see it in such vivid detail. By the end of the match, plan A, the sleeping somewhere on the way to Oxford plan, had been abandoned. Some lads from Trimdon were going camping in Cornwall for a few days, then going back up to Oxford on the Saturday morning, and they invited me along. Tents sounded better than sleeping rough, so I agreed, despite having only a few quid in my pocket and nothing other than what I stood up in. As soon as the whistle went, we set off towards the cars, which were cleverly parked behind the home end. As we passed the open gates of their end, words were exchanged. I don’t remember exactly what was said, but it included the words mangle-wurzel, sheep, and sex. Suffice to say that it had a similar effect to the Pope walking into Ibrox, and our little band of prospective campers was quickly fragmented by a veritable cavalry charge of foul-tempered Bristolians. I don’t know what they were so upset about – they’d just won 3-0. Perhaps they were stung by our comments being a little close to the truth. Whatever it was, it signalled the end of plan B.
So it was that I found myself, for the first time, in the company of the blond lad from Huddersfield who used to turn up wherever Sunderland were playing in the seventies. He had no connection with the club, or the area, but followed us through thick and thin. I can’t remember what his name was, but I came across him many times over the next few years, and I hope he’s still out there somewhere, with his Sunderland scarf tied to his wrist. On this occasion, we got to know each other while running round the streets near Ashton Gate, trying to avoid a good kicking. Friendship forged in adversity, I guess. Our first joint decision was to hide from the trouble by pretending to use a telephone box. Based on the experience of hindsight, I will offer this advice to readers: if you are considering hiding from someone in a phone box (assuming you can find one these days), remember that they possess two important features. Firstly, they have full-length windows on three sides, so everyone has a clear view of the contents. Secondly, the door opens outwards, so there is no easy way of keeping it shut from the inside.
Despite these obvious deficiencies in our chosen place of refuge, we managed to keep a particularly vicious-looking skinhead out of the box for what seemed like ages before a police dog and handler persuaded him that he probably had better things to do. We decided that the safest place to be was back inside the ground, so we snuck back in, and climbed onto the directors’ box. After twenty minutes or so, we decided that it should be safe to leave, as the ground was completely empty. Unfortunately, all of the gates were locked, so the only way to get out was down the players’ tunnel. As we passed the changing rooms, we exchanged pleasantries with a couple of the Bristol City players, and then the referee emerged from his room, shook our hands, and thanked us for not resorting to kicking too many City players despite the frustration of our performance. This confirmed our suspicions about the ocular capacity of referees, as we looked as much like professional footballers as Anne Widdicome, and were dressed exactly like two daft teeneagers at a football match in 1975.
I persuaded my new pal to join me in plan C, which was in fact a reversion to plan A, and we duly set of for the motorway to begin hitching to Oxford. Unfortunately, my days as a Geography student were a month away from beginning, and thus my knowledge of the area was poor, so we had no idea of where the motorway was. We managed to find our way to Temple Meads station after nicking a bag of chips from a short-sighted chip shop owner, where we joined forces with another half dozen Sunderland vagrants also with no visible means of getting home, including the famous Sammy. You know Sammy, he was a living legend, having, amongst a horde of other things, painted his dog red and white two years earlier for the FA Cup Final. Sammy’s plan that night (let’s call it plan X) was to pinch a lift on the mail train and pulling the communication cord when he thought he was as near to Sunderland as the train got. “What’s your plan, young’un?” he asked me, so I explained our intention of hitching to Oxford and roughing it for a couple of days. “You’re madder than me” he replied. Now, to an eighteen year old Fulwell Ender, at that particular point in time, this comment was the equivalent of an Oscar, or a knighthood, and I was so happy that another half dozen Sunderland fans were there to hear it. Sammy spent an hour or so playing against type and lifting young ladies’ luggage into their taxis, and uttering the immortal line “hew, pet, has anybody ever telt yer that yer beautiful?”
We decided against plan X, as it was strictly illegal, and set off for the M5, ending up at the end of the A38M courtesy of a kind-hearted taxi driver who gave the pair of us a free ride there. It was somewhere near Eastville, and four or five of us wasted an hour or so trying ineffectively to thumb a lift - then the law arrived. Apparently, some woman in one of the nearby houses had phoned to say that we’d been rampaging through their gardens. Fortunately, the polis was a decent sort, and maybe the woman in question was a well-known whinger, and he realised we weren’t causing any bother. He recommended that we got some kip in a nearby park shelter before resuming our travels at first light. We spent a very cold night – wasn’t this August in the South West? – and when I awoke, the others had gone. I made my way back to the roundabout, stuck out my thumb, and resigned myself to a long wait. For once, I was wrong, and within a few minutes, a great big old Ford Zodiac stopped.
“Oxford?” I enquired.
“Arr” came the reply from the driver, and I climbed aboard. “At the match last night?” he questioned.
“Aye” I replied.
“You useless buggers, you could have won. We’re Rovers”
They were on their way to their match that night at Norwich, and were naturally passing through Oxford. Quickly counting my money, I realised that without resorting to crime, I couldn’t survive the next few days, so I formulated plan D – or was it C, as the original C hadn’t actually been used at all? – which was to get to the A1 and thumb it home. This was the best plan so far, as it actually worked, and I got a quick lift on the A1 from a Dutch lorry heading for Tyneside. The driver agreed to drop me at the A68 junction for good old Bishop, and things got even better when he let me root though his collection of Led Zep and Focus tapes (that’s C90s to you, sonny. Ask yer dad) and play whichever I fancied. We chatted about music, Dutch football’s impressive showing in the previous year’s World Cup, and the world in general, as I relaxed and he smoked his pipe. It was only after about an hour or so, when I began to feel decidedly light-headed, that I realised it wasn’t St Bruno that billowed from his pipe. There I was, hurtling up the A1 in front of several tons of choice Dutch tomatoes, and the driver was as light as a ragman’s balloon. Would I survive the journey, or would I end up as part of a giant salad on a roundabout somewhere near Newark? I sat back and inhaled deeply – if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, I thought, a thought no doubt born of a head full of wacky baccy smoke, and it helped to pass the time, making it seem as if it were us that were stationary and the fields were flying south at a ridiculous speed. After what turned out to be quite an enjoyable trip in more ways than one, I landed at Burtree roundabout and hitched a lift back to Bishop with a bloke who couldn’t work out why I was grinning so much when I had suffered so badly at the hands of my team the previous evening.
Luckily, my folks were not due back from Wales until Sunday, so I was able to get my head in gear (or should that have been out of gear?) and prepare a git big fry-up. I planned a couple of early nights – Oxford was only a couple of days away, and the hitching thumb needed its beauty sleep before the second stage of plan D. Or was it C?
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.