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…
December 1997 saw us play at Loftus Road, where we hadn’t won since about 1899, as the media so kindly reminded us at every opportunity. They were wrong on that one, as we’d never won there at all, but we were a month or so into a good run, so we were confident of three points when we headed for Shepherd’s Bush. The East Coast main line was by then as familiar to us as the last bus home from Durham, but I was ending a month’s work in the USA with a carefully engineered return to coincide with the game Cunning or what? A 6am arrival at Heathrow allowed me to be at King’s Cross in plenty of time for the arrival of the train travellers – not that they would have recognised me, every inch the intercontinental executive, had it not been for the A4 sign held aloft, bearing the letters “FTM”. They couldn’t miss that one – the same one I’d used at Miami airport to greet a mag work colleague on his arrival there. He saw the funny side.
As we headed up the Euston Road, I morphed into something more familiar, removing layers of clothes like a snake sheds its skin, and replacing them with garments that only come in red and white. Back to life, back to reality.
We had our standard Café Shiraz brekky/blotting paper, and early aperitifs in the Euston Flyer, which would have been even earlier had the antipodean barman been able to understand English. He thought the tube was something that beer came in. The pub proclaimed “no football fans”, but cleverly showed the 11 o’clock game between Liverpool & Man Utd on the telly, a great bit of marketing, that. Somehow, they didn’t recognise us as football fans, or they simply didn’t care. Being London, the place was full of Man U boys who’d supported them since well before Bryan Giggs, Ray Keane, and Barry Pallister had graced Old Triffid. Typical. Whatever, it was a nice warm-up for stage two of our trans-London expedition.
We stuck 45 minutes of this, then headed for our first rendezvous – the aforementioned stage two, which was the Jeremy Bentham. It was run by an old pal from Bishop, where the rest of South West Durham gathered, and we could get properly warmed up for the journey out west. This place was known as a “destination pub” – explained to us as somewhere that people actually travelled to from all over the capital for a night out. Probably because the staff spoke real English, and it served decent beer. It tends to help if the customers get served what they ask for. After a few pints supped while renewing old acquaintances, we were on the tube, and into a converted card shop on Shepherd’s Bush Green, remodelled as Flanagan’s traditional (?) Irish Bar. Here we met up with the remainder of our extended red and white family, which had somehow grown to include a young New Zealander. It was bound to happen under the circumstances, I suppose. She survived a good twenty minutes of concentrated red and white preaching before a pint of Guinness was spilled down her leg. The guilty party, who shall remain nameless but was the one who latched onto her in the first place, as he has a penchant for trying to educate foreigners when in London for the match, offered to pay for having her trousers cleaned, as he should. What came next was a bit of a surprise, as she took him by the hand and led him to the adjoining laundrette, where he waited as she removed her keks and had them cleaned and dried (gentleman or pervert – you decide). Needless to say, the happy couple returned to loud cheers.
A few pints of the black stuff later, and it was way past time to leave for the match. A lone fiddler entertained the crowds as they squeezed into the School Lane End, where they found themselves behind various pillars and posts. Apparently, some tickets are actually marked “crap view”, and the pitch seems square rather than rectangular, a bit like a tennis court surrounded by football fans, but the proximity of the crowd to the pitch makes for a terrific atmosphere. I believe that on this occasion they actually showed common sense and moved the kick-off back a few minutes to allow as many of us as possible us to get in before the football began. The visiting fans took particular delight in mocking short-arse Scottish international John Spencer, who must have hated the trend for long shorts which allowed him barely a kneecapful of flesh to be displayed. He made SuperKev look like a giant, and he trudged miserably to take each corner in front of us to a chorus of “hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work we go!” He wasn’t Happy, so he must have been Grumpy, we reckoned.
This being a couple of months after the Nightmare at Elm Park which had prompted Reidy to change personnel, we were on a bit of a roll. Perez was now protected by the youthful defence of Darren Holloway, Mickey Gray, Jody Craddock, and Darren Williams. Mad Alex Rae won the ball, gave it to Lee Clark, and he gave it to Summerbee or Johnston. Buzza and Magic then fed Quinn and Phillips, which had become the simple and effective story of our swashbuckling season. The home side’s central defenders decided that the only way to handle Quinny was to kick lumps out of him, but he still spent a large portion of the game making them look silly and they spent a large portion of it on their backsides. Incredibly, only one home defender was booked in that opening 45 minutes, and in that lop-sided first half Quinny hit the woodwork twice and had one disallowed, presumably for being too skilful. Even though he was doing all this at the other end of the field, we could see the look of panic on the collective face of the home defence every time he shaped up to meet a cross.
The big fella was having an absolute field day, and they just couldn’t deal with him, but we were beginning to think that the vital breakthrough would never come. When it did, it was one of those special goals that seemed to occur in slow motion. As the game entered the final minutes, a left-wing cross floated over Steve Morrow’s head and dropped onto Niall’s right boot. 4,000 Sunderland voices screamed, “hit it!” but the big man had other ideas. He waited until Morrow turned to face him, dummied the ball past him to make space inside, and blasted a left foot rocket into the top corner, right in front of us. Ecstasy on the terraces, of the emotional variety, and I scared the fat bloke in front of me by planting a kiss right on top of his baldy heed. “You’ll not see nothing like the mighty Quinn” boomed across West London well beyond the final whistle, and we poured out of the ground in a mighty good mood. We didn’t lose there for fifteen years after that win, so the boys on the field that day broke a very big jinx and knocked QPR off our lengthy list of bogey teams. They’re probably back on it now, but which team isn’t?
The game had provided enough good memories to keep us happy on the homeward journey, but we weren’t finished yet because our landlord pal had managed to blag a bunch of passes for the players’ lounge. Sadly, this option became unavailable soon after due to his contact becoming a little too attached to some of the fixtures and fittings of said players’ lounge. Anyway, by the time the players began to arrive on this occasion, some greedy buggers had eaten most of the buffet and were standing sheepishly at the bar. First player in was Lionel, who swept past us like a gladiator twice the size of Russell Crowe – I’d never seen a goalie that big without being fat. Shoulders or what! As one, our merry band shouted “Alors, Lionel, comment ça va?” Realising immediately that we had reached the limit of our linguistic flexibility, he shrugged his massive shoulders as only a Frenchman could, replied “pffft” as only a Frenchman could, and beat a hasty path to the bar. We chatted with all of our players apart from Lee Clark, who was on the treatment table getting his ankle sorted, and Quinny, who was so busy talking to the press that a tannoy announcement had to be made to get him onto the team bus before it left. Niall Quinn talking too much? Who would have believed it? We did our amateur interview with Buzza, along the lines of, “Nicky, why did you leave City?” Answer, "It was time for a change”, and were surprised to find that Gareth Hall had escaped from his loan to Brentford to appear as a thankfully unused sub, and was threatening to take Nicky on a tour of the West End nightspots that he wasn’t yet barred out of.
As Steve Morrow and his partner in thuggery Karl Ready finally entered, we shouted “watch yer ankles, lads”, and hopped around clutching our shins as they passed. They didn’t know which way to look, and were further embarrassed when we pushed past them to get an autograph from Cedric off TFI Friday.
As time drew on, it became obvious that we’d need a taxi to get to King’s Cross on time, so Pos headed for the payphone, pushing past some bloke who was blocking the corridor. If you listened to Five Live that night, you may well have heard Ray Harford’s interview interrupted by a thump and his cry of “watch yer back, scholar!” As we sat outside awaiting our cab, a vaguely familiar figure, in the regulation ex-pro’s demob suit of beige mac with upturned collar, brushed past, and a voice from our party called out “Stan Bowles; one of the finest footballers to grace the green fields of the English game in the Seventies.” If that opening line wasn’t good enough to instigate a conversation with a former footballer, nothing would be. Stan the Man was happy to stop and chat, being politeness itself, and saying that we’d go up and that we’d spend big (which we didn’t and we didn’t but didn’t have to), before disappearing into the night. There was no sign of the taxi at the promised time, so several more phone calls were made before we discovered the cabbie in question sitting half asleep in an unmarked Volvo about ten yards away.
He did get us to the station in time to collect swag from the offy, scran from the food kiosk, and my cases from the left luggage. We enjoyed a couple (definition “less than a right load”) of cans and a SAFC picture quiz before disembarking at Darlo and hitting the Number Twenty2 pub, where our three bags and a huge suitcase were really popular on a busy Saturday night. I had somehow countered jet lag all day by using the time-honoured remedy of beer, but finally succumbed on the last leg of the journey, resulting in a bag being left on the service bus to Bishop. Pos and I were a perfect sight as we arrived, giggling, at my house, either side of the largest surviving item of luggage, which was all that was keeping us upright. A series of frantic phone calls to GNER, the Number Twenty2, Station Taxis, and GoAhead Northern finally resulted in the missing bag being recovered on Monday evening, complete with duty free, presents, and passport. Many thanks to GoAhead Northern for that, John Clennell for the passes to the players’ bar, and Niall Quinn for the goal. Altogether a grand day out.
Normal relations with the family resumed soon after.
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.