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…
1977 wasn’t much of a year for Sunderland, and is chiefly remembered for the intervention of a certain bearded person in the season’s denouement. I’d have included the word “allegedly”, but then that might prevent his representatives taking legal action, and I’d welcome the chance to have my day in court discussing his alleged non-involvement on that and at least one other occasion that has proved damaging to my beloved Sunderland Football Club. Anyway, by the time we played at White Hart Lane in April of that year, we were well and truly up to our red and white necks in the sticky brown stuff. The purple patch of February, with the emergence of the Wearside Trinity of Elliott, Arnott, and Rowell, and all of those goals, had settled down to a fairly decent run of form in which we’d only lost twice in eleven games, and there was the hint of a little light at the end of the tunnel. Having drawn at Leeds and beaten Man Utd at home, there was no way I was going to miss a game at Spurs with the chance of more points in the salvation pot.
Being still young and daft, as opposed to old and daft, I suggested to my then girlfriend that it would be a good idea to visit her folks in Bristol. Suggestion accepted, we hitched down on the Friday and got to Keynsham, which was close enough to Bristol to warrant a phone call to her dad to come and pick us up. Being a friendly sort, he was good enough to give me a lift the next morning to the motorway so that I could take the cheapskate route to the capital. If you are at all familiar with the layout of motorways around Bristol you’ll know that the M32 out of town joins the M4 at a roundabout – at the time, I believe it was the only all-motorway roundabout in the country. Naturally, as it was a roundabout, I assumed it was allowed to use it for hitchhiking purposes. Not so. Ten minutes of thumbing had passed when Avon’s finest rolled up in the latest Ford Zodiac, informed me that I was a pedestrian trespassing on a motorway, and asked why I was there. I thought the Sunderland scarf and the outstretched arm, complete with extended thumb, would have given the game away, but no. I had to explain that I was trying to get from my girlfriend’s house in Bristol to Spurs to see Sunderland play. They even asked to see a photo of her, which, being a soppy sort, I had in my wallet. “Should have stayed at home, son” was all they could come up with before issuing me with a fixed penalty of £10, which was a fair amount in those days. They didn’t even offer me a lift to a place at which it was legal to hitchhike, and if you are at all familiar with the layout of motorways around Bristol, you’ll know that there’s no way to get away from that roundabout on foot without recourse to yomping several miles across the fields, no doubt to a chorus of “get orf moi laaahhnd!” and a volley of shotgun fire. I’m not sure where they expected me to go, so I wandered away, hid in the bushes for what a considered enough time for the law to be pestering someone else a few miles away, then got the thumb back out.
Luckily, the Great British Public are much more accommodating than the police when it comes to getting poor students from A to B when all they have to get them there is their thumb. One lift later, I was at the end of the Chiswick Flyover, that monument to sixties transport planning and civil engineering, and the traditional eastern end of the thumber’s route between London and the West Country. How to get to Spurs, though? It might say London on Tottenham Hotspur Football Club’s address, but Tottenham is about as close to Chiswick as Bishop is to Sunderland. Well, that’s what the tube was built for, wasn’t it? To get football fans from their arrival point in London to whichever ground they desired? Into Chiswick Park tube station and an hour or so later, I arrived at Seven Sisters tube station. It doesn’t sound much, and is certainly not a name to strike fear into your heart in these enlightened times, but back in the mid seventies, it was one of those places that had gained a certain notoriety amongst travelling football fans as somewhere near the top of the league of places you were likely to get battered. Keeping my scarf inside my jacket and employing the age-old tactic of walking with my thumbs in a pair of imaginary braces (come to think of it, I might have actually been wearing real galluses) and walking as if was stepping in something unpleasant every time, I passed myself off as a local. Or maybe nobody was really watching me anyway. Whatever, I got to the ground in one piece, which was always a bonus when travelling alone in those days, but it was once inside that the fun almost started.
I did what I normally did back then when I’d arrived at whichever ground the Lads were playing, and wandered about a bit to find my mates. It was only when I received a hefty kick up the arse that I realised I’d wandered past the non-existent police and stewards and through a gate into the Spurs fans. Perhaps my expression of total shock prevented my assailant from following up his thankfully rather tame attempt at assault, but he just stood there and looked at me. I looked back, evaluated my position both geographically and in terms of survival, screamed some abuse at him, and darted back in to the safety of the Sunderland side of the fence. Having located a couple of familiar faces, we watched our heroes take to the field. The back five was unchanged, with Colin Waldron having established himself as replacement for the injured Jeff Clarke after swapping with Shaun Elliott and Mick Coady for a couple of games. Like fullback Mick Docherty, he was one of the unsung heroes of that almost-greatest escape ever, and his performances are one of the reasons I now live in a street bearing his surname. What nonsense, but if there was a Rowell Street in Bishop…
Joe Bolton and Jackie Ashurst completed the defence, while Towers, Arnott, Elliott, and Rowell the midfield and Bob Lee (Bob Lee, Bob Lee, Bob Lee, Bob Lee, Bob Lee...) and Mel Holden (rules the skies) were up front. Spurs had high ideas of themselves, but to me they have spent a lot of time as one of those clubs who are all fur coat and no knickers. Not that I have any particular dislike of them for it – or fur coats, or no knickers for that matter - and they’ve won an inordinate amount of FA Cups and trophy cabinets don’t lie, but some of their fans seemed to think that the club was a lot bigger than they actually were. Whatever that means, we at least matched them in the first half, and were entitled to be thinking of at least a point as we hurled abuse across the fence at the home fans during the break. My pre-match assailant managed to catch my attention and impress upon me what he was going to do to me after the match now that he had several hundred mates who would happily join in. I indicated with my fingers how Churchill would have celebrated our impending victory, and left him to his threats. I had several hundred mates with me by then, and a fence with a few policemen standing next to it, so was feeling about as brave as he was. With no goals as we started the second half, we pressed forward and Mel Holden scored the seventh of his eight league goals since Christmas to put us ahead after only a couple of minutes. Celebrations were had, and gestures towards my new “mates” on the other side of the fence went up a notch. Chris Jones got Spurs level on the hour to knock the stuffing out of us a bit, but a draw away from home was still a good result, and it earned us another a well-deserved point. As we celebrated as only football fans can when a draw away from home has been achieved, it slowly dawned on me that I had to get back to Bristol, and preferably without the two black eyes that had distinguished my first visit eighteen months earlier. It’s a long story, the moral of which is that it’s unwise to sing “Gordon Lee’s black and white bastards” while on a night out in Newcastle, and the result of which was that I had a reputation to live down.
So the scarf went back under my shirt and around my waist, and my jacket was fastened up as much as possible without breaking Levi jacket-wearing protocol, and I was off. The Spurs lads had been taunting us with choruses of “It’s a long way to Seven Sisters” and it was. It might only be a mile or so, but when you doubted your chances of getting there in one piece slightly less than your chances of not getting a good howking on the platform, it seemed like a lot further. Somehow, I found myself in possession of an orange – there was no room in my pockets for it, I certainly didn’t pop in to the local fruiterers and buy it, so it must have been a gift from a mate who thought that I’d be in need of sustenance on my Way Out West. Anyway, I thought I would look very relaxed, and therefore pass off as a local, if I casually peeled and ate it as I walked down the High Road. There was absolute Hell on. Sunderland buses were parked on the High Road, and Spurs lads were trying to drag folks off them. Those that they managed to remove were quickly backed up by several who left the bus very much of their own accord, and for a few minutes the pavement was like a rugby scrum, but with a lot more fists and feet flying about. The law eventually intervened, folks who should have been on the buses got onto the buses, and those who shouldn’t have been stood over the road and lobbed missiles over the boys in blue and at the buses. There were a number of attempted ambushes on folks who looked a bit Northern, but I got to Seven Sisters in one piece, kept my mouth shut, and eventually the tube came. Thankfully, there were none of the then-frequent interrogations of single young men by the home hoolies which usually started with a conversation asking the time to judge your accent and ended with a flurry of blows and the removal of any colours as trophies. After a fairly simple one-train tube ride into the City, I found myself in the wrong part of Earl’s Court on the wrong branch of the District Line – did they run out of colours when building this, the most confusing and complex of Tube lines? Rather than have either two ends or be a circle, this bugger has six possible termini, and I chose the wrong one. Naturally, as Chelsea had been hosts to Forest that afternoon, the respective sets of fans were in the process of knocking seven bells out of each other when I arrived right in the middle of it. I was trying to escape the riot by running up the down escalator when the Polis came thundering down it, and there was no choice but to go with the flow. Backwards. With my feet off the ground.
Warring factions separated, I was allowed back up the escalator once they’d been convinced that I was indeed a Sunderland supporter hopelessly lost and most definitely in the wrong place at the wrong time, and one of the officers offered to show me where to find the correct branch. The only problem was the eighteen stone Chelsea skinhead he was handcuffed to. Naturally, the officer radioed for assistance in getting the detainee upstairs and to the waiting Black Marias. Obviously a public-spirited sort, Mr Chelsea Skinhead said “It’s OK officer, I can find my own way if you’re busy.” Nice try, I suppose.
I got out of their way as quickly as possible, and eventually to Chiswick Park station and thence the Nirvana of the Chiswick Flyover slip-road. Time was getting on, so I took up my position and set my controls for the heart of the sun – which was thankfully setting in the west, which is where Bristol was and still is. There was a car showroom next to that slip-road back then which specialised in top-end sports cars – E Type Jaguars, Aston Martins, and Mercedes Benzes (before Mercs became a common mode of transport for wannabee drug barons) and, as I waited for a lift, I fantasised about the imaginary gorgeous young saleslady finishing for the day and offering to take me all the way to Bristol in a Bristol, talking about football and beer, and stopping off in Bath for a posh meal and a few pints. All on her expense account, of course. As it happened, my lifting luck was in that day, but not that far in. A transit, driven by a jolly builder, was going all the way to Bristol town centre, so I was able to save another two pence on the phone call, and spend it on part of the bus fare out to Bedminster Down. An impressive day’s travelling, even if I say so myself – two tube rides (including the ridiculous hiatus at Earl’s Court), one bus ride, and a couple of hundred on the thumb. Oh, and a point. Canny.
The fixed penalty meant that I had the dubious pleasure of attending Market Street nick and courts on my return to my Tyneside home to pay off my debt to society. Not a place I hold in any great affection, but at least it raised my street cred amongst the less savoury denizens of some of the town’s pubs I used when they recognised me. More importantly, we’d brought a point back from Spurs.
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.