Sunderland Till I Die

We picked up dad’s ashes from the funeral directors in Ashington. I had been dreading this since his funeral when he took him to Whitley Bay crematorium in a red and white coffin on a bleak, rainy November day. We waited nervously in the lobby after arriving while the funeral director went to fetch the ashes. When he returned, he handed me the ashes in a cardboard cylindrical container with a string handle.

Mum had decided to have the ashes scattered at the Stadium of Light as Dad was a lifelong and fanatical Sunderland fan. As we set off for the final time to the stadium, I cradled his ashes between my legs. It felt strangely comforting to feel the weight of the container leaning against my legs as we drove.

I went to my first Sunderland game with dad in 1975. In the days before the Newcastle-Sunderland rivalry turned poisonous in the 80s, we would go to Newcastle one Saturday and Sunderland the following week. One of my first memories was seeing Pat Jennings at St James’ Park in his Tottenham days. I remember his big green gloves plucking the ball out of the sky like a balloon as he warmed up before the game.

Though we sometimes went to the Toon in the early days, there was no question of where our family’s loyalties lay. I came from a long line of Sunderland supporters. My family were miners in the Chester Le Street area before moving to the pit village of Linton in Northumberland where dad was born above a corner shop in 1949.

Dad’s father had taken him to Sunderland from an early age. He grew up in the glory days of the 50s and 60s watching legends such as Len Shackleton, the Clown Prince of Soccer and the most gifted Sunderland player dad ever saw, Charlie Hurley and goal machine Brian Clough in the 60s. Cloughie scored 54 goals in 61 appearances for the Black Cats before tragically breaking his leg on a straw covered frozen pitch on a cold winter’s day.

Dad was himself a lethal centre forward with a rapier like right foot. I remember playing with him down in the park in Sheepwash near my home. During epic games on long summer nights he would run rings around us before blasting the ball into the top corner. As a young man, he had made it to Gateshead’s reserves before giving it up because of the problems he had getting to the game after his shifts at the pit. He always told me it was his biggest regret that he didn’t stick with it.

He told me that his father knew a scout at Sunderland but had failed to get him a trial. His father was a stern and intimidating man with a legendary bad temper. Dad was convinced he had not wanted him to succeed because of his own bitterness and disappointment with life. Years later I was amazed to discover that a Sunderland scout had contacted my dad asking to see me play when I was a school child. Dad never got back to the scout. He never could explain to me why.

Going to the matches in the early days was an assault on the senses. I used to regularly get travel sick on the long drive down the Spine Road with my dad and my grandad who would always smoke. When we got to Roker Park, I remember the smell of cigarettes, cigars and Bovril when we mingled with the crowds and went through the turnstiles.

We always stood in the shadow of the giant floodlight in the corner of the ground in the Roker End. Dad would sit me on the metal stanchions that separated fans on the terraces. Sometimes he would bring a little cloth mat for me to sit on if it was cold or wet. I remember being terrified of getting squashed by the crowd behind me who would surge forward every time there was a chance of a goal. I would look around nervously as the stand filled up behind me before kick off and prayed it wouldn’t get too crowded. Seeing old pictures of the stand now I can’t believe how small it looks. It seemed enormous at the time.

At one Newcastle derby in the 1980s, there were running battles between fans in the street when we arrived at the ground. My dad had somehow got me seat on my own in the Main Stand facing the Newcastle supporters in the Roker End. I felt so intimidated by the Newcastle fans hurling abuse at us that I left the ground before the game started and went to walk up and down the beach. After the final whistle I met dad outside the ground and pretended I had seen the whole game.

Crowd violence was a regular occurrence in those days. I remember going to see a particularly nasty ‘friendly’ between Portsmouth and Chelsea during a holiday on the south coast. A mass brawl broke out during the match when the Chelsea supporters got into the main home stand. The game came to a stop as fans spilled onto the pitch. I remember running onto the pitch myself at one point to try and escape the spreading melee.

My dad got us into our fair share of confrontations over the years through sharing his outspoken views. Many a time I have had to placate an angry Sunderland supporter incensed by dad’s constant airing of his opinions. There was a long list of ‘planks’ who felt my dad’s ire over the years.

In later years, after I moved to London I would take dad with me to the matches in the away end when Sunderland played. Once at The Emirates I got us tickets together in the home family stand. I carefully explained where we were to dad before the game and urged him to try and stay quiet. He could never help himself though. I remember squirming with embarrassment every time he yelled out when Sunderland had a near miss as young Arsenal supporters glared at us.

One of dad’s happiest days was the 2-1 victory at Chelsea when we broke Jose Mourinho’s unbeaten home record in April 2014. We were sent into delirium after a late Fabio Borini penalty gave us a shock win after Jozy Altidore had been manhandled to the ground. Getting the penalty award, was probably Altidore’s most significant act in a Sunderland shirt. His comical inability to hit the target after his big money signing from Dutch side AZ led me to christen him ‘Dozy Canascore’. The shock win over Chelsea had given us over an unexpected lifeline as we propped up the bottom of the table towards the end of the season. Dad could not contain himself after the game. I had to virtually gag him as we waited in the queue for the Underground with my brother in law and thousands of disgruntled of Chelsea fans.

We were among the 80,000 fans for the play off with Charlton Athletic in 1988, which turned out to be one of Wembley’s greatest ever games. After a pulsating, end to end battle, it finished 4-4 after Clive Mendoca had broken our hearts by equalising and completing a legendary hatrick in the depths of extra time. Earlier, Quinn (twice), Philips and Summerbee had netted for us. Micky Gray went down in history as the unfortunate fall guy by missing the penalty that sent Charlton up during a sudden death penalty shoot out.

We were at Old Trafford for the 2004 semi final with Millwall when we lost 1-0 to an early Tim Cahill goal. Our trademark cavalry charge came to nothing and ended in another disappointment after Jason McAteer was sent off in the second half.

Dad was back again at Wembley for the 2014 League Cup Final when Poyet’s Sunderland took on the mighty Manchester City. I still have a photo of him punching the air in his scarf and rosette with a big cheesy grin on his face before the game. I wish I had been there with him but I wasn’t able to get a ticket. Our fans created an amazing atmosphere. They made so much noise they turned it into a virtual home game. They were sent into dream land when Borini sped past Vincent Kompany after being sent clear by Adam Johnson’s through ball. City’s class told in the second half, however, when Yaya Toure clawed one back and Nasri and Jesus Navas provided the coup de grace as Sunderland tired.

The glory days were the exception to the rule, however, as the years were dominated by the constant threat of relegation and the dog fight in the Championship and old Second Division. A low point for us was watching Sunderland lose 3-1 to Southend in 2006 when we were slumped at the bottom of the Championship during a short Niall Quinn managerial stint before he appointed Roy Keane.

At home games, Dad and my brother in law would always insist on leaving before the end so we could drive home before the traffic built-up. It was a habit I never really subscribed to. Many a time I stayed behind. I can still see Dad waiting for me at the corner of the ticket office huddled in his coat and cloth hat with a look of resignation on his face after another disappointing result. Dad would then reel off his criticisms of the players as we trudged back up the road to our car.

Being a Sunderland supporter suited the stoic pessimism that ran through our family. Dad would always expect the worse as it was safer that way. He became renowned as the prophet of doom with the lads we would meet at the bar before the game. He was always the most pessimistic with his predictions and, unfortunately, was more often than not right.

The Newcastle derbies were always the games I wanted to see. The atmosphere was electric before the game. There was no sound like the shrill whistle of thousands of Sunderland fans drowning out the public announcer as he read out the names of the Newcastle players.

The last derby I saw with dad featured the Defoe wonder goal when he surprised everyone with his 20-yard first time volley. I leapt to my feet in amazement and patted dad on the back as he stayed in his seat. His passion for the game was dimming by this point as his cancer took hold.

2015 was the year of dad’s death. He only made it to the opening home game when we suffered a demoralising 3-1 defeat to Norwich under Dick Advocaat. He was in constant pain by now. He had reluctantly given up his prime seat above the half way line in the centre of the East Stand so that he didn’t have to walk up the steps. It was a sad way to end. Now that he was no longer able to get to the games, I promised him I would come up to watch the next Newcastle derby with him on television but he never made it that far.

I finally plucked up the courage to return to the Stadium of Light with my brother in law a year after his death. We were determined to avoid dad’s usual routine during the day in order to make it bearable. As we approached the kids with their buckets collecting for charity at the turnstiles I could hear dad sighing in my ear: “They’re always collecting for something!” as he dug into his pocket. We shared a laugh about dad’s doom and gloom forecasts with our old friends at the bar before the game. When I walked out the stadium after the match, I could still see dad waiting for me at the corner of the ticket office hunched in his big coat and hat with his resigned look on his face after another disappointment. It was a relief to get my first visit back to the ground over with.

I went back for my next game with my five year old son and my mother. It was my son’s first Sunderland game. I proudly dressed him in my Sunderland scarf and hat and bought him a shirt in the shop before the game. My mother managed to find the brick in the wall I share with him which is not too far from my dad’s and my grandad’s. I know dad would have been very proud to have seen us sitting in the stands not far from where he sat. A new chapter in our Sunderland story had begun.

I carried dad’s ashes into the ground when we arrived. The ceremony was handled beautifully by the staff. We walked down the tunnel together to the strains of Prokoviev’s Romeo & Juliet, the music dad and I had listened to countless times as we waited in anxious anticipation for the players to appear from the tunnel. The hushed silence of the empty ground helped us remember dad. I looked up towards his seat and imagined him sitting there. If someone had told me when we were watching our last game that I would be burying him down on the pitch a year later I would have thought it was some sort of sick joke.

We were escorted to the goal where the groundsman had drilled out two deep holes in the turf by the corner flag. He directed me to pour dad into the holes leaving enough room to replace the turf. We were then invited to scatter the remainder of his ashes in the bushes outside the stadium’s main entrance. It was comforting to know dad was finally in the Wear valley where he’d always wanted to be.