My First Game

Memories are funny things. Especially sporting memories. Those nights in the Roker End probably weren’t as cold as I tell my children, Super Kev’s goal against Chelsea probably wasn’t hit from a million miles out and I probably didn’t personally will Gordon Armstrong’s header into the top corner but my fictional, factual and embellished memories are all as clear as each other in my mind.

Which, in researching my first ever game has produced a couple of oddities – I remember Frank Worthington playing. I remember his long lank hair and his socks, pushed down, his laid-back attitude and his destruction of opposition full backs. The only problem is we signed him a month after my first game at Roker. What follows are memories of my first game… as I remember it… as I look back 36 years to the 4th September 1982.

I remember the bus stop like it was yesterday. It’s just behind the Salutation Pub in Framwellgate Moor and, even today, if I drive down that road I’m taken back to standing, waiting for the supporters’ bus to pick us up, my scarf around my neck and a brand new season ticket ready for action. My Mam took a picture as we left the house (which I still have by my desk). I’d waited for this moment for a couple of years and, aged seven, the day finally arrived when I was allowed to go to the match rather than sitting at home with Mam, waiting for Grandstand to bring news and then the longer wait for my Dad to come home and hand me the programme, his ticks and crosses down the side of the players’ names marking where the predicted team had changed by Saturday afternoon. Spending the evening looking through the half time scores that he’d marked next to the letters on the back cover (hours after I’d seen the fulltime scores on TV). But now I was going to Roker Park to see my heroes.

I remember the old men waiting to get on the bus. No scarves or badges. Nothing to mark them out as Sunderland fans at all. Just a flat cap, thick brown jacket, shirt and tie ,like a North East old man’s uniform. I remember the depth of the lines in their faces and how slight they were but most of all I remember the cigarettes. Roll up cigarettes that they held with all their fingers like they were trying to lift salt from a table, the lit end inside the fist, the back of their hand all you could see as they raised it to their mouth.

The brick wall around Roker Park and the redness of all of the gates and turnstiles is vivid in my memory as is the devastation when Dad told me the floodlights wouldn’t go on that day (and the delight weeks later when I first saw the four shadows of footballers under lights). I remember picking the correct letter or number from the season ticket book written above the gate and pushing hard to turn the turnstile. We sat in the Main Stand just to the left of the half way line, the Clock Stand in front of me and the Roker End to my left. At the far end of the Roker End was the thing I was most excited about - that was the day I would get to write down the half time scores. For the first time I saw the board where they’d appear. I could see the man standing inside, looking out between two letters at the pitch. It was real and I was there.

The team were announced and (other than Worthington) most of my memories were right – Chris Turner in goal, Barry Venison and Shaun Elliott, Cummins and Pickering, Rowell up front. My Dad handed me a pen and the programme so I could make the changes.

My Dad had an ongoing argument that season with a bloke just along from us as to whether the young Scottish lad would ever make it in the game – Dad was convinced he’d come good. Dads are, of course, always wrong so I took the other man’s view and shared it in school and at home whenever I could. For years to come, every goal and golden boot McCoist picked up for Rangers would result in a comment from my Dad, reminding me he was in charge.

The game itself was West Ham. We won it 1 – 0 with a goal from Gary Rowell before going on a dreadful run including an away game at Watford that ended 8-0 (I found out in the back of our car after being picked up from someone’s birthday party).

My two memories of the actual game are the noise at kick off and us not playing in red and white stripes (it was the year of the pinstripe kit). Maybe it’s another memory that has developed over the years but, to me, that roar will always be one of my favourite sounds.

As I wrote out the half time scores, I remember my Dad magically producing two Mars bars at half time from his coat pocket and thinking that this was the best day ever. It was everything I’d always dreamed it would be.