I was born in 1955, sandwiched between a 4-3 home win v Chelsea and a 3-0 win at Bolton. Dad was a ship’s engineer so he only came home for a few months every couple of years, but in late 1958 he was around just long enough to decide that I should be taken to see Sunderland Reserves in the North Regional League.
I don’t remember who Sunderland played, but I do recall looking around Roker Park and wishing I could have the run of the Roker End, which was closed for the game. Dad sat me on a barrier and told me we were cheering for the ones in red and white, and that was it. There were no thoughts that I might ever make my own choice, or perhaps not be interested in football. This was my fate, just as surely as Prince Charles knew his. The Reserves won, and I got sweets on the way home. There was something in this football lark.
Curiously, my first game watching the first team was not at Roker Park. On 8th April 1961 my uncle took us to Brisbane Road to see the Lads play at Leyton Orient. I will lay no claim to connoisseurship then, but even I could see that Orient’s ground was a dump compared with Roker Park. Sunderland won 1-0, my little head was patted (a lot) and Dad bought me some monkey nuts.
We’d moved house with Dad’s job so I didn’t see much in 1961-2, but when 1962-3 started I was driven to stay with my grandmother and taken to two youth games and a reserve game before finally being taken on Wednesday 5th September 1962 to see Sunderland v Rotherham.
I had never seen such a crowd. Dad had brought both my grandads, and we stood in the Fulwell End about level with the edge of the penalty area. Dad thought I was big enough to stand there, but I wasn’t seeing much of the game other than Len Ashurst’s rear end, and there was an additional hazard at Roker Park.
Granda Brack was old enough to have seen the Team of All the Talents. He had gone to games at Newcastle Road when he was around my age. Now, in his seventies, he still played every match, jinking and shooting in unison with the players, though often with his hands in his pockets if it was parky out.
The fact that a small child was in front of him wasn’t going to stop him, and I think Dad was concerned that Granda might take me out from behind in the same way as he had memorably kicked my mother in the calf during a cup-tie replay v Spurs, so I was lifted up and sat on a barrier. Sunderland won 2-0, and I suppose in those heady days I may have believed that this was the natural order of things.
If I had any doubts about the priority of football, they were set aside on 13th October when one of my cousins got married. That’s right – on the day of a Newcastle v Sunderland derby game. Despite pleas from many men in the family, she refused to change the time on the grounds that the Vicar said she wouldn’t have to dash that afternoon because hers was the only wedding. Of course it was. Granda thought the poor woman was touched and the wedding ought to be banned on the grounds that she wasn’t in her right senses. Not that he would have gone to the game, mind, and thereby hangs a tale.
The following year Dad was working in South Shields and someone got him tickets for the Newcastle match. My other grandad had died that winter, so with three tickets, it was clear that there would be three generations of Bracks on the terraces. Except that Granda refused to go. He thought someone might recognise him there and he’d never be able to hold his head up in the North Star again.
In the end it was only the fact that Dad had paid good money for them that convinced him, but he turned his collar up and pulled his cap down. And they lost 1-0 to a dodgy penalty.
In 2012 I took my wife and daughter to the Stadium of Light. They enjoyed it. They have learned to live with the fact that my mood for the weekend will be determined by what happens on that rectangle of grass. I wish it wasn’t so, but I know it is. And for all my daughter – a trained psychologist – keeps telling me to “Let it go”, I know I can’t. The die was cast on that autumn afternoon in 1958 when Dad pointed to the Lads running out and said firmly “This is OUR team, Son.”
And it doesn’t matter that I can hear Granda Brack walking away from Roker Park muttering “That’s the last two bob they’ve had off me” (cue dad replying “I paid, Dad”) or “If they were twice as good they’d still be bloody useless”. Sometimes I may feel the same way, but the bond is unbreakable. I can’t not care. Believe me, I’ve tried.