Forty three years ago today, on April 30th 1977, I went to see the Lads play at West Brom. Sounds simple? Read on.
There’s nothing like a relegation battle to convince you that your presence is essential at an away game, and 1977 was the mother of all relegation battles. From being dead and buried, apparently, at the start of February, we’d gone a bit mad and won a load of games, scoring hatfuls of goals in the process. By the time April came around, we had slowed down a bit, but were still fighting for every point as though our very lives depended on it. Which they did, really.
Games were running out, but we’d brought a point back from Spurs and then drawn at home with Derby , so there was no way I was going to miss the game at the Hawthorns. I’d actually had a car before I left Bishop Auckland for years of study on Tyneside, but it suffered greatly being used for home games, especially when the roof lining caught fire after one of my passengers messed about with the interior light once too often, and had to be sold for someone else to renovate and love. Being therefore a carless as well as penniless student, and very tight with my cash at the best of times anyway, I decided that my usual hitch-hiking option was the most sensible for getting to the West Midlands. My last hitching trip had been two lifts from Bristol to London and back (Bristol? Don’t ask), so this one should be a doddle by comparison. I’d actually been planning this one for a few weeks, and had been in touch with Big Harrier in Liverpool to check that it was a suitable weekend in which to take advantage of my open invitation to visit. I didn’t need much of an excuse to dodge a lecture on a Friday afternoon – come to think of it, Friday afternoon lectures were few and far between, probably because a good proportion of my fellow students were of the same inclination as myself. So, there I was at my usual spot at the south end of the Tyne bridge not long after dinner, hoping to take advantage of the Friday afternoon traffic making its way wherever for the weekend.
As I was actually planning to stay away overnight, I had a bag of gear – I must have been getting all sensible as my 21st birthday approached, as I normally would take inspiration from Great Great Grandad Howe, and stick a spare pair of socks in my pocket if I thought I might get stuck somewhere for a couple of days. Old Joe had emigrated to Virginia with nothing more than a spare collar in his pocket (and his Missus, of course), according to my Grandma, so I thought it only right that I should maintain that particular family tradition of travelling light. Anyhow, the extra baggage didn’t hamper my progress, as I was on the outskirts of Liverpool in under three hours and standing at a bus stop wondering how to get to Toxteth. One of the problems with hitching was that you could get to big places quite easily, but finding someone prepared to give a lift for the last few miles was almost always unlikely. Why did my mate’s neighbour not decide to pick me up? Did my mate’s neighbour even have a car? It didn’t matter, as it happened, as I found a bus that passed Harrier’s door, and so it was that I sampled the delights of a night out on Merseyside. As it was getting on a bit by the time we’d eaten, it was too late to go into town, so we hit Toxteth.
Jesus. I though I’d seen some rough pubs off the beaten track on Tyneside and when travelling to away games, but that place was something else. Harrier’s local was close by, as locals tend to be, but I was a bit surprised when he led me into the “Music Room.” I asked what was wrong with the bar, or even the lounge, so he allowed me across the corridor to get the drinks, and look behind the bar into those rooms to see why they were off limits. Well, let’s just say that the lounge was inhabited by a different ethnic group than that to which we belonged, and the bar was….I know Boys From The Black Stuff would not make the screens for another five or six years, but the pub in that series could have been based on that room. “Don’t make eye contact with anybody but the barman” was the instruction, along with “Don’t touch the Tetley’s.” So I didn’t, and we supped the safe beer in the safe room of an unsafe pub. When Britain descended into civil disobedience in 1981, it was no surprise to me that Toxteth was one of the places most heavily featured in the news. Suitably filled with safe beer, we went back to play cards at Harriers, and I found that at least two of the people he shared the house with were attractive young ladies. Or perhaps I was wearing my beer goggles, and they were just young ladies. Whatever, we spent what seemed like ages talking nonsense to them, they eventually disappeared, and I somehow found myself with a real bed for the night. A real bed, with a huge feather mattress, a giant quilt in the days when a tog was part of what kept a scouts neckerchief in place, and really comfortable. I hardly slept a wink, though. Perhaps it was something to do with our earlier conversation, to do with Lord Of the Rings, part of which I had read for the first time after turning in, or something to do with the Lord Of The Rings posters that adorned the wall (scary looking things like orcs and wizards), or something to do with what was on the other side of the yard wall. Toxteth bloody cemetery, that’s what, with all its Gothic headstones and spooky trees. Whatever it was, it had my imagination in overdrive all night, so I was in poor form at breakfast.
Such poor form that no amount of persuading would convince Harrier that the match was the thing for him, so I scoffed my toast and went on my merry way. A quick bus ride, directed by someone who lived there, so no problems knowing which one to get, and I was once more off with the thumb. I don’t remember how many lifts it took, but it seemed to be going well, and I was chatting away with the driver, when he said that he was going to stop for refreshment. Nothing unusual there, as drivers do that from time to time. I’d even had a half of beer bought by one, on the way to Fulham a couple of seasons previously, so that’s what looked to be on the cards as he passed the services and went away from the motorway. I accepted his offer of a half of beer, and then the conversation went more that a little wrong. I won’t go into details, as I don’t want this to be a top shelf publication, but it quickly became apparent that my acceptance of that drink was considered by 50% of the people taking part in the conversation to be an acceptance of a physical liaison. Oh bugger (sorry, wrong choice of words), how was I going to get out of that one? I was several miles from the motorway, I had no idea if there were any buses, and I had no cash for a getaway taxi. It was also getting closer to kick off, so I couldn’t really escape in a manner which would knacker my chances of getting to West Brom before three. When the second part of the journey began, my mind went back to a similar experience recounted by my mate Pos from a few years earlier when he’d been propositioned by his lift and had made his escape by jumping out of the car at the A167 roundabout near Aycliffe and hidden in the bushes until the bloke gave up and left the scene. Stotting down the motorway at 70 miles an hour meant that jumping out was not an option, so I decided to persuade him that I’d changed my mind about the match and was going somewhere else. The only problem was that I was stuck in the car, and it was up to him to stop. Thankfully, cars need petrol, so when we did pull into the services and he went to pay, I was off like a shot into the bushes, much to the amusement of the row of fellow hitchers on the exit road. I watched until I saw the car – a brown Triumph Toledo, you don’t forget these things if you’re planning to use your thumb again – trundle past, with my would-be sweetheart scanning the row of hitchers.
Joining the end of the line, as you did, it didn’t take long to get another lift, and guess what? Yes, a Sunderland supporter on his way to the match. Bonus – somewhere to leave my bag as well, Sunderland talk, and the offer of a lift home. For the fourth game in a row, we were unchanged. Siddall, Docherty, Bolton, Waldron, Ashurst, Arnott, Elliott, Rowell, Towers, Lee, Holden. There were 22,000-odd in the ground, the away end was packed fit to burst, and in fantastic voice. I bumped into Sixer, who doubled my options for getting home by offering me a lift as well, and we were off. The team were on fire, carrying on the good form of the last couple of months, and played like they really wanted the win. There have been some cracking games at the Hawthorns in my time – coming from behind to draw 3-3 in 1997-1998, and then coming from behind the following October to win 3-2 spring to mind – but this one is my favourite. The first half was fantastic stuff, and ended up 2-2, with Laurie Cunningham and an ageing Willie Johnston giving us problems down either flank. The second half was as memorable for the performance of the visiting fans as much as the visiting team. If you’ve never been amongst several thousand Sunderland fans who sing Ha’way The Lads for fully twenty minutes without seeming to draw breath, then you’ve missed one of the great events of the football world. There’s not much better feeling, especially when you’re away from home and Sunderland score the only goal of the second half to win it 3-2. Fantastic, with a goal from Bob Lee and two, including that “nerves of steel” penalty to win the game, from Tony the Tiger. Another, win, a great atmosphere, and two lifts to choose from - it doesn’t get much better than that. I naturally chose the Sixer option for the lift, as, perfectly pleasant as my last lift had been, I would rather sit with a carload of mates in celebratory mood than with recent acquaintance who might not have understood my behaviour after such a win. Sure enough, he’d been sitting in the car for ten minutes when I went to reclaim my bag, having not stayed behind for the celebrations that naturally follow dramatic away wins.
So I enjoyed three hours of Sunderland chat and song, and arrived in Bishop in time to pop down to the Cumberland to boast of yet another two points in the bag as we climbed our way to safety. I realise that I’d actually started my journey some twenty five miles to the north, but I could always count on a bed being available at “home” – that’s what parents are for, aren’t they? And the bathroom window was always open, in readiness for just such occasions. Thankfully, my mam was quite used to noises late in a Saturday night when Sunderland were playing away, and finding an extra mouth for breakfast the next morning. By the time I hopped off the OK bus at Marlborough Crescent on the Sunday afternoon, I’d been away for forty eight hours, spent a night in Liverpool, visited probably the roughest pub I was ever likely to visit, scared myself half to death because of a few posters and their proximity to a graveyard, seen the Lads win away, had a night out in Bishop, oh, and almost become the victim of a sexual predator. All in a weekend’s work travelling with Sunderland.