About a decade ago we published a book called Ganterbury Tales, now it's out of print we thought we’d publish some of its content online…
Charlton just qualifies as a London game – it is geographically in the capital, but has an atmosphere completely differently to any other London club apart from Wimbledon, before their less than sad demise when they played at Selhurst, which had whatever atmosphere the away fans chose to take with them. It is very much a family club nowadays and a good place for a day out, if you can stand another train journey from King’s Cross to Waterloo, London Bridge and onward - but you can call at Borough Market for a livener on the way. We even went there to see Hartlepool, as our game wasn’t until the Sunday and we’d gone down for the weekend. Let’s just say that you’ve never lived until you’ve been in a pub with 150 Smurfs singing Two Little Boys. Do they still sing that in the wake of Rolf’s demise, I wonder?
We did the usual ICP (Inter City P**spots) trip for the game in the 1994/95 season, keeping up our civilised appearance on the way down by staying off the drink on the train. They’re the rules, and we always stick to them apart from when extenuating circumstances prevail – such as when champagne and orange juice are provided, meaning Bucks Fizz for breakfast, or when Gin and Dandelion and Burdock are on the menu – it’s a long story, but it does happen from time to time. As we do on such occasions, we met up with Steve and Tony from Chester-le-Street as arranged and dined at Del’s before moving on to the Lamb. Having drunk enough beer to pay for the landlord’s holiday, we persuaded him to order us a couple of taxis for the next leg of our journey to the station, and they duly arrived – a Sierra and a Sweeny-style Granada, giving us in the second car the chance to utter the immortal phrase “follow that cab!” So we did.
On the train east, and having stuck our miniature Sunderland scarf on the window (as you do with your car back window), we noticed a couple of youths pointing and sniggering at us, apparently because of the way we spoke. They were duly summoned over to our seat, given a copy of “Viz”, open at the Biffa Bacon page, and told in no uncertain terms to read, learn, and inwardly digest. Their attempts to translate Biffa into Cockney were hilarious, and kept us amused until we arrived at Charlton, where we met the next members of our party in the pub nearest the ground. This doesn’t sound like a very precise method of making a rendezvous, but before the advent of the mobile phone, it is one that served football supporters well enough for over a century. It works for every ground in the country, and you can always find somebody that you know.
The barman made my day by only charging me for three pints instead of the five he served me, which is a considerable discount at London prices, and then we were approached by a young man selling Charlton scratchcards. He was a little dubious about asking us to buy them, but, as the pub was absolutely chocka with Sunderland fans, he had little choice. Years before, several of our number had made a few bob flogging Roker Bingo tickets, and ever since I’d sold a ten pound winner, I’ve felt sort of obliged to have a go on that sort of thing when offered. Unfortunately for him, someone had given him a pile of cards that contained at least 74% winners, and every two minutes there was a cry of “I’ve won – where’s me fiver?” The poor lad was virtually in tears when he managed to escape at quarter to three, with less money than he’d come in with. We, on the other hand, came out of the pub as merry as you like and with considerably more cash than we’d gone in with.
Having collected the final members of our group at the turnstiles, we endured one of the worst games inflicted on us by Mr Buxton, and God knows there were plenty of candidates for that dubious honour. We had Chamberlain in goal, Dariusz and Scotty at full back, and Dickie Ord alongside Benno in the centre. That wasn’t really a bad defence - in fact, it was a pretty good defence - but it was further up the field where our problems lay. On paper, Derek Ferguson was a fine player, a precise playmaker, and an intelligent user of the ball. The problem with his time at Sunderland was that we played on grass. OK, it’s an old one, but it could have been written specifically about Ferguson, as it simply didn’t work for him with us apart from in all-too-infrequent patches. Completing the engine room was hardish (every team should have one) Steve Agnew, hard (every team should have one) Bally, and then a sort of forward line consisting of Craig Russell, Phil Gray, and Paul Williams. Williams was on loan from Palace, and we were the ninth club of his career, which says a lot. We lacked ideas that day. We could win the ball – with Aggers and Bally in the middle, I would bloody well hope so – but with Ferguson again failing to get into the groove, Russ was restricted to belting up and down the left side, while Phil Gray watched and wondered if Williams would ever control a pass, and if he did, if he would ever find the Irishman with a pass or layoff. Charlton were very little better, but they were at home and thus had a little bit more about them. The team looked as if they knew this, but did not seem to have the heart to do anything about it, and when the goal came, it was as scrappy as it was inevitable. We brought on Mickey Gray for the ineffective Ferguson, and Big Chief Lee Howey for the hapless Williams, but there was still no spark. It was only February, but we agreed that the team had relegation written all over it; we were awful, gutless, and deserved no more than the nothing we got.
It was a sombre journey back to Waterloo, and we decided that we deserved a treat to lift our spirits, so we replaced the tube part of the journey with yet another taxi ride, and informed the driver that we needed to be dropped off at the pub behind King’s Cross. He happily informed us that it was frequented by “thieves, pimps, and whores”, and insisted on payment up front and a “rolling exit” outside said establishment. Two of us did the off-licence run, while the remainder decided to be brave and get the beers in. The “thieves, pimps, and whores” turned out to be wearing Leicester colours, and were in as bad a mood as we were about football, having just been thumped at Arsenal. Ha, so it wasn’t just us that made fruitless trips to Highbury. They provided good craic for half an hour until it was time to share out the carrier bags and head for the station. Unfortunately, we had to walk past the offy on the way, and despite it looking like something out of the Bronx – all wire mesh, and the cashier behind a plate glass screen - one of our party showed distinct lack of moral fibre, not for the first time in such situations it must be said, and popped in for a half bottle of whisky. The game had been that bad, he said, that we needed more substantial refreshment. Good thinking and well done that man. Make it a full size bottle.
The return journey was the usual combination of drink, song, and recovering enough to be ready for a pint in Darlo before the last bus back home. The Number Twenty 2 (that’s how they spell it, honest) is one of my favourite pubs, but they don’t “do” football songs. Having been to London and back with a thirst for company, we’d forgotten this rule, and were asked to keep it quiet. There was still time to jump off the last bus for a late one or two desperate beers in Bishop, just to round the day off, like. Are you detecting a trend here? Like I’ve said before, never let the ineptitude on the pitch spoil a good day out, especially when you know the landlord and a stoppy-back is almost compulsory.