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…
Way, way, back in time, when I was but an apprentice at travelling despite having been learning my trade for five or six years, we had a chance to go to Derby. It’s a place that’s had a few decent memories for Sunderland fans – Pooooom’s late, late headed equaliser at their new ground, SKP’s goals, time they cancelled our train home and thus had to deal with two trainloads of fans on the next one, and the landlord of the Brunswick ringing the bell in a vain appeal for silence when the football songs began, and Sunderland women in the FA Cup Final….
All those years ago, and despite being based on Tyneside for educational purposes, my Sunderland starting-point for such trips was still very much South West Durham, so it was back to Bishop for the bus. I now know that there were many and various buses available from Tyneside to the rest of the country, but nobody at Uni was quite of the same mind as me when it came to the football. We travelled by coach with the lads I’d latched onto as a spotty youth a few years earlier, as I felt a real affinity with the older ones who had looked after me as an even younger and spottier youth than them. I still see my guardians from those days, and they’re not that much older than me, but when you’re sixteen and chasing a pint, an eighteen-year-old with his club cards is the best mate you could ever have. As an example of how football can influence society, Lol Bell is somebody I still regard as a guardian angel because of his reassuring presence during those potentially dangerous days. He now lives a few doors from my son and grandkids, but back then he was looking after our bus for the game in November ’76. In those halcyon days of luxury coach travel, the distance to away games wasn’t measured in miles or hours, but crates. Sheffield would be a ten-crater, Derby and Leicester a fourteen-crater, and anywhere beyond that would require a second bus. (NB these numbers are entirely made up, as I never had the inside track on exactly how much ale was on board.) Being a southerly journey, the bottle opener was brandished as soon as we passed Scotch Corner, and the day’s fun began.
Almost immediately after arriving in Derby, we became separated from the rest of the Shildon and Aycliffe lads. Too much Brown on the way down, perhaps, necessitating a quick run-off in the nearest back lane? Probably. The atmosphere in and around the Baseball ground in the mid seventies was a million miles away from the fairly friendly situation around Pride Park that you find these days, so we toured the neighbourhood in some trepidation as we searched for our companions, ever watchful for any potential ambush.
The area around the ground was fairly run down (he said, being very generous to Derby), and we eventually came across a backstreet boozer from which came the familiar sounds of football fans in song, so we cautiously entered, half expecting a smack from some Rammette. What we did get was a chorus of cheers as we opened the door – not for us, but for a well-known Shildon gent who was entertaining locals and Red n’ Whites alike by riding a very small child’s tricycle around the pool table, throwing in the occasional (unintentional) stunt trick before alighting and allowing play to continue. Where he got the bike from we’ll never know, but I doubt if was ever the same again, as he is a fairly big chap. I won’t say who it was by name, but if you’re from my neck of the woods, you’ll know this Frank Zappa lookalike.
The Baseball ground itself ended its days like Roker Park – dated and redundant – but was a formidable, compact, stadium then. It was covered on all four sides, quite a novelty in the days when away fans were expected to occupy the nastiest, most decrepit part of the ground, and with the crowd close to the touchline, it was an intimidating place for most, especially if they liked grass. Grass wasn’t something associated with the Baseball Ground, as the playing surface varied from a slab of clay (August) to clarts (October to April) and back again. Not intimidating, however, for our young left back. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the one and only Joe Bolton. Younger readers unfamiliar with Joe’s style of play should think of Stuart Pearce, Mike Tyson, and a bit of Ghengis Khan mixed in with Ollie Reed, and voila – Poker Face Joe. His expression never changed, whatever (or whoever) he was doing at the time; Vinnie Jones was a flower arranger by comparison, and there’s not a player in the poncy Premier League of the 2020 who could make Joe as much as blink. Joe’s adversary that day was a Roker character of the future, Leighton James, who was exactly the type of opponent Joe loved – a skilful, fairly fast winger, and more than a bit of a workie-ticket. The kind of player the opposition fans loved to hate.
With Siddall having recently replaced Monty in goal, Joe had fellow calm person Micky Henderson alongside him, and Jeff Clarke and Big Jim Holton in front. A midfield of Rowell, Kerr, Ray Train, and Tommy Gibb backed up a front two of Billy Hughes and Bob Lee, so we thought we had a chance. With Rowell having only one goal to his name so far, we had no inkling of the hundred more to come, but we had high hopes of Lee and Hughes being enough to get us at least a point.
Leighton James had a typical game – he teased, taunted, and goaded Joe; virtually inviting him to clean him out and thus win an early bath. Not one to disappoint, Joe duly obliged, but with the added bonus of their man getting booked reacting. The ref somehow refrained from noting our Lad’s name, and James got up, tried to dust himself down but made do with scraping some mud off his arse, and scored what turned out to be the game’s only goal on the stroke of half time.
That particular contest came to a head in the second half. Leighton held up the ball in the corner-kick quadrant with his back to play, wiggled his arse at our fullback, and Joe predictably clattered him a beaut. A word, if you will, Mr Bolton, said the ref, but still kept his pencil and notebook in his pocket. Five minutes later, and the Welsh Wizard repeated the trick. Joe hurtled towards him with the usual blank expression, and only the experienced Bolton-watcher noticing the steam coming from his ears and recognising it as a sign of his murderous intent. Luckily, one such experienced person was Billy Hughes, who had seen this play before, and knew what was likely to happen in the final act. Billy, a teetotal, non-smoking Scottish lay-preacher, happened to be close enough to get both arms around Joe and haul him away from the inevitable foul and possible custodial sentence. With much finger-wagging, he explained to Joe the error of his ways. Two minutes later Hughesy earned himself a chat with the Mr Porter ref by continuing Joe’s good work and flattening Mr James. I think I saw a smirk on Joe’s lips at this, but it could have been a trick of the light. I’m sure that Joe would have been substituted shortly after that, had our man on the bench not been Roy Greenwood, as the boy Roy was famously not the tackling type and a swap for Bolton would have been unfair on the rest of the match. The only time I can say with any certainly that I saw Joe smirk was immediately after an unfortunate clash of heads with well-known Irish radge-packet Terry Cochrane at Ayresome, but that’s another story. I met Cochrane (the nutee, I think he can be referred to as) at a charity do some years later, and asked if he remembered poker-face Joe. He did, but with little of the mutual affection that is normally exhibited between ex-professionals.
We lost the game 1-0, with Colin Todd, my first Sunderland hero, marshalling the home defence to good effect, and leaving us in the familiar position of 21st, so we had a busload of glum faces after the match. A stop-off in Sheffield on the way home had been arranged for a spot of entertainment, as was compulsory in those days. Two of the Aycliffe stalwarts, Alan Oliver and Tink, tried gamely to follow us around the pubs but, at 15 years of age, were repeatedly refused entry. They eventually gave up and went to the pictures to see Jaws for the tenth time that season, so don’t ever say that following the Lads is not a cultural experience.
Those of us above the age of consent (for alcohol abuse) took up residence in a large but previously quiet hostelry, where the lone barman vainly tried to cope with a busload of thirsty Sunderland boys. Every time he went to serve in the lounge, drinks in the bar were mysteriously replenished. Every time he went to serve in the bar, the same happened to drinks in the lounge. This tactic has since become known amongst travelling fans as the Shildon pincer movement. The downside to this sampling of free drinks was discovering what Underberg tastes like – you know the stuff, it used to be displayed in a bandolero next to the salted nuts, advertised as a “pick-me-up”. It may well have been a miracle hangover cure on a Sunday lunchtime, but early on a Saturday evening, it tasted like tar with a fart in it. We also had great fun playing the very expensive looking electric organ in the lounge, which the management had kindly left plugged in, along with a couple of microphones. It was unfortunate for the rest of us that the lad who grabbed the mike first had a voice like Donald and Davey Stott – I honestly think those characters were based on this lad and his brother. Comments from Vic Reeves have proved this assumption to be correct. Eeeh man, if only they’d stopped starting singing back then.
We finally complied with the barman’s repeated requests to go away before he got the sack, and headed, pints in hand, for the town centre. There must have been a few folks in Sheffield the next morning who found pint pots in their suburban hedges. The management of Mucky Duck (AKA the White Swan), weren’t too keen on allowing us into their prized establishment, but Mr Hope, the Shildon cultural attaché, negotiated entry for our party. Skinner insisted we drank snakebites made with Sam Smith’s bitter and Woodpecker, much to the consternation of our stomachs and the barstaff. He also led the community singing during the interval, much to the consternation of the locals. The lavvies might have been full to the brink with the regurgitated product of the youth of Sheffield’s excessive consumption of fizzy nonsense, but we managed to use them without getting too upset. Or wet. The band was called Green Carnation (the rubbish that sticks in your mind, eh?), and being from Sheffield, they did Joe Cocker covers to the exclusion of everything else – mind you, they were good at it. They also indulged us at the end of the night by allowing us on the stage to sing “Sailing”, and the stage duly lit up beneath our feet. Caesar’s Palace had nowt on this place. What a magnificent sight we must have been, as we swayed from side to side in time with the beer sloshing about inside us. Rod Stewart, eat your heart out.
Needless to say, Sheffield was glad to see the back of us, and by some miracle we found that there was still some beer left on the bus, and they being the last few crates, it was Lamp Oil – Maxim to you and me. Bonus.