Updated: Jul 17
About a decade ago we published a book called Ganterbury Tales, now that all this madness is going on we thought we’d publish some of its content online…
It will be no surprise that not much ever happens in Stoke itself, because it doesn’t have a town centre to speak of – as I found that time I left my sister to look at the shops while I went to the match. She had a great time sitting in the car all afternoon. My wife’s lasting impression of the place is from April ’81, at the nearest motorway junction, where the Pink Panther and Andy Pandy, complete with red and white scarves, were hitching a lift after the match. She wanted me to give them a lift, but as I only had two seats, and we were sitting in them, the fancily dressed Mackems had to be left to their own devices.
Back in February ’76, I set out for the 5th round FA cup-tie at Stoke, taking up my usual position at the south end of the Tyne bridge, with my thumb out and my scarf safely hidden from view. Self-preservation was something that came naturally after living in bandit country for the previous five months. Who says that you learn nothing useful when at University? It didn’t take long for a car to stop, but my heart sank when I saw the occupants – four lads in Mag colours. I opened my coat so that the driver could see my scarf, expecting a two-fingered salute followed by the screeching of tyres as they left. On the contrary, they shrugged their shoulders and invited me aboard. They looked reasonable lads, for mags, so I accepted their kind offer. Brave, I know, as they could well have eaten me at any time – such things have happened, apparently.
Their views on my choice of team were predictable, and somewhat familiar. “A Sunderland supporter at university? Don’t believe you”. They even had a friend who would not acknowledge that Sunderland existed as a place. Nothing’s changed, has it?
They were on their way to Bolton for the FA cup match - you know, the one where Supawhiskymac scored over his shoulder - so they agreed to drop me at the Hartshead services on the M62 to try for a connecting lift to the Potteries. I was allowed to share their bait, and even got two cans of Brown given. Surely these were not true mags? Was the pease pudding poisoned? Was the Brown laced with arsenic? I ate and drank nervously, as we chatted about our footballing experiences - which, teams apart, were quite familiar - until we reached Hartshead, where reality kicked in. I got a few funny looks as I climbed (red and white) out of their car (black and white), and, as we said our farewells and I checked my coat pockets for booby-traps, we saw the reason why. The place was like the Bigg Market on a Friday night, as a mixture of Sunderland and Skunk fans expressed their mutual dislike in the most physical of manners. It was like a scene from a John Wayne western, except these punches were for real and actually drew blood and broke noses.
I dodged the more expressive discussions, and got into the safe (truck drivers’) part of the café, where I secured a lift to Stoke on a minibus from Hylton Red House. An hour of drinking on the move, with beer available at face value, and singing Sunderland songs was a return to normality amongst my own people. Things were looking set for a good day out - then the driver got lost as soon as we left the M5. We spent what seemed like an hour driving aimlessly through the houses near the ground, complaining about the local accent being hard to understand whenever we asked for directions. By the time we got parked up, there was no time to nip for a beer, which was just as well, as I never did found anywhere at all near the Victoria Ground, or its replacement, worth going to. As we’d been well-watered on the way down, we couldn’t really grumble – but we did anyway.
Over 41,000 were at the Victoria ground to see the Lads achieve exactly what they set out to do, frustrate the home side to bits with a dour 0-0 and take them back to 47,500 at Roker. We were doing the business in the league as we homed in on eventual promotion, so a chance to play a First Division side in the FA Cup was a good test of our credentials. As he would in the away game early the next season, Bob Stokoe played Jackie Ashurst, Bob Moncur, and Jeff Clarke as central defenders in front of Bolton and Malone, and it worked. Towers, Kerr, and Tom Finney (no, not THAT Tom Finney) worked hard in front of them, while Pop and Mel were afforded few chances up front, despite doing their best to be always available. Great result, though, and in the replay, Pop and Mel repeated their third round performance with a goal each to earn us a quarter- final at home to Palace. A pox on Alan Whittle and bloody stupid felt hats, I say.
After the match came the tricky bit. Getting home. It may be cheap to travel by thumb, but it can be unreliable, especially when the roads are very busy just after a match. Luckily, I chanced on some mates travelling on the Aclet bus, and was offered the use of an empty seat for about 60 pence. An evening in Sheffield had been planned, so we sang our way across the Pennines to steel city. Our first port of call was the lounge of a pub near Bramall Lane, where the pairs of pensioners sipping sweet sherry (ladies) and pints of Stones (gentlemen) were treated to our singing the current favourite of the club singers, “Bohemian Rhapsody”, along with the jukebox. Leaving that audience emotionally scarred, we then tried as many of the town centre pubs as we could. I impressed the lads by signing them into the Students’ Union bar, where they were impressed with the price, but not the taste, of their first pint of Ward’s. The 11:30 departure preceded a sleepy trip north, punctuated only (in those bladder-stretching days of buses without bogs) by frequent run-off stops. We made good time, but weren’t back in Bishop until about five hours after for the last bus back to Tyneside. So it was another quiet scramble in through my Mam’s lavvy window, and a note on the kitchen table telling her there would be one more for breakfast that Sunday. Happy Days.
BOOK INFO: Starting out as a nostalgic look back at following Sunderland AFC far and wide over quiet pint, Ganterbury Tales is a ridiculously detailed recollection of the halcyon days when watching the Lads away from home was usually a step into the unknown. Authors Sobs and Pos bring together a daft story for almost every away game and ground and their experiences will re-ignite long lost memories for those hardy pilgrims who have braved planes, trains, automobiles and coaches to follow our famous club through thick and thin over the years.