If you ask a Sunderland fan to name their favourite player from the past, John Cooke isn’t a name that will be offered very often. However, ask a Sunderland fan to name someone who's red and white to the core, and John Cooke is a name that WILL be put forward. Over the years, he’s become so much a part of the furniture, first at Roker Park then the Stadium of Light, that there’s scarcely a fan who doesn’t regard him alongside Bally as Sunderland to the core. So much so that this week’s news that he’d been relieved of his duties as kit man has created more social media content that the dismissal of Phil Parkinson. It’s not that we took Cookie for granted, it’s just that he was always there, having survived a remarkable seven managerial changes as a player and twenty-three as kit man.
His job title might have simply been “kit man”, but his job description, if it were ever written down, would be a whole lot more complicated – but we’ll get to that later. Arriving at Roker as an apprentice from Barhill Boys Club in his native Manchester in 1978, Cookie turned pro a year later and made his debut a few days after that, as we beat Bristol Rovers 3-2 at Roker. In his next start, his winner against Luton set us on a winning run of fourteen matches that ended with promotion to Division One the following May. After 5 goals in 63 games, he left for Sheff Wed in 1985, followed by spells at Carlisle, Stockport, Chesterfield, Gateshead, and Spennymoor before hanging up his boots and returning to his spiritual home as kit man in January 1993.
Since then, that job might have remained simple to the uninformed outsider, but there’s been so much more to Cookie’s contribution than ensuring everybody’s gear is in the right place at the right time. He always found time for a chat with the fans, did his job diligently and with added extras, and has been at the heart and soul of Sunderland for a total of over thirty-four years. Along with other backroom staff, Cookie was furloughed in March, and has not been recalled, a situation that culminated in his being made redundant this week - with his dismissal has yet to be granted even the dignity of an announcement by the club. As the man himself says, it’s “very disappointing to have been made redundant without even a mention that I have left.”
Apart from providing the T-shirt Kevin Phillips revealed upon breaking Cloughie’s post-war scoring record – it might have been hand-written, but that only added to the uniqueness of the occasion – he’s been there to provide support to players, particularly youngsters. Former player Chris Lumsdon has revealed how Cookie let him know his league debut was going well, and then stayed with him in the dressing room after he was substituted at half time on his Premier League debut v Chelsea, offering praise and advice. This was far from a one-off occurrence, as Cookie made it part of his job to pass on his experience as a youth teamer to whatever crop of kids was coming through at the time. He was first to console Micky Gray after that penalty miss in 1998, and Reidy reckons that we’ll miss the humour, drive, and personality of someone who was great at their job, while Tommy One opined "Cookie is a legend and has given everything to @SunderlandAFC. The club should not forget to recognise a person who worked every day of the week, through the night at times, so us players could proudly wear the club badge.”
As far as being pretty amateurish goes, the club’s handling of the situation is of epic proportions, even by Sunderland AFC’s standards. While Cookie thinks that “The way it has been handled leaves an especially sour taste, and I'm looking at what legal options are available to me”, the success of any such proceedings would depend on the exact nature of the ending of Cookie’s employment, and in this aspect I expect that the club has been anything but amateurish. If his job’s been merged with another and prospective candidates have had to apply for the “new” post, they’re covered – but they’ve not made any sort of announcement, so we don’t know the exact, or even vague, details.
It would appear that the club has totally underestimated the depth of feeling that fans have for John Cooke and the fallout from his dismissal. As well as the comments from former players and managers, Cookie’s family have added their thoughts to Social Media - and they’re understandably very unhappy “7 years as a player27 years as first team kit manager and my dad’s been treated like a piece of shit by people within the club who know nothing about football” is one of the calmer responses from his son. Fans have added their thoughts by the dozen, and a crowd funding page has even been set up by fan Craig Stewart to “give Cookie the send-off he deserves.” Exactly what format that send-off takes is yet to be decided, but the very fact of the fund’s existence should send a very strong message to certain parties within the club.
Like the Thatcher government’s condescending attitude to the public with the introduction of the Poll Tax, SAFC have treated the fans with contempt by their back-handed method of getting rid of someone who has grown to become part of the very backbone of the club. His official job might have been “kit manager” but he, Gordon Armstrong’s hero, was a whole lot more than that. As with a lot of other things that we thought the current regime “got” about SAFC, it appears that they simply don’t “get” it. Or us. Or what it means to be part of the SAFC family, which Cookie certainly still is regardless of his employment status. As with the general public thirty years ago, it’s been assumed that Sunderland fans today will simply accept the unacceptable because of who has deemed it the correct decision. Sorry (not sorry) but it just doesn’t work like that, especially not with Sunderland fans. It remains to be seen just how angry we get, as there’s been so much negative stuff going on in 2020, both in life in general and at SAFC in particular, but let’s start at “very” and see where it goes.
One thing that is for certain is that Sunderland AFC without Kit Man Cookie just won’t be the same. Another is that Cookie’s reputation is headed in the opposite direction to the club’s – and that’s entirely down to the club’s very shoddy treatment of a very loyal servant.