• By Francis Todd Malone


I’ve been quiet lately. Like many of us, weighed down by lockdown and the sickener of watching our sinking ship morph into Eastleigh, I’ve reckoned silence is the best policy at the moment. If you haven’t got anything worthwhile to say, don’t say it, you know?

However, it’s time to pipe up again as I need to cleanse myself of something which has been hanging over me for 29 years.

In April 1991 our top flight status was slipping. Smithy, Marco et al had carried us into Division One (the Premier League was still a good year away) and despite a promising start we were faltering badly, the slide starting as we hoyed away a three-goal lead at Derby. We weren’t doing well against our relegation rivals and after Dave Bassett’s upwardly-mobile Sheffield United had outscrapped us in the crudest route one fashion at Roker, fast forward four weeks to a home game against fellow strugglers QPR. Many had this one down as make or break and they were right. I travelled to the game in unorthodox fashion.

My car was bust but Pode, my best mate’s younger brother, a QPR fan, discovered we could get up to it through their supporters’ club. It wasn’t that straightforward though, as we had to drive 50 or so miles west to join the bus, near Bristol, then detour via Manchester, where a surprisingly decent number of Hoops-supporting Mancs, turned off by United and City in equal measure, jumped aboard. They were a canny bunch who made half of the marathon journey pass quicker than it seemed. It was Grand National day and, despite backing Durham Edition for the obvious reasons, I landed Seagram on the bus sweepstake, so at least I took their money, even if they took the points from a rancid mess of a game thanks to Darren Peacock’s header in front of the Fulwell.

A trip to Southampton was waiting the following weekend and I reckoned I need a distraction from the usual worrying about all things SAFC between these two games. Back then I was lucky enough to get paid to watch matches regularly and when I wasn’t working, I was just as happy to pay to see ones I didn’t really care about. Thankfully I had mates who were the same and having sounded out Pode on the bus journey back about a trip on the Wednesday night, a plan was hatched. Oxford was only 30 or so miles from where we lived and neither of us gave a toss about them, but fast forward four days and, with a half day booked, five of us were piling into Blackie’s mark three Cortina for a cheeky little 550-mile round trip. The destination? Newcastle.

My memories of the action are sketchy. Andy Melville scored an own goal, giving me a sneak preview of something he became quite adept at doing for us a few years later, while Paul Simpson blasted a screamer to earn them a 2-2 draw. That’s about it. The ‘highlights’ have since appeared on YouTube, to put some meat on the bones, and Simpson’s second is every bit as good as I remembered it, drawing a fair smattering of applause from the Mags. Those that had bothered to turn up, that is. This isn’t another cheap shot at them up the road. Only the biased, or those in blatant denial, can argue that the numbers both us and them have pulled stand up favourably in any era, even if we were edging them at this time. But it was clear to all of us from the moment we were through the turnstiles, not long before kick-off, that this gate was a low one. The weather wasn’t bad but there were huge gaps all around. It was clear the black and whites weren’t tickled by the early impression Ossie Ardiles was making, although the dismal 70-odd away following didn’t do much for the atmosphere, to be fair.

There was the usual post-match St James’ entertainment, though, despite the lack of numbers in one corner of the Leazes. Having resisted the advances of the welcoming party as we exited the away section, their frustration grew. As we got back to the car, we spotted a couple of locals wielding traffic cones around and bellowing “we hate Sunderland” into them. All good value.

However, the most memorable incident of the entire trip – and the reason for this piece - came midway through the second half. We’d speculated the attendance was under 10,000 and all acknowledged what an embarrassment it would be for them if they didn’t crack that number, so the announcement was eagerly anticipated. When it came, greeted by virtual silence and a fair bit of relief, it was 10,004. They’d snuck into five figures thanks to my idea of a midweek jolly and the ‘couldn’t give a toss’ posse, some of whom were quick to dispute the figure and claim the Mags had fettled the numbers to save face. I chose to plunge myself into the remainder of the beer stash on the journey home, not knowing whether to laugh or cry. I still don’t - but at least it’s off my chest now.