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…
Back in ’84, the temptation of £85 each including the ferry, bed, and breakfast, with the bairn going free (at thirteen months, he didn’t eat more than one pie a day anyway), coupled with the chance to watch the Lads’ pre-season tour, was too much to resist. Watch the Lads defend the Gore Trophy we’d won the year before? Why not.
We duly blagged a lift to Heysham with Grandma and Grandad Sobs - with a day out in Morecambe as bait. If you’ve been to Morcambe, you’ll understand the irony. We found, to my delight if not my wife’s, that we were sharing the ship with the Lads, and Carlisle United. The mood in the red and white camp was fairly upbeat - despite needing a last day win at Leicester to be sure of safety, those two points had shot us up to 13th, and new manager Len Ashurst had actually bought players we had heard of. Howard Gayle wasn’t aboard, but we were treated to close ups of our other new boys, and it was interesting to judge the character of the players by their off-field manner, Benno chatted to everybody, while Clive Walker spent the whole time in the casino.
Rodger Wylde was making a passable impersonation of the intelligent, widely travelled elder statesman of soccer, but Barry Venison plagued the life out him by constantly flicking the “Times” that his new team-mate was reading, and generally acting like the cheeky teenager that he was. Steve Berry was fairly anonymous, which just about sums up his career. I sent the bairn, in a supposed attempt to practice his now-found skill of walking, across to the Carlisle team to kick Alan Shoulder, but he picked the wrong man, and gave former Roker hero Jackie Ashurst a good welly instead. Thankfully, Jackie was OK about it, and at least the bairn didn’t go for their manager, Bob Stokoe.
Also sharing the boat was Paul “Hi de hi” Shane, who was booked on at the Villa Marina, where he followed Ronricco (the world’s greatest hypnotist – he told me to say that) and preceded the all-star wrestling and Larry Grayson. To make it a real camping holiday, the only other show in town was John Inman in “pyjama tops” at the Gaiety Theatre. Thankfully, the pubs opened at 10.30 AM, and stayed open until 11, or even 12 at night, which was a novelty in those days, so we sought entertainment there.
The best part of the week was that all of the supporters (Blackburn, St Mirren, Carlisle, us, and Athlone Town) stayed in Douglas, as did the teams. This meant that the fans drank with each other and the players, a particular favourite with the players was the Lion Bar (honest). We shared our breakfast table with two young lads from Wearmouth Colliery who had saved all year to get there, despite the strike, and happily fed young Gary his Weetabix all week.
Game one was against Carlisle on the Monday evening, up the coast at Ramsay’s Ballacloan ground (Town Recreation ground), and the bus trip there provided the only instance of less than good-natured behaviour amongst the fans. The bus was free, and fans of both teams were aboard, engaging in good-natured banter – apart from one young Cumbrian in the front seat. He’d obviously got full of beer and spent the first half of the trip abusing everyone who wasn’t wearing a blue and white scarf, much to his girlfriend’s embarrassment. He spent the second half of the trip in stony silence, after being told, by fans of both persuasions, that unless he ceased and desisted in his moronic behaviour, he’d be coming into sharp contact with a dry-stone wall fairly soon. We arrived in Ramsay in time for a swift couple in the Bridge Inn with our new-found Cumbrian pals, and then on to the big match. With Len trying the new option of a Wylde West partnership up front, we expected a few goals, but they didn’t materialise. Mark Proctor equalised the goal from Malcolm Poskett that had given Carlisle a half-time lead, and Gordon Chisholm popped up with a last-minute winner. We even managed to prevent Pop Robson from doing the usual trick of a player scoring against a former club, so it was a good start to the footballing part of the holiday.
The next morning we duly turned up at the playing field above the town, near the brewery, for a kick-about with some of the Carlisle lads, and found that Blackburn, St Mirren, and Athlone had a similar arrangement. So began a week-long series of fantastic 84-a-side matches – does anyone remember who won any of them? Were pre-match stimulants supplied by St Mirren’s star of the future, a certain Mr McAvennie? Does anyone care?
Game two was a couple of days after the Carlisle match, in the optimistically-named King George V Douglas Bowl, which, unbelievably, was the island’s premier sports ground. It had three empty sides, and a knackered stand on the fourth, where 99% of the crowd congregated, having walked through the players’ pre-match warm-up in the adjacent field. This was our Gary’s first ever match, and he was more than baffled by a group of female fans who’d taken an instant liking to Benno, and spent the whole match screaming “Gary, Gary”. Athlone Town looked like a Northern League team, with a good selection of over 35s wearing grey beards, and looking fierce. They played like one as well, with their rough-house tactics leading to the Sunderland bench calling the referee over and complaining that our precious stars needed more protection, as some of them intended to earn a living from the sport. Amazingly, only Shaun Elliott and Colin West were booked, and Athlone scored from the spot on the stroke of half-time.
Len’s team-talk during the break had obviously been along the lines of “protect yourself ’cos the ref isn’t going to.” As the second half began, Athlone won a throw in, and, as it was taken, a cry of “get stuck in” came from the Sunderland bench. Westy got stuck in, and seconds later the ambulance came hurtling across the pitch to scrape up what was left of the unfortunate Irishman who’d been the recipient of the throw. That soured Anglo-Irish relationships in the pubs of Douglas a bit, especially as big Col scored our only goal as well.
So, a win and a draw saw us back at The Bowl as top dogs of our three-team group and pitted against Bobby Saxton’s Blackburn in Saturday’s final. As we wandered across the field, players happily posed for photos with fans, and most of the crowd were actually on the field with only a few minutes to go to the start of the match. For some reason, we took an instant dislike to Art Garfunkel lookalike Noel Brotherston and barracked him for the entire match. The proximity of the crowd to the players led him to foolishly confront a couple of his tormentors (author included), but not much else happened on the field. The perimeter fence, which consisted of one bar at a height of three feet, proved no match for an active one-year-old, and, after Sobs junior had woken from his pre-match nap and run onto the pitch for the tenth time, he was rugby tackled by Paul Atkinson, star of the previous year’s tournament. Atky sat the bairn on his knee for the rest of the match, where he presumably talked tactics with Mark Prudhoe and David Corner. Probably the youngest person ever to sit on a Sunderland bench, I reckon. As a goal-free result looked likely, even after only half an hour, Westy mistimed a jump near the penalty spot away to our right, the ball shot in off the back of his head for the only goal, and the Gore Trophy was ours for the second year running. Young Gaz would have to realise that we didn’t win trophies every year, even in pre-season, but it was a decent start to life on the road with the Lads for him.
Homeward bound the next day, the ferry’s propeller shaft broke in the harbour, making us several hours late, and having to sprint for the last service bus out of Heysham, I think it must have been the one from Blackpool, which still runs from Bishop, as I can’t imagine there being much custom otherwise. Thankfully the bus journey was uninterrupted despite us watching, in seeming slow motion, the windscreen become separated from the Austin Allegro (ask yer dad) that had just passed us on the A66 and floating past the bus as the car swerved off the road. Being well-prepared, responsible parents, we had 50p left after paying our fares, so we used this to bribe the driver to drop us off at the bottom of our street to save us the walk from the bus station.
Family holidays, you can’t beat them. A happy footnote was that thirty years later, before a friendly against Real Betis at Bishop Auckland’s Heritage Park, me and the bairn bumped into Mark Prudhoe in the clubhouse and relive the bairn on the bench episode. “You’ve grown.”
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.