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…

Ipswich is not only a long way away, but it’s even further down the back roads than Norwich, with the consequence that to keep moving at any pace at all you need to go just about to London and back, making any excuse to reduce the journey time and make it more interesting and relaxing very welcome. Back towards the end of the 2004-2005 season, Mick McCarthy’s Red and White Army had built up a head of steam that had seen us climb to the top of the table and have promotion well in our sights. As Ipswich was the only away game I’d ever had a ticket for and missed due to sleeping in (despite quite a few near misses), we decided that we’d have a weekend in Suffolk with a tent, or in a cheap hotel, or under a hedge, and Ronnie offered to drive. Job sorted, holiday time. Well, it would have been, had not every available bit of accommodation in that part of England been unavailable, if you know what I mean. Just when it looked like we’d be in for another start at daft o’clock on a Sunday, the jungle telegraph (John at work) let it be known that the Aycliffe Branch were making a weekend of it, and there were spaces.

Gerrin! Ten days to go, and we were sorted. I spoke to Aycliffe’s version of Stan the Man – it must be some sort of benefit to be called Stan if you organise football buses – and we arranged to exchange monies before the night game at Wigan. I’m not sure if you can remember that game at Wigan, but we took about 7,000 and had the whole side of the ground. “I’ll be on a Classic Coach” said Stan. Great. I thought, no problem. Until we got there and saw that there were about thirty Classic Coaches, all exactly the same colour. Nothing else for it than to wander carefully along the ranks of vehicles until I saw the tell-tale puff of smoke, and there he was. Monies exchanged, we duly won the game and kept the promotion bandwagon very much on the rails. 1-0, Marcus Stewart, thank you very much.

Despite a slight breakdown at home against Reading, we were still atop the league and looking unlikely to be dislodged. It was no more than a minor slip-up, or setback/hiccough/blip/aberration/day off, that was all, and we had a whole eight days to get our collective heads back together, accept that it was only one game, and realise that we were still top of the league. How we didn’t win a game that we dominated for the most part is still a mystery, but I’ve been around football, and Sunderland in particular, long enough to know that these things happen, to any team, not just us. On another day, we’d have played worse and won convincingly, so there you go. No need to panic, just send a few prayers Jody Craddock’s way at Wolves… and hey, they came up trumps! The artistic one shackled Ipswich’s Shefki Kuqi to such an extent that the Finn was substituted (in a huff, which boded well for our visit to Ipswich), and then the unlikely combination of a Coal Cart (ask yer dad) goal and a half decent display from Jessie-in-Chief Paul Ince kept the Tractor Boys five points in our wake. Cheers, Jody, we thought.

The Thursday before our departure and I’d suffered a major panic when I got home from work to find my season ticket application returned, my usual difficulty with keeping the wrong copies of direct debit instructions. Bollox. Quick correction, dash to the Post Office to catch the last post, and it was off with a first-class stamp, bugger the expense, I thought. On Friday, while buying an extra ticket for the Stoke match, I checked and it had arrived safely and been “processed”. Panic over.

So, although we were getting absolutely sick to death with non-Saturday, non-3pm kick-offs, and already having avoided a 5am start on Sunday, we were off on the Great Yarmouth Short Break option, which gave us the rather more relaxed 6:45 am Saturday start. Even this looked to be a bit of a doubt as I made my way home from Titanic night at The Grand, through a blizzard - snow, wind, the lot – dressed in a waistcoat, flat cap, and with a stuffed pig under my arm. I’d gone for the easy option in the fancy dress, choosing an Irish émigré. Thankfully, Saturday’s weather was more like normal, and away we went to Aycliffe and the pick-up at the Legion. The reduced Durham Branch – myself, Lee, Ron, and John – climbed aboard the bus load of unfamiliar faces, and we were off.

Actually, the faces weren’t really that unfamiliar, as I worked with some, been to school with others, knew others from Bishop, had travelled with some of the Aycliffe lads as an apprentice awaydayer, and had met the rest at various matches down the years. After a journey that was much more relaxed that had it been on a matchday, we arrived in Great Yarmouth. Our hotel can be best described as Nowt Awwa, of the variety usually favoured for pigeon weekend stays in Blackpool, but was perfectly adequate for our needs, which amounted to a bed and some breakfast. Easily pleased, us lads. Great Yarmouth was bright and sunny, and, being acutely conscious that we had a long day ahead of us and had therefore better take it steady, we tried the Tudor Tavern for a game of pool and a quiet pint, and asked the barman where things “happened” in Yarmouth.” “Norwich,” he replied.

Well, there was no way we were travelling that far for a spot of whatever happened, so we nipped off to the match of the day – Great Yarmouth against Diss Town. Yarmouth’s ground only has entrances on one side, and naturally it was the side furthest away from where we started looking for the turnstiles. Inside, there were park benches for seats, there was sunshine, and there was a little clubhouse with a barmaid from North Shields. So much for taking it steady, eh? They even let you take your pint, in a glass glass, rather than a plastic glass, out into your seat, so we sat we sat catching a few rays, having a pint, as part of a gate-busting largest crowd of the season at bottom-of-the-league Yarmouth, hilariously nicknamed “The Bloaters”, against Diss Town (is coming like a ghost town). They had sold out of programmes when the crowd was only 152. True to form, Diss camped in Yarmouth’s penalty area for the entire first half, failed to score (even from the spot), and then let one in to send the home fans away happy and us off to the pub for a quick pint. With forwards as inefficient as theirs, it was probably manager Robert Fleck who scored the goals that won Diss the Norfolk Senior Cup that season.

Suitably tanned, and having had our football fix, we supped up and went back to the hotel, got changed, and nipped out for a curry. On the way, we thought it would be a good idea to have a pint and a game of darts. Maybe it was the Adnam’s Broadside, maybe it was the poor quality pub darts, maybe the board was made of steel, but Lee couldn’t get the darts to stick in the board, never mind score more than five at a time. We tried doubles, cricket, killer – in short, every type of dart game known to man – without his game improving, so we went off on a wander along the list of recommended alehouses, reckoning that a curry house was bound to come into view sooner rather than later.

Three hours later, we gave up looking for Indian cuisine when we happened upon a rather smart looking Cantonese place. The food was nice, but a bit too nice for post-beer eating, if you know what I mean. Cheap, cheerful, piled high, and mouth-burningly spicy was what we were after, but we happily picked at the high-class fare had placed before us. A couple more pints helped to wash it down, then we headed for our home for the weekend. As you’d expect, the last building we passed on the way back, straight across the road from the front door, was a curry house. Even Lee couldn’t force another meal down, so we went for the final option – a quick pint of fizzy hotel beer, with the rest of our bus giving the barman the busiest night of his life, then off to bed, and Match Of The Day on the little TV up on the wall.

How I managed to fall asleep with the TV on and Lee’s snoring having passing ships wonder where the fog was, I’ll never know, but Good Morning Britain, or whatever it was called, was happily chirruping away when we roused ourselves. At least the breakfast was decent, although some of our party had decided that, as it was a hotel, and there were residents, they would take advantage of the relevant licensing laws and start the day with beer alongside their breakfasts. I remember a time when I might have done that, (see Shrewsbury in these stories, for instance) when I was young and daft, but not on a Sunday with four hours to kick-off.

So to the real business of the weekend, and we got to Ipswich in plenty of time, which we thought was a bit of a pointless exercise as the pubs didn’t open until the game was due to kick off. Ah, there were enterprising landlords about, and the first good thing of the day was finding the Station Hotel open when we arrived, and strangely not bursting at the seams. We’d been wary of this place since discovering that they put 20p extra on a pint when Sunderland (and probably any other team) were in town, and had found a couple of decent pubs in town, one of them run by the lass who used to have The Welcome down the street from me. Anyway, as there were precious few people to get in our way, we had time for a couple of relaxed pints – they were of a scarily muscular brew called Ridley’s Rumpus, which quickly added themselves to the fuzziness generated by the previous evening’s antics, and they set us up just right for the match. We managed to find our seats alongside the rest of the Regular Durham Branch, still bleary-eyed after their early start, amongst the highest concentration of polis and stewards I’d seen in a long time, and then the ding-dong began.

With Tommy Two (Myrhe) having succumbed to his dodgy back, Michael Ingham, who replaced him in the defeat by Reading, made his solitary league start. Those of you who watched our reserves in the time of Ingham will remember him as being a keeper who was never quite going to make a regular first-teamer at Sunderland, as well as someone who could probably swear more loudly and more often than any other player we’ve ever had. Breen, Caldwell, Wright and McCartney should have been able to protect the new boy, which, to be fair, they did for most of the game. Carl Robinson, Whitehead, Arca, and Liam Lawrence ran the midfield, and Chris Brown and Marcus Stewart, back at the ground where he really rose to prominence, banged away at the home defence all through the first half.

Breen showed good composure, apart from the couple of moments of pure madness which we’d come to expect from him, and then Stewy’s nerve wavered at the vital moment. A penalty, justly given, but in front of the home fans who still thought so highly of him, and he failed to score. A goal then might well have won it for us, but we were not too disappointed with no score at the break. The half-time highlight was the Town fan in the wig and home-made black and white shirt with Dyer on the back. I don’t know if he was trying to wind us up, but he gave us a real laugh – and also proved that the “Mag at the away game” phenomenon is nothing new at all.

The second half started to go all wrong when Ingham came for the ball but didn’t collect it, and Ipswich forced it in for a slightly lucky lead. Our tiring front two were replaced by Brain Deane, who we’d signed mainly to stop him scoring against us, and Stephen Elliott. Inspired tactics, and it was instant sunshine, as Deane headed across for Elliott’s first touch to end up in the net. Sean Thornton had replaced Liam Lawrence, and his glorious red and white boots almost found success with a typical free-kick Then Arca produced a delightful scoop over Wilnis for McCartney to run on to, and his cross somehow evaded Deane but not Carlos the Jackal Robinson, who stabbed the ball in. There were smiley happy people all over the away end, we were top of the league, heading for the Premiership, part of Mick McCarthy’s red and white army, and, of course, we were Sunderland.

The scoreboard and clock mysteriously went blank at this stage, then George allowed Wilnis to make his only winning tackle of the day, they were back down our end, and it was 2-2. Darren Bent – I wonder what became of him? Then the scoreboard came back on, the ref conjured up 5 minutes of added time, we held on, they held on, and we took a point which was much more use to us than them. We streamed out of the ground in a sort of jubilant mood, asking if this was the way to Aston Villa, Man United, The Scum and the Boro, say good bye to Coca Cola, the Premier League wa-aits for us – sha la la la la la la la SUN’LUN… and we set off home.

In reality, we could have won this one three or four one, as we missed a couple of good chances in the second half, but we’d have taken a point at noon, so we settled for the point at two o’clock, especially with the prospect of listening to The Mags being put to the sword on radio on the bus. They didn’t disappoint, failing 4-1 against Man Utd in the FA Cup, following hard on the heels of a 4-1 thumping by Sporting Lisbon in Europe.

Like I said, we’re easily pleased, us lads. As the traffic was a bit on the hectic side to say the least, the bus pulled over at a little foody pub, where the barman through all his Christmasses had come at once when we asked “do you mind if forty-odd of us come in for a couple of hours and spend several hundred quid?”. Sitting in the sun, pint in hand, we watched the other Sunderland busses, including our usual trusty charabanc, trundle past, so we waved and held our glasses high in acknowledgement.

Suitably refreshed, we set off for the last leg, thankful for bus toilets, however cramped, and as we got further north, the Mags began to pass, on their weary journey home from Cardiff – even further away than Ipswich, that is - each carload greeted with the jeers they deserved. Just for being hard of thinking, that is. Actually, I think our driver slowed down just so we could see more of them, which was nice. He still didn’t make us so late home as to spoil a celebration of another point on our promotion schedule, so we didn’t disappoint him.

All we had to do after that was to win, at home to Leicester, and hope Ipswich didn’t, and promotion was ours. We did, and they didn’t. 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.