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…
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.
Our trip to Gay Meadow, one of the more colourfully named grounds in the land, came too soon, or too late, depending on your outlook. Bob Stokoe had returned in an ultimately unsuccessful bid to clear up that Mackemenemy-sized mess our previous manager had left us in back in 1987, and we had but a handful of games left in which to preserve our Second Division status. I know it sounds awful, but it really did happen.
In the 21st century, of course, such a blow would be softened by the fact that it would only be a drop to League One, but even clever marketing like that couldn’t hide the pain of probable relegation from true fans. Just as it didn’t second time around in 2018.
Being near the end of season, and not really fancying our traditional away weekend being at Millwall, we planned Shrewsbury. While Millwall was actually the last away game, and doable by train, Shrewsbury was a bit complicated, but had trees and stuff and, hopefully, locals who’d not be tempted to eat us. We managed to pull in the usual detritus of West Ham fans exiled in Bish (Pop), and got B&B arranged on the outskirts of Shrewsbury. We duly parked up at the White Swan and frightened the landlord by tossing a tenner apiece into an ashtray and calling it “kitty.” I know a tenner sounds like barely enough for a couple of pints these days, but back then it was a night out for four. Almost, anyway.
We strolled the mile or so to the town centre, proudly studying our list of potential watering holes written on a hand-drawn map. We’d arranged to meet Reg, up from Ipswich, in the Castle Vaults, as it served Marston’s beers and Mexican scran and we were on holiday and fancied a bit of culture. The landlord had other ideas – The Smoggies had been there the week before and made a bit of a mess, so we weren’t allowed in. Buggers. The teddy boy on the door at The Station Hotel asked how many of us there were “Four? I can handle that”, so that was us settled for our pre-match gallon.
A lovely sunny day saw the Red ‘n’ White army squeeze into the ground, with several bearded blokes who hummed of ale getting in as juniors – the turnstile gadgie didn’t seem inclined to ask for I.D. and the local polis were enjoying the weather too much to disturb the good mood. We picked our spot, and joined the others basking on the terraces at Gay Meadow, shirts off. Our pre kick-off performance of singing and dancing about like lunatics even prompted the local constabulary to ask what we did when we won a game. It brought the inevitable retort from his colleague of “don’t be daft, they’ve only been following them for thirty years.” Smartarse, but it was all part of a really good-natured build-up which belied the importance of the match.
With our three-pronged strike-force of Gates, Bertschin, and Swindlehurst, we were definitely going for the win, but the trio ran into Nigel Pearson (aye, that one) and David Linighan and got no change whatsoever. It was a bit of a weird Sunderland side, as you’d be hard pushed to work out who was playing where - look at the line-up:
Hesford (goalie, no problem there).
Agboola (left back, sweeper – remember them? - or centre half) Alan Kennedy (left back)
David Corner (centre half) Benno (centre half, but with a propensity for crazy, mazy runs up the middle of the pitch from defence, hence the cries when any other central defender tried it since of “look out, he’s doing a Benno”).
Frank Gray (left back or midfield) Mark Proctor (midfield) Gordon Armstrong (midfield) ...and the three forwards.
Despite our best efforts to play football, the best fun of the afternoon was the little old gadgie running around three sides of the ground every time the ball went over the stand to our right and into the River Severn. Thanks to the antics of our Teesside pals the previous week, they having sunk the coracle, he had to carry a net on a ten foot pole to retrieve the ball, and drew huge applause from the away end as he hobbled past. Why on earth he didn’t sit at that side and wait, we’ll never know. It wasn’t as if the river was going to move from one side of the ground to the other - perhaps he simply enjoyed his few minutes of celebrity. In a typical end of season battle, Benno diverted Mark Proctor’s second-half shot in to the net at the far end for the only goal, we amused the polis again with our celebrations, we held on for the remaining twenty five minutes or so, and left the ground convinced that salvation was guaranteed.
Back into the station, where we knocked back a couple of celebratory pints before the local nutter arrived, in a temper so obviously foul that we put it down to the home team losing. Unsurprisingly, it was my round, so, as he stood at the bar cursing and swearing at everything that moved, I sidled up next to him at the bar so short that I could hardly avoid proximity. “Four pints of best” I asked, in my best middle England accent. He caught me by the eye immediately. “Been to the match?” he snarled. No point hiding the fact, I thought, so I replied “aye”. It then turned out that the reason for his foul temper was that he’d backed Alex Higgins to win the snooker, and the Irishman had fallen over drunk, as he was wont to do, and cost our new mate a tenner.
We enjoyed an hour or so with him, re-living Shrewsbury’s greatest moments (how did we stretch it to an hour?) before setting out on the pub crawl to end most pub crawls. We fell in with a Sunderland fan who was Hereford born and bred, and had apparently taken to us after our joyous response to The Mags’ hilarious FA Cup exit in his home town a few years before. He knew the location of most of the pubs on our list, and the shortest route between them, which was just as well as the map had long since been used for something unmentionable. We ended up back at our White Swan just in time to get a double round of Pedigree in and watch Dave “boy” Macauley knock seven bells out of some poor contender in the boxing ring. Sharing our accommodation was an American, christened “Okie from Muskokie” by John, due to the daft bugger’s fondness for repeatedly stating the bleeding obvious. It turned out he was on a grand tour of Europe. A grand tour which he’d be lucky to survive, if his habit of talking over everybody else in the room and failing to understand anything that wasn’t American persisted on the continent.
Breakfast came in the form of a pint that had been left on the window sill from the night before, then the full English job. Oh, and the Weetabix. Have you ever seen a man eat Weetabix without milk? Under normal circumstances, it’s bad enough, but after a gutful of Shropshire’s finest ale the night before, Pop’s antics at the breakfast table had to be seen to be believed. Our American friend (?) made one snide comment too many (“is he talking to God on the big white telephone”), prompting the normally restrained John to threaten him with the insertion of a buttered toast rack.
The Sunday morning was a sunny delight, which we enjoyed in the riverside park with the second issue of the Sunday Sport. A man who turns into a leopard? That’s when we decided it wasn’t worth taking seriously, and that the football section was likely to be rubbish. It was. A quick trip up the M6, and we were in Lymm for our lunchtime bevy. The fact that Dennis Tueart lived there had no influence whatsoever on our decision to stop off there, and he never showed up for the domino handicap in the Spread Eagle anyway. A couple of beers later, and John’s sensible motoring ensured that we were back in Bish with plenty of time for a Sunday night of celebration. At least we didn’t yet know what was to happen at the end of the season (you rotten bugger, Cascarino), and were able to enjoy the moment. You have to do that following Sunderland, as looking too far ahead can be injurious to your health.