Part 1 : Beano Time
I don’t know when I first graduated from reading the Beano and Dandy to the Wizard and the Hotspur. The latter were for older boys (I never saw a girl reading them) and they were dominated by stories instead of cartoons. So it is possible that I was still a Beano reader around the time I first saw a League Football match.
It is sixty years now since my father first took me to see Sunderland play at Roker Park. We travelled to Sunderland by bus from Easington Colliery and walked down to the ground.. On the way he showed me the terraced house he had been born in. It was a couple of doors away from a pawnbrokers which had the typical sign outside.
I was ten years old and I was sat upon a concrete barrier at the Roker end, having an excellent view in a crowd of 42,750. Nearly everyone stood in those days.
It was in the 1946-47 season, the first season after the Second World War and was an old Division 1 clash. Sunderland having played in no other Division than the top one. A proud record which only finally bit the dust on the last day of the 1957-58 season.
The match I saw was against Grimsby Town. Up to then Sunderland had won all their first four home games of the season, including a 4-1 defeat of Everton the previous week. In all Sunderland had had a good start to the season; with 6 wins, 2 draws and only 2 defeats.
Grimsby ended up at the bottom of the League and had lost all their away games up to then. Everything seemed set for a Sunderland victory.
We even had a new star signed from Sheffield Wednesday in Jackie Robinson, who had been bought to replace Raich Carter who had been transferred to Derby County for the start of the season.
But I was soon taught to be philosophical about my team. We went two down and a man in front of me turned to his mate to say the obvious - “we need THREE now to win!”. Only one of these was forthcoming . We lost 2-1.
Jackie Robinson got the consolation goal and was therefore always one of my heroes. The war had ruined what would have been the peak of his career. The crowd got on his back until he scored, shouting for Stan Lloyd (who I never saw play) to be returned.
Despite the defeat, I was now hooked. The team that day included three heroes from the 1937 FA Cup winning team. Mapson in goal, with the skills of Duns and Burbanks on the wings. Johnny Mapson went on to play for Sunderland until the 1952-3 season, when he was finally replaced by Threadgold, who the crowd knew as “threadbare”. No-one ever criticised Mapson, who I looked upon as a god when I later saw him sitting opposite our family when we were out having a meal at Jopling’s Restaurant in Sunderland.
The picture in my mind which I always have of Mapson is of him standing on the line in the middle of his goal with his feet together and his two hands stretched above his head to safely catch the ball. It always seemed to happen, as if he hypnotised those shooting at goal or crossing the ball.
Willie Watson, who went on play both cricket and football for England played at what in those days was called the “inside left” position, to Robinson’s “inside right”- seen nowadays as attacking mid-fielders. It was a position Watson occupied until the legendary Len Shackleton arrived on the scene. Watson was then moved to a deeper mid-field role at “right-half” and won his England football caps in that position. His gentlemanly and highly skilled performances led him to be my favourite Sunderland player, even above the great Len Shackleton.
Jackie Stelling was a tough right-back, with a sliding tackle which always disposed
the opposing winger. He became a great penalty-taker, hitting an unstoppable rocket of a shot just above the ground and inside the goalkeeper’s right hand post. Until , that is, Bert Trautman came to Roker Park in goal for Manchester City. After Stelling had beaten him with one penalty, he worked out what to do with the second one. He made an incredible save just inside the post, but was judged by the referee to have moved on the line before the ball was kicked (which in those days was an offence). Trautman threw the ball into the crowd in disgust, before going on to save the re-taken rocket.
The match against Man City was the Grimsby match written large. It was in 1950.
Sunderland were undefeated in 18 home games up to then, and Man City were bottom of the League without an away win. Of course, we lost again 2-1. If we had gained the points for a win, we would have won the League that year. Instead we finished third.
It is still our greatest achievement in the top flight in my 60 years as a supporter and I saw all of our home games that season.
I only saw four games in all over the first two season’s after the war, as I normally went to watch my father play in goal for a local team. Four of those who played against Grimsby were gradually replaced before I began to watch Sunderland play on a regular basis. They had all played war-time football with Sunderland - Jones, Willingham, Housman and Whitelum.
The remaining player was Fred Hall, the centre half. Teams didn’t use two central defenders then, and Fred was a no-sense stopper who cleared his lines. If the ball came back to him, he would again belt it up field. No wonder I have always had sympathy for route one soccer.
The game against Grimsby took place on 19 October, 1946. The nearest home match to the 60th anniversary of the first game I saw was on 21 October, 2006. The venue was now the Stadium of Light, with Sunderland under the management of Roy Keane.
Part 2 : Keano Therapy
My 60th Anniversary game was the one against Barnsley. It was appropriate that I should sit in the concessionary seats which were full of fellow oldies and young children. The lad sat next to me was 12 and had been attending since he was 6. So he will reach his 60th Anniversary game in the year 2060. I hope we win the Premiership by then.
My getting to the match at all was something of a pilgrimage. I was in Exeter the night before addressing a meeting. Even if I caught the first train on the Saturday morning to the North East, I couldn’t arrive in time for the kick-off. So I had to swallow my principles and add to the pollution of the atmosphere by joining a flight to Newcastle. The excellent Metro then took me to the land that is cut asunder by the Wear.
After soaking up the atmosphere and some Guinness at Yates, I walked to the ground past the railway station, where I had at one time worked as a clerk and where I had first caught sight of Ann whom I went on to marry. Then on approaching the ground, I walked past the end of the street where Edward Thompson’s works is. Ann became their first full time secretarial worker in the days when they started out as printers of bingo tickets.
I stopped off to purchase a football shirt produced by the “A Love Supreme” fanzine fanatics. It is the one that is half red and white stripes and the other half green . The latter showing Sunderland’s Irish connections with Roy Keane, Niall Quinn and the Irish firm who now own the Club. Once in the ground I popped into a toilet cubicle to slip into my new purchase.
“A Love Supreme” also had the wit to call Keane “Keano”. When Sunderland head for a win the fans shout this out. But they blame the players for a defeat. It is all built upon hopes and encouragements for the future.
The stage was now set for me . The Stadium of Light is even built upon the pit where my great-grandfather was killed. So that huge Miner’s lamp outside the ground means a great deal to me. Which is added to by the fact that my father and father-in-law were Sunderland supporters and coal miners.
Given that I started out watching us lose to a lowly team, it did not even matter if we lost. But glory be, we won 2-0. The icing on the cake was that Chris Brown of all people scored the second goal.
In explaining the importance of this to me, I draw completely on memory and have no record books to check. And I realise that memory is fallible. But if I am wrong on any points, then I hope that no-one will disillusion me.
Chris’s father Alan Brown also played for Sunderland. I first saw Alan play when he was a schoolboy, at Easington Colliery’s ground. I believe that it was a key cup game involving the Secondary School team from Easington and the School Team from Dronfield in Derbyshire where I now live and where our son and daughter went to school. My son Stephen was with me at the match and Alan Brown scored a hat-trick.
Not only that but Chris’s grandfather was in my class at the Infant School at Easington. There were two Brown’s : Dennis and Derrick. So I hope I am, not mixed up.
I believe that Chris’s grandfather was Derrick. Our families lived opposite each other,
separated by lengthy back gardens which tended to cut us of into different mixtures of streets. We lived in Harrison Terrace and the Brown’s were in Moncreiff Terrace. So I knew of Chris’s great grandparents. Consequently ,Chris’s goal against Barnsley is as important to me as Jackie Robinson’s against Grimsby in 1946.
My father’s support for Sunderland went back to his first visit to Roker Park when he was 11. Establishing a tradition, he was taken to his first match by his own father, my grandfather. It was a Cup Tie against Burnley in February 1920 in front of a then record crowd of 49,618. Sunderland won 2-0. From my Father’s story, on the way to the ground they crossed the Wear by an oar driven boat which almost capsized. One of Sunderland’s goals was scored by none other than Charlie Buchan.(whose “Football Monthly” I later devoured.)
I then took my son to his first game to see Sunderland play on Huddersfield’s old ground. Stephen was only four at the time, but he saw Porterfield score the equaliser in a 1-1 draw in the season in which Porterfield went on to get the winner against Leeds in the FA Cup final.
I then took my daughter Joanne with us for her first match at Notts County when she was eight. Stan Cummins got the winner in our 1-0 victory and we went on to gain promotion that season. Then Stephen and I witnessed another great 1-0 winner from Stan the following season (1980-81) at Liverpool on the last day to avoid relegation. The chant by the Sunderland’s ecstatic supporters as they left the ground was “pissed tonight, pissed tonight”.
When we take my young grandson Joseph to see his first game, we might need to put our hands over his ears. It is only my wife in this family (with her solid Sunderland links) who has never been to see them play. The worst of it is that she has seen Chesterfield play three times with me, twice in play-offs at Wembley.
My daughter-in-law Rebecca is from Tasmania and she has chalked up a respectable number of Sunderland home and away games, although living in London.
When I was an M.P. I had a question and answer session at a local infant school. A lad at the back asked who I supported. I explained that people support whoever their dad (normally) first took them to see play. I then asked who he supported. He and a pile of his mates at the back of the room shouted out “Manchester United”, whom they had never seen play. It seems that the old world is breaking up somewhat and Sky TV is taking over. But not for the 12 year old I sat next to at the Stadium of
I hope some of the old traditions live on, for it has been gripping being a Sunderland supporter. The defeat by Grimsby in 1946, followed by a 4-1 defeat by Liverpool on my next visit helped me prepare for the disasters we have seen over the past few seasons. But when we triumph it is magnificent.
Dreams live on. I am sure that I have seen those midfield qualities of Dwight Yorke somewhere before. Oh yes, it was Willie Watson. All we now need is a Len Shackleton and we are on our way. And who knows, given the magic of Keano Therapy.