Observing the Lads from near and far (2)

Salut! Sunderland had to settle for text messages for the worrying updates from Pride Park. That made a change; out here in the UAE, you can usually count on seeing every game live. This time, domestic needs intervened. The last interruption to normal service had been when Dubya came to Dubai (and, more importantly, Abu Dhabi), as I explain in this article for the new edition of A Love Supreme

Whatever else he has to answer for around the world, President George W Bush has surely now gone too far. Thousands of miles from my home, even more thousands from his, he stopped me watching the Lads win.

Just now, four home wins on the trot leaves me as chuffed as any Sunderland fan. But it’s hardly been the easiest of seasons, and at the time President Bush came to town – the town in question being Abu Dhabi – the experience of seeing a SAFC victory was a distinct rarity.

One of the positive aspects to the expat’s life in the UAE is that TV rights work in your favour, allowing you to watch every Premiership match. So at the club where I go for footie and a pint, each game is allocated to a different screen dotted around the main bar. And that is where most Saturdays and other match days have found me since I arrived here in mid-October.

My season had begun at the SoL with the last-gasp victory over Spurs. In UK terms, it ended with the brave defeat at Arsenal. The day after my trip to the Emirates Stadium, I was flying to the Emirates proper, to start a new job helping to launch an English language newspaper.

So where does Dubya Bush come into this? His visit to the Gulf, which included a stopover in Abu Dhabi, provided us with an ideal opportunity to design, fill and print off a few “dummy” or practice pages, covering the event as if our paper was already being published.

And which day was to be the main focus of Bush’s time here? Jan 13, when we were playing Portsmouth at home.

After the run I’d followed from afar since arriving in Abu Dhabi, I could have done with the fillip of Kieran Richardson’s double as we swept to victory over Pompey.

Instead, I was chained to my work station, checking and correcting copy from reporters writing about the presidential visit. I had a spare laptop by my side but nothing would coax it into giving me live radio commentary from Gary Bennett & Co; my only respite was a choice of internet sources, including the stuttering “minute-by-minute” service from the official SAFC site (painfully slow that day even by its own unhurried standards).

Up to then, I’d caught the televised defeats from West Ham, Man City and Chelsea, and measly home draws against Fulham, Newcastle and Villa. Beyond that, pretty much all I had to show for all my access to football had been the unimpressive win against Derby. Even when I went back to Britain for Christmas, I found family obstacles in the way of getting north for either the mauling by Man Utd or the do-or-die win over Bolton a few days later.

After we beat Pompey, colleagues unkindly suggested that our chances seemed to improve whenever I couldn’t get myself in front of a screen.

But then I’d also enjoyed one spot of luck, being on holiday in India when we were trounced at Goodison (the texts from home made dismal enough reading).

And maybe things are looking for up for me at last. As we kicked off on Feb 9, I was back at the club, making myself the most unpopular man in sight by insisting that the TV set with a note stuck to it saying Sunderland v Wigan actually showed our match. Everyone else seemed to want the Wales-Scotland rugby game instead, but I stood my ground and the bar management supported me.

“How dare he think football means more than the Six Nations?” a Welsh rugby fan was heard muttering later (though there was no shortage of other screens showing his daft game). The answer was simple. Having made a massive work-comes-first concession to the man from the Oval Room, I wasn’t about to let the wretched business of being a Sunderland fan play second fiddle to the Oval Ball.

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