We promised something special from the Boro match, and here it is. Pete Sixsmith was plucked from his East Stand perch and installed in grander environs. There he rubbed shoulders with Sir Bobby Robson, Steve McLaren, Niall Quinn et al, had a privileged seat for a pulsating game, somehow avoided heart failure in the excitement of the finale………and lived to tell this memorable tale
Like Ronnie Corbett in The Frost Report, circa 1966, I know my place. At the Stadium of Light, it is in the East Stand, Row 30, Seat 404 – and a pretty good place it is too. Good company and thoughtful, intelligent neighbours makes the matchday experience a rewarding one, particularly if we win.
However, every so often, I am taken out of my natural habitat and allowed to see how the upper echelons of our beloved club live and work.
For the Boro game, Joan Dawson and I were the guests of John and Irene Hays. John is vice chairman of the club that he has supported all his life, the only local man in the Drumaville Consortium and also the owner of Hays Travel, while Irene is the chief executive of South Tyneside Council and as loyal and dedicated a fan as you would find anywhere.
We were guests in the Boardroom and Directors’ Lounge, the inner sanctum of the club. Excellent food, excellent red wine and a chance to rub shoulders with the likes of Sir Bobby Robson, Steve McClaren, Chris Kamara, various members of the consortium and the man who put it all together, the amazing Niall Quinn.
Sir Bobby attends most home games as a guest of the club and apparently feels more at home at the Stadium than at any other club in the North East. Interesting. He also looked well for a man with his health problems, was very positive about some upcoming treatment and said he was looking forward to watching us storm the Premier League next season or maybe I misheard him on that one.
For the game we were sat next to John and Irene on the front row of the Directors’ Box. Even at my great age, I have rarely felt as excited as when I walked from the Boardroom, past various club officials and sat down only to be told by Irene that it was club protocol to wait until the chairman sat down. I sprang up until the Great Man Himself took his seat and then leant over the balcony to take in an almost full Stadium.
It looked great. A few gaps in the North Stand Upper, but other than that it was full. A full complement of Smoggies in the South Stand and off we went.
Disappointment and depression after four minutes changed to euphoria and excitement after five as Higgy headed home. His celebrations were matched by the chief exec of South Tyneside Council who hugged me, hugged her husband and high fived with Hilary Armstrong MP in the row behind.
The second goal saw a similar response and meant that the Directors’ Lounge was buzzing at half time. I could not miss the opportunity to look for a prawn sandwich along with the soup, but I guess that the Word of Roy even stretches to half time food for the money men.
Doom and gloom when Alves equalised and I thought that Boro might have pinched all three points, but when the board went up saying there were five minutes to go, you kind of knew that we might just get the winner.
As Murphy’s header went in, the stadium went bananas as did the front row of the Directors’ Box. No polite applause or satisfied smiles, just a heartfelt roar from Board members, fans and investors. The guy sat behind me, a peacekeeping official from the United Nations currently based in Kathmandu, Nepal and a Sunderland fan since 1963, made some very undiplomatic statements which could well have triggered a war between the People’s Republic of Wearside and the Teesside Liberation Front.
At the final whistle, word went round that we were safe and the chairman and vice chairman slapped each other on the back and began to think about raising the cash for next season. Before we reached the inner sanctum, the order was given to begin printing season tickets with the FA Premier League logo on them.
Back in the lounge, the Boro chairman Steve Gibson, took the defeat with all the dignity that we have come to associate with him. I somehow doubt that Bar Code Wearing, Man of the People Mike Ashley would have responded in a similar vein, while Ken Bates would have exploded, and not before time too.
The icing on the staying in the Premier League cake came at about 6.15 when Roy and his entire backroom staff came in to spend an hour with the directors, investors and hangers on. As a fully paid up member of the Hangers On Club and a habitual coward, I refrained from interrupting his meal to make some asinine comment, as he sat down with Tony Loughlin and ate.
I did, however, ingratiate myself with Ricky Sbragia and what an excellent guy he is. He sounded very positive about the future, much more positive than during his first game at Everton, where John and Irene caught him texting Gary Megson asking for his old job back. He was joking. And it is clear that our recent defensive stability is due to his influence and his knowledge of players like Phil Bardsley and Jonny Evans.
A great day and one which made us understand the depth of feeling that the Hays family have for Sunderland. That, combined with the ongoing love affair from the Irish backers, gives us so much optimism for the future. They will come up with the finance that Roy needs to move us up to the Blackburn, Manchester City, Villa level and he will come up with the players who will take us there.
As we left, the 14-year-old son of one of the Drumaville consortium pronounced this ‘the best football game I have ever seen’. That might be pushing it a little, but it was a deeply satisfying result and a day that will live long in the memory. Thanks to Colin for organising it, and to John and Irene for making it possible. Onwards and upwards.