Soapbox: the smell of the liniment , the roar of the crowd

Euro 2008 is behind us, Wimbledon’s into its last couple of days and…….the season tickets are being sent out. Pete Sixsmith looks back on a lifetime of SAFC worship which this year, as in others, he extends to pre-season friendlies….

You know the close season is over when the season ticket books arrive.

Mine came yesterday (as did Colin’s), and it heralds the beginning of our 44th season as regular Sunderland supporters.

Our first season tickets were in 1964-65 after the magnificent promotion the previous year. They were for the main stand paddock and cost the princely sum of £6.6s.0d – or 6 guineas in posh money. It was my Christmas present for that year and I had to work overtime on my long suffering parents to squeeze a red and white scarf and a pair of chisel toed side fastening shoes from Doggarts as extras on Christmas Day.

Since then I have had tickets for the Fulwell End, the Clock Stand Paddock and, for one year only, the Clock Stand Seats. They were awful – very low with the overhang from the roof blocking out anything above eye level. I have had four different seats at the Stadium, all in the East Stand culminating in Row 30, Seat 404 which I believe is second to none.

The arrival of the ticket always brings a spurt of excitement into my dull, humdrum life. It means that the close season is almost over and hibernating footballers are beginning to stir and prepare for the season when we will break through into that elusive top four. Newspapers are scoured for likely transfer targets, conversations with friends always start “Have we signed anybody yet” and potential signings are discussed ad infinitum.

For football groupies like me it also means that there are pre-season friendlies to watch. I’m not the greatest fan of friendlies and my general rule is that I will watch them if it is a new ground, if it is a team I rarely get to see or if it concerns SAFC or Shildon FC.

On Saturday, I will be at Croft Park in Blyth to see the Spartans take on Partick Thistle and then, on Wednesday, Greenock Morton are at Tow Law’s Ironworks Road ground as part of their pre-season. Manna from heaven for anoraks like myself.

Mind you, friendly can be a misnomer. Two of the most vicious games I have ever seen were friendlies. In 1971 I visited Somerset Park in Ayr to see Sunderland play, and the game deteriorated into a kicking match between the two sides, culminating in Gordon Harris being sent off for an attack on an Ayr defender who had tried to kick him for the umpteenth time.

Six years ago I followed the team on a pre-season to Spain and witnessed a game with Algeciras, which was remarkably similar to a Leeds Rhinos v Wigan Warriors encounter.

This was the pre-season that culminated in the 19 point relegation. We had already played at Seville and had put up such a spineless and feeble performance that Pete Horan and myself were resigned to relegation before the season even started.

Seville was a lovely city and we had a wonderful trip to Cadiz and round Cape Tarifa. Unfortunately, we ended up in Algeciras which is one of the most depressing and scary places I have ever visited. The local team were very similar and the game ended up with Thomas Butler and George McCartney being dismissed after finally retaliating to violent assaults from players who had little interest in playing football but more interest in avenging the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

We spent a spooky night in a grim hotel before returning to Malaga and a flight home.

This summer I am signed up for a double in Nottingham – Durham are playing cricket there during the day – and a second Irish trip to Athlone and Dublin via Belfast. Can’t make it to Cork for the Cobh Ramblers game but for those among our extensive readership who are going, let me recommend the Hardwood Cafe on the Quayside for a great dinner, and Coulihans Bar for good stout, whiskey and real diddlee-dee music. Pete Horan and I fell in love with both last year.

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