Club versus country (1): a smoking gun

England play Ukraine on Saturday, depriving us of a Premier match to worry about or, in our mood of new-found optimism, one to look forward to with relish.



Darren Bent did not make the squad. But is Colin Randall alone in saying he couldn’t care less about internationals and that Bent’s inclusion would not have increased his appetite to any great extent? He is not. Some Salut! Sunderland readers are familiar with this expansion of his reasons for placing passion for Sunderland miles ahead of anything felt about the national side. But for our many new readers, here is the first part of a chapter written for A Love Supreme’s book More 24 Hour SAFC People (our share of the proceeds were donated to charity) . If anyone feels like getting stuck into a debate, we’ll come up with a prize for the best entry …

Looking back, it was as golden an opportunity as Daniel Dichio’s sitter in the Wembley playoff final against Charlton, or indeed the chance of his at Upton Park that would, if converted, have put us top of the Premiership. And I missed mine just as glaringly as Danny had missed his.

In one of the love letters that passed between us long ago, Joelle, then my wife-to-be, wrote that she could think of only one fault in me that she would change. I smoked too much. She might have added others: permanently broke, holes in my socks and underpants, coming from Shildon, being lousy at her native language, French. She has certainly added plenty since and while the French has improved, there isn’t much I can do about coming from Shildon. But back then, it was the fags that concerned her. If only I would cut down, she wrote to me from Le Mans, her home town, she would in return do anything I asked of her.

Talk about open goals. There it was, my cue to secure a lifetime of pass-outs to watch Sunderland !

“Well, ma cherie,” I could and should have replied. “I will move mountains to give up the cigarettes because although I love smoking, I love you so much more. But there is something you can do for me. It’s simple really. You just say you’ll always be happy for me to go to see Sunderland, wherever and whenever they play. It won’t be every single game, but it would be great for us to have that established before we get married. You can even come with me sometimes if you like.”

There was a trump card I could have played, too. “It’s a huge sacrifice for me, ma petite poupette,” I might have said. “But I will not only keep to my side of the bargain and do something about the cigarettes. I also promise faithfully that I will never take the mick and ask permission to go to an England game.

That, of course, would have been my Br’er Rabbit moment. How could Joelle possibly know that going to Wembley for an international was my equivalent of the rabbit being tossed by the fox into a briar patch?

Unknown to her, I had resolved my own club versus country debate long before the time this imaginary pre-marital bartering would have been taking place. The last time I had cared about England as much as I have always fretted about Sunderland had been in 1966. I was much the same as any other teenage English boy of the epoch, cheering on our national side to that barnstorming 4-2 World Cup victory over Germany.

Sadly, my commitment to England has been in decline ever since, and that decline was to become steeper and steeper as the era of the football hooligan took its ugly shape.

All through my life, the passion for Sunderland has grown and grown, undiminished by all those lean years I have known since my first game, Boro away with Cloughie scoring our winner, in 1962.

And the simple truth is that I care more about a Sunderland game on which nothing whatsoever depends than I do about a do-or-die international where England’s very presence in World Cup or European Championship qualification is at stake. If England lose such a game, I am genuinely disappointed. If they win, I am pleased. But that’s it. Test me next day and I’ll have all but forgotten. When Sunderland lost 3-1 in an end-of season match at Spurs, I was – as ever when we lose – devastated. The scoreline didn’t matter. We still finished a highly creditable seventh top in the Premiership; winning would not have put us any higher. A place in Europe was already out of reach. But my team, the club I love, had lost and I had wanted an amazingly good season – does it get any better than safe by Christmas, for Pete’s sake? – end on a high.

In the event, prompted by repeated chest complaints aggravated by over-indulgence, I did manage to stop smoking altogether. But because of my failure to drive a proper bargain when it was there for the taking, I was stuck with a lifetime of having to treat football as a matter for delicate domestic negotiation. Joelle loathes the game, and cannot understand why any man would want to spend all or part of a day away from his wife and family just to watch other blokes kicking a ball around a field. It took her years to get over the fact that one of our daughters not only loves football but plays it pretty well, too.

Because she’s also incurably romantic, Joelle did once buy me a season ticket. It was our second year at the Stadium of Light. But to her, it was like choosing, say, a set of Fawlty Towers DVDs. Once I had it, and had used it, I wouldn’t want it again. It would be out of my system. She just didn’t get it that I’d inevitably renew year after year.

to be continued …

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