In the second part of our look at Colin Irwin’s visit to the Stadium of Light – in the depths of the 2005/2006 relegation season – for Sing When You’re Winning, his book on journeys into the “soul of soccer” (good alliteration, but he meant football), we hear a potted history of our club’s ups and more plentiful downs …
Sunderland were actually founded in Glasgow by an Ayrshire man, James Allan, in 1879 and their current travails are nothing new in the long and winding road that’s brought them to the Stadium of Light.
One of the giants of the early years, they hit the rocks after the Second World War. Blighted by an illegal payments scandal, they slithtered down the league and in 1958 were relegated from the top flight for the first time in their history.
They restored some pride, of course, in 1973, with one of the most startling FA Cup finals ever.
A mediocre Second Division team pitched against Don Revie’s coldly invincible Leeds United, people were talking openly of a cricket score against them.
Laughing and joking on the Wembley pitch beforehand in their ludicrous perms and mad 1970s flares, the players even seemed to know it themselves and displayed a casually resigned attitude to the fate that awaited them.
But once the match started Sunderland turned into rampaging lunatics, charging around the field, launching themselves at the Leeds players, hoofing the ball int orbit every time it came near their goal and generally unnerving Leeds with their cavalier spirit.
The subsequent images swim easily into focus: Ian Porterfield’s low strike into the net to give an unlikely lead after half an hour, and fearsome all-hands-on-deck, we-shall-not-be-moved defensive resilience for the next hour. Balls pinging around the Sunderland area, last-ditch tackles from captain Bobby Kerr’s inspired troops, Jimmy Montgomery’s gravity-defying triple save from point blank range in the dying minutes and manager Bob Stokoe’s comedy dash to embrace his heroic keeper at the end as the Cup went to Wearside.
In 1987 they slid to their lowest ebb with relegation to the Third Division and it has been a long haul back to re-establish themselves as one of the country’s premier clubs.
And fancy new stadium or not, it’s not going to happen this year (2006 – ed.) as once more the trapdoor gapes open below them. Yet in the midst of it all, “The Continentals”, a fan group from Holland who come over on the boat to take in matches all over Britain, took a particular shine to Sunderland. There are now 30 or so Dutch season ticket holders, including some with dual season tickets for Feyenoord.
A couple of Dutchmen, Leo Meijer and Hans De Roon, had such a thirst for the British game that they once travelled from the Netherlands just to see a match between Middlesbrough Reserves and Liverpool Reserves. De Roon, in particular, was so smitten with the North East that he upped sticks and left Holland completely to buy a house next to Roker Park and see Sunderland every week without that inconvenient boat ride first. He’s back in Breda now playing trad jazz, but he remains a Mackem at heart and still makes regular pilgrimages across to cheer on Sunderland.
Tonight’s match – Sunderland v Middlesbrough, Jan 31 2006 – isn’t pretty. How could it be? Local derbies rarely are. Besides which, one team is already virtually doomed to relegation and the other is fighting for its life. But I sit back in my press enclosure splendour, admiring the desk they thoughtfully provide for note-writing, occasionally glancing at the television monitors that replay the major incidents, listening to the various radio commentators around me chattering into their mics and looking at the anxiety etched on the faces of both sets of fans hoping for a miraculous turn around.
TO BE CONTINUED: in the concluding part of these extracts, reproduced with Colin Irwin’s permission, we see whether the turn around happened, and hear priceless banter from Mick McCarthy’s post-match press conference. See also – the first part of this series: A jewel from bleaker times
* Colin Irwin – Sing When You’re Winning: Football fans, terrace songs and a search for the soul of soccer (published by André Deutsch. If you’re tempted, buy it by clicking on this link.