Colin Irwin is best known as a music writer, with a passion he shares with Salut! Sunderland, folk music. But in 2006, he brought out a smashing book, Sing When You’re Winning, based on travels into the heartlands of football. They were grim times when his odyssey reached Sunderland. We were on our way down and visiting the Stadium of Light brought to mind “an official observation of the last rites”. It’s a treat to see how well he managed to make it sound the great place it is …
I can’t think ill of Sunderland, who are the only Premiership club to respond to my plea for information, encouragement, tickets and dusky handmaidens when I am researching this book. They return phone calls, e-mails and cinvivial banter and furnish me with a press pass for their local derby with Middlesbrough.
The days of Roker Park are long gone since Sunderland moved into this gorgeous space age stadium on the outskirts of town, so close to the Wear that you fear it may topple in and get us all wet.
The surroundings are bleak but the stadium is a remarkable construction, incorporating sculptures and architecture that honours the site’s history as a colliery. It’s just a shame about the team really.
After wandering the wrong way along plush corridors into executive suites, board rooms and at one point nearly the changing rooms, I finally locate the vast press room where a large gaggle of earnest young reporters with spiral notebooks are discussing systems and body language and missed deadlines and rude managers. We are also served soup, a rather fine curry and as much coffee as you can drink (which, in my case, is lots).
I’m starting to wonder if it hadn’t been a mistake to abandon that job on the local paper sports desk covering Slough Town matches all those centuries ago. I mean, this is the media, and they’re being treated like royalty. That can’t be right, can it? They’ll still slag you off at every turn.
Rob Mason, the personal programme editor and club historian, introduces himself and starts talking about Charlie Hurley, an iconic former Sunderland captain.
“As well as being a great centre half he was dominant at corner kicks,” he says “When Sunderland got a corner the whole ground would sing ‘Charlie! Charlie! Charlie!’ They wouldn’t take the corner until he was in the box, and then he would either head it in or head down for someone else to get a chance. He left here in 1969 but you just mention the name Charlie around here and everyone knows exactly who you’re talking about. He still comes to games from time to time and whenever he comes on the pitch he gets a standing ovation.”
It’s shame you can’t bring on Charlie for corners now, eh, Rob? He smiles benignly and talks more of the passion for the game in this corner of the country.
“In my opinion, Sunderland and Newcastle supporters jointly are the best supporters in the country. We’ve hardly won a game this season, last time we wee in the Premier League we had the worst record ever with just 19 points, we’ve only won one trophy since the Second World War, and yet we haven’t had an attendance this season under 30,000.
“No way would Manchester United or Liverpool have crowds like that if they had our sort of record.
“Nobody’s happy getting beat, but just because you’re getting beat doesn’t mean you top supporting your club. The way it works up here is if you go out and give it your all, people will back you. If you don’t give your all they’ll crucify you. And if you give your all and you’re a decent player they’ll worship you. That’s why Julio Arac is worshipped up here.”
To be continued: Colin Irwin – who gave permission for these extracts to be reproduced at Salut! Sunderland – presents a distilled history of Sunderland AFC, sits through a dismal 3-0 defeat by Boro and hears Mick McCarthy’s “wonderfully broad Yorkshire monotone that used to wind Roy Keane up so much when they were locking horns for Ireland”.
* 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.