Soapbox: miserable May memories of Thatcher, Palace and Stoke


Salut! Sunderland naturally observes strict political neutrality in everything it says, does and feels. If, for example, we wanted to say we’d seen the play Enron last night and thought how nice it was to watch this warm portrayal of Mr Cameron’s natural allies, we’d keep such impudent notions to ourselves. Nor would we dream of adopting Oysterband’s brilliant phrase from an earlier election (“We voted Labour but didn’t inhale”). But Pete Sixsmith has a soapbox and what’s a soapbox for but spouting a spot of rhetoric? His column, therefore, is not for the faint-hearted – and that’s just the bit about the football despair May can bring …

Very soon now, we will be on our way to electing a new government of whatever persuasion. Will it be red, will it be blue, will it be yellow, will it be yellow and blue, will it be yellow and red, will it be red and blue? What if we are colour blind? All will be decided on Thursday night.

Footballers are not supposed to be interested in politics. Some show their allegiance openly – Lampard has declared himself a dyed in the wool Tory (so there’s another reason to dislike him), while James Beattie supports the Eton Boys because they don’t believe in taxing those earning astronomical amounts of money – they will raise money by reducing tax credits instead.

Vic Halom stood as a Liberal Democrat in Sunderland in 1992 and was singularly unsuccessful, while the likes of Bill Shankley, Brian Clough and Chris Hughton have worn their socialism on their sleeves; indeed Clough was seriously considering standing as a Labour candidate in Derby for the 1974 election.

I first took an interest in General Elections in 1959 when Queen’s Road School in Leeds had a day off because the place was used as a polling station. I was somewhat perplexed when told that this happened only once every five years so immediately became a Chartist, equating their belief in annual parliaments with annual days off for me as the school would be closed.

By 1964, my political head had been turned by Harold Wilson and his tale of 13 years of Tory misrule and I remember listening to a radio at Bishop Auckland Grammar School and cheering news of a Labour victory.
Meanwhile, my love affair with Sunderland AFC was starting as we stormed the Second Division, heading for the First and visits from Manchester United, Arsenal, Everton and Burnley.

Fast forward 15 years to 1979, and you have the nadir of my footballing/political memories all conveniently wrapped up in two days. On Thursday May 3, the Tories under Margaret Thatcher won the election and on the Saturday (the 5th, would you believe it) we missed out on promotion by four minutes.

The Thursday was a disaster. As the results came in. I became glummer and glummer as huge swathes of the country turned blue. I began to make plans to emigrate to the Socialist Republic of Bulgaria, where Todor Zhikov would look after the millions of refugees leaving a newly Tory Britain.

When La Thatcher appeared on the steps of Downing Street uttering her words from Francis of Assissi, the TV was spattered with beer and abuse was hurled at the sight of her and the chinless wonders of the Tory Party assuming power. The next day at work was dreadful. We had a couple of Tories on the staff and boy did they gloat. An unhappy day for any poor child sat in my history class or had John Huggins for geography.

Still, promotion on the Saturday at Wrexham would dispense the blues (if not the Blues) and that looked a clear possibility. We had done well to recover from losing Jimmy Adamson to Leeds United and his replacement, Billy Elliott, and his coach, Ken Knighton, had taken us to the verge of a return to the top flight. There had been a couple of serious slip ups at home to Blackburn Rovers and Cardiff City which had allowed Stoke and Crystal Palace to catch us, but we went into the final game at Wrexham on that Saturday, six years to the day since we had beaten Leeds at Wembley, full of optimism.

This was our first League visit to the Racecourse ground. Out of a crowd of just under 20,000, at least half were Sunderland fans. It was a decent team: Siddall; Whitworth, Bolton; Docherty, Ashurst, Elliott; Arnott, Buckley, Brown, Punk Rocker, Lee. We needed a win. All of our rivals were away, Stoke at Notts County, Palace at Leicester, Brighton at Newcastle. It was inconceivable that all four contenders would win away on the last day. They did.

Wrexham took the lead through Mel Sutton, if memory serves me correctly. We knew the Mags were rolling over and allowing Brighton to win. We also knew that Palce were a goal up at Filbert Street. Stoke were goalless at Meadow Lane. So as it stood we were fourth and staying down.

And then…..

The players pulled themselves together with 20 minutes to go and launched a wave of attacks on the Wrexham goal which were thwarted by the toothless but effective Dai Davies. He had been in the Everton goal two years earlier when we had gone down, so was not universally popular among Sunderland fans. With 10 minutes to go, Wilf Rostron equalised and we were up on goal difference if Stoke failed to win.

We were delirious when Alan Brown poked in the winner with a couple of minutes left which left us a point clear of Stoke. Promotion guaranteed.

And then…….

News came through that Stoke had scored at Notts in the 88th minute. It was confirmed by the Wrexham PA announcer and the euphoria faded as quickly as it had arrived. Brighton completed a routine 3-1 win at Sid James Park, Palace won 1-0 and although on level points with us, had a game to play and a superior goal difference. Stoke had pipped us by a point.

So 10,000 despondent Red and Whites trooped back to their cars, mini buses and coaches and prepared for a long and miserable journey home. Young children taunted us from street corners and one youth threw something at our car.

We jumped out and chased him up a street and as we puffed and wheezed we were overtaken by some fearsome looking skinheads from a Garnetts Mini Bus who had seen what had happened and were showing solidarity with their SAFC comrades. The youth was cornered outside a garage and was told in no uncertain terms not to mess with Sunderland AFC. He agreed not to, ever again and his wretched Welsh life was spared.

The journey was made a little better as we stopped at the Frying Pan in Wetherby for fish and chips and we had to wait until the next Friday before Palace confirmed their promotion by beating Burnley 2-0.

What a couple of days; Margaret Bloody Thatcher and a failure to win promotion. At least this time we have nothing to play for, but I fear the Ghost of Thatcher may well stalk theses islands come Friday morning. Salut!

8 thoughts on “Soapbox: miserable May memories of Thatcher, Palace and Stoke”

  1. I vote for dignified opposition.

    Update: and so far, the Cameron/Clegg love-in suggests we’ll get it. But we do need a new leader. Or Sixsmith and Robson as the dream ticket.

  2. Keith.

    I could just keep voting an voting for your last set of comments until the mouse fell to bits. Prior to the results of the election coming in I have to say that I feel very despondent. A very good friend of mine is likely to be elected by this time tomorrow, so at least I can be sure of a new member of the house keeping the red (and white) flag flying!

  3. What a bloody wonderful article Mr Sixsmith! Nothing else to add. As any great historian should, you just took me back over thirty years in effortless fashion.

    How do you know John Huggins though Pete?

  4. I left England after Thatcher got in and have been happy in Africa since, I was married the day we played Wrexhem and it spoilt the day every one kept popping out to get the score on the car radio, then the bad news filtered through, the next week was the Arsenal Man Utd final, which apart from the last 10 minutes was probably the worst final of all time and when Sunderland scored the fairytale ended. If the Tory’s get in I feel things will get worse, Cameron is a public school prat and Boris Johnson is an embarresment to Britain & London, God help us

  5. Very moving piece. I know the feelings only too well. However, as a Palace fan (who knows all about disappointment, although I am conscious that Palace have shattered Sunderland dreams on more than one occasion – at least you are where you belong now) I have to make one correction. I’m sure that Palace were playing at Orient that Saturday 5th May. I was at the game and thought that we’d secured promotion until I heard about the late Stoke goal. As you rightly pointed out, we did though have another game to play and won it to go up as champions. One of Palace’s proudest moments. Almost enough to make up for the dreadful thought of Thatcher at No. 10

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