Soapbox: following Sunderland on the road to Hoffenheim


School’s out for summer, and Pete Sixsmith is off to Germany, following Sunderland on the last part of our build-up to the 2010-2011 Premier League season. He also looks back on pre-season jaunts of the past…

Tonight we set off on a mission to the German city of Heidelberg. Sounds like the opening line from a 50s war movie, so I should reassure the good burghers of that famed university city that we come in peace, searching for nothing more than beer, bratwurst and Big John Mensah.

This is the sixth time that Mr Horan has abandoned his fair wife and I have abandoned Samson the Cat to take off to foreign climes in support of SAFC. Torquay (ok, not really foreign), Seville, Dublin, Cork, Galway, Athlone and Amsterdam have all featured on the itinerary.

Friends have been made, ale has been supped and we have been able to get a good idea of what was in store for the coming season.

The first trip was to the Devon Riviera in 2001. A miserable journey on a Virgin train where the heating could not be turned off deposited its dehydrated occupants in Torquay, home of that celebrated hotelier Basil Fawlty.

In vain, we looked for herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically across the plains and Krakatoa exploding. We made do with a first glimpse of Lilian Laslandes and David Bellion as we dispatched the might of Torquay, Plymouth and Exeter in a most enjoyable five days.

We found a decent pub, drank with Paul Dobson, Eddie from Hertfordshire and The Intense Brothers from London whose pessimism about Reid we pooh-poohed, but turned out to be right.

We took a wonderful trip by train from Paignton to Devenport and then a superb boat ride up the River Dart to Totnes, past the homes of Agatha Christie and Tarka the Otter. I remember a fabulous cream tea in Totnes, which was just beginning to establish its reputation as a hippy colony. We came away full of strawberry jam, clotted cream and love and peace.

The year after, we set off for Seville in less happy circumstances. My father died the day before we were due to fly out and I told Peter I could not go. Fortunately, my younger brother, Michael, came to the rescue and insisted that I made the trip while he sorted out all the details of the funeral, which he did admirably.

Seville was a lovely city and I spent three days there taking in the sights of a city that I intend to revisit in my retirement/dotage. We had a superb hotel, drank sherry as if it was going out of fashion and met the sweetest hustle artist in Europe – a genteel, elderly Englishwoman who convinced us both that she had been let down by friends and had no money for a taxi back to the hotel on the edge of town. Like suckers we bought it and handed over the requisite number of euros. We saw her pulling the same trick the next day and hadn’t the heart to tell her “victims”.

The football was awful and the day after a dispiriting 1-0 defeat, we walked into town, along the banks of the Guadalquivir River dissecting the team and reaching the conclusion that we would be relegated. We were right, but we expected a few more points than the miserable 19 we racked up.

Seville was followed by a drive along to Cadiz, round Cap Tafira and on to Algeciras, quite the most unpleasant place I have been in. The local team decided to give us a lesson in kicking and Tommy Butler and George McCartney were sent off for basically defending themselves. The only good thing was the backdrop to the Stadium; how many people have seen the moon rise over the Rock of Gibralter as their team were being shown up? Oh, and we saw Emerson Thome’s six pack – a wondrous sight to behold even for a pair of confirmed hetero’s like us.

Things were quiet for the next couple of years. Mick McCarthy dragged them off to the USA for pre season and Horan/Sixsmith tours did not resume until after the Keane promotion season when we repaid the Drumaville consortium by hauling our arses around Ireland.

We flew to Belfast, a place I had never visited and thoroughly enjoyed. The Old Crown was being restored, but we sampled its delights and those of Robinson’s next door. A train ride to Dublin was interesting if uneventful, while the taxi ride from Connolly station to the hotel was worrying.

Pete always sorts the accommodation out. I had said something along the lines of “Get a good one in Dublin” and he took me to my word.

The taxi travelled through the southern suburbs, past Lansdowne and Ballsbridge, almost out to Dun Laoghaire. When we approached the hotel, we gasped. This was a five star belter and we were like camp rats, reeking of the previous nights Guinness. As the taxi pulled up, a concierge in frock coat and top hat opened the doors for us and never batted an eyelid. He must have thought we were eccentric millionaires. He was wrong.

It was a superb place to stay and after my initial reservations, we had a great time. It was a good weekend as well; football at St Patricks on the Friday night where one Roy O’Donovan set up an equaliser for Cork City, Gaelic games at Croke Park on the Saturday afternoon and our game at Bohemians on the Saturday evening.

From Dublin we moved on, in our hired Toyota Auris, to Cork and accommodation in the University Halls of Residence. Pete went for a walk while I rested my aching shoulder and came back to say that he didn’t like Cork one little bit. Not a promising start.

However, a superb meal in a restaurant on the Riverside and some authentic Irish music in a real pub changed his mind. The next day we followed the coast down to Kinsale and on to Skibbereen, a marvellous day out as the sun shone and we spotted more Sunderland shirts than any other clubs in Skibbs only sports shop.

We enjoyed the game at Turners Cross, had a word with David Puttnam and sank pints of Murphy’s afterwards in the music pub. Most enjoyable.

The bandwagon then rolled on to Galway, a city I had visited 20 years previously. What a change!! Then it had been a sleepy University city on the edge of Europe. In 2007 it was a leaping, roaring Celtic Tiger, its’ fortunes expanded by computer and software companies and its wealth there for all to see.

Our first night was spent at the Galway Races where, thanks to Grant Leadbitter and Michael Chopra, we suffered catastrophic losses on their so-called tips. The game against Galway United (Commercial Manager one Nick Leeson of Barings Bank fame), was a comfortable win for us.

We took a trip to Lisdoonvarna, home of the Match Making Festival (something to do with sticks of chocolate, I think) and drove through the Burren, a plateau of stones and little else. All the sheep that live there presumably had splintered teeth!!

Roy Keane was a revered figure in the Irish provinces, less so in Dublin, and he could do no wrong. People with little interest in football and Sunderland AFC now became experts on what Keane must and must not do. We had some interesting conversations!!

The year after, Keane took the team back to Ireland and the camp followers er, followed. Ponteland to Belfast again, more pints but in different pubs and a pair of monumental hangovers as we set off from Belfast to Athlone by bus.

Never has the friendship between Mr Horan and myself been as strained as it was that day. He had a head full of hammers, a stomach full of sharks eating away at his innards and he had to face a six hour journey on a bus. He was not happy.

Athlone was great. This was the season of the Great White Hart Lane Raid, when Steed, Chimbonda and Tainio had all been recruited, plus Diouf from Bolton. We saw them at Ponteland International; Steed and Teemu quietly chatting, Pascal and El Hadj clowning around in WH Smugs, buying up loads and loads of sweets. Should have realised then that it would all end in tears!!

We met Sobs and Wood Major and Minor and had just the best of days with people who could not do enough for you. Good food, good beer and good craic meant that we set off for Dublin in good spirits only for the Irish equivalent of Hurricane Katrina to knock out our game against Shamrock Rovers.

It did lead to a most enjoyable drinking session down the Drumcondra Road, meeting people who weren’t quite as enamoured of Keane as the provincials had been the previous year. They were right as the whole Drumaville period began to unravel as the season went on.

Last year was Amsterdam, well chronicled on these pages. I have to say that I was a little disappointed not to be able to go back there. We had a great hotel on the banks of the Amstel, we found good bars and had some decent food.

But the real delight was the towns around Amsterdam. Delft and Haarlem were marvellous days out, with their huge churches and market places. Drinking beer made from sour milk in Delft and gazing in wonder at the flower stalls in Haarlem were great memories to bring back.

The climb up to the seats we had been allocated in The ArenA were not so good. A number of less active Mackems opted to miss the second game after struggling up for the Benfica match. Had we gone this year, we would have bought tickets on the day and sat with the Dutch.

So, TSG Hoffenheim it is. We set off tonight in Pete’s car, four of us and there would have been a fifth if Steven Wilson’s life had not been needlessly taken away from him a year ago. The other two members of the group, Trevor and Dick, were with Steven in Holland last year and I can assure you that the odd glass of splendid German beer will be lifted to his memory over the next few days.

Ha’way the Lads …

3 thoughts on “Soapbox: following Sunderland on the road to Hoffenheim”

  1. Certainly beats my story of pre-season football.

    Last year:

    Went to Edinburgh, watched us draw with Heart of Midlothian 1-1, and came home… alone. But not before I sat and drank 2 pints while watching Newcastle v WBA in their first Championship match.. The fizzy pop started a week before the big boys.

    I’m such a sociable fellow.

  2. Pre season tours! Ah how well I remember Odense and Viborg, Arnhem and Breda, Le Touquet and Exeter. Not to mention Hull and Scunthorpe.

    But my best memory of Cork City was from the year that the Mags threatened to win the Premiership and Keegan would have loved it – just loved it. Sat in a bar on Bank Holiday Monday drinking half price Guinness whilst the Irish remembered the Easter Rising. The Mags were playing Blackburn and scored twice. On each occasion a local sitting next to us jumped up, punched the air shouting “Fecking Brilliant.” Blackburn brought on a Whitley Bay born sub whose name escapes me who turned the match on its head. Each time Rovers scored our fella jumped up shouting “Fecking brilliant!” I had to ask why.

    “Easy” he replied in his broad Cork brogue. “You see I have two bets. One on Newcastle to win the league and one on Man Utd to do the double. Either way I can’t lose!” Brilliant.

  3. So Mensah’s coming back on loan? Here’s hoping his back doesn’t let him down again. Now, can we please find a goalkeeper from somewhere? Or is Mignolet ready to be a hero?

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