Whimsical tales of Sunderland’s world toppers

skpImage: Sunderland Shirts

Until David Cameron gets round to banning foreign travel as part of his austerity programme, we will be accustomed to coming across fellow Sunderland fans wherever we go. It may be the tops they wear, though caps, badges or rear window car stickers also give the game away.

If there is a grimmer town in the world than Portadown, I don’t wish to go there. I didn’t especially want to be in Portadown the day I went looking for a man widely assumed – and sometimes, in semi-private, claiming – to be a bloodthirsty sectarian killer. The newspaper I worked for wanted his reaction to being ordered, by other sectarian killers (nominally on the same side), to get out of Ulster.

He lived on an estate and I had to prowl gingerly around it in search of the address. Suddenly, I spotted it: a Sunderland top, worn by a boy of maybe 10. Not just any top but a gleaming new away top; it was early in a new season but I seem to recall that I’d already seen it at Anfield.

This oddly humanising touch, in the midst of a community where I am sure decent people lived but so, too, did inhuman psychopaths and those ready to support them, made an instant impression.

I had no intention of asking (being considered a would-be child abductor is probably marginally more risky than banging on a gunman’s door), so could only guess at the story behind it. The son of a Mackem who’d chosen this of all exiles? A lad whose family had known Johnny Crossan or Martin Harvey and been entranced by tales of the faraway Wear? Or just the sort of choice of English team many football fans, north and south of the Irish border, make all the time?

No matter, it was another of those odd encounters that can happen just about anywhere in the world. This one just happened to be along the road from a terrorist’s home. But my guess is that everyone will have their own stories of coming across the trappings of Sunderland support in unexpected places, and the comments section below would be a great place to share them.

My own sightings, going back nearly four decades since I Ieft the North East, include a paparazzo heading to shoot minor royals in the Swiss Alps and a miserable night on the Dover-Calais ferry before; the most recent instance was by the shores of the Med just the other day.

It was 5pm in a London office and I was thinking about that night’s home game against Birmingham City – it was the 1995/96 promotion season – when my boss told to make my way to Verbier. Prince Andrew and the Duchess of York had announced they were to divorce, an event in which I had absolutely no interest but Her Majesty’s Press had far too much.

In the event, the job was a doddle. Fergie was out there with her daughters and was more than willing to play ball for a quick, friendly and utterly inconsequential chat with the hacks provided they were then left alone to enjoy their holiday (which they were, except that one TV crew arrived late, considered themselves above the gentleman’s agreement reached in their absence and pursued them all over the slopes).

But the only other thing that stuck in the mind from the trip was the sight of a photographer arriving with only minutes to spare for the outbound flight from City Airport. He was wearing a Sunderland top, a distinctive but not very attractive old away replica. He turned out to be an Essex man with no links to the North East but who had taken a shine to us when hearing about the 1973 Cup Final glory. Fair play to him, he’d become a passionate enough fan through the thick and mainly thin times we’d endured.

In the early evening of Monday May 25 1998, the space occupied by two cars, one in front of the other on the quayside at Dover, was a sad place to be. I had delayed a holiday in France to be at the Charlton playoff final (my wife was already there) and Roy Sandbach was heading to his home in Brussels, where he was then living and working.

We’d never met but there was immediate rapport: he was wearing the gold away top our lot had worn when losing that heartstopping decider on penalties, and my 1937 replica was lying along the back shelf of my car. We swapped tales of woe over taste-free burgers on the crossing to Calais. I told him of my plan to stop somewhere on my way south, get very drunk and sleep it off before proceeding; in the event, I was so angry that I just kept going through the night, replaying over and over in my mind the missed sitters, the folly of Perez’s charge out of goal for their final equaliser and the Mickey Gray penalty.

Roy and I have kept in touch ever since. Other sightings did not lead to lasting contact but include the rear window badge on a car that I’d sometimes see while commuting between Uxbridge and Harrow; the home top worn by an airport porter when I landed for a holiday in Goa and another Northern Ireland example, whose wearer, in a team I occasionally joined for five-a-side in Belfast, had no interest in SAFC but just liked the shirt.

That journey from Wembley after the playoff final ended in the resort of Le Lavandou. And it was there a week or so ago that I spotted another young lad, this one accompanied by his mother, in his SAFC home shirt, Boylesport not Tombola but immaculately pressed and spotlessly clean .

At first I couldn’t be bothered, but curiosity got the better of me when I heard them speaking in French. It turned out that his true interest was Lorik Cana, formerly of Marseille and his hero. Since Lorik had worn our colours for a season, they had become this boy’s colours, too.

There was little suggestion in his responses that the allegiance would hold; the top had become a mere item of casual wear and I fully expect it to be replaced very soon by a Galatasaray replica.

* See also: Chris Butler’s story of collecting football tops, mainly SAFC related by clicking this link

11 thoughts on “Whimsical tales of Sunderland’s world toppers”

  1. Enjoyed this very much, Colin. I have engaged many a dinner party with the story of the 1998 play-off final trip. Most people remain entirely bored as I recount that fateful day and the ferry queue. The one shining exception (and possibly the only one that has accepted a second invitation) has proven to be a single individual who was a member of the fan club of Cornershop.
    Who are they you (along with many millions of others reading this) might ask ?
    Well, “Brimful of Asha” was their big hit of May 1998….and I played it relentlessly and with a joyful heart on my drive from Brussels to Wembley.
    On the way back ? Everybody Hurts. REM.
    PS We need to meet for lunch and a pint. Give me the match options for you.

  2. A few years ago I went to a dinner at The Oval with a mate of mine who is a Surrey member. The guest speaker was Sir Tim Rice. Afterwards as he was making his way out he nodded to us and was then a little taken aback when I said – how do you think Sunland’ll get on this season?” “Can’t do any worse can we?” he replied. Well it was just after the Wilkinson/Cotterill debacle

  3. 2 years ago I recieved a picture message from a mate who was visiting Rome ( a red and white, of course). The picture was of a rather firece looking bloke in a brand new SAFC top, striding purposefully across St Peter’s Square. A month ago, in Sennen Cove, cornwall, I was slapped on the back by a total stranger with a cockney accent, who said “Haway the Lads”. He must have recognised some SAFC badge about my person. We get everywhere

  4. 2 years ago I recieved a picture message from a mate who was visiting Rome ( a red and white, of course). The picture was of a rather firece looking bloke in a brand new SAFC top, striding purposefully across St Peter’s Square. A month ago, in Sennen Cove, cornwall, I was slapped on the back by a total stranger with a cockney accent, who said “Haway the Lads”. He must have recognised some SAFC badge about my person

  5. It’s only the Atlantic, it’s not out of the realm of possiblity!

    As for Riveros, I believe it’s pretty much sorted and they’re hoping he may be able to take part in the Hoffenheim match in some capacity. Just waiting for his passport to get back to him I think.

  6. I’d have had to be VERY lost, Luke! And I’m a danger to the public with darts in my hand. I used to be a decent fives-and-threes player but you don’t have to throw dominoes (not if you’re playing properly, anyway).
    Speaking of Riveros, have they sorted out his visa yet?

  7. I had less travelling to do for my last encounter with a fellow Mackem. Throwing arrows in the pub about a fortnight ago and some people play on the board next to us, they challenge us for a match and I clock the Sunderland flights on his darts.

    We discuss Titus Bramble, Heiko Westermann and other players for a little while before he asks “Wait, are you a Sunderland fan too?” – If I wasn’t I seem to take an unhealthy interest!

    He also claimed Al-Muhammadi was the player Bruce was quoted “£12m for 2 years ago..” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that he was mistaking him with Riveros so I smiled and nodded.

    Him and his son (who seemed to cringe everytime Sunderland were mentioned) beat me and my friend 2-0 in a competitve couple of games. Wish I’d corrected him on his Riveros mishap now!

    He was called Bill too, wasn’t you – Bill Taylor – was it? You weren’t lost in a Carlisle pub on Friday the 23rd were you?!

  8. Just yesterday (probably as you were posting this) I went to Wicken Fen, a National Trust property in Cambridgeshire. I climbed to the top of one of the observation towers which allows a clear view over the reedbeds and was soon joined by a yougish couple. As they were trying to decide if a distant speck was pigeon or a peregrine falcon I picked up their accent. I lifted the front of my jumper (it was breezy) to show the badge on my SAFC polo shirt. “I’ve got my shirt in the back of the car” he informed me. Only three of us in that wooden tower in the middle of Wicken Fen and we’ll all be there for the season’s opener.

  9. Quitting the Toronto Star was beneficial to me in a number of ways. Apart from anything else, it got me away from the bike courier who regularly used to show up in the newsroom wearing a Newcastle shirt. One of the receptionists (a Portsmouth supporter with troubles of her own) used to make a point of letting me know he’d arrived. And there’s never a half-brick around when you need one….

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