From Arsenal passion to dreams of Sunderland (and Simon Crabtree)

Yes, you guessed. Any excuse to show a clip of Carlos Edwards’s promotion-securing winner against Burnley, and hear that priceless Simon Crabtree commentary again …

There should be no real surprise that on a quiet, match-free weekend people should find odd ways of keeping themselves amused.

In certain quarters where Sunderland fans gather, I have been reading some impertinent speculation about the true reason for Ray Wilkins’s departure from Chelsea. There has also been much merriment at the misfortune of a team that shall remain anonymous at the hands of mighty, free-scoring Bolton.

And two Salut! Sunderland readers have chimed in with amazingly belated responses to an item that appeared on these pages as far back as 2008. One, Mackem Mick, wrote to say how much he’d enjoyed the read; the other, Birflatt Boy, denounced it as puerile tosh.

They were talking about a two-part item on my young friend Fatima al Shamsi, a football-mad Emirati with whom I worked when she was an intern during my spell at The National in Abu Dhabi.

The interest to Sunderland supporters was that Fatima, though a big fan of Arsenal (and also a collector of other teams and countries that catch her attention), had also started showing a fondness for SAFC. This was an attachment fostered with a degree of indoctrination on my part, but it has sustained to the extent that she looks out quite keenly for our results – though sometimes with a little self-interest, as her most recent e-mail to me showed. “Congratulation on the Chelsea win,” she wrote. “Many many thanks from Arsenal supporters trying to prevent the evil Blues from getting any points.”

So what was the fuss about? When I looked back in the Salut! Sunderland archives, I realised photos and some text had been lost in the switch from individual Typepad blogging format to join’s cluster of sites at WordPress. The first part of the two-part series was missing.

So here, on a dull Sunday, is a reminder of both. It’s now a historical item, but may entertain – or appal – the many who missed it first time around or have since tried to follow dead links to read either part. Please note that my crystal ball gazing about Abu Dhabi and the Premier came half-true: I just got the wrong name for the club that would be bought …

Part One: Coming soon – the red and white striped abaya (1)

When it comes to football, Salut! Sunderland and Fatima al Shamsi are thick as thieves. From unpromising beginnings – Fatima’s allegiances read more like a list than a passion – has emerged the first hint that we are witnessing a truly remarkable transformation. Let us hail the born-again Emirati Mackem.

Fatima, who is studying at Columbia University in New York, recently entered the world of journalism as an intern at The National in her native Abu Dhabi. Part of Salut! Sunderland‘s mentoring duties at The National involve the indoctrination of all suitable candidates as surrogate Sunderland supporters.
“But I support Arsenal,” Fatima protested. “Then Barcelona, with a soft spot for AC Milan.”

All was not lost. She did, after all, adore Zinedine Zidane and loathe Materazzi, showing evidence of good taste.

And what was that lying about the desk but A Love Supreme’s More 24-Hour SAFC People? She took it home, vowing politely to read the chapter contributed from these shores but in the event devouring virtually every word.

Drawn into the strange world of Sunderland support, Fatima proved herself a quick learner. Or very good at humouring the executive editor. She took – or feigned – interest in the pre-season games in Portugal, swapped YouTube football links – mine of Simon Crabtree’s gloriously over-the-top celebration of Carlos Edwards’s winner against Burnley, her clip of Ray Hudson’s gloriously-over-the-top Real Madrid commentary – and proudly announced that her new abaya had red trimmings.

Not, you’ll note, red and white striped trimmings. But that can only be a matter of time. She already knows all about 1973, the heartbreak of the playoff final, the barely mentionable relegation to the old Third Division. With one of the Showtime UAE movies channels screening Goal! this week, she even has a chance to appreciate why playing for Newcastle could only appeal to an asthmatic, poverty-stricken Mexican illegal dodging arrest by immigration officials in California.

Better is to come. Fatima is clearly far too bright to stick around in journalism. The Irish revolution at the Stadium of Light will eventually run its course. The stage will be set for Fatima to graduate with honours, return in triumph to Abu Dhabi as the head of overseas investment …… and buy Sunderland AFC, with the Champions League title within two years her minimum target.


Part two: Coming soon – the red and white striped abaya (2)

The scene has been set. And now, Fatima al Shamsi – click on the photo for a clearer view of her reading preferences – tells her own story…

June 2008, first week of work; the beginning of the end of my good judgement.

It all started with a simple question. “Who do you support?”

Next thing I knew it was the usual partitioning, each side of the conversation marking the appropriate boundaries: scoping out the enemy.

Understanding the allegiances of others helps you understand where the potential relationship stands. Apparently proclaiming my loyalty to the Gunners made me a glory seeker, whereas being a Sunderland fan was honourable.

I was informed that Sunderland was an example of a real football club, not a brand name. Although I strongly disagreed with those comments (and still do), I initially took pity on the misguided Sunderland supporter and thought no more of the matter.

But having become used to being dismissed as a female fan, despite my status as queen of football (with transfer updates and relevant trivia on the tip of my tongue) in my male dominated household, I was surprised at my immediate inclusion into football-related discussion.

After all, the outside world of football fans is a harsh, chauvinistic and forever frustrating realm.

This sly strategy to lure me into the world of Sunderland was pure genius. It started with an article related to Thierry Henry. The humour sucked me in instantly. These Sunderland supporters can’t be all that bad I thought to myself; after all, this stuff’s pretty entertaining.

Next thing I knew, I was handed a small blue book. More 24 Hour SAFC People it announced proudly on the cover. One story into it and this collection of short tales soon became incorporated into my bedtime reading routine.

In 12 years of following Arsenal, I have accumulated an archive of memorable moments. The last match at Highbury against Wigan, 4-2, topped off with a fabulous Henry hat trick is still one of my favorites.

Who could forget Dennis Bergkamp’s wonderful goal at St. James’ Park against Newcastle in early 2002 (not us….ed), or winning the league and cup double in 2001-02 and then being absolutely invincible in 2003-04 when we won the Premier League without losing a single match?

I also remember distinctly all the sorrows we’ve had to endure. There was the Champions League final in 2006, where we held up so well against Barcelona despite being one man short, and then watched our dreams die in the last minutes. I remember all of Lehman’s stupid antics, and the horrific injury sustained by Eduardo da Silva in the match against Birmingham City earlier this year.

Although I’ve always heard/known of Sunderland, I’ve just associated them with poor league performance. I now find myself privy to their ups and downs without having actually lived through any of them.

Just a few weeks ago I’d never heard of Roker Park, Stadium of Light, Mackems, Magpies, Peter Reid, or Niall Quinn. But now, with the anthology serving as my quick-start introductory crash course to SAFC, I seem to have acquired e a whole new slew of events that I never actually experienced.

I blame this alarming phenomenon partly on my thirst for any football-related facts and partly on an addictive personality.

Somehow the 1973 FA Cup shock win over Leeds comes to mind as well as the 1998 play off finals against Charlton; it’s as if I had endured the nerve-wrecking penalties first hand.

There’s also the image of Edwards putting in the third against Burnley in the last home game of 2006-07. Despite it being before my time, there’s the 1987-88 season which saw the team relegated to Third Division, and were saved only by the managerial expertise of Denis Smith and the goals scored by Marco Gabbiadini and striking partner Eric Gates.

Last week the most disturbing urge overtook me as I looked up Sunderland’s pre-season activities. I actually checked the results of their games after figuring out their match schedule.

I now fear that I’m losing my sanity. What’s to come next? Will I sit down and actually watch a Sunderland game? Will I care about their league position this coming season? Will Keane be able to ensure they are no longer haunted by the spectre of relegation? Will Younes Kaboul actually join the Black Cats?
Can I seriously care about them, side by side with my Arsenal pride?

I’ve already got a second favourite team down at the La Liga, and a tendency to check up on AC Milan.

Do I have time to add the red and whites to my collection of teams? After all, I have a reputation to uphold and supporting a club is a full-time job. So perhaps I know that they beat Sporting Lisbon 3-1 last week, despite being one man down and then ended their trip to Portugal with a 1-1 draw against Vitoria de Setubal.

But I’m hoping that’s as far as it goes in terms of my personal investment in SAFC’s fate. Just in case, if you spot me in a red and white Jersey, just keep walking. I’ll never admit I’ve sauntered anywhere north of Emirates stadium.

Monsieur Salut

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