Hobnobbing with Darren Bent, remembering Stephen Elliott’s night of glory

Anything Tash can do, Victoria can do – as well. To think Salut! Sunderland was moaning only a few weeks ago about the lack of female contributors, so much so that we issued a Calling All Mackemoiselles appeal. The re-appearance of Tash Scott’s admirable essay, written at 14, that helped her towards an A* grade in GCSE English prompted Ken Gambles – see comments to Tash’s piece – to draw our attention to Victoria Clare of Consett.

Ken, a prominent Sunderland supporter (N Yorks branch of SAFCSA) and author, praised Tash’s work. But he added that Victoria’s account of a vital game at West Ham in 2005 when she would have been about 15 was also “an excellent evocation of what it means to be a young female Sunderland supporter”.

He was right.

So here it is, with thanks to Ken; click here if you fancy buying a copy of Black Catalogue, the book edited by Ken where it first appeared.

And Salut! Sunderland‘s plaudits go to Victoria, or Vicky (pictured with a current hero, Darren Bent), for an impassioned and mightily impressive piece of writing. It is a long read, well worth setting aside 10 minutes and a mug of tea to savour …

Devotion or stupidity?

I’m in heaven, all snuggly and warm. My head sunk into my pillow, my teddy by my side and nice and toasty. I have a little smile to myself and sink further into my quilt! Just then I am rudely awakened….by Westlife! It is 7:15 and that is my alarm. For some reason I thought if I changed my alarm from a boring mono-tone beep to a Westlife real-tone it would give me a brighter start to the day. I was wrong as I now realise It gives me no extra incentive to get out of bed! Well they aren’t exactly standing there in their suits serenading me so I close my eyes and snooze again!

Next thing I know it is 7:30 and I decide I really should get up. I am going to West Ham for Sunderland’s biggest game of the season: win and we will be crowned Champions of the Championship, a title which we crave and want so badly, a title which we fully deserve. Lose and we will have to face an agonising last game of the season where the title could be snatched from us. I’ll ask you the question now-devotion or stupidity travelling 10 hours on a bus for ninety minutes of football?….I bet I know what your answer is!

Already the hairs on the back of my neck are standing up, I am so nervous. You see I am a Sunderland fan, but not just an ordinary Sunderland fan. I eat, sleep, drink, dream and live Sunderland AFC, but I can’t help it. I have grown up with my dad showing me old videos of past seasons, and as I have had a season ticket since I was six, I unquestioningly devote my Saturdays to football.

You know when you walk into someone’s house and see pictures of their children or family portraits or a nice landscape…?.Well come into my house and we have the Stadium of Light framed, old Roker Park framed, and memorabilia from when Sunderland beat Newcastle 2-1 for the second year in a row after good old Alan Shearer missed a penalty! Not that I’m complaining, the Stadium of Light has pride of place on my bedroom wall.

My friends don’t seem to understand….while they’re out shopping, I’m at the Stadium of Light or some football ground round the country, and while Brad and Jude are the main feature on their bedroom walls, they take a back seat in my room to make way for my Sunderland heroes! They think I waste my time … I am a girl … .who likes football … but it’s for boys … so I must only go to watch their legs surely?!?

If I’m truly honest, I’d be lying if I said part of that wasn’t true. Sometimes when it’s a boring game and not much is happening I do have a little look at the players’ legs, just like the lads will have a look at the girls sitting around them!

But most people find it hard to understand my knowledge and love of the game – it’s my passion. I can put the boys to shame in any argument but they don’t listen to me … because I’m a girl. What do I know? I usually respond with the challenge, “Come back to me and have a go at me when you travel all over the country to watch your team.” That usually shuts them up.

Anyway I must stop my mind wandering as it is now 7:45 and I have just looked in the mirror and my hair resembles a lion’s mane. It needs serious straightening. While I sort that out my mam brings me a bacon sandwich and a cup of tea, after which I proceed with my make-up routine: moisturiser, foundation, powder, blusher, eye shadow, mascara and lip-gloss. My dad looks on in amazement. “You’re only going to a football game,”’ he says.

But I like to look nice – never know who you’ll meet … I’ve always wanted to be a footballer’s wife! I ping my home shirt off its hanger, put on my favourite pair of jeans, and then hunt out my gorgeous pink baseball boots to complete my match day outfit.

Before I know it, it’s 9:30 and my lift has arrived. I slump out of the door still half asleep, say bye to my mam and shuffle to the car. I have a 15-minute drive to Stanley, picking up two more of my dads friends along the way and then at 10 o’ clock we board the bus. I sit by the window because I love to watch the scenery and wave at other Sunderland fans making their way to the game. I occasionally give the odd sarcastic wave to the Newcastle fans as well!

Just as I get myself comfortable it dawns on me I am going to be stuck on this bus for five hours! Devotion or stupidity? At this minute for me it’s still devotion!

My friend Peter sits next to me to keep me company. However we always end up driving each other crazy.

For the next two hours I have to listen to nine men discussing and analysing last week’s game and how the referee is a disgrace to the footballing industry. On the way down I start to think: would I like to give up going to the football for shopping all day?

Part of me wishes that I could spend more time with my friends over the weekend but then I get a flashback of how stressed I became that Saturday when there was no football and I decided to go the Metro Centre.

BIG mistake! I didn’t spend any money that day but I did spend a lot of time being dodged out of the way by raving madwomen with daddy’s money to spend and then when I did find a lovely pair of jeans I stormed out of the shop in a huff … that label said size 12 … they very clearly weren’t!

Yet again I stop my daydreaming and decide to kill some time by blasting out some music on my Walkman. It works as the next thing I know we are at a small café for a stop-off and some food. I’m not impressed. I wander straight in and straight back out. The thought of any food just turns my stomach, so instead I join everyone outside in the sunshine. Then I resign myself to another two hours back on the bus before we get to the pub. The journey is bearable although I am slightly tired. The only saving grace is that this is a night kick-off … if it had been a three o clock kick-off I don’t think I would have been able to cope with getting up at four in the morning.

The tension is growing on the bus, so many emotions: nerves, tension and excitement. As the last hour of the journey approaches we stop at a service station where I sit outside soaking up the sunshine and atmosphere whilst my dad buys me a Solero.

As I look around, I see the M25 service station has been over run with Sunderland fans. I think it’s fair to say most of them are fairly tipsy … and who can blame them! I glance around and look at so many different people all here for one reason. You can see the nerves on people’s faces, although it’s not as bad as last week. You see we have already secured promotion we just want to seal it in style.

Once again we board the bus to continue the final part of our journey. As we arrive in London I stare out of the window where I can see Upton Park’s roof peering above the buildings. As I get off the bus the ground is gradually growing … along with my nerves.

The atmosphere in the pub is electric with hundreds of Sunderland fans singing, dancing, drinking and just generally having a good time. Some are dressed as Elvis, some are dressed as doctors and nurses, some are dressed as pirates but the majority of them are wearing their red and white shirts and wearing them with pride again.

Sitting around the table I suddenly realise the disadvantage of being the only girl in a group of 10. The programme man comes round and asks if anyone would like a matchday programme, and five people buy one including me. After a quick flick through I put it in my bag, a move that is shortly followed by:

“Is there room for mine?”

“Would you keep mine please Vicky?”

“Erm … yeah actually mine too?”

“Well you might as well keep mine then!”

I now have five programmes in my bag. I hope I don’t get searched … I might look a bit suspicious.

We start our wander along to the ground shortly after, the Sunderland and West Ham fans mixing together and having a bit of friendly banter. However you can see what they really mean when they say “good luck mate”: “I hope we beat you good and proper.”

There is a lot at stake in this game, we have to win to secure the Championship, but West Ham have to win to ensure their place in the play-offs. It is going to be no walkover for either team.

Now I make my way to the turnstiles the deafening sounds of “Sunderland’s going up” ringing in my ears. My bag does get searched but they don’t notice my library of programmes although I do get my bottle top taken off me. I hand in my ticket slip and clunk my way through the turnstiles. Now I have to get rid of my half drunk bottle of blackcurrant and I don’t particularly want it all so Peter and I find a novel way of getting rid of it – by having a blackcurrant fight.

Once that is sorted I have to fight my way through a sea of people, furiously dodging flying beer that is being spilt. I have my Consett flag wrapped around my shoulders and am holding tightly onto my dad’s hand so I don’t get lost as I climb up the stairs of block Y.

The sight of 33,000 people in the ground make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

You can almost see the nerves bouncing off the walls as I find my seat and stand for a while gazing round the stands. I take a deep breath. This is it – now! Part of me wants to run out of the ground but I know I can’t and really don’t want to.

The teams run out in front of their faithful fans. The sound is so deafening, I can’t even hear the West Ham fans. I’m now so involved in saluting my Sunderland heroes that for a split second I forget about the game. West Ham play their club song while the Sunderland fans try to block it out by singing their own songs and now the whole ground is so unbelievably loud I don’t even realise the game has kicked off!

Not much happens in the first half. We play satisfactorily but every time the ball goes into either half I can’t bear to watch, I think I see more of Peters shoulder than the game in the first half. I know it sounds silly but in my head if I can’t see it, it’s not happening. Still I’m sure everyone has moments like that! The clock shows 43 minutes so I think we’re safe … until half time at least.

How very wrong I am! Marlon Harewood shoots, the ball hits the post and crosses the line, West Ham one Sunderland nil. I stand still, frozen to the spot. I can’t write down what is going through my head. I have my head in my hands. I think I am still standing in the same place when the half time whistle blows. I hadn’t thought about us losing. All I had thought about was how fantastic it will be when we win. We can’t lose. We just can’t!!

I find it hard to put into words how disappointed I am. The only way I can describe it is to say it’s like some one was about to give you a big trophy filled with gold and you are so close to it you can touch it, but someone makes you take one step back.

People find it hard to understand how emotionally involved I get, but it’s true. It’s got to be affecting my health! Even though I feel so disappointed, I refuse to give up hope. I know we can still do it. I have every faith in the team and know they will do everything they can to ensure they do not let the fans down.

A loud cheer greets the players as they come back onto the pitch.

Everyone is as optimistic as I am and we continue singing. It doesn’t take long for Sunderland to equalise though it’s the sloppiest goal I’ve ever seen in my life, possibly an own goal however do we care?! Two thousand five hundred Sunderland fans now start the chant “championes championes, ole ole ole”. However I refuse to join in. I don’t tempt fate, as we technically aren’t champions yet.

The tension is really growing. We need another goal, and there are 30 minutes left. The time ticks away. As every minute passes my nerves grow. When it gets to 87minutes, I think “Come on please, please, please just score.”

Just then Ben Alnwick has a goal kick. It goes down the field and Chris Brown heads it down for Stephen Elliot who keeps running. We all stand.

“He’s going to score here … I know it,” says my dad. “He’s going to do it.” We all freeze for what seems like an eternity. Stephen Elliot shoots. We’ve scored. Everything’s going right … the Sunderland fans are sent into a state of delirium again and we all start jumping about.

Just then I feel a blow to my face and I fall back onto my chair. My nose has been hit. My eyes start furiously filling up with water as I drag myself up to celebrate the goal. I am in so much pain. I feel something trickle down my nose”. Oh no my nose is running and I don’t have a tissue”. I try to stop it with my hand and that’s when I realise … it’s blood, I’m having a nosebleed and it won’t stop. It’s like a tap. My dad, Peter and his dad realising I’m not celebrating all turn round to hug me but freeze on the spot when they see my bloodied face. My dad hands me a hanky as the Sunderland fans are still going mental!

Things get even worse as the totally gorgeous lad from three rows in front of me has somehow found his way to the row in front of mine. He turns round to give me a “yes we’ve done it kiss” but the look of excitement and happiness soon turns to horror and he just manages to mutter the words: “Eeeh are you all right pet?” I say yes but my blood stained lips and nose suggest otherwise and he turns back round quickly.

Everyone around me is noticing my nosebleed and they all start asking me if I’m ok. I feel bad as they should be celebrating the goal, not fussing over me! I can’t believe my luck: the most important goal of the season and I can’t celebrate it. Well I am going to. I start jumping up and down and singing but have to stop as it is not helping matters!

The next three minutes are a blur. As I’m still trying to stop my nose bleeding, I’m not aware of anything going on around me … until the referee puts up four minutes stoppage time

FOUR MINUTES?! I knew he was a West Ham fan! I can honestly say I have never known a longer four minutes in my life it seemed like four hours! Finally the sound I have been waiting to hear all day is heard-the final whistle! I now join in the celebrations, regardless of the pain I am in.

This is what I have been waiting for all season, and nothing is going to stop me. I stand on my chair with my dad and happily join in the Champions’ Chant as yet again the Sunderland fans are sent into delirium.

I ask myself the question devotion or stupidity again? I have to admit when I was hit the answer was definitely stupidity but as soon as I see my Sunderland team applauding me it turns to devotion again. I have tears in my eyes and it’s not because of my nose: it’s pride! The team stays out in front of the fans for about 20 minutes before returning to party in their dressing room.

Two thousand five hundred Sunderland fans stay in the ground for at least half an hour, singing to no one in particular and hugging, kissing and celebrating with people that they’ve never met before in their life! When we finally leave the ground and board the buses I am slightly tired but nothing is going to wipe that big cheesy grin off my face. I sleep most of the way back, and even though everyone is ecstatic at first it soon becomes quiet as it is three o clock and we are still on the road. The journey seems to drag on and on and on but I eventually get back home at four thirty in the morning.

When I get into bed at five o’clock, I reflect on my day. This trip has been one of my best. I had already planned that I was going to wear my Sunderland strip all week. It represents pride again and I find great amusement in the fact that Newcastle are struggling at the bottom of the Premiership.

I lie in my bed staring at my Sunderland posters, 14 players are on my door, my champions. I have just travelled 10 hours on a bus to watch them, I will be getting up in five hours time to watch their television appearance, I had my nose bust watching them and I spend my weekends devoting myself to the club.

I move to my wall where I have my collection of match tickets 24 away tickets are on display from the past two seasons. I have been to 25 different grounds around the country. I then look at my collection of photographs. There are 56 on display, 29 of them show me either with a Sunderland player or wearing Sunderland clothing.

Would I change or do I regret any of this? No it’s my life, my passion. I’d be lost without it. Now decide devotion or stupidity?

* Victoria is now 20 and a student. Her first season ticket was in the Fulwell end at Roker Park, and has held her current season ticket in the North West corner since the Stadium of light opened. She also attends as many away matches as she can.

Her dad, Kevin, adds: “Reading this for the first time since it was published some years ago really does bring back the memories of that great day. Luckily Vicky is still as devoted as ever but sometimes can still ask the question: devotion or stupidity?

Both she and Tash have open invitations to contribute further items to Salut! Sunderland

1 thought on “Hobnobbing with Darren Bent, remembering Stephen Elliott’s night of glory”

  1. Smashing that. Full of youthful enthusiasm and vigour. It seems like a long time since then, given how far we appear to have come.

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