SAFC v Notts County Soapbox: Meadow Lane by Hillman Imp

Some more glorious reminiscences from Pete Sixsmith, who also offers timely reassurance to anyone who took him seriously when he wondered aloud about which match to watch tomorrow …

To those who thought I was deserting the Stadium of Light for Dean Street, I say thank you for convincing me that my destiny and duty lay at Sunderland rather than Shildon. I shall be in my normal seat on Saturday watching the current crop of Lads take on the current crop of Magpies.

One reason is that there is a kind of symmetry with 1973. Then, I was a callow youth in my first year of teaching, with shoulder length hair, a big bushy beard and no money.

Now, in 2011, I am in my final year of teaching, older and wiser with a hairline that has not so much receded as upped and vanished, a rather smart and distinguished goatee – and no money.

So, the Stadium of Light it has to be. I have a dream that my full time career could well be topped and tailed with an FA Cup triumph at Wembley, although the circumstances will be very, very different.

In 1973, my monthly take home pay was £72, petrol cost 35p a gallon and we had a Tory government, led by Grocer Heath that was beginning to think about introducing VAT. I drove a Hillman Minx, bought from my dad’s mate Alan “Flash” Dent, for the princely sum of £200.

Flash was a real character. He had a back street garage in Peel Street, Bishop Auckland and had spent his life wheeling and dealing. He picked up vehicles from the unlikeliest of places and complemented his earnings by acting as a drummer in, and agent for, local dance bands.

My father played with him and liked him, but never really trusted him and his final words as he departed to Spain on holiday were: “If Alan comes with a car, don’t buy it, wait until I get home and we’ll have a look at it.”

Now, Flash knew that I had £200 burning a hole in my bank account so he set a sprat to catch a mackerel.

He took me to lunch a couple of times and treated me to pints in the back room of the Green Tree, where he held court with his mum and his Auntie Edie. In no time at all, he was in possession of my £200 and I was in possession of HRH 840D, a light blue Hillman Minx, registered in 1966 and, according to Mr Dent, a vehicle that had been used only for church outings and the odd picnic trip.

Of course, the car was rubbish and broke down with regular monotony. It broke down the week before the Notts County away game with a horrible grinding sound that may well have been the starter motor packing up.

I was determined to visit Meadow Lane, the home of the world’s oldest League club. So, not for the first time in my life, I convinced the pater that he should lend me a family car for the day. We had two cars at the time; a Hillman Hunter Estate Car which was part of the business and a Hillman Imp which my mother drove.

To those of you under 40, the Hillman Imp will mean very little. It was a Rootes car, built at the newly opened Linwood factory on the edge of Glasgow, part of a government scheme to move the automobile industry away from the West Midlands.

The Imp was a kind of hybrid in that it combined the scale and compactness of the Mini with the rear engine efficiency of the VW Beetle. As with most hybrids, it did not work and what you got was a heavy, ugly car that had a reputation for unreliability matched only by that of the aforementioned Mr Dent.

This one lived up to its reputation the night before the trip to Nottingham. Fortunately my father drank with the manager of Minories garage in Darlington and they dispatched a mechanic to get the wretched thing back on the road. No car, no Meadow Lane; the mechanic succeeded and the Imp set off on the trail to Wembley.

The Turquoise Terror got us there just before 3pm and we parked in the old Cattle Market, opposite the ground. No time for a pint of Home Bitter or Shipstone’s Sparkling Ales as we sprinted round to the ground and paid our 30p to gain entry into what must have been the most ramshackle ground in the Football League.

There was a large, uncovered Kop with railway sleepers for steps. There was a wooden stand with a gable down one side and, at the other end, a smaller wooden stand that rose in splendid isolation behind the goal.

We stood in the paddock in front of the main stand, another wooden construction that looked as if it had been opened by a youthful William Gladstone. In those days you could mingle with the opposition and County had some vociferous but friendly fans, including one who had a pair of V-shaped fingers on a stick that he brandished at the Sunderland supporters in his vicinity.

The game was a decent one. We went a goal down to the prolific Les Bradd – see our interview with Les here – and, had it not been for a stunning save by Monty from the same player, we would have gone out at the first hurdle. A minute later, Dave Watson equalised and the rest, as they say, belongs to the more glorious part of our history.

The Imp got us home without too much bother and the Cup run started. Three days later, 30,000+ trooped into Roker Park to see Watson and Dennis Tueart dispatch The ‘Pies and we were on our way.

The Hillman Minx continued to break down with the regularity of clockwork. The number plate dropped off in Low Fell and a delivery van backed into it smashing the window and buckling the framework.

My father’s relationship with Flash had come to an end just before this, when he neglected to tell the other members of the band that they had been sacked by a local hotel. The management had had enough of his jokes – sample; “How do you keep flies out of the living room? Put a bucket of s*** in the kitchen” – not quite the thing at the Saturday evening Dinner Dance.

So, when Notts come to the Stadium for their first visit on Saturday, I will cast a nostalgic thought back to 1973, re-read the chapter in Lance Hardy’s excellent account of those glorious days and wonder who knows where the time goes.

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