From Woolwich Arsenal to Sunderland, nostalgia isn’t what it used to be

Malcolm Dawson, Salut! Sunderland‘s deputy editor, reaches a milestone of his life with some heartfelt thoughts on the way football – its teams, players, owners and even clubs’ names – has changed. How, he wonders, will young supporters of the modern age look back on the game when they, too, enter their 60s? …

The Jesuits said: “Give me a child at seven and I’ll give you the man.”

Well at age seven all the lads I knew in the pit village in which I grew up supported Sunderland. So I did too. It was what we did. We played in the street. Football in the winter – cricket in the summer. It’s also what I did throughout my active life even though I wasn’t very good at either. I tried squash and badminton as I drifted into white collar work and for a short while hockey, as a result of only taking training shoes and no footy boots with me when I went off to the City of London Poly.

I was elected captain of my college football team and captain of my local cricket club’s Sunday side so others must have seen qualities in me that I didn’t recognise in myself.

But I often wonder did those early formative experiences shape my life in a good way or have I missed out on finding things from which I may have derived more pleasure? Scuba diving perhaps, playing jazz saxophone, writing metaphysical poetry, archaeological research, lepidoptery or Morris Dancing?

Morris Dancing? Now there’s a thing. Pete Sixsmith can’t stand it but it holds a curious appeal to me. Not so much the prancing about waving hankies or smashing sticks together, but touring pubs and supping large quantities of real ale. Mind you that’s mainly what I did after cricket and football matches and in my 30s I discovered Pub Quiz Leagues, so perhaps I haven’t missed out on that one much.

Like all young children I was a sponge, soaking up information by the bucketful. I read and re-read old football and Roy of the Rovers annuals passed on to me by older cousins. I got Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly and later Shoot. I had an encyclopaedic knowledge of football, could recite every team ever to have won the Football League and FA Cup since their inceptions. I could name every team’s home ground and what colours they wore. I developed a fascination for the game which many years later I find manifests itself in nostalgic reminiscences of simpler times.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of my first ever experience of watching Sunderland in the flesh I can’t help but think about how the game has changed over that time and question how much is for the better. It was a time when the clubs seemed closer to the fans. Often formed by groups of workers in local industries, they were still run by local businessmen, aldermen and the like. Players, though relatively well paid, lived in their local community and could be found hanging around the pub, the betting shop and snooker hall. Some of them, George Best for one, lived in digs with a landlady preparing their meals and doing their washing. When they gave up football they opened newsagents or tobacconists shops or started small businesses.

Can you imagine today’s crop of Premiership players ending up cleaning toilets or making beds for £400 a week? My footballing opinions were forged in those formative years.

Younger fans who have grown up never having seen a working pit, steel works or shipyard, used to the Premier League, billionaire owners, saturation television coverage, sponsorship etc, will have a very different perspective from my generation looking back fondly at the game as it was.

Whichever team they happen to support, many baby boomers would still prefer to throw a tanner to a man in a brown coat for a bag of monkey nuts rather than order an overpriced pizza slice from a catering stall on the concourse, get the scores from other games on boards placed at the side of the pitch rather than by i-phone and see footballers with comb-overs rather than follicle implants.

The world has changed. Football is driven by the need to drum up huge revenues and many clubs are controlled by megalomaniac owners who cock a snoot at tradition.

But when they threaten the very heritage of the club, angry fans are not slow to voice their displeasure and fight proposed and often real changes. This lack of respect provokes protest.

All right, I know it happened a few years back but surely it can’t be right for someone to move a whole football club from their traditional home south of the River Thames, change the name and be allowed to carry on as if nothing had happened. But as I assume most of you know, this outrage did occur.

In 1913 Woolwich Arsenal, whose home was Plumstead, then part of the county of Kent, were in financial difficulties and the club’s owners, Henry Norris and William Hall, moved the Gunners, lock stock and smoking barrel to the Highbury District of North London.

The next year they dropped the Woolwich part of the name and the club was henceforth known simply as Arsenal. This is not an isolated example.

In 1919 South Shields FC was elected to the Football League Division 2. Despite attracting big crowds, when they were relegated to the more recently formed Division 3 North, the club got into financial difficulties and in 1930 the club simply moved westward along the River Tyne to became Gateshead AFC. This new “old” team graced the Football League until 1960 when they controversially failed to be re-elected despite finishing higher than three other sides who kept their league status. (No automatic promotion or relegation in those days!)

So while I felt for the supporters of Wimbledon who had witnessed the march from non-league football to the Premier League and seen victory in the FA Cup Final, the club’s relocation to Milton Keynes was not unprecedented. I was glad though, when it was decided that the MK Dons would not be allowed to keep the playing history of Wimbledon FC for itself and delighted that the supporter-led formation of AFC Wimbledon would eventually see a phoenix-like return of the real Dons to the Football League. But it is somewhat ironic that they haven’t as yet been able to play their home games within the borough of Wimbledon.

Many supporters of Hull City have been vociferous in the proposal, since rejected by the FA, to “re-brand” the club Hull Tigers. “It flies in the face of tradition – City ‘til I die,” say those opposed to the change. They have the backing of fans from around the country who see it as a travesty that a club, rooted in the community, should have its identity torn from it. Fans of clubs as diverse as Leicester City, Manchester United and Birmingham City. Or maybe that should read Leicester Fosse, Newton Heath Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway and Small Heath Alliance. While some clubs have been forced into changing their official name because of financial difficulties and I think it sad that Bournemouth and Boscombe Athletic FC are now simply AFC Bournemouth, many clubs no longer play under their original name. Just how long is it before a club’s name becomes sacrosanct?

Vincent Tan, has copped a lot of grief for things he has done since taking over Cardiff City, not least changing “The Bluebirds” blue kit to red. It could be argued that this is perhaps the least of the worries that Cardiff City supporters have had under his stewardship but his tinkering with the traditional colours has drawn loud and overt criticism.

In contrast Southampton fans seemed remarkably quiet when their team turned out in an all red kit last season although I understand the stripes will be back for the coming campaign. Sunderland fans would never have stood for that. Not when we can debate whether the central stripe should be red or white (red – no question!) or whether red socks, rather than black is acceptable (always black!).

Opinion is still divided about the pyjama kit of the early 1980s. But then the team of Monty and Charlie that I first saw always wore white shorts and it seemed strange to me when they reverted to the traditional black. Don’t think I was too bothered at the time.

Fifty four years ago, the six-year-old me would have told you that The Peacocks played their home games at Elland Road, wearing blue shirts and white shorts, though for many years previously their shirts had been yellow with blue sleeves.

It was I believe, their young manager (and ex-Sunderland player) Don Revie who changed their official kit to all white so that they would look like the all-conquering Real Madrid. At the same time, over the Pennines, Tranmere Rovers did exactly the same because their strip was identical to that of near neighbours Everton. Out went the blue shirts and in came the white. Oldham Athletic and Luton Town are two other clubs who spring to mind, both adopting orange shirts for a few years and then switching back to their former colours and in Luton’s case back again.

Not long back there was a furore on Merseyside when the powers that be at Everton FC approved a modification to the club’s badge. Supporters protested and it was hastily re-designed, for the following season, including once again the club motto which had been dropped. Now whilst I am basically on the side of the Wimbledon, Hull City and Cardiff City fans who objected to the changes at their clubs, I can’t really empathise with this one.

Most, if not all clubs have at sometime changed the badge and I can’t recall another set of fans who have responded in the same way. I like our current badge, which I feel reflects the area and the ship on a stripe was no longer relevant, except in its historical connotations. But that itself was nothing like the badge that was on the shirt of the 1937 Cup winning side.

Football now is not what it was and some of us may look back and yearn for a simpler time, but the way it has changed only reflects the way of society. I wonder if in 50 years time the current crop of younger supporters, with all the visual evidence that will surely survive, will look back on the game today with the same degree of fondness as those of us who, because of the paucity of TV coverage in our youth, are forced to rely on the selective nature of our memories do.

6 thoughts on “From Woolwich Arsenal to Sunderland, nostalgia isn’t what it used to be”

  1. Kevin Kyle has just embarked on his new career of cleaning toilets, funnily enough.

    Lovely piece Malcolm, Certainly for youngsters nowadays the pace of change in the game and all that comes with it has been relentless.

    I remember the orange Luton kits from the 1970s but wasn’t aware that Oldham had worn orange.

  2. Always a good read on this site.
    As an Arsenal fan my Grandfather supported the gunners before they moved from Woolwich , then my dad and myself including a brother and now my son but we have all stayed and lived South of the Thames.

  3. How many supporters can say they received the footy results – 1st Div only mind – via morse code? In 1971 whilst stationed at RAF Salalah (bottom of Persian Gulf), the results were sent from RAF Brize Norton to RAF Muharraq, then onwards via morse code, printed out and displayed in the mess hall. All became clear when the Footy Echo arrived a week or so later (I still mourn its demise in paper form).

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