Just as the players (Coates included) were due to report back Pete Sixsmith’s extended season came to an end. But, unlike those on international duty, he doesn’t get extra time off. No sooner has he put his pen down from his other job than he has to pick it up for M Salut and take us on a journey down memory lane:
I am out of Purdah. The 305 GCSE exam papers have been marked and I am no longer staring at questions on International Relations between 1914 and 1981.
The vast majority of students were well informed, well taught and extremely literate. They knew about Munich, Hungary and Potsdam, could analyse a cartoon and were contemptuous of The Daily Express, although one candidate believed that Hitler dropped the atomic bombs on France to annoy Clemenceau.
He did spell the name of “The Tiger” correctly but, try as I might, I could not award the urchin a mark. When I “taught” history, I told my classes that the French prime minister had this nickname because he was a Hull City supporter. Some saw through it and chuckled while others meekly accepted it. I wonder what Oftsed would make of that!!
So, back in harness and I thought it might be an opportune time to pen a tribute to our former goalkeeper, Thomas Sorensen, who has announced his retirement from the game.
Mind, he was always Tommy to me and the thousands of other Mackems who took the Great Dane to their hearts during his five years on Wearside.
He arrived in August 1998 as a replacement for French keeper and trawlerman look-alike Lionel Perez, who had hacked off his colleagues, manager and supporters by rushing out of his goal in the playoff final and getting as close to the ball as I am likely to get to a Pulitzer Prize. His error was then compounded by his refusal to play any part in the penalty shoot-out, allowing Sasa Ilic and Charlton Athletic to claim the prize of a place in the Premier League.
The Frenchman was shipped out to Newcastle United and in came a 6’4” Dane from Odense with a good reputation and an intense desire to do well. And he did.
I missed his debut at home to QPR and got my first sight of him at Bootham Crescent, three days later, when he had a good game in a 2-0 League Cup win over York City. Danny Dichio scored both and I came away with very positive feelings about the new kid on the block. He was big, he commanded his box and he concentrated for 90 minutes. Lionel passed muster on one of those.
In truth, he didn’t have a great deal to do in that first season as we romped away with the title. He kept 29 clean sheets, some against the better teams we played that year (Bradford City x2, Bolton Wanderers) and others against some real strugglers (Oxford United x 2, Port Vale x2). He missed one game that year, after he was carried off at Valley Parade and the Quinnster went between the stick, allowing the Irishman to save a penalty (memory playing tricks, methinks; see Ken’s comment – Ed).
Spot kicks played a big part in Tommy’s time at Sunderland.
From then on, he went from strength to strength and looked as good a goalkeeper as any we have had since the halcyon days of Monty. In the first season back he played a major part in our seventh place finish, sandwiched between Aston Villa and Leicester City, with his calming influence and commanding presence allowing the likes of Craddock, Butler and Williams to settle into top level football.
But his greatest moment, the one for which he will be forever remembered came the following year at the Sports Direct Arena.
It was November 18, an early winter’s day. There were 49,000 screaming Geordies and 3,000 Red and Whites in the away end. M Salut was in the main stand with a judge friend from Ipswich (not the judge, Pete, but big Jim Randall, the US Air Force base teacher from Suffolk, and not the main stand but our section up in the gods – Ed) and I was at the JJB Stadium in Wigan, ticking it off. When Gary Speed put them ahead early on, it looked a tall order to repeat the previous year’s win, but a Don Hutchison leveller and a superb header from Niall Quinn silenced the Mags – and M Salut and the judge (the judge may have been silent at another ground, though not Ipswich who weren’t playing that day, but M Salut and Big Jim were far from silent – Ed).
Then, Quinn went from hero to villain when, in the 82nd minute, he brought down Robert Lee with a typical striker’s “tackle” in the box. Up stepped the Geordie Hero, fence creosoter and England No 9, Alan Shearer, to level the score and then lead a siege on Tommy’s goal. Big Al was deadly from the spot and rarely missed. The home support prepared to celebrate.
But Big Tommy outdid Big Al. It wasn’t the greatest penner that Shearer took, but any penalty save is a good one and to do it in that atmosphere, in front of a crowd who could kindly be described as “hostile” made it even better. We held on to win 2-1 and from that moment on…
…Tommy claimed his place in the hearts of Sunderland supporters until the Wear runs dry or until we win a trophy – whichever comes first.
He spent another two seasons with us, keeping Jurgen Macho and Mart Poom on the bench, but he seemed to lose heart after Peter Reid left and it was clear he would be sold after the disastrous relegation in 2003. He left with the good wishes of a support that was more fractious and less harmonious than it had been when he joined.
He returned a number of times with Aston Villa and Stoke City and always got a good reception from folk who realised that he owed Sunderland nothing. The club made a profit from him and he learned an awful lot while he was here.
He made 409 League appearances for his clubs, although only four came in his last three seasons in the Potteries. But he did play in an FA Cup final for City and had a good game. City fans think as much of him as we do. And he specialised in saving Newcastle penalties, thwarting Shearer yet again when he was at Villa and then keeping out one from Loic Remy at the Sports Direct.
Tommy writes: ‘In this image the biggest challenge of our lives was about to begin. Yesterday was a warm up to the ocean but this was the real test. Today we headed SE following the Columbia River to St Helens. 110km with a few good climbs.’ Salut! Sunderland adds: you can donate at http://kidsaidacrossamerica.com/
He is currently doing a coast to coast bike ride in the USA with his wife in order to raise money for children’s charities in Denmark and Stoke. The photo in yesterday’s Stoke Sentinel showed him looking a tad tired after a long day in the saddle. See for yourself what he’s doing: