Among all that has been written about Sunderland AFC, there was once a fanzine called It’s The Hope I Can’t Stand. It was launched as the club moved from Roker Park to the Stadium of Light and was a publication destined for an exhilarating but short-lived life. There is no anniversary to speak of, no particular reason to look back on a bold publishing venture. But a discussion at the Blackcats e-mail list, which played a crucial part in the birth of ITHICS, prompted Salut! Sunderland to ask Nic Wiseman, the fanzine’s co-editor, to recall that heady time …
It was the end of the 1996-97 season, the Premier Passions season, the last season at Roker Park.
A group of Sunderland supporters bonded by being members of an e-mail list called Blackcats trooped out of the Fulwell End for the last time having seen the team dispatch Everton 3-0. It was a result that gave us hope of avoiding the drop and thus beginning life in our shiny new stadium in the Premiership rather than the Nationwide First Division, as the second tier was known then.
We had been in abysmal form and this win had given us a fighting chance. As we descended the steps into Association Terrace one of our number – I thought it was Mark Egan but others challenge my memory and tell me it was, in fact, Emma Nichol – spoke for all of us when she sighed: “I wouldn’t care if we were relegated already, it’s the hope I can’t stand.”
It was a sentiment with which we all agreed and any football supporter can sympathise. The fact was that this win over Everton had merely put off the agony.
And predictably the final withering act of relegation was visited upon us once again the following weekend at Wimbledon, when opponents trying not to score seemingly found it so embarrassing that we had no fight that they sank the last nail into the coffin with a Jason Euell goal in the final quarter of the game.
What a pathetic bunch of knackers! What a load of rubbish. We were all so frustrated and had nowhere to let off steam. It was a season that had seen us beat Man Utd at home and Boro at their place, but also lose 4-0 at home to Spurs, 6-2 at Stamford Bridge and at home to Sheffield Wed.
A clarion call was put out on the Blackcats mail list for all who were interested in starting a new fanzine.
The fanzine movement was well established at that point, but of the two main SAFC fanzines around at the time, the better one had just closed because its main man had got tired and the other one was seen, by us at least, as just too trendy for its own good. It was all style and no substance, had no depth and its writing was poor. All in all it was like Newcastle, which strangely enough is where it was based initially. Mind you, looking back some 14 years on, this so-called “up it’s backside” fanzine is still going strong, while our effort lasted for 17 glorious issues.
Back to the story. We called a meeting for those who showed an interest in getting involved in our little publication in the peculiar surroundings of the Jeremy Bentham public house in the academic district of Bloomsbury in central London. Not the obvious place for the birth of a plain-speaking, kick-up-the-a*** fanzine of a club based some 250 miles to the north, but the disparate nature of the internet saw SAFC exiles from publishing, IT and other creative industries flock down to Bloomsbury. Well, there were about seven of us, but it seemed exciting to us at the time. We all wanted to write a magazine which we would want to read; we were later dubbed a Guardian-reader’s Sunderland fanzine.
The first issue was scheduled for the first day of the new season and at our new stadium.
We had joint editors – myself and the aforementioned Mr Egan. We made a number of editorial decisions with a doffed cap to The Economist newspaper, where I was working at the time. We had no bylines initially: all content was the view of the mag as a whole and we printed all swear words in full. Both decisions were retracted in future issues.
The first issue was exciting to put together, the whirlwind was exciting and we managed to get it printed by some guy in South Wales.
Amazingly everything came together and on the day of the first fixture, we took delivery of two battered boxes containing our baby. The first hiccup was that the front cover was printed incorrectly. It should have been in red, black and white, for obvious reasons. But the printer had forgotten to use red. So although the cover was fine, it looked like a Mag fanzine. A fact many punters took no hesitation in pointing out when we went flogging it around the pubs in the late afternoon.
Eventually we got a deal with a printer in Pallion and had “printed in Pallion” put on the back, much to the annoyance of the deputy editor of the Newcastle-based fanzine.
We were playing Man City and the game had been brought forward to the Friday night for TV. It was a balmy evening and all were expectant. I don’t know how we swung this, but I managed to get onto Metro Radio’s pre-match coverage an hour before kick-off, and when a cherubic Guy Mowbray asked for a prediction I confidently suggested 3-1 to the lads. He drove past us in the pub after the match, after we had indeed won by the very same score, and asked me for the following night’s lottery numbers.
The week after publication there were two anonymous letters in the Football Echo slagging us off. To this day, we have no idea who they were from, but it meant we were doing something right.
Eventually things started getting less chaotic. We managed to get photographers’ passes to most away games and Neil Chandler and his “f****** expensive” camera got some canny images of away games. We were never allowed into home games in an official capacity, as was the case with all fanzines. The club didn’t quite know how to treat us, so they let it be known they didn’t officially sanction us, but they asked to be put on our distribution list.
We had some interesting tales to tell. One notable one involved Kevin Ball.
Hopefully enough water has flowed under the bridge for me not to receive another call from our former hard man.
When the time came for Bally to leave the club, he went to join Keegan at Fulham. Mark Egan wrote what we all thought was an affectionate summary of his time with the club. Bally didn’t think it was affectionate at all. I was sitting in a Soho restaurant with my girlfriend, about to go and see Mamma Mia and my mobile trills with a number I don’t recognise. A gruff voice asks if he was talking to Nic Wiseman, editor of ITHICS, I said he was.
“I don’t like what you wrote about me in your latest mag,” he growled. We had described him as a clogger, to which he took great exception. At the end of a 30-minute call, we were on the greatest of terms, chatting about the recent derby in which he had almost scored an own goal, and he even apologised for interrupting my evening.
ITHICS lasted until halfway through our first season in the Premier League. It was very hard publishing an SAFC fanzine from London and all press and photographers’ passes were denied once we had stepped up a division. We’d had a great time and enjoyed doing it. We still get asked about it, but if it weren’t for the Blackcats mail list, it would never have started in the first place.
If anyone’s interested, I have a few full sets of the mag which I can let people have for the cost of postage and packing (£3.50 – yes an increase of the figure first stated, but Nic just weighed the things -ed. Just send me an e-mail to email@example.com and I’ll sort out the rest.
* When Salut! Sunderland first asked Nic to write about ITHICS, he replied: “We had a blast doing it. It just took up rather more time than we were prepared to give at the end. And, ironically, it was easier to run when we were in the Championship/1st division than it was once we got promoted; ie we could get photographers’ passes for any away game in the lower legue. But no way in the Premier. Also the club hated us, except when they wanted to frame one of our covers for the boardroom at the SoL. We had some first class contributors, some excellent illustrators and photography. I even think a certain well known fanzine upped its game when we came briefly on the scene.”
You can join the Blackcats mail list at www.blackcats.org.uk.