FA Cup semi-finals weekend: we weren’t involved after our meek early exit. We now know Man City will be back at Wembley for the final, having beaten Man United. Bolton and Stoke battle it out – hardly the phrase now I’ve seen the 5-0 scoreline in City’s favour – today to decide who will be the pundits’ tip for losing finalists. We also have yet another Sunderland Premier defeat to try to forget, as we will in time. So while Pete Sixsmith sharpens his pen (and maybe knife) before delivering his Soapbox view on that one, let’s take another shameless dip into the archives, from the days when Salut! Sunderland had so few readers such postings were probably not seen at all. It did also appear in a matchday SAFC programme but if you missed it in either place, and have a soft spot for other people’s hard luck stories, read on. You’ll learn about a Big Match day out – our last appearance in an FA Cup semi-final, back in 2004 – that sticks nastily in the memory for some Sunderland supporters …
It is bad enough being dumped out of the FA Cup after reaching the semi-finals and a game against Millwall that we all expect to win.
But you know it’s not your day when you are then dumped in the mud near Derby – sorry, County fans, nothing personal about the location – on your way home.
Miguel, our eccentric Portuguese coach driver, was already in the bad books of SAFC Supporters’ Association London branch members after somehow losing the way to Old Trafford. Little thanks to him, we finally got there in time.
But after the match, on the way back south, he chose to make a stop on the A50 to empty the toilet tank, which had apparently not been discharged after the coach’s previous trip.
And in doing so, he completely reckoned without the effects of hours of steady rain on a soft verge.
The wheels promptly sank into the mud and the coach became hopelessly stuck. There was nothing anyone present could do to free it, despite valiant efforts using collective pushing power and any available bit of wood and other material to wedge beneath the tyres.
Miguel was a pleasant enough character but not the best of sorts to have around in a crisis, carrying no mobile phone and having no access to telephone numbers that might help get us out of the mess. A branch steward had to make all the calls, do all the negotiating.
Eventually, a lifter was dispatched by the coach company’s rescue service but proved completely inadequate to the task. Not until much later, when the police summoned a Department of Transport vehicle, was the coach finally hoisted out of its soggy mire – five hours after it had become embedded.
By then, I admit, I was long gone. I was due at work very early next day and could not take the risk of being stranded in Derbyshire all night. A colleague, Nick Britten, who lives in the area, drove out to pick me up, along with a couple of other supporters, and deposited us at Derby station where – at a price – we were able to get home by train.
Nick is married to a Mag so had his own price: the right to put a sarky little piece about our woes in his column, Britten Word, in the Derby club programme. “Sympathise or have a good laugh – the choice is yours,” he wrote. “I picked the latter option. After all, North East fans are always boring everyone with how they’re more fanatical that the rest of us so this was their chance to prove it.”
For those who – sorry – stuck it out, the coach did not reach King’s Cross until after 1am, too late for the Tube or trains for onward journeys.
Some checked into hotels, one slept at Victoria Coach station and the steward did not get home until 4.30am after first driving a young teacher in the opposite direction to Chelmsford.
The coach company repaid the branch what it took to meet claims from supporters for their extra costs, but refused compensation beyond that.
Legal action was threatened and in the great tradition of steps-of-the-court settlements, the firm finally coughed up £500, enabling the branch to cover its own expenses before refunding affected members half of what they had paid for a coach trip from hell.
* This was originally written for the SAFC matchday programme and appeared in the edition on sale at Sunderland v Derby County on Feb 24 2007