Not even at the start of last season, but four straight defeats into it, Steve Cram – ace distance champion, BBC athletics commentator and president of the London and Southern England branch of the Sunderland Supporters’ Association – decided to have a flutter.
He did not put a fiver on when Niall Quinn might sack himself as manager, or on the identity of the man who’d replace him. He put his money (a bit more than a fiver, I imagine) – and this will strike a chord with our new sponsor Boylesports – on Sunderland winning promotion. And got odds of 25-1.
The winnings paid for a decent weekend away. Steve does not say what his fellow talking head at Radio Five Live, Mike Costello, did with his (and Mike, though not a SAFC fan, got 28-1 by shopping around).
Steve, as you might imagine, is thoroughly chuffed at the way things turned out. If you choose to read on, you will see how supporting the Lads has brought him much grief, too, entertaining as some of that grief happens to be.
I propose to leave the original article, as slightly amended by me when I posted it here, largely untouched. This is the update.
Steve kept the box he has had since Roker Park. He became gloomy, but not unduly so, in the miserable recent past, and he still admires Bob Murray for his legacy of stadium and Academy, while fully believing the time had come for a change at the top.
His dad, the retired bobby, is alive and well and is the box’s most regular user. Josephine – she would prefer me to call her Josie, I gather – and son Marcus are away at school, respectively 17 and 14 now, and both still follow the team, Josie rather more fervently than her brother.
In a school where not all her peers necessarily share her passion for football, she has persuaded an Everton-supporting head of house to make sure the common room TV is switched to Sky when Sunderland are on. She has also made Leeds her first university choice, to make trips back for games all the easier.
And Steve is buzzing about the season to come, but considers that, well as the squad did in the season just finished, Roy Keane needs to make several key acquisitions if we are to become a seriously competing top 10 sort of side.
“There are no guarantees people he brings in will perform for us as well as they have elsewhere,” he reminds us. “But Keane has such stature in the game that good players will want to come rather than having to be persuaded with the carrot of lots of money.”
Imagine the scene. You’ve boarded a long-haul flight just as the Lads kick off at Roker Park in the deciding leg of a promotion/relegation play-off. That play-off.
You tell the stewardess you cannot sit for nine hours without knowing. She tells herself you’re mad. Even so, not wanting to be the cause of the first outbreak of air rage a decade too soon, she promises to do her best. But what’s going on?
Ninety minutes are clearly up, and still nothing. Suddenly, the stewardess is talking to a colleague, and pointing towards you. You just about make out their words. “You tell him,” she’s saying. “No, you,” comes the reply.
In such a manner, 30,000-plus feet above Greenland or wherever, did Steve Cram learn in 1987 that we had been consigned to the old Third Division with the extra time aggregate defeat by Gillingham.
“The stewardess came up and said “I’m so sorry”, Steve recalls. “She was really sweet, but the rest of the flight was pretty miserable”.
Steve Cram is not just any celebrity supporter. He’s our celebrity supporter if you belong to the London and Southern England branch of the SAFC Supporters’ Association, its president since 1983 and also, as the Queen would surely confirm (he was round at Buck House, not so long after we spoke, for one of those themed drinks parties she throws) a very likeable bloke.
A little more about the life and Sunderland-supporting times of one of our better known fellow fans came to light when I spoke to Steve, whose outstanding athletics career included world records for the mile, 1,500 metres and 2,000 metres in 1985.
Born in Gateshead, Steve grew up the son of a Sunderland-supporting policeman in Hebburn.
“Dad took me to a game when I was about seven, and that was that,” he says. “Some kids in the area would switch between Sunderland and Newcastle. But for me, there was never any question about who I supported.
“Dad and I have argued about which was my first game. I remember it as a 1-0 defeat to Liverpool and coming away with a sickly feeling. It would have been 1968-69. But dad says I’d been to a couple of games before that and I have to say my recall is vague.”
Since one-nil would mean the last game of 1969-1970, dad may have had a point. But if Steve is a little shaky about his first trip to Roker Park, the mile-high anecdote gives a completely accurate guide to the depth of his passion.
He had timed his yearly altitude training in Colorado to start in a part of May when he calculated we would no longer be involved in anything. He had, of course, reckoned without Lawrie McMenemy.
Eleven years later, commitments in America almost came between him and another heartbreaking occasion.
Working on the Channel Four series, Planet Football, he had carefully planned his return to be in time for the Charlton promotion play-off final.
The first part of the journey, from Portland, was eventless. But at the check-in for the connecting flight at Seattle, he was told his onward ticket to London was invalid.
“I remember a big stand-up row with me saying, ‘you don’t understand, I have to be on this flight…. The TV company will cough up’,” Steve says. “In the end, I had to stump up to $2,500 and claim it back later.
“We reached Heathrow at 1.15pm, Channel Four had a car waiting and it all worked out OK, except for the result. That was worse for me than Gillingham. I never doubted we would get out of the Third, but feared I couldn’t wait for another year after we lost to Charlton; we had the new stadium, all that excitement and everything was taken away from us in one game.
“Going back into London to do some work for Radio 5 Live, we passed some Charlton fans in a bus and they were sitting. If it had been us, the bus would have been rocking. I couldn’t stop myself thinking ‘you just don’t deserve this’.
Happily, Sunderland’s recovery from the trauma of Wembley was stronger than any of us had much right to expect, and Steve quickly got over the gloomy aftermath. He makes good use of his investment in three seats in a box in the Stadium of Light. Mrs Cram – Karen** has been known to turn up, but Steve is usually accompanied by his father and daughter, Josephine, 11 at the time of the interview. His son, Marcus, then eight, had also been to a few games by then.
Steve’s own childhood memories include the 1973 Cup Final and afterwards, when the players took it in turns to visit clubs to show off the trophy.
Wherever they went, they were plied with as much drink as they wanted. Let us just say that when the roadshow reached Hebburn Labour Club, the two players in charge of the cup had such an enjoyable time that the police took it into safe custody over night.
Pc Cram was on night shift. When he got home, he roused young Steve and his younger brother Kevin – who sadly died in a fall, aged just 39, while out running very soon after our conversation – whisked them off to the station to be photographed holding the trophy.
“I was about 12,” Steve, pictured on the left, recalled. “It made me realise I’d love to be a top sportsman, even if I wasn’t good enough to do it at football.”
* NB All details correct at the time back in 2001. Steve is being asked for updates. For now, take a look at a recent Guardian column for his thoughts on a great season for any Sunderland supporter, celeb or otherwise.
** The marriage has not survived the years since this interview was conducted. Steve has been with Allison Curbishley, a most efficient-seeming local lass who acts as his personal assistant, for four years.