Wigan at home seems an awful long way away and it is, April 23. It is also – whatever our Lancashire friend Bernard Ramsdale might tell us – short on glamour. All the same, free tickets are free tickets and you can, if you support Sunderland or are neutral, try to win a couple from Sunderland’s kit sponsors Tombola by following this link.
We thought at first Tombola was offering the tickets as a Salut! Sunderland competition prize. Don’t tell Phil Cronin, SAFC-supporting boss of the company, that it was not quite like that; he’d only be cross with them for not seizing the opportunity. In any case, Phil’s people did supply the image of our home top, for which we are grateful.
And in the meantime, this is a report of the hoops M Salut had to go through to see a past SAFC v Wigan Athletic game, live on TV in the United Arab Emirates. Health warning: as written, back in Feb 2008, it was intended for a general, non-SAFC audience …
There is a telling moment in one of Agnès Poirier’s amusing books on matters Anglo-French when she offers an instantly recognisable snapshot to support her assertion that while the French may be rude, the British are hypocrites.
When the Englishman bumps into another in Oxford Street and says “sorry”, she writes (more or less), what he actually means is: “Get out of my way, you ******* retard.”
My latest encounter with British understatement did not involve a sorry, or anything like one. Rather, it was a “Thanks, mate!”, muttered through gritted teeth not once but twice as I eased effortlessly into the role of Least Popular Man in Town, the town being Abu Dhabi.
Everyone wanted rugby
Not more than a handful of non-SAFC folk would care less that Sunderland achieved a hard-fought win over Wigan. But I am thinking more of my own hard-fought victory in being able to watch the game at all in the sort of place where expats gather for these purposes.
The system (at The Club, a place favoured especially by British expats in the UAE capital) is simple enough and runs like clockwork most of the time. As a consequence of the way TV rights work abroad, all Premiership games can be viewed live in Abu Dhabi provided you subscribe to the right package from the relevant service, which here is Showtime.
At The Club, notices are posted on each available screen, clearly stating which match can be viewed on it and at what time.
The coincidence of Six Nations rugby can cause complications. So I took the trouble to phone ahead before committing myself to the trek across town. This was to ensure that whatever was being done to cater for oval ball supporters, my game would be shown too. I was duly reassured.
Even so, I was relieved to arrive and find that while most screens would be showing – were showing, given the earlier kickoff – the Wales/Scotland match, one had been dedicated to the football from Sunderland.
A crowd of a dozen or so was packed tightly into the area where this particular television set was installed.
That should have alerted me to a possible snag.
Why on earth should this clash of unfashionable clubs attract such interest? Another alarm bell might have sounded when a man on one the couches responded frostily when I asked if there was “room for a littl’un” next to him. “I don’t seem to have much choice,” he said without obvious warmth.
As it soon became clear, he had already guessed. “We’re watching rugby here,” he declared, confirming the evidence of my eyes.
And quoting from the printed notice stuck to the set – Sunderland v Wigan Athletic, complete with kickoff time -got me nowhere. “It’s not what it says there,” he said. “It’s what we’re watching. And we’re watching rugby, not soccer.”
To my surprise, when I asked if another screen was available, someone from the bar staff sprang bravely to my aid. He reminded the rugby fans that he had taken care to explain the house rules, that the television would have to be switched to football should anyone ask for it. That, amid much grumpiness as the group shuffled out, is where my “Thanks, mate!”s came in.
I tried pointing out that several other screens around the place were tuned to rugby. It was half time in the Six Nations so there was time for people to rearrange themselves. But that cut little ice, and it was plain that I was not in the company of people who would be inviting me to dinner in the foreseeable future. There was more mumbling as they settled at other tables, even though these were within easy sight and sound of their game.
Of course it was easy to see why they were upset, and I felt almost as rotten about being the source of their disappointment as I was anxious not to have made a frustratingly wasted journey. I would have been delighted to take up position in front of any small screen tucked into a corner to watch my game.
In the event, I saw mine – and a rare win for my team – and they all saw theirs. But Agnès Poirier has lived in Britain long enough to appreciate the distinction if I say that it was perhaps just as well that the aggrieved individuals were rugby, not football fans.
They were also, if the sounds coming from around the other screens were a useful guide, mostly or exclusively Welsh and anyone Welsh was destined to end the evening in exceedingly jubilant spirits. One of the group, who bumped into my wife later, asked how our team had got on. “Not mine, my husband’s, but they won,” she replied. “Oh good,” said the Welsh woman. “So everyone’s happy.”