On a day when I caught (via Facebook) my old pal Barry Emmerson “listening on Spotify to Billy Fury (not Halfway to Paradise but Jealousy) – it seems right that Pete Sixsmith should launch a new series on opening games of Sunderland seasons. He’s seen quite enough, but has magnificent power of recall that enables him to bring to life the detail of August encounters of his and SAFC’s past …
It is half a century since Monsieur Salut and his (much) younger chum (me) purchased our first season tickets and became fully fledged, regular Sunderland supporters.
In that time we have had promotions and relegations, the glories of ’73 and the disappointments of ’85, 90, 92, ’98 and ’14.
Owners, managers, players and stadiums have come and gone but, like many of the readers of these pages, we are still there – one of us in heart, the other in body. We have seen players who have thrilled us and players who have made us wince. We have suffered life-affirming pleasures, and seasons and performances that have plunged us into that black night of depression.
But we come back season after season, hoping that the institution that we hold close to our heart can repay that loyalty and give us the thrill that we first experienced when we started out in the years when Harold Wilson was Prime Minister, the Beatles and Del Shannon were Top of the Pops and long before anyone had even dreamed that the likes of Jose Mourinho and Louis van Gaal would be involved in the English game.
Over the next few weeks, we will be looking back [I’ll hold you to that – Ed] at the opening games of each decade of our unwavering and loyal support. There are some good ones, some bad ones and some that have almost been forgotten even by those who were there. I hope it brings back some memories for readers old enough to remember, inspiration for younger fans who are no less passionate.
Many thanks to the admirable Keith Scott and his trusty sidekick Peter Hayes for the loan of the programmes; as always, a great help.
PART ONE: LEICESTER CITY at ROKER PARK 22/08/64
Back where we belonged, in the top division after a six year hiatus in Division Two, it looked as if Sunderland were on the up. Promotion had been achieved behind the devious and increasingly unpopular Leeds United and, despite a top notch goalscorer, the future looked bright.
There was an ambitious and respected manager in Alan Brown, a brilliant young goalkeeper in Jimmy Montgomery, the most inspirational captain I have ever seen in Charlie Hurley and an exceptional crop of Scots and Northern Irish internationals in George Herd, George Mulhall, Johnny Crossan and Martin Harvey. The upper echelons of the First Division were about to be stormed.
We convinced our respective fathers that a season ticket in the Main Stand paddock at 6 guineas (£6.30 in current money) was a good deal. For me, it drastically reduced the number of Christmas presents available later that year, but I remember being excited when the red booklet with its tear out vouchers arrived. It was read from cover to cover and taken out of the drawer so much that, by the time the first game arrived, it had more creases than those on WH Auden’s face.
Sunderland being Sunderland, the close season had been a disaster. Alan Brown had left over a matter of principle (a promotion bonus) and no new manager had been appointed. As well as the failure to sign up a new boss, no new players had been bought and we went into pre-season with a squad that was exactly the same as that which had got us up. There was no transfer window 50 years ago – had there been, I suspect Messrs Collings, Evans, Parker, Turnbull, Ritson and Cooke, collectively known as The Directors of the Company, would have acted in exactly the same way.
To add to the mayhem, Monty went and broke his arm a few days before the season’s opener. That left the directors, who were now picking the team pending a new appointment, with a dilemma. Did they go for Monty’s understudy, Derek Kirby, a man with no first team experience or did they sign another keeper as a short term replacement until Monty’s arm healed?
They did neither. They plumped for the youth team keeper, Derek Forster, an England schoolboy player who was even younger than M Salut. He was pitchforked into the team at the age of 15 years and 185 days, at the time the youngest goalkeeper ever to have played in English football.
One wonders what the response to this shambles would have been had there been message boards, fan sites and Twitter in 1964. One feels the Board of Directors would have had a rough time. This was only seven years after the illegal payments scandal that had rocked the club so the keyboard warriors like me and Jeremy and John Mc would have had a field day.
So, not the most auspicious start to the season. And, for the Magnificent Two, we had to find a new way of getting to Sunderland. Previously, we had travelled by train from Shildon to Durham and then on to Sunderland via such exotic locations as Beechburn, Hunwick, Fencehouses and Pallion.
Dr Beeching put an end to that, so M Salut negotiated two places on the supporters’ bus that started in Close House and travelled through Shildon to Newton Aycliffe – as it still does now.
It was here that I was introduced to Billy Reilly, Kenny Snowdon, George Michael Thompson (who still runs it), Alan Metcalfe, Jasper Jones (a prodigious drinker – and dead by 40) and others. This was where I served my apprenticeship as a Sunderland follower and I sat at the knees of these great man as they talked of travelling to away games at Portsmouth and Plymouth, Huddersfield and Hull and Walsall and West Ham and of the crates of Brown Ale that were supped on these journeys.
The bus parked off Fulwell Road; the men skipped off to the Navy Club in Roker Avenue or The Cambridge Hotel while we youngsters trooped off to the ground to watch the players arriving in their Triumph Heralds and Mark 1 Cortinas.
The game pulled in a crowd of 45,466 on a windy Saturday afternoon. All games kicked off at 3pm in those days. The only televised game was Match of The Day and that had just started, being shown on BBC 2 (which ruled out a large slice of the population). Kenneth Wolstenholme, 23 months away from his defining commentator’s moment, commentated on Liverpool’s 3-2 win over Arsenal at Anfield.
Meanwhile, back at a windy Roker Park, Mike Stringfellow and Tom Sweenie had taken advantage of some poor defending to put The Foxes into the lead. Forster was blameless and had made two smart saves from tricky winger Howard Riley, but the general consensus was that we were all over the place with Charlie Hurley in particular struggling.
George Mulhall got one back before the break and then, early in the second half, George Herd tapped in the second after Crossan’s shot came back from the bar and when Nicky Sharkey set up Mulhall’s second, M Salut and me rejoiced greatly.
Well, we did for 45 seconds . City went straight down to the Roker End and equalised, with Stringfellow’s pass letting in Ken Keyworth to tie it up at 3-3. And that was that.
Forster played two more games before Sandy McLaughlin was brought in as a more experienced replacement. Derek stayed for nine years, moved on to Charlton and Brighton and returned to the North East. He lost an eye through cancer a few years ago, but appears to be happy and content and always willing to talk about his brief spell in the limelight.
And so, we returned to the bus and Sports Report. Len Martin read the results out, Eamonn Andrews hosted the show and there may have been a report on our game. Did Doug Weatherall do the insets for the Light Programme in those far off days?
At home, we probably tuned into Radio Luxemburg and listened to the No 1, Do Wah Diddy Diddy by Manfred Mann, avoided the No 4, I Won’t Forget You by Jim Reeves, chuckled at Call Up The Other Groups by The Barron Knights and wallowed in Dusty’s I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself.
Then a night in front of the Murphy or the Bush watching William Hartnell as Doctor Who and Michael Rennie as The Third Man before an early night in preparation for an early start next morning on my Sunday paper round for Peter Dowson.
That 5/- a week paid for my trips to Roker. He has a lot to answer for.