It is a constant moan from many of us who have been watching football for decades that “fings ain’t wot they used to be” but Ken Gambles reminds us that there are still friendships to be formed and fun to be had whoever you support.
I must admit that the recent (now resolved) faux-pas by the club concerning The Fort, the Terry racism saga, some sky-high ticket prices for away games and the general unpleasantness of much of the Premiership ‘brand’, has left me feeling much like Pete Sixsmith in his article last week – ready to pack it all in. However, as Tom Lynn exhorted, we mustn’t abandon the game but keep the faith and try all we can to steer top-flight football towards the more fan-friendly and sustainable German model.
As I reflected on the changes I’ve seen in nigh on 50 years of watching Sunderland, I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to follow football when it was the working-man’s game and you didn’t need to plan four weeks ahead, nor take out a loan (obviously not through Wonga) in order to attend a match. Moreover, I’m delighted I’ve had the chance to meet so many decent supporters of SAFC and other clubs who have shared my deep love for the game. As an antidote to the gloom myself, Pete and I’m sure a host of others are feeling, here’s a very personal list of clubs whose fans have behaved and related to me just as I would hope Sunderland fans would to them.
Clearly this brief list is intensely subjective covering experiences and meetings spanning six decades including visits to grounds, flat-mates, colleagues, neighbours, blokes in the pub and those met at ‘social occasions’ where you are delighted to meet say, a Blackburn fan, so you can reminisce about Bryan Douglas, Fred Else or Bill Garner to offset the tedious ritual of small talk.
I’ve limited my selection to four clubs, but I’ll begin with four general observations about clubs with whom we have not had too many meetings over the years. I’ve chosen Charlton, Gillingham Peterborough and York and without giving chapter and verse I’ve mainly found their fans to be fair-minded and helpful, with visits to their grounds and environs unthreatening and conducive to a good day out.
Now for our more regular opponents.
In fourth place I’ve put Arsenal. Perhaps today’s Emirates and the latter years of the Highbury Library are a bit bland but in the sixties Arsenal was a good ground to attend. As a long-haired student living nearby I must have been well over twenty times and never had any bother. Their supporters too were far more patient and less fickle than the Spurs’ fans just up the road. When working in Old Street one summer, a young workmate, Leo, was a typical Highbury skinhead who seemed very intimidating but proved to be a good bloke and we were able to enjoyably discuss football most lunchtimes.
Third it’s West Brom. Their fans seem unpretentious and able to talk about the game in a rational way. Most Baggies’ fans I’ve met have been good craic, win, lose or draw. Another plus for them is that you can get a drink (and some tasty Asian food) in local pubs without having to pay an ‘entrance fee’ of a quid or more as you have to do around Villa Park.
In silver medal spot I’ve gone for Everton. Our recent record against them is appalling and I hate going to Goodison where I’ve experienced far too many abject displays, but Everton fans I’ve known have been intensely loyal, proud of their club and history and with a great sense of humour. They’ve some tremendous achievements to their name but tend not to harp on about them, unlike their neighbours. It might be simplistic but they are a lot like us and Liverpool are their Newcastle (but with trophies obviously!)
The winner is a predictable one for a Sunderland fan I suppose, as I think Goldy mentioned recently, and that is Norwich City. Both the Milk Cup Final in 1985 and the FA Cup semi-final in 1992 were genuinely special occasions and memorable for all of the right reasons, camaraderie, sportsmanship and pure enjoyment of the contest. Unforgettable. Whenever Norwich visit the SOL the atmosphere is good and they really support their team.
Well, that’s it – a very personal list, but enough on reflection to prevent me totally despairing about the modern game. There are thankfully a lot of supporters just like us and one day in time we might be able to reclaim the game we love.