Colin Randall writes: for weeks,
Georgia Lewishas been promising the tale of how she became a Sunderland supporter. I’d worked with her in Abu Dhabi without even knowing of this Aussie journalist’s unexepected allegiance. Once I found out, she said it was an emotional story but one she was willing to tell. Yet I’d still somehow counted on something quite jolly. What I was not prepared for was a brave and open account of tragedy, almost impossible to read without sharing Georgia’s own pain and feeling desperately sorry for someone else who met an untimely end. Salut! Sunderland dedicates the posting to the memory of a man we wish we’d known, and thanks Georgia* for telling us about him …
When it comes to muddied oafs, I’ve always been a rugby girl, thanks to a rugby refereeing father.
But my family has always taken an interest in all sorts of sports and I remember as a kid, thinking Nottingham Forest sounded like a cute team to support, complete with the adorable tree badge. And Dad and I used to play a game when that bloke who read the English football results on the radio fired up. We’d try and guess the score while impersonating his dourly sing-song tones.
But while I was usually aware of the sex and scandals of football, it was always a passing interest until I got caught up in 2006 World Cup fever. I was in Dubai, a long way from home and was devastated when Australia was knocked out by those Italian divas.
Then I met Stuart, one of the kindest, sweetest men I’ve ever known. One of those people who made me want to be a better person. He was also a Sunderland fan and he was delighted that the Black Cats were back in the Premier League.
We fell madly in love and life was pretty good. Then a group of 10 of us went away for a weekend in Fujairah. We had a great time, hanging out at the beach, watching the bloodless bullfighting and carousing at the bar. Then, on the Saturday morning, Stuart went for a swim. The day before, he’d swum out to Snoopy Island, a rocky lump about a kilometre off the beach.
He loved swimming almost as much as he loved Sunderland and he couldn’t wait to freestyle out to Snoopy Island again. The rest of us chilled out on the sand, still recovering from the night before. As he swam off, I warned him not to get sunburnt again.
That was the last thing I said to him. Out on Snoopy Island, he fainted in the 40+ degree heat. A snorkeller and his son revived him but he fainted again. The snorkeller turned his back for a moment to send his son to raise the alarm and in that split second, a freak wave knocked him off the rock ledge. His not-insubstantial 6’3″, 100kg body was thrown five feet onto rocks below and he died of a massive head injury.
The devastation I felt when Australia was knocked out of the World Cup paled into insignificance. The day was a blur of crying on the beach, a hospital, a police station and more crying, shock and disbelief.
A few weeks after Stuart died, I was having a drink in a Dubai bar with John, Stuart’s best friend. As we chatted, he pulled out a piece of paper. It was a bet Stuart and John had made before the accident. John had bet Stuart Dh100 (about £18) that Sunderland would get relegated at the end of 2007. I had signed the bet as a witness.
I remembered the night as I read over the conditions of the wager, scrawled out in some darkened bar. There and then I agreed to take over Stuart’s end of the bet and from that day forward I was a Sunderland supporter.
About a year after Stuart died, I moved to Abu Dhabi where I met Paul at work. Paul was a lifelong, dyed in the wool, Newcastle fan. When he found out I supported Sunderland, he wanted to know why and asked me out for a drink – so I could explain why a girl from rural Australia would support Sunderland, of all teams.
In the taxi on my way to the InterCon, I was nervous. Not only did I have to explain my filthy Mackem ways to a Geordie but I would have to tell someone I rather fancied that my last serious boyfriend had died tragically at the age of 38.
To his eternal credit, Paul took it well. When I mentioned that I had a boyfriend who was a Sunderland fan, he asked me if he had a hunchback, but was respectfully quiet when I cut him off, saying Stuart had died.
Paul and I are still together, despite our football club differences. True love, it seems, can transcend Geordie-Mackem boundaries. He scoffs at filthy Mackems, I laugh uproariously at the two-shades-of-wee Newcastle away strip.
And we’re both looking forward to next season with both our clubs in the Premier League. The first Sunderland-Newcastle game should be a cracker…
* Georgia Lewis on Georgie Lewis: I’m an opinionated cynic from Bathurst, Australia. I currently write about cars in Abu Dhabi in between shaking my head at Sunderland’s mercurial form and enjoying a quiet beverage.
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