Internationals weekend means Pete Sixsmith goes out in search real football. A trip to South Yorkshire brought him closer than he might have wished to the flipside of democracy …
In Yorkshire near Rotherham.
It is a line from one of my favourite songs, Spencer The Rover, of which there are many versions one of which is by Cara Dillon. And it was to Rotherham that I took myself on Saturday, profiting from yet another blank Saturday to tick off the New York stadium and have a wander around the town.
The second aim was knocked on the head when I left the train at the grandly named Rotherham Central to be met by three police officers with cameras. I looked around for the hordes of marauding Southend fans – none were there. I asked the man behind me what was going on and he said that the English Defence League was having a “meeting” and a march in the town, hence the huge police operation.
As I walked the 400 yards into the town, there were more riot vans than I would expect to see next Sunday, more police visible than at the last Police Federation conference and a helicopter or two circling overhead.
The EDL and their antithesis, Unite Against Fascism were indeed in town. The UAF were having a rally in front of the church, with speeches and live music. They complimented the police on their demeanour and agreed that calling them plebs was just plain wrong.
The EDL, on the other hand, were being escorted around the streets of Rotherham by copious vans, horses and riot police. They blew that traditional English instrument, the vuvuzuela, held up posters accusing UAF of being in collusion with Jimmy Saville and chanted “Yorkshire, Yorkshire” long and loud.
In a democracy I suppose they have every right to demonstrate, but they are not a very prepossessing lot, a fact clearly supported by the tattooed man I saw in the street, the word England engraved on his forehead and the Union Flag etched on to his chin. No career for him in hospitality then.
Anyway, off to the match. For many Sunderland fans, Rotherham has a special place in the heart as it was here that we bade goodbye to the third level of English football in May 1988.
Marco notched two, John McPhail rattled in a pen and Keith Bertschin, who had scored our first Div 3 goal at Griffin Park, Brentford, made it a symmetrical season by claiming the last after replacing Dickie Ord, who became the first Sunderland sub to be subbed.
It was a carnival day, with many fans in fancy dress (I went as a teacher on his day off – very convincing) although our elation at leaving Division Three was not matched by fans of the Millers as they exited the division at the other end.
United left Millmoor a while ago and have played at Don Valley Stadium in Sheffield for five seasons. Now, they are back in their home town, a 10 minute walk from the town centre in a smart, purpose built stadium from where the redundant floodlight pylons and crumbling stands of their former and much loved home can be seen.
The main stand is sponsored by Pukka Pies and the delicacies were being delivered as I arrived. The franchisee had a Range Rover with the number plate P1 BOY which one would think must have originated in Wigan. But Rotherham is the pie chomping capital of football with over 40 per cent of the crowd taking the opportunity not to compromise with a Pukka Pie.
They are still the Millers, although the former mascot Dusty Miller is no more and has been replaced by a bear which seems to have no real connection with Rotherham. Surely a giant Chuckle Brother would have been more appropriate or an even more pneumatic Dolly Parton, in homage to her attempt to get the good folk of Rotherham reading.
The stadium was very tidy indeed with a wide pitch and a very true surface. Unfortunately, the Millers failed to turn on anything resembling style and were whopped 3-0 by an impressive Southend United team.
Both sides are managed by overweight Scots. The Rotherham manager, Steve Evans, was completing a six-match stadium ban for an “incident” with a female steward at Bradford City last season, while he was manager at Crawley Town. It would be fair to say that Evans divides opinions amongst football fans and some Rotherham fans were distinctly uncomplimentary about him post game.
Southend are managed by a much more genial figure in Paul Sturrock, who sat in the dugout in blazer and slacks with a rather fine tartan waistcoat covering his ample girth. Whereas Evans is a shouter and bawler (when he is allowed in the stadium), Sturrock sat and said very little, leaving the verbals to his assistant, Graeme Coughlan.
The Shrimpers scored three good goals in the second half, the first two coming from a Watford loanee, Britt Assombalonga. He looked a tidy player and fitted in well with the very positive work ethic that Sturrock and his coaching staff have instilled in the Essex team. “We’re the finest team in Essex,” warbled their fans – an intriguing thought.
By the time I arrived back at Rotherham Central, the EDL had gone back to their firesides to drink tea, toast crumpets and bemoan the loss of Empire. The Northern Rail Sprinter to Doncaster was full to the brim of Meadowhall shoppers, disgruntled Sheffield United fans (Oldham had claimed a 97th minute equaliser) and Southend fans, all making their way home after varying degrees of success.
And there was a lone Sunderland fan looking forward to next Sunday with mixed feelings of optimism and pessimism. Let’s get it over with and three points in the bag, Martin.