Jonathan Wilson: the candystripe passions of grandfather, father and son


Jonathan Wilson''s book on a Sunderland great

NB: A tweet by the author, coinciding with World Alzheimer’s Month, has brought this poignant and outstandingly written article a deserved new burst of interest, causing Salut! Sunderland to promote it back to the front page of the site nearly a year after it first appeared. It will stay prominently displayed for the rest of September …

I am proud to say that permission has been received for the reproduction of this quite exceptional and moving account by Jonathan Wilson*, the Sunderland-supporting Guardian sportswriter, of memories of his dad, and an exchange as death approached, that summed up the passion handed down through generations …

Last year, after my dad had died, I stayed holding his hand for about quarter of an hour and then left the nurses to it. In the hospital waiting room I made three calls. The first was to Sunderland Civic Centre to register the death. The second was to the undertakers. And the third was to The Independent to tell them that I was, after all, free to cover Sunderland v Burnley the next day.

I know a lot of people found that odd. To be honest, looking back, it seems odd to me. At the time, though, it seemed perfectly natural.

Part of it, of course, was that I needed something else to do; that I couldn’t bear just to sit at home with my mam, wallowing in that blend of grief and relief that comes after the death of a loved one who has been tormented by illness. Part of it was about honouring my dad’s militant unemotionalism, his insistence on getting on with things no matter what. And part of it was because football and my dad were so closely related.

That evening, discussing funeral arrangements with the undertaker, I mentioned that the first game Sunderland had played after the death of the great inside-forward Raich Carter had also been against Burnley. I realised that my mam and the undertaker were looking at me strangely, at which it dawned on me what an odd thing it was to know.

I have no idea how I knew it – I certainly don’t have a checklist of first games played after famous player’s deaths – but I’ve looked it up and I was right. It was the kind of detail in which my dad would have delighted.

He was not, in any sense, a talkative man, but on long drives he would regularly, after minutes of silence, ask, “Do you know what happened on this weekend 20 years ago?” and, when my mam and I admitted we didn’t, he’d reveal that it was the anniversary of a Brian Clough goal against Walsall, or of Kevin Arnott’s debut, or of Jim Montgomery’s save at Huddersfield which, he always maintained, was better than the more famous one in the 1973 FA Cup final.

After Carter’s death, Sunderland and Burnley had played out a scruffy 1-1 draw. They had the decency, at least, to mark my dad’s passing with a comfortable 2-1 win that mathematically confirmed they would not be relegated: nothing flash or extravagant, but proficient and economical, just as my dad would have liked it.

My dad grew up about 200 yards from Roker Park, Sunderland’s old ground, and his mother lived in the same house on Appley Terrace until a few weeks before her death in December 1995. When I was a kid, we often used to go there for tea on a Saturday. When I was six, my dad started to take me to the ground for the last 15-20 minutes of games, sneaking in when they opened the gates to let people out. The first thing I saw was Steve Williams sidefooting an equaliser for Southampton. I’d been to about a dozen games before, a year later, I saw Sunderland score for the first time, Gary Rowell heading in at the back post against Leicester.

Looking back, it occurs to me that we talked about football remarkably little, but then we didn’t really need to. We saw the game the same way, knew what each other was thinking. We both disdained the flashy, both admired calmness and precision and respected deep-lying central midfielders who distributed the ball without fuss. It was only at his funeral that I found out he’d played right-back for his school team: needless to say, that was the position I played for my college side.

When we watched football on television together, we communicated in a series of tuts and grunts. After Sunderland had lost on penalties to Charlton in the 1998 play-off final, following a 4-4 draw, we looked at each other and turned for the exit simultaneously, ignoring Sunderland’s lap of honour. We collected the father of a friend to whom we’d given a lift, and drove back to Oxford. Only when we met my mam did we realise neither of us had spoken for over two hours (if, by any chance, Mr Wilkinson, you’re reading this, I apologise for our grumpiness).

My gran was cremated on January 6, the day Sunderland played away at Manchester United in the third round of the FA Cup. In the afternoon following the funeral, my dad drove me back to university. As we passed the end of Appley Terrace, Nicky Butt gave United the lead. There was, I think, almost a sense of relief. Neither of us would have said it, but I suspect we had both dreamed of some kind of send-off; this at least punctured those hopes early, and let them gently deflate. But then, in quick succession, Steve Agnew and Craig Russell scored. There may have been a snort at the ridiculousness of it all, but otherwise we were silent, recognising what this could mean. But there are, of course, no fates; there is no guiding force. Football does not hand out sentimental favours. Eric Cantona equalised with a late header and United won the replay.

A few weeks before my dad died, I signed a deal to write a biography of Brian Clough (it came out in November 2011; click this link – ed).

His memory was gone by then, ravaged by Alzheimer’s, but when I told him, I saw a flicker in his eyes. “Do you remember Clough?” I asked, talking, to be honest, for the sake of talking; he couldn’t have told me, by then, what day it was or what he’d had for lunch. “Of course I do,” he snapped, and went to talk about a hat-trick Clough had scored against Grimsby. Although I continued to visit every day, that was probably the last “proper” conversation we had.

Why do I bring this up? Well, it comes from trying to explain what being a fan means – to me. I realise this is personal, and I don’t want to suggest there’s a “right” way to be a fan, but supporting Sunderland was never a choice. It just was. I’ve spent a lot of time in Argentina and people, naturally, have asked if I have an Argentinian team. My then-girlfriend and her family are Boca Juniors fans, and so I tried to support them, but the truth was that I didn’t care. I didn’t feel sick with nerves when they took the lead, and I certainly didn’t feel tears pricking at my eyes when I recalled their greatest triumphs.

I don’t really like being so emotional about Sunderland, but I am. And of course it has nothing to do with whichever bunch of players happens to be wearing the candystripes this season. Nothing to do with the manager, the style of play or success. It’s to do with home, and family, and a sense of the club as representative of a strand of belonging stretching back generations. My dad’s last game was the 4-0 defeat to Manchester United on Boxing Day 2007, but in a sense he has been with me at every game I’ve been at since. What I hadn’t realised till last year is that his father, who died before I was born, had been coming with us for years as well.

* Jonathan Wilson is a hugely respected football writer and author of an acclaimed history of tactics, Inverting the Pyramid. He is also the editor of The Blizzard.

His biography of Brian Clough, Brian Clough: Nobody Ever Says Thank You can be be found here. Inverting the Pyramid is at this link. Ignore the “look inside” reference in the photograph. It works only from the Amazon site.

** The above article first appeared at the SB Info Plus website at this link. We gratefully acknowledge permission from SB Indo Plus to publish it at Salut! Sunderland.


Colin Randall



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15 thoughts on “Jonathan Wilson: the candystripe passions of grandfather, father and son”

  1. A beautiful read which Is very moving. Bad enough that I read with tears in my eyes to then find my father had already commented (Hi Brian).

    I struggled with a lot of internal stuff until the birth of my children and football was the only relatively healthy manner of escapism. I didn’t choose this club, but ill be forever thankful that it was chosen for me as it saw me through so much.

    Having always found conversations difficult, the club always broke down my barrier with grandfather and father. There isn’t a game that goes by that I don’t think of both. I feel very fortunate that I went to a couple of games with both.

  2. What a great read! The motivation behind supporting a team is invariably fascinating.
    For me it started with my first visit to Roker Park accompanied by my uncle [ who incidently went to the same school as Raich Carter – though not at the same time ]
    Although born in Sunderland [ Deptford ] I lived in Epsom, Surrey [ chalk and cheese I must say ] but visited my grandparents every year.
    That first game, a pre-season practice match, first team attack and reserve defence against the reverse of that [ do they still do that? I doubt it ] started me off on my 60 odd year love affair.
    Some of those players stay vividly in my mind. Johnny Mapson, Fred Hall, Arthur Wright, Willie Watson – a very young Stan Anderson……..
    I went to Roker whenever we visited Sunderland, then as I matured, followed them at most of the London games in the early 1950s. I was filled with expectation during the heady ” Bank of England ” days as one star after another was signed by Bill Murray. What a team that should have been? Shackleton, Ford, Broadis, Bingham, Elliott etc. Alas it all came to nothing in terms of silverware, but it was great to watch.
    Supporting Sunderland has sometimes been a tough journey, and I’ve often wondered why I didn’t get hooked on Arsenal or Spurs. But, these things are almost beyond your control. Once the seed is planted there is no going back.

  3. Well worth reposting this piece Salut. Wonderful article which I hope many others will read and relate to the second time around.

  4. Thanks M Salut – I enjoyed reading that again. Most of us are at an age where our fathers are no longer with us (1986) and I am already older than he was when he died.
    Have now downloaded Jonathan’s book.

  5. A really evocative, moving article that I’m sure lots of supporters of a certain vintage can really identify with. For me it was my Grandfather, rather than my father, who introduced me to the delights (and heartaches!) that go hand-in-hand with supporting The Lads. Memories of standing in the bottom right-hand corner of the Roker End with him are still strong to this day, even after 50-odd years, and I’d like to think that my two sons will have similar affectionate memories of going with me when I’m long gone.
    I’m sure that every set of supporters have similar attachments and family “legacies”, but I can’t help thinking that Sunderland supporters are just that much more emotionally involved. I think that’s why the comment I read in a different aticle on this site about so many “false dawns” hurting more than the numerous relegations is so appropriate.

  6. This great article got me thinking about the people that I used to stand next to at the match (pre SoL). There was a community of sorts that used to stand just to the left of the halfway line in the Clock Stand Paddock. Pete Sixsmith of this parish was one of them, as was M. Salut. I’m sure there was nothing unique about the communities of fans here as they undoubtedly in all other parts of the ground too. For all the people that you got to know well, who you were on first name terms with and who became friends, there were the people that you didn’t know quite so well and who you weren’t on first name terms with. I can see some of their faces now. Sadly some of the friends that I shared the joys and suffering with have passed. Bob Roper and Neil Anderson in particular. I find myself wondering what happened to the bloke with the moustache and gingery hair who just stopped going and never reappeared, and the lad with the thick dark hair who always carried a motorcycle helmet. Where did they go? We will never know. They stopped going some time before we left Roker, but these “communities” were very real and they disappeared when we moved. Long gone, but not forgotten. Not by me anyway.

  7. Father – son relationships are fascinating with often so much going unsaid. Rather, it is invariably communicated through a shared love of the game as this seems to provide an ‘excuse’ to discuss, argue (in a positive way) and expouse (?) life’s values.
    I think it is a generational thing and hopefully, my 4 Essex bred sons and I have a different relationship – although, as I think about it now, Sunderland still is is a key connection. In fact, it is a major way of reminding them who they are and where their genes are from. The values that the club represents are the values they should aspire to.
    With me it was being taken to watch the Bishops in he 50’s and the associated magical stories of the local heroes (Hardisty, Sharratt et al). Shared, yet often non-verbal moments.
    Great writing Jonathan, so am looking forward to the book.

  8. Lovely piece of writing. My love of football is very much wrapped up with memories of my dad and my grandad. I found this very moving.

  9. Brilliant piece.
    Never got to a game with my father. Alan Brown did for him. I envy you. Still I do get to enjoy our matches with my two sons.

    If you get the chance read Inverting the Piramid, do its facinating. After reading it you’ll agree we did invent football!

  10. Jonathon Wilson is a great writer and emotional SAFC fan,he very kindly sent me a signed copy of his book a few years back after I met and helped a friend of his from London (A Spurs fan)even though we had never met.

    This Spurs supporting friend of his told me that whenever or whenever Jonathon meets people he “bores everyone to death talking about his beloved Sunderland”:),

    So respect for the man, he is one of our clubs great ambassadors.

  11. A superb piece of emotional writing I was immediately transported from a sleepy Devon village to the back streets of Sunderland I read Jonathons article through eyes filled with tears remembering my old dad and the arguaments we used to have about mapson and shack being better than cloughie and monty and later my son saying they were rubbish compared to phillips and sorenson. I only wish i had been as good a dad as his had when coming out of wembley and said nothing instead of ripping into my boy and telling him his modern day players were rubbish.Once again thanks for the memories

  12. Agree with Phil. A wonderful and very personal account of not only what it means to follow this club but a great deal more.

    I felt a sense of relief indeed empathy with Jonathan’s piece. There is a strong association that can link unconnected events or memories. It’s called “flashbulb memory” which links recollection of where you were when a particularly memorable event took place, such as where you were when you heard that John Lennon had been shot, or where you were when you heard about the 9-11 attacks.

    I recall my Dad’s death not so much with a particular game as such but very strongly with the promotion season under Peter Reid when we went up without playing a game. Whenever I hear “Cheer up Peter Reid” I am almost overwhelmed with emotion because of the strong association with that particular time.

    Strangely, I associate the Wimbledon away game when we were relegated with the death of my dearly loved Uncle George as that was the first game we played after his death on the previous Friday.

    It was a marvellous read. Thanks for posting it Salut.

  13. What a brilliant read.

    I never had the privilege of walking alongside and then following in a Sunderland supporting relative’s footsteps because I wasn’t born in Sunderland, never mind the North East.

    Nor have I been able to be the start of a similar story because I was divorced when my son was still very young and he was raised as a Leeds supporter, as his grandfather was (on my ex wife’s side).

    There were, though, several things contained in the article that I can relate to.

    Communicating with anyone in “tuts & groans”, when watching us play on TV; not wishing to talk, to anyone,after the Charlton game – It took me about an hour to get home, from Wembley, but I don’t think that I uttered a word until the next morning!

    Then there was the reminiscence about Clough v Grimsby, which dredged another thought from my old brain.

    Didn’t Clough make his “comeback” for Sunderland reserves away to Grimsby reserves, in a 7-0 victory, with Cloughy scoring all seven?

    Or was that Scarborough?

    I’m getting old!!

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