Salut! Sunderland has cornered the market in football-supporting clerics. Last season we had the thoughts of the Rev Leo Osborn, then in his year as the Methodist equivalent of the Archbishop of Canterbury, ahead of a game against his beloved Aston Villa, and the Rev Alan Comfort, Boro-supporting footballer turned vicar. The Very Rev Christopher Dalliston* is the Anglican Dean of Newcastle, based at St Nicholas’ Cathedral, but when it comes to birds, prefers Canaries to Magpies. As Sunderland prepare to visit the Canaries’ natural habitat, he talks about Grant Holt, Delia, the Friendly Final and a winning Martin O’Neill goal …
Salut! Sunderland: Wonderful results against Arsenal and Man Utd, awful against Liverpool and Fulham. Is that – up and down – to be the nature of this season?
We’ve taken time to settle down this season and we’ve had one or two nightmares – but over the last seven games we’ve at last started to become tough to beat. Under Lambert we were gung ho – Hughton’s making us a more grown-up team but as our result against Everton showed retaining the never-say-die spirit. Bound to be a few disasters to come (we are Norwich after all) but we’re all feeling a bit calmer now.
Chris Hughton is warmly regarded in football but not all fans see him as a great manager, Your view?
Time will tell. He’s not really ever had that long to get established – Newcastle notably – scandalously sacking him when he seemed to be doing OK. If he nurses us through second season syndrome and helps us mature as a team he may yet prove himself as at least a very competent manager. The early signs are encouraging.
And realistically, how far can he – or some other manager – take Norwich and can you live happily with the likelihood that the highest honours are beyond your club?
The way football is now we have to learn to live with the truth that the best we can hope for may be a decent stay in the Premier League, perhaps a cup one day and maybe another shot at European football (the Europa league). The days when a club our size could defy the odds and finish in the top three or four (as we did the first year of the Premiership) have sadly been swept away in a tide of money. Am I happy about that? Not really. But loyalty and affection to a club like Norwich has to do with so much more than winning or losing – it’s about loyalty a deep sense of identity, about one’s own story. Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch and the Colin Firth film brilliantly told it as it is.
How important was it to keep Grant Holt, supposedly a Sunderland target at one stage?
I think at the time it was a huge statement about continuity while we were a bit traumatised by Lambert’s defection. Securing his signature was probably as much about symbolism as football – although he is an awkward person to play against, deceptively skilful and of course a Norwich legend.
Who else is key to the team’s prospects this season and which areas, in an ideal world, would you strengthen in January?
Ruddy gets better and better. We’ve always been blessed with great keepers – Keelan, Woods, Gunn, Rob Green – after all they get a lot of practice with us – and Ruddy is up with all of those. But Hughton’s made some very important acquisitions – Bassong, Whitaker and Garrido in defence critically and Alex Tettey whose brought something new to an already strong midfield. We do look a bit lacking up front however and a pacey striker would give a different dimension to the Holt battering ram.
You live and work in the North East. What are your impressions of Sunderland – club, fans, city – and is Wear-Tyne tribalism a world apart from Norwich-Ipswich rivalry?
My job title is Dean of Newcastle (sorry about that!) so I can’t be too complimentary! But I do think Sunderland is a place with real spirit and a proper sense of identity which is matched by the club. As for the fans – Norwich and Sunderland supporters have always got on (see below!) As for the Tyne-Wear rivalry it obviously has a deep and passionate quality to it – even I have to admit that football is the biggest religion in the North East and the atmosphere is extraordinary. Mind you don’t underestimate the passions in East Anglia – beating the Binners (that’s our pet – printable- name for the Tractor Boys) 4-1 and 5-1 in our last Championship season was among the best moments of my life!!
Who are the best players you have seen or wish you’d seen in NCFC colours and who honestly should have been allowed nowhere near them?
I still remember Martin Peters playing for the Canaries – a world Cup winner and even in the later stages of his career a truly great player. Ian Crook was another impeccable player who graced our midfield when we finished 3rd in the premiership and played in Europe. Chris Sutton another class act. Huckerby wore the shirt with pride and on his day was unplayable. Among the unsung heroes – Dave Stringer great defender who turned out to be a quiet and undemonstrative but gifted manager. Should have liked to have seen Johnny Gavin our all top scorer – he was before even my time. Disasters almost too numerous to mention – but most of them came and went under Glen Roeder’s disastrous second season.
Any memories of notable Sunderland-Norwich encounters of the past? Are you old enough to have been at Wembley for the famous Friendly Final?
I am and I was! I was a newly ordained curate then working in Essex. I jumped in the car straight after the Sunday service – dog collar and City scarf flying and bombed down the M11 passing all the Norwich coaches – I made praying gestures as I passed which as you can imagine got a laugh. The atmosphere was indeed friendly and though the match wasn’t a classic after two previous league cup Wembley disappointments in the seventies (both of which I was at) no one in green and yellow was complaining.
More recently there was another great night at the Stadium of Light last time we got promoted. You won 1-0 on the night securing a place in the play-offs but West Brom lost so we were champions anyway. Unusually everyone could celebrate that night and it was great to have all the Sunderland fans wishing us well in the Premier as we left the ground.
Links between us include Steve Bruce, Shaun Elliott, Michael Turner, very briefly Gary Rowell (a hero of ours). Do any these stand out in your memories?
Steve Bruce raised the League (Milk) cup at Wembley – a great player – not so impressed by his managerial record. Gary Rowell sadly was hit by injuries he only played in six games for us and I didn’t see any of them. Martin O’Neill of course both played for us (twice) and managed us (briefly). Stupidly allowed him to leave for Leicester – but his last minute winner in a 3-2 win at Portman Road Christmas 1983 (Free kick curled from the edge of the box curled into the top corner at the Norwich end remains seared into my memory as a moment of supreme joy. Michael Turner? After a shaky start he seems to be settling in.
What have been your highs and lows of supporting Norwich?
Apart from the Milk Cup final the best moment has to be the win over Bayern Munich – no one saw that coming. It was part of a real purple patch when we seemed capable of anything. It won’t ever quite be like that again I don’t think. Other great moments? Beating Arsenal 4-2 at Highbury first game of the premiership – the day my son was born (and yes he’s hooked too). Lows – you are joking?! So many nearly moments and disappointments including (in my time) two FA Cup semi finals when we didn’t turn up and a humiliating 6-0 defeat to Fulham when we only needed a draw to stay up. But amazingly the worst moment was of course just before some of the best – a 7-1 home defeat first day of the season back in the third tier to Colchester managed by a certain Mr Lambert (who he?). How the Blue half of East Anglia laughed that day. They’re not laughing now! In the church we talk of resurrection.
You saw your Villa-supporting colleague Leo Osborn’s thoughts last season – see https://safc.blog/2011/10/aston-villa-who-are-you-shankly-was-wrong-about-football-2/ – on the famous Bill Shankly quote about football being more important than a simple matter of life and death. Tongue in cheek maybe, but often requoted in complete seriousness – what do you think?
Leo was right in theory – it isn’t that important in the great scheme of things. I keep trying to tell myself that every week that a defeat ruins my Saturday or a victory puts me on a high. It isn’t only a game because like I said earlier it touches on something quite deep about home and personal identity and love and loyalty. That said in football there is always next season and that isn’t quite the case for some of life’s deeper issues.
And what do you suppose Delia Smith would make of the General Synod’s decision not to permit female bishops in the CoE?
Well of course she’s a Catholic so it doesn’t affect her directly although many Catholics wish we’d get on with it and set them an example. As indeed does almost everyone else in the world. Frankly it’s a disaster and I’m very saddened by it.
What will be this season’s top four in order and who will go down?
The top four? Manchester Utd, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal – do we care any more? Going down – a tough one and unfortunately I don’t think either of us can afford a moment’s complacency this season. QPR looked down and out but heh! – here comes Harry! Reading I think are fragile. Wigan – can they keep defying the odds? I’ll go for them.
Assuming neither appears in the previous answer, where will our clubs finish up?
I’ll say 15th (us) and 16th (you) but I really haven’t a clue. I sense that at the moment anywhere above the bottom three will do.
What is the form of cheating that most annoys you and can it be stamped out?
My daughter’s applying for drama courses at Uni at the moment. She tells me there are modules for Premier footballers to feign diving led by Professor Suarez; can this be true? And no it can’t be stamped out unless managers want to restore some morality to a game where money rules – which is unlikely. Mind you referees are getting tougher on simulation which is good.
Will you be at our game and what will be the score?
I hardly ever get to Norwich these days sadly – only once so far this season and not this time. May sound a cop out but I fancy a draw given our defensive strengths and attacking frailties
Christopher Dalliston on Christopher Dalliston: I’ve supported Norwich for nearly 45 years! My first game was a 2-2 draw at Carrow Road in 1968 and I’ve never looked back. The ground has changed beyond recognition (but at least we’re still there), football has become more attractive to watch but has lost a lot of its heart. (To be honest in that sense our visits to League 1 grounds had more of the old spirit). My job now as Dean of Newcastle is hugely demanding. We are in the midst of a £3-4 million redevelopment project – I’m part priest, part manager of a quite a large team, part administrator of a major heritage building. These days I don’t have the time – or, to be honest, the money – to get to matches as I used to. Indeed getting tickets for Norwich is either impossible or unaffordable if you want to take other family members which is sad. (Everyone in the family is passionate including my wife who is also a priest!) So I’ve seen most of the Canaries’ visits to the North East including Hartlepool and Carlisle a few seasons back but that’s about it. I have a rather too obsessive interest in the Eastern Daily Press“Pinkun” website and will follow commentary on matches that are streamed live while working on a sermon! Sad isn’t it really! Still as we say On the Ball City!
Interview: Colin Randall
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