The nerves are beginning to show. Monsieur Salut accepts at ESPN that it’s not Big Sam’s mustn’t-lose, but a clear must-win match. History offers little solace. The task falls to Sunderland AFC, in front of their 15th sell-out away crowd in a wretched season, to raise their games and flatten the Norfolk Dumplings, so known because the unflattened version is a traditional local delicacy (Delia probably does them quite well).
Pete Sixsmith anticipates Saturday’s trip and remembers others from the past, including the 2-2 draw also attended by M Salut and also occurring towards the end of a (vain) fight against relegation …
As Shakespeare (William not the Leicester City coach, Craig) almost said:
Two football clubs, both alike in dignity
In fair Carrow Road where we set our scene.
The mother and father of all relegation clashes is almost upon us where two clubs from different backgrounds and with different histories meet in a winner take all game.
In the yellow and green corner, we have Norwich City, one of the nicest clubs in English football, unless you happen to be from Ipswich.
They have nice colours, a nice ground, a nice walk along the winsome River Wensum from the city centre, a nice cathedral and nice fans like Delia Smith, Stephen Fry and Ed Balls – okay, maybe scratch the last one (especially since he ignored attempts to get him for the Who are You? interview – Ed).
They have a history that doesn’t amount to a great deal but they have had their moments. League Cup Winners in 1985 (grrr), UEFA cup entrants in the 90s for finishing high up the table, Norfolk Senior Cup winners on a number of occasions beating such luminaries as Cromer Town and Sheringham in the final. They are a well-liked and well respected club who seem to hover between the Premier League and the Championship in a kind of permanent limbo.
In the red and white corner we have that gnarled old bruiser Sunderland AFC. Not a nice city but a gritty working class kind of place, situated on a river that was dominated by heavy industry until the mid-70s when the closing down of the North of England began.
The colours are old fashioned, the ground is an impressive and highly functional new build, the walk to the ground is over a fine steel bridge similar to but far better than the one 12 miles away.
There is no cathedral, only a Minster, and the club is run by a secretive Missourian billionaire who occasionally comes out of his bunker to sack a manager, a chief executive or a miscreant player.
They have a long and distinguished history. No other club can claim the sobriquets “The Team of
All the Talents” or “The Bank of England Club” and the vast majority of their 125 years as a Football League/Premier League club has been spent in the top flight.
There are six league titles and two FA Cups and numerous Durham Challenge Cup triumphs. All in all, a club with a proud history but facing a bleak future. A club that cannot see itself as being anything other than a Premier League club – even if that does mean finishing 15th every season.
The two clubs’ paths barely crossed until the 1970s. There was a well-remembered FA Cup tie in 1961, when thousands of Sunderland fans descended on Norfolk’s top city to witness a thundering header from Charlie Hurley take Sunderland to the Sixth Round and a meeting with soon to be double winners Tottenham Hotspur.
There were sporadic meetings in Division Two until Alan Brown led us back to the Promised Land in 1964 and then another FA Cup tie in 1968 which saw off Ian McColl and led to Brown being reinstated as manager.
It was also my first visit to Norwich, travelling overnight on the coach, arriving in Norwich at some ungodly hour and looking for tea and bacon sandwiches. In addition it was my introduction to genuinely poor beer – Norwich was dominated by Steward and Pattersons and Bullards both of whom sold the execrable Watney’s Red Barrel. How we craved for a pint of Best Scotch or Exhibition that night!!!
When we went there in May 1977, we were (as usual) struggling to stay in the top flight. The Carrow Road game was the penultimate one of the season and a win or a draw would probably be enough to keep us up.
How to get there? A friend, who taught in Sunderland, persuaded the Experiment in Leisure programme to lend him a mini bus for an Outdoor Pursuits weekend and definitely not a trip to Norwich. Off we went, with carrier bags full of Vaux Double Maxim, arriving in Norwich in ample time for a couple of proper pints.
The bus was secreted away in a side street near Anglia TV studios and ale was taken before we walked out to the ground and the allocated corner in the Barclay End. However, neither City nor the Norfolk Constabulary had anticipated how many Sunderland supporters would make that long and difficult journey. There was no queuing, no stewards and no order. I pushed my way in, thrusting a few coppers into the hand of the terrified youth who was working on the turnstile and I was in.
It was a desperate game. Goalless at half time, Viv Busby (beard, Noel Edmonds hair style and a girl’s name) scored twice in the second half and we looked shot. Then Gary Rowell pulled one back and Bobby Kerr came off the bench to replace Tony Towers. The Little General levelled in the 89th minute prompting an outbreak of mass hysteria as we celebrated a draw that took us to 16th place in the league and effectively relegated Tottenham.
But there were a couple of stings in the tail. There is no need to remind any Sunderland devotee of the events that took place at Goodison Park and Highfield Road five days later.
The other sting was for the mate who had taken the bus on “an Outdoor Pursuits” weekend. Alas for him, the Director of Education had made the trip to Norwich in his car and had parked opposite one of his “Experiment in Leisure” buses. Enquiries were made in the Civic Centre on Monday and chum was hauled over the coals on Tuesday and was given a written warning. Oh how we chuckled …
This time I am travelling in a 53-seater coach which will disgorge us in the city in time for a decent breakfast and a walk along the river banks. A pint may be taken but it is no longer an essential part of my pre-match ritual; a weak bladder and a sense of decorum guide me towards a coffee shop rather than a pub nowadays.
If the team play to their full potential the long journey home will be tolerable; if we make the kind of errors that we have at Southampton, Newcastle and at home to Leicester, it will be purgatory.
We will know our fate by 2.45 on Saturday.
* See Also:
* A brilliant Who are You? with Gary Gowers, a Norwich City fan who likes Sunderland AFC and thinks we might still pull of survival: https://safc.blog/2016/04/the-norwich-who-are-you-canaries-as-nervous-as-black-cats/
** From M Salut on tour at ESPN FC:
All Big Sam’s fine work has produced too little in terms of improved points return and only six games remain to show it is not also too late.
Sunderland supporters are accustomed to disappointment and heartbreak, often caused by a failure to win or avoid losing utterly decisive games. Until 1958, the club had played only in the top flight; that first relegation, after 68 years of continuous membership of the elite, has been followed by eight more …
Older supporters will argue about the respective merits, or lack of them, among those relegated Sunderland squads. But there is a respectable argument that Allardcye has the best of the nine, with more than a hint of class in several positions