In the first two extracts from his book, Sing When You’re Winning, Colin Irwin trod the familiar path of Sunderland’s history: early glory, post-war turbulence and 1973 fairytale (with as much literary licence as the Brothers Grimm). He left us with the anxiety of relegation-haunted fans as kickoff neared in SAFC v Boro in Jan 2006 …
Not that the nail biting lasts for long. Sunderland forget that Emanuel Pogatetz, the big lad strolling into their penalty area when Middlesbrough are awarded a free kick just outside the box, isn’t there to discuss the latest bargains at B&Q and may have evil intent.
A free header, back of the net, and Sunderland are in trouble again. A few more minutes go by, then young defender Stuart Parnaby robs the Sunderland crowd’s darling Julio Arca, waltzes through some half-arsed tackles and drives in Middlesbrough’s second. We are less than 20 minutes into the game and it’s effectively all over.
Sunderland do come out for the second half with a bit more fire in their bellies, which briefly inspires their fans to a few choruses of Elvis’s I Can’t Help Falling In Love, one of several songs they claim to have introduced to matches and subsequently seen adopted by the rest of the country. Another is the old Monkees’ hit Daydream Believer , which Newcastle fans savagely turned against them when Peter Reid was the manager by singing, “Cheer up Peter Reid/ oh what can it mean/ To be a sad Mackem bastard with a shit football team?.” This was invariably followed by “Peter Reid’s got a fooking monkey’s head” to the tune of Yellow Submarine.
Twenty minutes from the end, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink puts Sunderland out of their misery with a stunning 25-yard shot. Still, they’ve been here before and they mostly try to retain a sense of humour about it. When Newcastle came recently and started singing “Going, down, going down, going down”, the Sunderland fans responded with “So are we, so are we , so are we”.
There’s a kerfuffle behind me as a man in a Sunderland top tries to get through our press enclosure, which is directly behind the dugout. A steward stop him. “I just need to give something to someone,” says the guy, all red-faced and worked up, waving a small ticket wallet. “It’s me season ticket.” The steward is momentarily perplexed and almost lets him through.
“Who do you want to give it to?” – “That twat down there.” He’s pointing to Sunderland manager Mick McCarthy. Bizarrely, an identical situation arises at Middlesbrough the following week when a Boro fan does make it on to the pitch to toss his season ticket at Steve McCLaren.
There are long faces all round back in the warmth of the press facility, where microphones are set up for the post-match press conference. Steve McClaren soon skips among us with a smile as big as the Wear and such a spring in his step I’m convinced when he moves in front of the mic he’s going to give us a round of There’s No Business Like Show Business. He doesn’t stop beaming throughout the conference, praising his boys to the skies, cracking jokes and talking animatedly through every nuance of each goal. The press boys soon run out of questions, but perhaps thinking of his next job as England manager, Steve is reluctant to leave.
And then comes the long wait for the Sunderland manager. Rumours fly around, He’s already resigned. He’s still got the team locked in their dressing room throwing teacups at them. He’s too upset to talk to the press. He’s currently standing on the top of the stand and a groundsman is trying to talk him out of jumping in to the Wear. but eventually Mick McCarthy appears, looking haggard, worn and beaten. He slumps into a seat in front of the mic and stares across at us. We are avoid his gaze, looking at our feet, shuffling our notebooks and coughing nervously. After a painful silence, McCarthy speaks in that wonderfully broad Yorkshire monotone that used to wind up Roy Keane so much when they were locking horns for Ireland. “Christ, I don’t know what you’re all looking so miserable about. I’m the one who should be upset! Go on, fire away, give it your best shot.”
Considering their reputations as the most evil creatures on God’s earth, the press are remarkably kind. Even the bloke who asks if McCarthy is going to resign apologises first and puts it in a nice way. No, says Mick, he’s not a quitter. I’m starting to wonder if there’s a robot malfunction here. Which may explain a lot about the way Sunderland played tonight.
McCarthy is sacked a couple of weeks later and Sunderland are down by Easter, while Middlesbrough recover and not only survive, but go on a remarkable run in the Uefa Cup, Meanwhile , I leave the North East stinking of curry and wondering if the Dutchmen are getting the ferry home tonight.
This concludes our extracts reproduced with Colin Irwin’s permission.
See also: Jewels from a bleaker time
* Colin Irwin – Sing When You’re Winning: Football fans, terrace songs and a search for the soul of soccer (published by André Deutsch. If you’re tempted, buy it by clicking on this link.
** Image of Roy Keane and Mick McCarthy, from a Dublin wall, from “catvgale”‘s Flickr pages