Part Mackem Diaspora, part Cup Final report, this is broadened football writing as compelling as it gets. Malcolm Dawson traces the life journey that took a committed Sunderland supporter from Eppleton to Leicestershire and, implausibly, a seat among the Coalville Town fans (who may like the photo, especially now I’ve changed it to one from Coalville) trying – in vain – to urge their team to victory at Wembley …
Back in those pre-Thatcher days of early ’79, my 25th birthday coincided with my first proper full time, permanent job. During what is now called a gap year, I had spent the first 12 months of my graduate status in the long hot summer of 1976, enjoying the views of Eppleton Colliery from the garden of my parents’ house, listening to Steely Dan and the jazz-influenced pre-Born in the USA Springsteen and taking the occasional walk around the Bull Wells, even occasionally going as far as Seaham to get a glimpse of the North Sea.
A temporary job in Sunderland working with young offenders, was followed by a Post Grad teacher training course in the Fylde. (A few years back on an in-service course, we were asked to write down why we had decide to become teachers. Truthfully my response was …”the ratio of women to men at teacher training college was 7:1”.)
I then had another stint, working with the disaffected youth of the North West, before my 149th application for a teaching job bore fruit and I became the youngest member of staff at Ashby de la Zouch CE Primary School. Little did I know that I would still be resident in the East Midlands, 32 years later!
After 18 months in the job I felt secure enough to buy my first house – a terrace in the nearby town of Coalville. I felt sure I would be at home there. As the name suggests the town was built on the extraction of the black diamond. Robert Stevenson (son of George) opened a mine at Snibston, in the 1800s. That was half a mile from my new house and there was another pit in between.
But I was to discover that there was a big difference between the County Durham and Leicestershire mining communities. For a start, the East Midlands wasn’t as dependent upon the industry as East Durham. There was hosiery, toy factories (Trivial Pursuit and Action Man were made in Coalville) and other light industry. The Working Men’s clubs were nothing like Hetton Big Club or any others I had been to, resembling as they did the refectories at cheap holiday camps, with their Formica tables and kids running about. Then there was the sense of humour – or lack of it. I found Midlands people to be very literal, lacking the natural irony, self-deprecation and general quickness of wit that you get in the North East.
And to cap it all there was the Miners’ Strike. Whilst my family back home were suffering the hardship that industrial action brings, I was surrounded by members of the recently formed UDM who continued to work and the thousands of representatives of Her Majesty’s Constabulary bivouacked in huge canvas villages on the outskirts of town who had been drafted in to police the pickets.
For the past 23 years, I have lived in a village five miles from Coalville and made lots of friends but I still don’t think of it as home.
In 1979 there wasn’t a football club to speak of in Coalville. At that time, the club that got to Wembley was still a village side in nearby Ravenstone, hence their nickname the Ravens. They were playing in some lower league, equivalent to that I played in – the Tamworth and District Sunday League. By the time I moved out of the town, the mines were closing and there still wasn’t a decent football side. So I never got into the habit of watching Coalville Town as the club became, when Ravenstone Parish Council thwarted their plans to climb the non league pyramid by refusing to allow them to erect floodlights. There are plenty of other non-league teams that I went and watched but not Coalville – not even when they reached the first round of the FA Cup losing away to Wycombe Wanderers. In fact I saw them for the first time, when in the company of Mr Sixsmith, I went to the semi final of the Vase when they deservedly beat a disappointing Kings Lynn side 3-0.
I ummed and ahhed about going to Wembley. I felt nothing for the team or the town. Two weeks ago I was in Seahouses. I could have gone then and got tickets from Whitley Bay. I didn’t but when a Barnet-supporting friend of mine suggested we go and have a look at the new stadium, the prospect of a few beers and a curry after the match prompted me to get a couple of tickets – from Coalville. And so it was we ended up having to sit amongst a sea of black and white.
We drove from my mate’s house in Enfield to Stanmore then caught the tube – four stops to Wembley – breaking our journey at Kingsbury one stop before and leaving the station in search of a pub. This area of NW London is an interesting mix of cultures, having a large Indian community and a still sizeable Irish population. Within a stone’s throw of the Tube were Indian Clubs (not the sort that jugglers use) but converted pubs where it is possible to get drinks and the sort of cooking prepared for an Asian palette, not the anglicised adaptations of your run of the mill curry houses. Relatively cheap they are too.
But it was beer we wanted so we went into Hennessey’s – a little piece of Galway in the metropolis. A bloke at the bar had a brogue so thick I found him hard to understand and like all good Irish conversations the chat in the place was littered with F words. We enjoyed the Guinness whilst watching racing from Uttoxeter and Worcester, Wolves v West Brom and Kilmarnock v Celtic simultaneously and at 2pm made the short trip to the National Stadium.
Before I even made it into the ground, I met twins I had taught last year, who together with their mum had come down for the day. One of the lads plays for the Coalville under 12s and had a free ticket. Fair play. As I was talking to them, I heard a loud shout of “Malc!” and a mate of mine came staggering up in the manner of one who started his breakfast with a couple of pints and had then been topping up ever since. It was one Tim Chamberlain, fellow Sunderland supporter. Although born in Leicestershire, Tim has supported Sunderland all his life. We had made many memorable trips together following the Lads, most notably the trip to Bradford when Quinny ended up in goal and another, when I took the rise out of him for the rest of the day for going into a fish and chip shop in Grimsby and asking for a pie. Since he got married, he hasn’t seen so much of Sunderland but has been involved in coaching youth teams and the reserves at Coalville so fair play to him too.
Once in the ground, I saw more kids I had taught and of course they all knew about my NE roots. Then lo and behold, just behind me was a neighbour who I sometimes go to cricket with who shouted out “Ay up Malc – shouldn’t you be in the Whitley Bay end?” So now everyone within earshot knew who I wanted to win. Even after all these years I’ll still root for a North East team.
The match started brightly and proved to be a great advert for the lower leagues. Both teams wanted to play football but it was the Ravens who dominated the opening quarter of the match. Indeed Bay needed a goal line clearance in the second minute to prevent them going behind. Much of the play from both sides was coming down the right flank, and Whitley began to get into the game. After 27 minutes, the ball was again out wide, Bay’s McFarlane knocked the ball beyond the fullback and his pinpoint cross was turned in by Paul Chow to give the Seahorses the lead. Mind, he was helped by a ball watching Coalville centre back who drifted away from him to give the Whitley Bay forward plenty of space to bury the pass.
Soon afterwards, the ball was in the Whitley net but whilst the Coalville fans around me celebrated, the goal was disallowed. Interestingly the incident was never replayed on the big screen but subsequent reports suggested the ball was out of play before it was headed back across goal.
Bay then had another escape when a shot across the goal hit the post and rebounded straight into the arms of goalkeeper Burke.
Unbeknown to me, Sixer was also at the game texting me updates, but as I had my phone switched off we were unable to compare notes. Bay had another good attack down the right just before half time, but on this occasion the Coalville full back kept tight enough to his opponent to prevent the angle needed to find Paul Chow a second time, otherwise it may have been all over for Coalville before half time.
In the second half, with both sides playing towards their fans, the Raven’s tactics eventually paid off. Another right wing cross was headed back firmly and although the keeper got to it couldn’t prevent the equaliser. Cue lots of jumping about from those around me. Almost immediately though they let out a collective groan as a clever glancing header from Bay’s Kerr beat the keeper and found the corner of the goal.
Coalville had more chances, none better than that which fell to their centre forward Matt Moore. Yet another cross from the right found him unmarked 4 yards from goal. His powerful downward header however, bounced up and hit the bar before being scrambled away. Terry Burke, playing what was to be his last game before announcing his retirement was rightly named Man of the Match, making several fine saves, stretching full length to turn powerful shots away from goal on a couple of occasions.
When Coalville’s second equaliser came, it was no more than they deserved. Bay had taken their collective feet off the gas and were sitting back on their lead. A corner was partially cleared but the subsequent cross was headed home and once again those around me went mental.
Despite all of Coalville’s pressure and possession, I always felt Bay had the edge in terms of ability and application. Maybe that’s the North Easterner in me, but it didn’t surprise me when the winner came. Coalville had worked hard, but were tiring towards the end. A free kick outside the box, was cleverly played in to Paul Chow. It looked as if the defence were expecting a shot as Chow was left to attack the ball. Somehow it ended up rebounding back off the bar, but he was able to bundle it home for the winner. Bay could perhaps have had a fourth when, with the Coalville keeper up for a corner, they regained possession, but the opportunity went.
In the end I thought Bay had just about shaded it and were worthy winners. Sportingly, after celebrating in front of their own fans they came down and applauded the Coalville supporters who responded well. It was a great game of football preceding more beer and curry.
My journey home the next day saw me travelling through the leafy lanes of the Hertfordshire with my Sat Nav set to scenic route. It took me past Baldock, where a certain Kevin Phillips plied his trade before making it big and then to Stotfold, where the village team play at Roker Park! What with that, and the fact that the mother of one of the kids I saw at Wembley reckons she used to go out with Phil Babb before he signed for Sunderland, there’s more than enough to justify a posting on Salut!
Ha’way the Lads!