Pete Sixsmith celebrates a half-century of letting Sunderland AFC direct his life – and hopes not to be drowning his tears tomorrow night on the long haul back from the Emirates …
It’s 50 years since I first took an interest in Sunderland AFC. I started going to games in 1962-63 with M Salut, by train from Shildon, stopping at Bishop Auckland, Hunwick, Willington and Brandon, then change at Durham for Fencehouses, South Hylton, Pallion and, eventually, our teenage Nirvana, Sunderland.
In those days, players were much closer to the fans. They were well paid, but not quite as much as they are now; the Ford Anglia and the Triumph Herald were the choice of the pro rather than the baby Bentleys and the Maseratis favoured by the current crop.
The football was pedestrian and lacking guile and pace in those distant days, but we loved it.
The 62-63 season saw George Mulhall and Johnny Crossan join the club and saw the departure of Harry Hooper. Willie McPheat had his leg broken by Bobby Collins at Elland Road in what those who were there say was the worst tackle they had ever seen, and was quite clearly deliberate.
Brian Clough started the season, played 24 games and scored 24 goals before his cruciate ligament snapped on that fateful Boxing Day.
As we go into the new season, we have some links with the supposed “Good Old Days”. Martin O’Neill is a disciple of Clough and a fellow countryman of the great Crossan. Jimmy Montgomery is at the club as a liaison officer while the likes of Cec Irwin, Len Ashurst and Nicky Sharkey are warmly greeted by fans whenever they draw the raffle tickets.
That season we started off with a 3-1 win over Middlesbrough in front of 48,106, before beating Charlton at Roker and then losing 1-0 at Elland Road, where both sets of fans boycotted the game because United’s directors had raised ticket prices to 10/- to exploit the return of John Charles from Juventus.
That season we played at the Vetch Field, Fellows Park and The Old Show Ground, all gone now, on our way to finishing third behind a Stanley Matthews inspired Stoke City and a Chelsea side managed by a Young Turk called Tommy Docherty. No play offs so we had to suffer another season of Division Two before claiming what many saw as our rightful place in Division One.
Now, as we equal our record of six consecutive Premier League seasons, there is a feeling of inertia amongst the support. The squad is little changed from last season, with departures far outweighing arrivals. The signing of Louis Saha yesterday caused a ripple of excitement, but it hardly troubled the Richter Scale of incoming transfers.
The general consensus is that we will finish somewhere between 8th and 14th, not strong enough to challenge for Europe and too strong to be bothered by relegation. It suggests a season of the utmost mediocrity, something that Mick McCarthy would have sold his Irish birthright for seven years ago.
Those clamouring for signings, any signings, should look at the quality of players we had then; Bassila, Gray, Calamity Kelvin Davies, Tommy “The Invisible Man” Miller and be thankful that Cuellar and Saha are slightly more than a cut above those that Mick could afford.
It has been the case that we have brought loads of new faces in every summer. Does anyone really think that signing Tainio, Diouf and Chimbonda did anything for the club? What about Cana or Etuhu or even Gyan? Did these players leave us better off when they departed not long into their stay on Wearside?
The owner has called for no more short term fixes. The manager can buy if a player identified is willing to come and his current club are willing to sell, but the planets all have to line up – and at the moment they aren’t.
We have stumbled from manager to manager over the years. No one has earned the time to set up a system or a culture that identifies Sunderland AFC. Martin O’Neill may well be given the chance to do that and it clearly does not mean buying bucket loads of players and hoping that they may gel.
Our neighbours on Tyneside have a coherent idea; buy young and/or hungry players relatively cheaply, get them to perform and then, if the right offer comes in, sell them on for a large profit before repeaing the process.
In the last five summer windows, we have bought players who are not that young, not as hungry as they could be and we have paid a large amount of money for some of them. The owner regards this as unsustainable in the current footballing financial climate where the Fair Play Rules will presumably kick in.
Arsenal tomorrow represents an interesting opening game. They have lost a 29-year-old star and replaced him with three men new to the Premier League.
Rupert and Monty will have to learn some new names to bellow out when the stadium announcer goes through his cringe inducing pre match routine of reading out the forename so the Ashburton Grove regulars can shout back the surname.
Our line up will be interesting. Westwood is very keen to claim a first team place, but I prefer Mignolet; he’s a keeper to build a team around. Bramble and O’Shea in the middle and probably Gardner and Richardson at full back looks competent if a little lacking in pace.
Larsson and McClean will be the wide men – both scored against the Gunners last season – with Colback, Cattermole and Sess in the middle, leaving the 34-year-old Saha to have an hour up front and hopefully terrorise Mertesacker and Koscieleny into lots and lot of errors that Sess and co can take advantage of. Then, maybe Wickham, Ji, Campbell or Noble can take advantage of them.
Predictions? I would be delighted with a 1-1 draw and I think it is possible. A defeat would be no real surprise, a victory would.
For the season; we will finish eighth, one position ahead of Newcastle. City will retain the title, followed by United, Chelsea and Arsenal as the Premier League continues to throw up a wildly fluctuating top four.
We will wave Wigan, Southampton and Reading goodbye at the end of the season, while Norwich and The Baggies will breathe a huge sigh of relief.
But I have been known to be wrong.