Soapbox: Chelsea at last

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Soapbox

Salut! Sunderland feels a duty to keep up a decent sort of service on this of all weekends. Here, Pete Sixsmith looks back on that other time – a mere 46 years ago – when we needed to beat Chelsea at home on another final game of the season …

So it’s come down to the game that we feared when the fixtures came out in July.

“Chelsea at home, last game of the season, hope we don’t need anything from that,” went the crack.

“Nah, we’ll be pushing for the top half by then. Keano’s made some nifty signings in Chimbonda and Diouf and I’m sure that this is the season when Stokes really breaks through. In fact, Chelsea will be more worried than us. Reckon it could stop them winning the league. Scolari won’t like 48,000 Mackems roaring their heads off.”

Quite a torrent has passed under the Wearmouth and Albert bridges since then. Chelsea are unlikely to catch Liverpool for second place and have an FA Cup final coming up. They also have probably the best coach in the world and a man who hates losing, so that eliminates the theory that they just won’t be arsed to play.

We have an abysmal record in “must win” games, dating back in my experience to May 18 1963, when all we had to do was win at home to Chelsea to regain our “rightful” place in the top division. We lost 1-0.

It should have been a warning. I should have foreseen, at the age of 12, that this would lead to a lifetime of misery, heartache and frantically working out permutations of results that would keep us safe or get us promoted. That I didn’t is the reason why my stomach has been churning and my brain has been whirring for the past five days.

The Chelsea game was at the end of my first season as a Sunderland fan. Having been brought up in North Leeds on a diet of Rugby League, I became a rather reluctant football fan when we arrived in Shildon in 1959. I went to Dean Street to watch the local team and helped Colin sell programmes on the corner of Primitive Street in order to gain free entry, courtesy of his dad, who was club secretary at the time.

Colin had become a Sunderland fan and I sort of tagged along with him, as younger boys do. He was all of 14 and my parents trusted him enough to allow me to go to the Chelsea game with him on the train.

I remember setting off early, something like 9.30 from Shildon. The DMU trundled through to Durham via Bishop Auckland, Hunwick, Beechburn and Brandon. At Durham we caught another oily DMU to Sunderland, passing through Fencehouses, Cox Green, South Hylton and Pallion before reaching the icy, subterranean depths of Sunderland Central.

It was about 11.30 and we had hours to kill before kick off. Not being old enough to sample the delights of The Argo Frigate or The Aquatic Arms, we slowly walked out to Roker, through a typical Wearside rainstorm, admiring the red and white window displays in the shops as the town, looked forward to the return to the First Division of their club.

I think we got to the Fulwell End as the gates were opening. There was already a queue for the boys’ gate and we joined it eagerly anticipating a comfortable win for King Charlie and the boys. I think it cost ninepence to get in and the programme was another tanner. It was the small, A6 one that had copious notes in about the visitors but no profiles of Johnnie Crossan or pieces on where Cec Irwin had his hair done. Programmes are one area where there has been an improvement!

We found a good spot in the Fulwell (still uncovered in those days) and waited to see the Lads crush the young upstarts from west London and rise majestically into the top league behind a Stan Matthews inspired Stoke City.

The crowd was a slightly disappointing 47,000, well below the 62,000 that had crammed in on Good Friday to see Stoke (minus Matthews) play out a turgid goalless draw that those who were there often describe as the worst game ever seen at Roker.

But the expectation was high and although I remember little about the game, I do recollect the great rumble that went up whenever Charlie moved up for a corner or when George Mulhall ran at his fullback. We were bound to win; it was written in the stars.

We didn’t. The redoubtable Alan Brown was out-thought by a young manager by the name of Tommy Docherty. He had a mixture of youth in Peter Bonetti, Eddie McCreadie and BobbyTambling and experience with Frank Upton, a beast of a centre half who played at centre forward and Tommy Harmer, a chirpy Cockney inside forward who had moved from Spurs and who broke our hearts by nicking a goal in the last minute to put them on level points with us.

They still had one more game to play and they duly walloped Portsmouth 7-0 to go up on goal average. Under Docherty, they became the trendiest club in the world, while we had to wait another year to seal our first ever promotion, before imploding and losing our manager.

I seem to remember the train journey back was a long and miserable one. We bought the Football Green at Durham (it wasn’t to return to Pink until next year’s promotion), went to Bimbi’s for a pie and a frothy coffee and got home wet and disillusioned in time to watch the highlights on Shoot with the cameras positioned in the corner of the Fulwell and the Clock Stand.

It should have dawned on me then that this was not a good way to spend your life, following a club that can’t get things right. I hope Sunday proves to be one of those days when we rise to the occasion and beat those west London upstarts, thereby securing our Premier League place by our own efforts.

In reality, however, our top level status (about which I am very pessimistic) will be due – if preserved – to Villa and Manchester United and will have nothing to do with the efforts of a Sunderland team that is as low on confidence as any I have seen in 45 years.

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2 thoughts on “Soapbox: Chelsea at last”

  1. Maybe the steam trains are just a figment of my imagination. they were always diesel and I kicked nothing.

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