Three hundred miles or so each way for a match that – allowing for hindsight – had cup exit written all over it. Or a day out to another Roker Park than the one we remember to see the other SAFC, mighty Shildon, in another cup competition. That was the choice confronting
Pete Sixsmith. No contest. And be warned, Steve Bruce, this is the scale of the crisis of confidence engulfing Sunderland: Pete may even prefer Shildon away in the next round to Wigan at home in the Premier …
Commiserations to Malcolm Dawson, who got the short straw and had to pay £20 to watch defending that would have been seen as risible in a Northern League Division two game. I pulled the plum out of the basket and saw a stirring FA Vase tie at Roker Park, Stotfold.
For those whose knowledge of the small towns of England is a wee bit limited, Stotfold is a very small town in Bedfordshire, situated almost equidistant from Letchworth, Arlesy and Biggleswade. The football team play in the Hereward Sportswear United Counties League and, as such, are entitled to play in the FA Vase. They were in a similar position in their league to Shildon so an even game was expected.
It had been arranged for the previous week and I had intended to go and miss Chelsea. The game was called off due to an excess of snow in Bedfordshire, and rearranged for Saturday, thereby giving me an excuse not to make the long, tiring trek to the South Coast. Boy, am I pleased for the Vase!!
Stotfold is really an extended village, rather than a town. There was no clearly identifiable town centre, shops were limited to a couple of convenience stores and an interesting looking Butcher’s, although there was a village green, and the evocatively named Roker Park stood behind it.
As Pete Horan and I walked in, we saw no lattice work on the front of the stands. There was a distinct lack of a huge concrete bank of terracing and, try as I might, I failed to spot any graffiti bearing the legend “Mags die if you come in here” painted on the perimeter wall. Actually walking into the ground was a major feat with Jonah Horan; we expected the heavens to open and the ground to be washed away after his last two efforts in Dublin and New Mills.
What we saw was a pleasant village football ground with a raised area down one side and a couple of prefabricated stands opposite: perfectly functional, but lacking any quirk or quality to make it stand out over any other basic non-league venue.
It took the name Roker Park after the name given to the meadow by the farmer they bought it from. I don’t think he was a Mackem exile and I couldn’t find any SAFC connections, although they did have a rather overweight Phil Gray playing for them a few years ago.
After a decent lunch and a canny pint of Adnams in the Stag, (along with a bus load of Shildon fans who were a credit to their town and their C-in-c, Major Henderson), Jonah and myself parked up in the Stotfold equivalent of Roker Baths Road, paid our £6 and found ourselves in the company of about 100 people who had travelled from Shildon and a few exiles who were living down country.
Shildon started well and were soon on top. They should have been facing 10 men after the Stotfold No 11 fouled a Shildon player and then kicked him in the back as he lay on the ground. The referee, 10 yards away with a clear view, booked him. Mr Horan, whose opinion of referees is about the same as HMRC’s of Harry Redknapp, spent the rest of the half patrolling the touchline, questioning the ref and his assistant about their competence, eyesight and ability to stand up straight and fasten their own shoelaces.
I had asked various people to update me on the news from Fratton, and the phone buzzed three times to celebrate the news of a 1-0 lead.
However, as I queued for the gents’ at half time, news came of Utaka’s equaliser and he joined the Forwards Who Never Score Unless It’s Against Sunderland Club (founder member Dave Kitson: fellow members David Nugent, El Hadj Diouf). I swore. Loudly.
Not as much as I did when the phone buzzed again after half time and my correspondents used words like “comical” and “suicidal” to describe our “defending”.
The mood was lifted when Warren Byrne and Steve Johnson notched the goals that took Shildon through to the last 16 and yet another away tie, this time at St Ives in Cambridgeshire. That’s the same day we play Wigan at home. I may well be hitting the road south on that day as I become just a little bit weary of relegation struggles. Call me a glory hunter if you want – but there’s little chance of getting that at Sunderland, is there?
* Photographic art from Roker Park, by Pete Horan