Just ahead of our visit to Eastlands on Sunday, Pete Sixsmith remembers – without false affection – visits to Man City’s old ground. For “Stand up if you love Sunderland”, read “Stand up and enter the criminal justice system”. Pete tells an amusing story that, but for a burst of common sense from the beaks, might have taken an unfunny turn…
It was a huge barn of a ground, without the feel of history that Roker Park had in abundance. It had hosted a crowd of 84,000 in the 30s but it never convinced as a major ground like Hillsborough or Villa Park. However, it has three very vivid memories for me.
The obvious one is 1973, when I stood in a crowd of 52,000 and began to believe that the team that Stokoe was putting together could really do something. Micky Horswill chipping Joe Corrigan is forever emblazoned on my memory – as is Rodney Marsh’s push on Monty for the equaliser. I was fuming at the time – but without it, Roker’s Greatest Night would never have happened.
Then there was 1991 when we took 12,000 fans to City to roar us on in a game that we needed to win to avoid relegation. Of course we lost, but not before Marco had scored one of the finest goals I have ever seen from a Sunderland player. I ended up drinking vodka and weeping to Cavallieri Rusticana on the back step of my brother’s house in Southport, bemoaning the fact that we never seem to get it right. Some things don’t change!
The most eventful visit to Moss Side was in October 1988 and a nondescript 1-1 draw between a Sunderland side establishing itself back in Division 2 and a young and thrusting Manchester City side on its way back to the top level.
I rarely leave a Sunderland game before the end. I stuck out the 4-1 home defeat by the Mags, remained at Ewood Park when we lost 6-1 and sat grim faced through the last 10 minutes of the Wigan game when we clearly had no chance of equalising. I did leave Goodison last season as the sixth went but only because I wanted to get back to The Slopey Floor pub for a pint of Cains.
I lasted 30 minutes that day at Maine Road because I was taken out of the ground by a member of the Greater Manchester Police Force, shoved into a paddy wagon, taken to Hyde Police Station, charged with causing “alarm, harassment and distress” and left in a police cell for 4 hours minus shoelaces, belt and dignity.
My crime? I had jumped up when Gordon Armstrong headed home Billy Whitehurst’s cross. It was a crime because I was not in the Platt Lane Stand, where my fellow red and whites were sat, but in the steep and cavernous Main Stand. Because we had taken an extra pint of Holt’s finest in The Eagle, our taxi drew up outside Maine Road at 2.55 and the four of us dived straight through the turnstile into the Main Stand in desperate need of a gents.
As Gordon gave us the lead, I was approached by a Sergeant of Police who said “Oy, you, out of here now” and grabbed my arm. I felt that this was a violation of my human rights (once a bleeding heart liberal, always a bleeding heart liberal), and declined to move unless I was asked politely. After a little pushing and shoving I told him to “F*** off”. He responded by arresting me.
I was taken to the station, charged and placed in a cell. I was released at 6pm, made it back to the station in time for a direct train and sat and fumed all the way home.
On my return to Shildon, I contacted my solicitor (a mate but also a Mag), my employer and my trade union and told them what had happened. The consequences of a conviction were not good and I was told that my job was in jeopardy if the worst came to the worst.
Two months later, we trooped off to Central Manchester Magistrates’ Court. I had witnesses with me who would testify that the police action was heavy handed and that I had not shouted at the officer. In his statement he said that I had screamed in his face with such force that I had almost knocked him off his feet. Hmmm.
My brief was brilliant. His view was that the sergeant was correct in that he had been sworn at, but not in the way that he described. He teased out of him that he was an experienced officer who was used to dealing with Friday night revelry in Stockport and that being sworn at was, however unfortunate, part and parcel of his job.
When the police could not provide one independent witness who had been alarmed harassed or distressed by Gordon’s goal and the ensuing reaction to it, the magistrates took minutes to throw the case out. Triumphant, we retired to The Eagle for a couple of celebratory pints and a feeling that, unlike Joe Strummer, we had fought the law and the law had lost.
But think about it. Had I been a 17/18 year old without a solicitor buddy and a burning sense of injustice, I would have ended up with a fine of £100 (a weeks wages 20 years ago), criminal record and a complete and utter contempt for the forces of law and order. These were the days of Thatcher and her contempt for football fans and the general feeling that the game was dying on its feet.
It’s not a story I am particularly proud of , and although I bumped into my solicitor a couple of weeks ago and we had a little chuckle about it you can rest assured that I will be extra careful at the City of Manchester Stadium on Sunday – a ground which has as much character and atmosphere as a B and Q Warehouse. Billy Whitehurst, where art thou?