Salut! Sunderland last heard from Stephen Foster, a richly talented man whose books on supporting Stoke City probably made him little or no money but stand as Hornby-standard classics of football writing, in January.
Two months earlier, Stephen had contributed an excellent set of answers to the Who are You? questionnaire for the Sunderland v Stoke City game. When I thanked him, he replied: “Make it an annual event, unless one of us goes down.”
Tragically, there won’t be an annual event. Stephen was found dead at the early age of 48, probably having drowned, at Trowse Meadow, Whitlingham Broad, not far from his Norwich home last Thursday. He had earlier been reported missing.
Salut! Sunderland extends its deepest sympathy to all Stephen’s relatives and relatives. Whatever subsequent inquiry, including an inquest, turns up, it is a desperately sad event and I am not surprised that his local paper reports that moving tributes have been paid to him. He leaves a partner, Trezza Azzopardi, whom he met while both were teaching at the University of East Anglia, and one child.
One of the circle of those close to Stephen is Jonathan – Jonny – Ward, a lifelong Sunderland supporter.
Stephen was my partner’s brother (would have been my brother-in-law). He had family in the NE. Myself and Stephen’s sister Diane live in Hartlepool, with our family. I’m a huge Sunderland fan, so Stephen pointed me towards the interview on Salut last year and I know he was excited to be featured there.
Stephen really was an inspirational chap, totally charming, witty and intelligent. We shared some great footballing memories together – in particular joining the Stoke throngs at St James a couple of seasons back when they equalised in the last seconds much to the anger of the Toon (there’s a chapter about it in She Laughed No More).
Stephen didn’t enjoy as much the time we took him to Victoria Park to see Hartlepool beat Stoke 2-0 in the cup – they were awful that day. I also sat with him when Stoke beat us 1-0 at the start of last season – he’s the only bloke I know ever to have pulled out home-baked banana bread at half-time. But that sums Stephen up – very cool, very sophisticated and could not give a toss about what anyone thought about his fancy ways!
We will all truly miss him and it has come as a real shock and a tragedy for his family.
From the Evening News, Norwich, I learn that Stephen taught creative writing at the UEA after having graduated from its MA course in the same subject in 1998.
Ms Azzopardi, 49, said in her own tribute: “Steve was a talented and passionate man who excelled at everything he did. Whether writing books, cooking for family and friends, playing sport, or supporting his beloved Stoke City Football Club, his approach was always committed and stylish; he did so many things so very well.
“Steve made friends from all walks of life, but especially from the dog-walks of life – at Winterton, Whitlingham and the UEA – where he was a notable sight, if only because (as he liked to tell people) he chose his silver-grey dog to match his hair.
“He lived a full and vital life, and will be remembered with admiration for his courage, humour and sensitivity.
“We have so many happy memories of him; he was loved by so many. He will be greatly missed by all of us.”
Stephen was Stoke-born but moved to London when young to work as a painter and decorator specialising in interior design. He began writing later in life after moving to Norwich. As his career and reputation progressed, he became a Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow, helping students with their writing.
Stephen’s first book, a collection of short stories set in Stoke on Trent, was called It Cracks Like Breaking Skin. Then followed his first novel, Strides. He has since had success with books about his dogs, Walking Ollie, who has since died, and Along Came Dylan. More, including the warm recollections of an academic colleague, can be found at the newspaper’s site.
By way of a small tribute of its own, Salut! Sunderland will tomorrow reproduce the Who are They? questions and answers from last November.