Stick-in-the-mud SAFC fans

It’s what the French call gagnant gagnant, a win-win situation for Salut! Sunderland.
Either the matchday programme for SAFC v Derby County put on sales because I tipped off readers that I’d written an article for it, enabling me to claim credit for the circulation rise. Or sales slipped because you boycotted it, having heard that the mean-spirited bods who stalk the corridors of power at the Red and White programme HQ had refused to print the tiniest reference to this blog.

But I jest.
As I admitted when R&W somewhat belatedly gave a firm No to a request I thought they had already granted, I am so daft about the club that I’d have written the piece for them anyway.

If you missed it, and have a soft spot for other people’s hard luck stories, read on. You’ll learn about a Big Match day out that sticks nastily in the memory for members of the London branch of the SAFC Supporters’ Association.

It is bad enough being dumped out of the FA Cup after reaching the 2004 semi-finals and a game against Millwall that we all expect to win.

But you know it’s not your day when you are then dumped in the mud near Derby – sorry, County fans, nothing personal about the location – on your way home.

Miguel, our eccentric Portuguese coach driver, was already in the bad books of SAFC Supporters’ Association London branch members after somehow losing the way to Old Trafford. Little thanks to him, we finally got there in time.

But after the match, on the way back south, he chose to make a stop on the A50 to empty the toilet tank, which had apparently not been discharged after the coach’s previous trip.

And in doing so, he completely reckoned without the effects of hours of steady rain on a soft verge.

The wheels promptly sank into the mud and the coach became hopelessly stuck. There was nothing anyone present could do to free it, despite valiant efforts using collective pushing power and any available bit of wood and other material to wedge beneath the tyres.

Miguel was a pleasant enough character but not the best of sorts to have around in a crisis, carrying no mobile phone and having no access to telephone numbers for getting us out of the mess. A branch steward had to make all the calls, do all the negotiating.

Eventually, a lifter was dispatched by the coach company’s rescue service but proved completely inadequate to the task. Not until much later, when the police summoned a Department of Transport vehicle, was the coach finally hoisted out of its soggy mire – five hours after it had become embedded.

By then, I admit, I was long gone. I was due at work very early next day and could not take the risk of being stranded in Derbyshire all night. A colleague, Nick Britten, who lives in the area, drove out to pick me up, along with a couple of other supporters, and deposited us at Derby station where – at a price – we were able to get home by train.

Nick is married to a Mag so had his own price: the right to put a sarky little piece about our woes in his column, Britten Word, in the Derby club programme. “Sympathise or have a good laugh – the choice is yours,” he wrote. “I picked the latter option. After all, North East fans are always boring everyone with how they’re more fanatical that the rest of us so this was their chance to prove it.”

For those who – sorry – stuck it out, the coach did not reach King’s Cross until after 1am, too late for the Tube or trains for onward journeys.

Some checked into in hotels, one slept at Victoria Coach station and the steward did not get home until 4.30am after first driving a young teacher in the opposite direction home to Chelmsford.

The coach company repaid the branch what it took to meet claims from supporters for their extra costs, but refused compensation beyond that.

Legal action was threatened and in the great tradition of steps-of-the-court settlements, the firm finally coughed up 500 pounds, enabling the branch to cover its own expenses before refunding affected members half of what they had paid for a coach trip from hell.

* As published in the matchday programme for Sunderland v Derby County, Feb 24 2007

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