Peter Sixsmith’s pre-season is well under way. He has already seen the Lads play at Darlington and the Development Squad at Tow Law and Consett. He has seen Bishop Auckland and Queens Park. That’s the well established Glasgow side and not the upstart Rangers from West London – surely the only team to be named after two others. I expect he’s been to others I don’t know about and has his weekend planned taking in some Scottish junior football and maybe a senior game or two before heading off to Boston and Doncaster to see whatever versions of Sunderland teams are put out at those grounds next week. But as Dick and the boys prepare to return from Canada, Pete finds his thoughts drifting more than a decade to what was a sad time for him, both on and off the pitch.
Pre season in Andalucia.
It has been a pleasure reading the accounts of the North American branch as Sunderland played games in Sacramento and Toronto and an even greater pleasure to read of a Sunderland victory in Ontario. It may have been scrappy, but as the poet Burns (almost) said, “a win’s a win for a’that”.
I have done a few pre seasons abroad in the past. Dublin, Cork and Galway were brilliant for the craic if not the football, Athlone was a great trip despite a six hour bus journey from Belfast, Amsterdam was a blast and Heidelberg was a wonderful base to visit Hoffenheim a few years ago. All have been written about on Salut, but the site was probably a glint in M Salut’s eye when we visited the Spanish region of Andalucía in August 2002 for games with Sevilla and Algeciras, both of which were lost and both of which were the harbingers of what turned out to be a dreadful season.
I travelled with Pete Horan. In those dim and distant days, I had no internet access, no computer and no idea of how to use one. He had all three, so he booked the flights, the hotel and the car hire. I bought a guide book to Seville. It was a trip that was due to last for five days but, for me, it was nearly cancelled. My father died the night before we were due to set off and I felt that I could not go. The death was not unexpected as he had been ill for a while and as I had been principal carer and I was on holiday, I felt that I should stay to do all the things that needed to be done.
Insurance would have covered some of the costs and Pete fully understood and sympathised and I had rung him to tell him that I could not go. He was going to wait until the next morning to cancel, when a white knight came riding over the hill in the shape of my youngest brother who was returning from a road trip to Dundee. He insisted that I went and assured me that he would take care of all the administration that needed to be done. So, the next morning, we were sat at Manchester Airport, drinking a Ritazza espresso and waiting to board the plane. I was uncharacteristically quiet and had qualms about going but I ultimately felt that my father, no lover of football but a man who had enjoyed his holidays, would have approved.
Pete had booked a GM Zafira and we picked it up at Malaga airport. He had driven in Spain before and was happy to do so again and we had a pleasant run through the hills to Seville, passing huge advertising hoardings for various brands of sherry – bulls, matadors and Orson Welles looking down on the motorway.On arrival in Seville, we were blown away by the beauty and the majesty of the city – and totally disorientated by the road system. No sat nav meant that we had to map read. No Spanish meant that we were trying to read road signs. We got lost. We asked people who tried to explain. We got lucky and found a sign that directed us to the hotel.
Now Pete has booked us into some gems in his time, (Dublin and Amsterdam spring to mind) but this one was the best. From the outside it was as unprepossessing as any chain hotel in the UK; from the inside it was like walking into something from a Moorish fantasy. There was a courtyard with a gentle pool and flowers all around. The rooms were arranged around it giving a feeling of peace and tranquillity which was much needed after a long and emotional day. The rooms were tiled and the balcony overlooked a quiet street. Bliss.
The evening was spent drinking beer and sherry and discussing the merits of rival Amontillados while sampling tapas. We asked how to get to the Stadium Ramon Sanchez Pijuan but our requests were met with derision by the working class occupants of the bar. “Sevilla is for the toffs. We workers support Betis. You should go there.” Those sentiments were repeated a number of times over the next two days. If you want to curry favour with a Seville taxi driver swear allegiance to Betis and their club slogan “Viva el Betis manqué pierda” – “Long live Betis even when they lose”..
The next day was spent in what is one of the finest cities in Europe. The Moorish influence was everywhere and the Alcazar was a splendid sight. The Cathedral and Christopher Columbus’s tomb were breath taking as were the gardens that adjoined it. The food was good, the sherry perfect and the sun shone. My spirits were lifted and I was pleased that I had made the trip. The stadium was a short taxi ride from the centre and we arrived in good time. I don’t think that the arrival of Sunderland had created much of an impression on the support and the crowd was not great. Neither was Sunderland’s performance as we stumbled to a 1-0 defeat thanks to a blunder by new signing Phil Babb and failed to muster a reasonable attempt on goal. The Sevilla support munched on their sunflower seeds and were not impressed by their English guests.
The following morning, as we walked along the banks of the Guadalquivir River into town, we discussed the previous night’s performance. Neither of us was impressed. We analysed the squad player by player and concluded that there were at most, six players that were Premier League quality. Memory serves that they were Sorenson, Gray, Phillips, Thome, McCann and Reyna (if fit). We were not impressed with the likes of McAteer, Babb, Williams, Bjorklund, Bellion and Kilbane. We were convinced that relegation was a distinct possibility.
Our stay in Seville over, we moved onto Algeciras after a very pleasant road trip through Cadiz (no singeing of Castillian beards by we two) and then round Cape Tarifa with its winds and currents to the ferry port of Algeciras. Goodness knows why we chose to play a Spanish Third Division side in such a fly blown and distinctly unpleasant town. The hotel was poor, the clientèle dangerous and the general mood was one of simmering violence. It was a hopping off point for North Africa and all that that entailed.
We were fortunate to meet up with some Sunderland people who lived there and they gave us a lift to the tidy ground where the local team played. Look over the fence opposite the main stand and there was the Rock of Gibraltar looming out of the Mediterranean, probably the strangest thing I have ever seen from a football ground.
If Seville was a disappointment, this was a disaster. Reid shuffled his pack and played youngsters like McCartney and Butler against a side who had a complete and utter thug at centre half. It ended up with a 2-0 defeat and the two youngsters being sent off, George for a foul and Tommy for throwing a punch, both of which paled into comparison with the violence meted out by the home team.
I have two other memories of that game, one involving the Rock and the other Emerson Thome, which come to think of it, had similarities. The Rock was bathed in moonlight in the second half and was certainly far more interesting than the dross on show on the pitch. And as for Emerson – he was an unused substitute that night, but when he took his top off, he revealed a six pack that had Pete and me gasping in admiration. Mrs Thome was a very lucky lady indeed.
We came home the next day to face the funeral and the aftermath and for a while it put football into perspective. But you slough off the depression and look forward – except that there was no looking forward. Reid accepted that there were glaring weaknesses in his squad and attempted to address them by signing Stephen Wright, Matty Piper, Marcus Stewart and Torre Andre Flo.
The prediction from the banks of the Guadalquiver was correct – and if we thought that 19 points was bad, there was far worse to come.
See all articles in the Sunderland Out West series at https://safc.blog/category/sunderland-out-west-2015/