I am not talking about performances on the field. Though it matters a great deal to me how we play, it doesn’t affect my passion for the club or the pride I take in having followed them since the days of Clough and Hurley.
Once, at Leicester, at a time when our team was exclusively white, I felt a shudder of disgust as a few of the away-end fans around me began hissing at City’s black players.
In the same era, two of our – and I hope they don’t mind this – loveliest supporters, Clare and her sister Emma, told me after a game at Watford that they had found themselves sitting in front of two vile drunks who kept up a non-stop barrage of abuse at black home players throughout the first half.
“Long may Sunderland remain an all white squad,” one of them said, though he probably expressed himself in looser English. At half time, the girls complained to a steward. The steward did nothing, but our racist pair heard the complaint and spent the second half abusing Emma and Clare.
Without claiming that our fans are otherwise, and have always been, angels – I reckon each club’s support base include a hooligan element of between five and 10 per cent (rising to 50 per cent for Chelsea, 95 for Millwall, if am mischievous) – such incidents are distinguished by their rarity.
Our fans are also good at ensuring that their loyalty to SAFC transcends despair and anger at what is going on during the game. Comes with practice. During our dismal showings at Stoke and Chelsea, you would expect even the saintliest SAFC supporter to feel cross.
But I loved this posting at the Blackcats forum from Gerry McGregor:
I won’t comment on the match, others have. What I will comment on are our fans, the so called hooligans from the previous weekend. Did you hear us singing when we were 5-0 down. It was so good even the Chelsea fans beside us started to join in and applaud us. We did not turn on the team but supported them and most of us applaud them at the end. I like the chant of ‘we only want one shot’.
That was not quite the whole story, as Ian Todd pointed out in response:
A fair point, Gerry, but you can exclude from that praise the guy behind me (there’s always one) who slagged Jones off from the very first minute and then included Waghorn in his “they’re just not interested” taunt. Pretty well everyone (not that many didn’t deserve it) suffered his abuse throughout the afternoon. At half time moved across to revile the Chelsea fans across the barrier. Sadly his son who was with him is being brought up to believe that’s the way to behave and the language to use in doing so!
This prompted Gerry to admit to an unpleasant first-half experience at Stoke (luckily for those in range, the drunk who had cursed and spat, messily, for the first 45 minutes didn’t return for the rest of the game). And Gerry, too, hated to see “young kids following their parents in swearing all through the game. Will they grow up to respect other people’s views?”
But it does credit to Sunderland and its supporters that these episodes are considered worthy of relating.
The worst case I have heard of, in terms of setting a depressing example to the next generation, happened at Linfield’s ground in Belfast, Windsor Park.
A friend (Protestant, married to a Roman Catholic) took his young son to watch Linfield vs the Glens (Glentoran). Lisburn was regarded as a thoroughly Prod team; the Glens had been known to allow a Catholic into the side, with the result that the low life section of Linfield’s support denounced them all as evil Fenian b*******.
Throughout the first half, my friend had to listen in horror as the three “fans” behind him – an elderly man, his son and his grandson – hurled despicable sectarian insults at the visiting team. He, too, left at half time, unwilling to have his own lad hear another word of it.
That was seriously offensive (and indicative of the nasty streak that can be found on both sides of the divide in Northern Ireland. Let us hope the current peace prevails).
Much less serious or offensive, though it also involved an awful lot of bad language, was the experience of my friend Graham at another 5-0 humiliation, the one at Ipswich under Peter Reid in 2001 (they ended up going down; we survived for another season).
Graham, not one of life’s natural football supporters but dragged along to the odd game by his SAFC-supporting partner, absent-mindedly applauded as the teams left the field at the interval. It was almost as if he was at the theatre.
Unfortunately, we were already four down.
“Applaud! Yer f****** applauding, yer stupid f****** twat? Aah’ve paid half a week’s f****** wages gannin’ doon heeyah to see that heap of f****** sh*** and youse f****** applauding the c****!”
Many or even most of us would probably own up to the occasional expletive aimed at refs or players. But the asterisk-laden quote above, reproduced from memory of Graham’s description, probably does no justice to the true nature and content of the poor man’s rant. Good job things perked up on the field; we only lost the second half 1-0.