Never one to miss the opportunity to combine two of his favourite pastimes, real ale and watching footy, Pete Sixsmith took advantage of the holiday fixture list to take a tour of the English Midlands and Welsh Borders to work off his post Christmas over indulgence by over indulging some more. Having taken the Supporters’ coach to and from Merseyside he turned his trip to Cardiff into a mini break and leaves him just a little more optimistic than he had been a week earlier.
Apologies, dear readers, for the delay, but Sixsmith has been meandering around this green and pleasant land on his way to and from Cardiff, sampling beers, ticking off grounds and seeing road signs to places that have only been read about – of which more later.
The result at Cardiff was undoubtedly a good one, the performance less so. Every one of the 1200 Sunderland fans, standing in the corner of The Vincent Tan Memorial Stadium, sponsored by SunglassesForYou, was absolutely delighted with the two late goals which dragged us into the relegation scrap rather than becoming the equivalent of Robert Redford in All Is Lost – cast adrift and without hope.
Despite turning in a distinctly moderate performance for 80 minutes, we took advantage of an over cautious Cardiff temporary manager and showed tremendous heart and commitment to claw back the deficit.
Once Fletcher had got us back into the game – and what a good goal it was – there was a feeling amongst the raucous and ever so impressive Sunderland support, that we might just get something. Roberge nearly got the leveller (would have made up for his awful error to give them the opener) and shots were blocked, saved and went over the bar and round the post, before their full back decided to give the ball to Ki and his short pass was put away by Colback, with help from a massive deflection by the hitherto resolute Stephen Caulker.
For me, the game hinged on substitutions. Colback and Gardener gave us a bit more strength in the centre and David Kerslake took off their most effective player, Kim Bo-Kyung, who had tackled well and had got in the faces of our midfield and stopped us moving the ball around. He had also had a couple of interesting tussles with Dossena in the six yard box, which the excellent Chris Foy treated it as a teacher on Yard Duty would when he sees two Year 7’s circling each other – a kind of amused detachment.
His departure gave us a chance to get hold of midfield and Cardiff suddenly looked a very nervous team indeed. Kim’s absence allowed Giaccherini to come into the game and his sublime ball to Fletcher brought us back from the dead. Then came the equaliser and all hell broke loose as grown men wept and wailed and rent their clothing and gave praise to the Lord for the point that could prove crucial at the end of the season.
The Sunderland fans were brilliant all night. When we went 2 down, the younger ones started with the old New Labour song, Things Can Only Get Better and kept on with it for ages. Did it inspire the players? Maybe it did. Maybe some of them yearn for the days when New Labour ruled this disparate land of ours and rosy cheeked urchins skipped happily to school and the men and women who ran the food banks sat round all day with nothing to do. Whatever, it certainly lifted spirits in the crowd, so a big hand to the younger generation from one of the oldies. It stopped them singing those rubbish songs about Taylor and Shearer as well. Don’t like those.
It wasn’t the greatest of performances and Dossena and Altidore did nothing to enhance their reputations. Our Italian left back was given a thorough going over by Craig Noone, while Jozy had an absolute stinker, one that was even stinkier than that awful moment at Christmas Dinner when the impact of the Brussels sprouts moves around the table and Grandma drops one that makes one fully understand what The Pals Battalions went through in the trenches in Flanders as Jerry lobbed the poison gas at them.
The big American is struggling badly and needs a run of goals to rebuild his shattered confidence. The sitter he missed in the first half put him in the Rod Belfitt, Tom Ritchie, Dave Swindlehurst category of big signings wot ‘ave flopped on Wearside. He is approaching Brett Angell standards.
As for Cardiff, they seized the initiative and once our defence had been undressed, put to bed and given a smack on the bum, looked in complete control allowing Frazier Campbell to score. The mood amongst the home fans was relatively upbeat, but there was little support for the owner (ok, none) and much for the dismissed Malky McKay. They became very anxious after Fletcher’s goal and there was a feeling of doom and gloom as they walked back to the city centre to quaff pints of Brain’s excellent beers.
My journey started on Friday with a stopover in Tamworth, once the capital of England in the really olden days, when we had Mercia, Wessex and Northumbria. Three good pints in The Globe and an excellent hour in the company of a Villa and Birmingham fan was a good way to start.
A leisurely drive to Cardiff via Ross-on-Wye to my hotel, a small, family run place in the city centre and next to a fine pub called The Cottage, where Bob Chapman and John Marshall were supping. We thought that this might have been the pub that we occupied in 1980 and where Ian Douglass won a lot of money playing cards with some Welshmen, but it wasn’t. I was tempted to say it was so as to make a good story of it, but journalistic integrity dictated otherwise.
On that day, when a 1-1 draw courtesy of a Pop Robson equaliser set up by Barry Dunn, meant we had to win the final game of the season at home to West Ham, the City fans had been hostile and aggressive to the nth degree. Unused to having 7,000 Englishmen and women in their ground, they decided that the best way to prevent Sunderland from going up, was to open the minimum amount of gates so that most would not get in much before half time. This was a challenge and the gates were stormed as teachers, surveyors, respected journalists and men who dipped metal in hot acid baths, clambered over and under the turnstile and refused to pay the cowering and quivering child behind the grille, his £2.00 or whatever it was. During the game, bricks, stones, leeks, sheep and Max Boyce LP’s were thrown from the South Bank and the walk back to Cardiff Central was not much fun. Cardiff fans had a poor reputation in those days and their trips to Millwall Leeds and Swansea in the lower divisions, were allegedly used by the SAS as training sessions before they decamped to Iraq or Afghanistan.
Not now. I liked the stadium. The concourses were wide and they even opened the gates at half time so that the smokers did not have to congregate in the toilets. I liked the signage in the ground and the rendition of that fine old Welsh song, Men of Harlech, which reminded many of us of Ivor Emmanuel belting it out as the Zulu nation appeared over the hill and Michael Caine did a little poo in his pants at the sight of them. The walk back was fine, with City fans disappointed and quite legitimately worried about what was going to happen next. They had heard that Ole Gunnar Solksjaer had said no and were worried that no decent manager would be attracted. I almost said that Paolo Di Canio was available, but realised that that would lead to a return to 1980, as stones would shower on my head.
I left Cardiff on the Sunday morning, heading for Northampton and Coventry City’s game against Oldham Athletic. I could have used the motorways but decided to meander across country and went through Cheltenham, Bourton-on-the Water, Stow-on-the Wold, Chipping –on-the Norton and Banbury-on-the Cross. These towns are not the natural habitat of a grubby industrial town dweller like me, but I have to say they looked lovely in the winter sun. I peered over the fields hoping for a glimpse of Rebekah Brooks and David Cameron riding to hounds, but, not for the first time in my life, was disappointed.
What I did see were three road signs pointing to places that seem to epitomise the English countryside. Two I expected, but one took me by surprise, that being a sign for the village of Adlestrop, which is the setting for a beautiful poem by Edward Thomas. He is on a train that stops at the village station and sits there for a while and he writes of “all the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire singing” and of the calm peace that he felt, both inner and outer. Thomas was killed a few weeks later at The Battle of Arras in April 1917, where the calm and peace of this rural station must have seemed a million miles away.
The next one was Hook Norton, home of the finest brewery building in England, a traditional three floor brewery where they mash at the top, boil in the middle and ferment on the bottom, a bit like Vincent Tan when his team concede a 95th minute equaliser. Finally, as I approached Banbury, there was the road to Cropredy, where Fairport Convention live together in a big house, emerging for their annual tour and their annual festival. I may well spend some time in this area next year.
The Coventry game was a tight 1-1 draw, with Blair Adams playing well for City. They had a forward called Callum Wilson who looked promising, while Oldham’s Canadian winger Michael Petrasso shone for the Latics. He’s on loan from QPR, so maybe Good’Ol ‘Arry isn’t as smart as he thinks he is. The Sixfields Stadium at Northampton is functional and a fair few Coventry fans had bitten the bullet and turned up. The man sat next to me had been a season ticket holder since 1980 (so was not involved in the 1977 fiasco) and he had missed the first three games, but felt that he had to come back. He despaired of the club and the owners of the Ricoh and was convinced that City would find it very difficult to get back into the Championship, let alone the Premiership. I made no comment.
Sunday night was spent in the small Nottinghamshire town of Kimberley, once the home of Hardy Hanson’s splendid beers. The brewery is now crumbling but the ale in The Stag and The Nelson and Railway (where I stayed) was excellent. Heather, the Body Art Queen of Notts, even sent out for a pizza for me when I arrived too late for a meal.
And so, as the sun sets in the west, the intrepid traveller puts down his pen, says his prayers to the god of no relegation and nods off to sleep – which is what you will have done if you got this far. Make sure you wake up for the Villa game on Wednesday.
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