League One fans probably don’t know that Pete Sixsmith is a member of the 92 club, or whatever it’s called. In fact, given his proclivity for non-league and his propensity for travel he’s probably a member of the 192 club, and for many seasons he has regaled us with tales from around the country and beyond. Last season he stepped it up and provided an account of recalling the first time he saw every club we played against at home and his first visit to every ground we were due to play at in the lead up to match.
It was a tremendous series and we didn’t think he’d be able to keep it up. But he reckons he can and here’s the first effort. Charlton fans in particular, League One fans in general, I suggest you bookmark the page. After you’ve read it you’ll appreciate why.
Here we go for our second pitch at the Third Division Championship. The last one saw us under new ownership in Bob Murray who appointed an excellent manager in Dennis Smith. He brought in a soon to be club legend in Marco Gabbiadini who engineered a wonderful partnership with Eric Gates in a side in which Gary Bennett and John McPhail were as solid as twin rocks at the back.
This time it may be different. The world has changed since 1988. Football, once a home for the working classes with a little bit of the bourgeoisie thrown in, is the game of choice for all and sundry. Supporters have become fans and many never do anything other than watch their team on a screen and wouldn’t have a clue how to get from Lime Street to Anfield, Piccadilly to Old Trafford or Kings Cross to White Hart Lane.
There are clubs that have bucked this trend. Only someone born in the Potteries could be a Stoke City fan and despite an upsurge in ersatz Lancastrians in the 1990s, Blackburn people and only Blackburn people, support Blackburn Rovers. There are times when the simple days of 1988 seem attractive.
No sites like this. Instead, you got your info from Club Call, where you spent a lot of money ringing a premium line on your home phone to hear the blandest of bland communications from the club of your choice.
Like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, where all the women were strong, all the men good looking and all the children above average, Club Call told us that all the players were giving 100 per cent, the gaffer was a good man who worked you hard but was fair and the club was on the up thanks to its latest cash line scheme. Until it all collapsed.
We came through that period with but a few scars. The ignominy of having to start the FA Cup in November (and being out of it by December) was tempered by a glorious run in the second half of the season where we were just about unbeatable and Roker Park filled up nicely to welcome Gillingham, Aldershot and at the end of the season, Northampton Town.
Now, at a stadium that will seat 48,000 we welcome the Class of 2018-19 and hope to half fill the ground for some of the games. On Saturday, our first visitors are Charlton Athletic, a fine old club based in the South East of London and whose ground can be seen on the credits of East Enders – if you should so wish to see it.
There are four games against the Valiants (or Addicts if you prefer the older nickname) that stand out.
First of all, there is the 1998 play off final which we would have won in 90 minutes had it not been for Lionel Perez attempting to catch the ball 20 yards from his line thereby allowing Richard Rufus to head home his first ever goal. They went on to win on penalties.
Then there were two dreadful games at The Stadium in the 19 and 15-point seasons. We lost both 3-1. In the first we managed a hat trick of own goals through Stephen Wright and Michael Proctor (2), while in the second, the opening game of the 2005-06 season, two goals from a certain Darren Bent and one from Danny Murphy showed the home fans that it would be a long, hard season. It was. You won’t survive in the Premier League with the likes of Andy Gray, Jonathon Stead, Gary Breen and Andy Welsh. And we didn’t.
I sat through all of those games and several others against the men from Woolwich. But my first sight of Charlton Athletic was an infinitely more joyous occasion, that being the day we clinched our first ever promotion on the 18th April 1964.
There was a crowd of 50,827 at Roker that day hoping to witness the return of Sunderland AFC to their rightful place amongst the Elite 22 in the top league. For 68 years they had only ever played in the First Division until that dreadful, doleful day in 1958 when they slid through the trap door to Division Two.
There had been near misses the previous two seasons when we lost out to Leyton Orient and Chelsea but this time, we would be safe and sound with a game to spare if we beat a pretty decent Charlton side, who were to finish two places and 13 points behind us.
Amongst the Year 2 Sunderland supporting boys at Bishop Auckland Grammar School, the talk had been frenzied. Seats had been booked on buses, train tickets had been purchased and there was a feeling of anticipation akin to being taught by the delectable Miss Smith in the French class mixed with the fear of being sent to Butch Dixon’s office for a couple of strokes of the cane for singing the Charlie Hurley song in assembly.
That day Monsieur Salut and I took the diesel from Shildon to Sunderland (change at Bishop Auckland and Durham) and no doubt read the latest copies of Soccer Star, Tit-Bits and Reveille on the notoriously slow journey.
Once out of the stygian gloom of Sunderland station, we ate something that vaguely resembled a reconstituted meat product, walked across the bridge (on the seaward side) and disappeared down the warren of streets that led to Roker. We paid our 9d. and stood in what was then still an uncovered Fulwell End and looked forward to seeing Dennis Law, Jimmy Greaves, Ian St John and Alex Young the following season.
Charlton included Monty’s predecessor Peter Wakeham between the sticks and silenced the crowd when Eddie Firmani (left) put them ahead in the 17th minute. Charlton had at that time a lot of South Africans playing for them – Firmani being one. This was his second spell at The Valley, having left in the 50s for his mother country of Italy where he appeared with some distinction for Sampdoria, Internazionale and Genoa, scoring 125 goals before he returned to South East London.
They held on to the lead for 25 minutes before George Herd, one of the most reliable players ever to wear a Sunderland shirt, calmed the nervous agitation in the ground by levelling just before half time. As the half time scores went up on the board in the corner where the Fulwell End and the Clock Stand met, nerves jangled again when it was revealed that Preston, the only team who could get anywhere near us, were ahead at Bury. Mind you, North End would have to win their last two games by a lot and we would have to lose our last two games by as many but were still edgy.
The second half passed in a haze as the nerves and anticipation grew in equal proportions. Radios were pressed to ears but the Light Programme commentary game that afternoon was from Anfield where Bill Shankly’s joyous team were thrashing Arsenal to become Champions. As long as we held on we were up and when the wonderful Johnny Crossan stroked home a late winner, there was joy unconfined around Roker Park.
The team did a lap of honour, Charlie was chaired around the stadium to great roars and the Charlie Hurley song echoed from all corners of that stately old ground and into the Wearside sky. We ran back to the station, celebrated with a pie and a milky coffee in Durham, bought the Football Echo and the Evening Chronicle Pink (they lost 2-0 at relegated Scunthorpe United – oh joy unconfined!!!) and back to a warmed-up tea in Drybourne Park.
School on the Monday was less grim than usual. Some of the staff had been there while others saw how much it meant to some of their charges. Answers to questions were given as ”Herd and Crossan, Miss” although she was asking about famous pairs in Literature. “Sorry, Miss. Was it Irwin and Ashurst?” Off I went to Butch’s study.
Fifty-four years on, this youth of 13 is now a senior citizen of 67 and has been through an awful lot as a Sunderland supporter.
He is vehemently hoping that as the first time he saw Charlton marked the end of an era, this time it will herald the start of a new one, an era where players are keen to play for the club and what they may lack in ability, they make up for with effort and determination. The class of ’64 had both in abundance and there is an opportunity for one of this latest crop of young men to become the new Charlie Hurley or Johnny Crossan or George Mulhall. Let’s hope they can take it with both hands and start us off on the right footing.