The story ends at St James’ Park, at the second of those 2-1 wins. Or rather afterwards in Fenwick’s.
But it begins on a Club Med holiday in Corfu, where Big Jim and I first met when. Standing in a queue for something or other, we discovered that we shared a surname. With this flimsy excuse for friendship, we met up a few times for drinks or tennis – Jim being as wide as he’s tall and therefore useful at the net.
Big Jim is American, a teacher at one of the USAF bases, Lakenheath or Mildenhall. He and his lady friend, Virginia, are devotees of the arts and had resolved before coming to the UK to wring every last drop of culture from their stay.
They became Friends of the Tate, Friends of Wigmore Hall, friends of anything that would bring them preferential or cut price tickets for classical concerts and exhibitions on visits to London. They’d often invite us, once or twice picking up the meal bill for good measure.
How to pay back their kindnesses? “What would you say,” I asked Jim, more than a little apprehensive about his likely reaction to the lowbrow treat I had in mind, “if I could get tickets for the Sunderland end at Newcastle?”
“You bet,” came the reply like a shot.
Afterwards, I explained, we’d stay the night in a great pub in Reeth and take in the glories of Swaledale. This would please Virginia and Mme Salut!, but for Jim, the football was the prize.
We stood outside the ground before the match, watching a column of SAFC fans being marched under heavy police escort towards the away end. Jim looked on in detached wonderment at the scale of the operation. “Don’t feel too detached,” I warned. “That’s where we’re going, too.”
When I say Jim is big, I mean Cow Pie big. He couldn’t get through the turnstile and they had to open a side gate for him. Then he struggled breathlessly up those endless flights of stairs to the sky-high apology for an away fans’ section.
When the match started, it looked as if we were in for a torrid time. The Mags took the lead, and Gary Speed’s goal seemed likely to be followed by another. But then we came back. Hard. First Don Hutchison, then the marvellous move that began with Tommy Sorensen’s throw, continued with Arca’s great dummy and ended with a fabulous cross from Michael Gray on to Niall’s head. 2-1, with the exquisite joy of seeing Tommy save a Shearer penalty to secure our three points.
As I wrote in Wear Down South, the magazine of the London branch of the SAFC Supporters’ Association, at the time, it was like walking on air striding along Northumberland Street afterwards. Jim had loved it, too, and couldn’t wait to tell his American kids at school all about it.
When we met up with the girls at Fenwick’s later, they wanted to know how it had gone.
“Gee it was fun,” said Big Jim. “England’s hot shot had a free hit on goal from 10 feet and the stopper blocked it.”
I’d have put it differently. But more of the same tomorrow, with a different cast, will have me walking on air again, and thinking of Big Jim, this time after watching the game on TV in Abu Dhabi. Ha’way the Lads.