“When 47,000 Mackems booed me”

JoesIf Don Hutchison, Kevin Phillips, Lee Clark and Allan Johnston ever felt they could have done with a spot of advice on how to handle the odd jeer or two from Sunderland supporters, Joe Simpson would have been the man to turn to. He knows what it is like.

Joe has never played for Newcastle, still less supported them. To the best of his knowledge, he has committed no other crime against Sunderland.

And yet he didn’t mind a bit being singled out for attention during the opening match of the 2001-2002 season, against Ipswich, at the Stadium of Light.

Invited onto the pitch to make the halftime lottery draw. Joe was introduced as “evil Alex Swinton”. The 47,370 crowd – does my headline underestimate the Ipswich support by suggesting they brought 370? – rose to the bait with a chorus of what he calls “pantomime booing”.

But they would not have barracked him for real. Despite the strong echoes of Manchester in his accent – he was only six when his mainly moved here from Peterlee – Joe is a wholehearted Sunderland fan.

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He is also, according to those who know him, impossible to dislike, straightforward and approachable and as far removed from Swintonesque villainy as Gary McAllister was from the penalty area when Varga tackled him a few seasons ago (yes, I know I harp on about that one, but you name a finer, longer, more fraudulent dive in the history of dodgy penalties).

Despite being a nice enough guy, though, there must be times when Joe feels typecast as a baddie.

In Emmerdale, he had to gatecrash a wedding anniversary party and beat up Biff. On stage in Manchester, he portrayed in his own words, a really vile skinhead”. Why, he’s even played a newspaper reporter.

But these are just the things Joe Simpson does for a living. When Wear Down South called to interview him, he was on his best behaviour at home in Stockport, watching the Tweenies with Amy, his daughter, then aged two.

Do not get the idea that he’s a closet softie. His choice of role models disproves any such suggestion. Joe was born John. And when Equity told him that someone called John Simpson was already on its books, he looked for inspiration to his all-time favourite player, Joe Bolton and adopted the tough-tackling fullback’s Christian name.

“The hardest man in history of the world” is the Joe-on-Joe verdict.

“My memory of strict detail – who scored scorelines and so on – is appalling. But I do remember players. Bobby Kerr, Stan Cummins, Gary Rowell of course. Even rubbish players. Wayne Entwhistle, for some reason. He always played badly when I saw him. And Bob Lee.

“But with Joe Bolton, I suppose it’s because I always played as a defender myself, the sort who’d get a nose bleed crossing the halfway line. I just loved his attitude, the way he’d clatter people into the Clock Stand. He’d slither into a tackle, get cut to ribbons and pick himself up again while the other guy had a long session with the magic sponge.

“I know you need flair players, but fans take to heart those who have that do-or-die approach that epitomises the Sunderland spirit. I was upset when Chris Makin left, and Rae and Bally.

“All of them were players the fans think bloody cared about us winning. That’s why the whole Hutchison thing upset me, when I think back to him scoring at St Jame’s Park and kissing the badge.”

Back in the flat-roofed sprawl of Peterlee, Joe was born into a family of pure red and white pedigree. “I almost wished during the dark days of the 80s that it was different, but it was never really a matter of choice.

“Dad would go with his pals, and you just waited until the day you were old enough to be taken. Once it happens, that’s it”.

One early Roker Park memory is of the highly-charged atmosphere for a 2-0 win over West Ham, clinching promotion to the old First Division in 1980, though he was about 13 and had been to many previous games. Like lots of fans, he started in the Roker End and graduated to the Fulwell.

When another promotion – for his dad, at work – took the family away, he had to rely on visits to the North East for home game opportunities.

“Funnily enough” he said, “each time we went back to see relatives, Sunderland seemed to be at home”.

He saw away games at places like Burnley and Blackburn, and remembers virtually all his schoolfriends turning into Stockport fans overnight to mock him after County beat SFAC in a two-legged 1980 League Cup clash.

Into adulthood, there were the highs, Hillsborough, for example, for the FA Cup semi- final victory over Norwich in 1992. And, inescapably, the lows.

At Wembley in May 1998, having resolved to give up smoking at the end of the season, he was drawing hard on his last fag as Mickey Gray stepped nervously forward to win the undying affection of Charlton supporters.

Joe has a special fondness for the last game of any season, whether or not anything is at stake, and for away games generally. He could not get to Luton but followed the afternoon’s drama in a pub.

And he welcoems the new Irish fans just as he did the extra supporters attracted in Peter Reid’s more successful seasons.

“I don’t have a problem with new or fair weather fans if we can fill the ground every other week,” he said.
“But the ones who travel away are the old faithful. You get a much better atmosphere than at home”.

The uncertainties of an actor’s life stop Joe, a member of the SAFCSA Greater Manchester branch, seeing the Lads as often as he would like.

Speaking just before a Premiership win at Bolton, a match he wanted to attend but ended up having to miss, he said: “So far this season I have only been at the Ipswich and Villa games. Last season was bad. We had a good season but I had a lot of work, so I made it to only about a dozen games.

“That’s not brilliant but in my work, you get things at short notice and sometimes need to be somewhere the next day. Life isn’t fair. I used to see more games when we were really crap.”

One he was a wise to miss, in our most recent really “crap” phase, was the momentous home defeat to Southampton which helped us on our way out of the Premiership in 1997. But he couldn’t escape the pain.

“I was on honeymoon in New York,” he said. “I phoned up from my hotel room. Helen, my wife, had agreed I could as long as I wouldn’t let it ruin the day if we’d got beat. So I had a five-minute sulk, then rallied round and we went out and saw New York, which lifted me a bit.”

And life under Reid was to lift him again, before it ended in the inevitable disappointment. Joe shares the view that he should have gone much sooner.

“Bob Murray had got too close to him and was unable to sack a friend when it was clear to everyone that his time was done,” he said. “But what followed was even worse.

“I remember the day Wilkinson was appointed. I was away filming in Blackpool (oh the glamour!) and had read that morning that an appointment was imminent.

“The location that morning was a house so in between shots I kept flicking the telly on to see if anything had happened – there it was on teletext – Sunderland Appoint New Boss.

“I quickly scrolled to the page and then things started to go into slow motion. I was reading it – Wilkinson – my mind was clicking and whirring. I was thinking it must be someone from a lower league, a promising up and coming coach, a brave decision by the board. I kept reading. Wilkinson….Howard Wilkinson. I read it again. Howard Wilkinson…slowly it sank in it was THAT Wilkinson, someone who was so far off the footballing radar that I couldn’t believe it.

“Immediately all the crew began to take the piss. The sound guy just came up to me and said ‘you poor bastard’ and it didn’t get much better from then on. It was a really bad time, a shocking decision by the board and one that set us back years. I don’t wish or need to dwell on that time. Anyone who lived through it knows how bad it was…

“But it was followed by MM. Now this is not revisionist , or being written with the benefit of hindsight but I was hardly over the moon when Mick was appointed – he was and always will be as far as I’m concerned a good 1st division manager – he was not someone who was gonna take Sunderland to the top of the Premiership.

“Sure we could get promotion under him as we did but I never thought he was a long term solution. When it came to the crunch he was left wanting – the play-offs against Palace, the woeful premier campaigns and most unforgivably the semi final against Millwall. Here was a golden opportunity for Sunderland. At long last I was gonna get to see the lads play in Europe.

“All we had to do was beat Millwall a team run by that footballing midget Dennis Wise but again we fell at the final hurdle as the old fanzine used to have it – ‘It’s the hope I can’t stand’.”

Joe finds it hard to think about last season’s abysmal relegation. “The history books will say it forever- we set records that no-one is ever going to take from us. A terrible, terrible time.

“And yet the darkest hour is before the dawn, they say. I don’t know who said it but he must have been a Sunderland fan – because what has happened with the Quinny-led takeover and then the appointment of Keane has been nothing sort of miraculous.”

“We are now building a football club for the future. When I hear Quinn speak, it fills me full of hope. He has the passion and the understanding of our football club and in Keane we have someone again steeped in passion, who has learnt from some of the greatest managers, most importantly Cloughie.

“A couple of examples of how our club has moved on: the much publicised Barnsley Three episode. Look at the way Keane handled it and then think back to how Reid would fall out with a player.

“Also the Taxi for Quinny story. Again I had fans from other clubs telling me how fantastic it must be to have a chairman who understands and cares for the supporters like that.”

So Joe is upbeat about the coming challenges. “It’s looking good as far as I’m concerned and it ‘s surely not going to be long before finally I get to fulfil my dream of seeing Sunderland play a competitive European tie.”

NewjoeBringing us up to date on his career, Joe says he has had a classic “up and down, feast and famine existence with a bit of telly, a bit of theatre, one or two adverts – currently appearing in a Greggs ad opposite Paddy McGuinness of Paddy & Max (that is where this picture comes from, and I now learn from “Hudson88” at Ready to Go that it’s Joe on the right not, as previously stated, the left) and Phoenix Nights fame”.

He and his wife recently celebrated their tenth anniversary and Amy, eight this summer, now has a sister, five-year-old Georgia, “so unless there is a drastic change in the laws of the game neither child is going to captain Sunderland”.

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