Until David Cameron gets round to banning foreign travel as part of his austerity programme, we will be accustomed to coming across fellow Sunderland fans wherever we go. It may be the tops they wear, though caps, badges or rear window car stickers also give the game away.
If there is a grimmer town in the world than Portadown, I don’t wish to go there. I didn’t especially want to be in Portadown the day I went looking for a man widely assumed – and sometimes, in semi-private, claiming – to be a bloodthirsty sectarian killer. The newspaper I worked for wanted his reaction to being ordered, by other sectarian killers (nominally on the same side), to get out of Ulster.
He lived on an estate and I had to prowl gingerly around it in search of the address. Suddenly, I spotted it: a Sunderland top, worn by a boy of maybe 10. Not just any top but a gleaming new away top; it was early in a new season but I seem to recall that I’d already seen it at Anfield.
This oddly humanising touch, in the midst of a community where I am sure decent people lived but so, too, did inhuman psychopaths and those ready to support them, made an instant impression.
I had no intention of asking (being considered a would-be child abductor is probably marginally more risky than banging on a gunman’s door), so could only guess at the story behind it. The son of a Mackem who’d chosen this of all exiles? A lad whose family had known Johnny Crossan or Martin Harvey and been entranced by tales of the faraway Wear? Or just the sort of choice of English team many football fans, north and south of the Irish border, make all the time?
No matter, it was another of those odd encounters that can happen just about anywhere in the world. This one just happened to be along the road from a terrorist’s home. But my guess is that everyone will have their own stories of coming across the trappings of Sunderland support in unexpected places, and the comments section below would be a great place to share them.
My own sightings, going back nearly four decades since I Ieft the North East, include a paparazzo heading to shoot minor royals in the Swiss Alps and a miserable night on the Dover-Calais ferry before; the most recent instance was by the shores of the Med just the other day.
It was 5pm in a London office and I was thinking about that night’s home game against Birmingham City – it was the 1995/96 promotion season – when my boss told to make my way to Verbier. Prince Andrew and the Duchess of York had announced they were to divorce, an event in which I had absolutely no interest but Her Majesty’s Press had far too much.
In the event, the job was a doddle. Fergie was out there with her daughters and was more than willing to play ball for a quick, friendly and utterly inconsequential chat with the hacks provided they were then left alone to enjoy their holiday (which they were, except that one TV crew arrived late, considered themselves above the gentleman’s agreement reached in their absence and pursued them all over the slopes).
But the only other thing that stuck in the mind from the trip was the sight of a photographer arriving with only minutes to spare for the outbound flight from City Airport. He was wearing a Sunderland top, a distinctive but not very attractive old away replica. He turned out to be an Essex man with no links to the North East but who had taken a shine to us when hearing about the 1973 Cup Final glory. Fair play to him, he’d become a passionate enough fan through the thick and mainly thin times we’d endured.
In the early evening of Monday May 25 1998, the space occupied by two cars, one in front of the other on the quayside at Dover, was a sad place to be. I had delayed a holiday in France to be at the Charlton playoff final (my wife was already there) and Roy Sandbach was heading to his home in Brussels, where he was then living and working.
We’d never met but there was immediate rapport: he was wearing the gold away top our lot had worn when losing that heartstopping decider on penalties, and my 1937 replica was lying along the back shelf of my car. We swapped tales of woe over taste-free burgers on the crossing to Calais. I told him of my plan to stop somewhere on my way south, get very drunk and sleep it off before proceeding; in the event, I was so angry that I just kept going through the night, replaying over and over in my mind the missed sitters, the folly of Perez’s charge out of goal for their final equaliser and the Mickey Gray penalty.
Roy and I have kept in touch ever since. Other sightings did not lead to lasting contact but include the rear window badge on a car that I’d sometimes see while commuting between Uxbridge and Harrow; the home top worn by an airport porter when I landed for a holiday in Goa and another Northern Ireland example, whose wearer, in a team I occasionally joined for five-a-side in Belfast, had no interest in SAFC but just liked the shirt.
That journey from Wembley after the playoff final ended in the resort of Le Lavandou. And it was there a week or so ago that I spotted another young lad, this one accompanied by his mother, in his SAFC home shirt, Boylesport not Tombola but immaculately pressed and spotlessly clean .
At first I couldn’t be bothered, but curiosity got the better of me when I heard them speaking in French. It turned out that his true interest was Lorik Cana, formerly of Marseille and his hero. Since Lorik had worn our colours for a season, they had become this boy’s colours, too.
There was little suggestion in his responses that the allegiance would hold; the top had become a mere item of casual wear and I fully expect it to be replaced very soon by a Galatasaray replica.
* See also: Chris Butler’s story of collecting football tops, mainly SAFC related by clicking this link