What can we say about Gordon Watts*? Here is a man who ought to be Sunderland through and through. Dad was a lifelong fan, he was born in Houghton-le-Spring himself. Yet he’s a Hammer. Sounds a bit like one, is one, loves the Knees up Mother Brown site that produced a cracking piece from another Gordon (Thrower) for Salut! Sunderland last season. But if you feel that makes him seem a good bet for a Hammer horror film, think again. He may have fled the North East when a nipper, but he retains an obvious affection for the region and for SAFC. Gordon has worked all over the world; his present home is an oasis in the Arabian desert known as Abu Dhabi (where the coming together of scores of Brits to launch a newspaper has produced a stream of Who Are They? candidates). Ahead of Sunday’s game at the Stadium of Light, feast on Gordon’s reminiscences (and his dad’s) with such names as Raich Carter, Stanley Matthews, Bobby Moore……and – remember, Pete? – young Derek Forster. Gordon has a lovely account of Derek’s debut in goal for Sunderland as a lad of 15….
There will always be a special place in my heart for Sunderland.
After all, I was born in Houghton-le-Spring and my dad, who came from Hetton-le-Hole, was a lifelong fan.
Growing up as a boy I would listen to fantastic tales about the aptly named Horatio Stratton “Raich” Carter, who captained Sunderland to the First Division title in 1936. Just his name was enough to fire the imagination of a young lad and draw comparisons with another famous Horatio, the enigmatic Nelson, who also made a habit of playing on the winning team. While the hero of Trafalgar spent his life sinking French warships, Raich loved to scuttle the opposition with a wonderful array of guile and grace.
Capped 13 times for England, Carter had immense talent, and was widely regarded as one of the greatest players of the pre-Second World War generation.
Among his admirers was the legendary Stanley Matthews, who dubbed Raich the “supreme entertainer”. “Carter dodged, dribbled, twisted and turned, sending bewildered left-halves madly along false trails,” he recalled.
In those days, “Get Carter” became something of an obsession for opposing teams, according to my dad. Of course, by the time I was playing and watching football, Raich Carter was just another name you would find in old, yellowing Charlie Buchan football annuals.
Back then, Sunderland were going through tough times and were firmly in the shadow of their arch rivals Newcastle. All that was left for my dad were those distant memories of a footballing era swept away by the outbreak of war.
Life was also changing for my family. In 1959, we left Houghton-le-Spring, sold our small house in Balfour Street and moved to London. I was five at the time. As the years went by and my love for football grew, my dad would take me to West Ham, a “team that played the game the right way, son”, but a poor substitute for his mythical Sunderland.
After all, you only fall in love once in football. By the time I was 10, the Black Cats had rediscovered the “fortune that had always been hiding”. After winning promotion in 1964, Sunderland were back where they belonged in the top flight, and we would be there to see them.
By a strange twist of fate, they would open their campaign against Leicester City at Roker Park during the two weeks we were in the North East on our holidays.
Every year, we would visit my dad’s sister and her family in East Rainton, which sits on the old Houghton to Durham road. We would catch the overnight coach from Victoria Station in London and wind our way along the A1 in what seemed like an eternity until finally reaching East Rainton in the early hours of the morning.
From there, we would enjoy two weeks visiting relatives or spending days shivering on the beach at Seaburn and Roker, kicking a ball around. There would also be afternoons walking around the ramparts at Durham castle underneath slate grey skies, but my abiding memory of the summer of ’64 was my first visit to Roker Park.
With a Sunderland rosette on one side of my raincoat and a West Ham one on the other, I must have cut a strange sight as I headed off with my dad and my cousin Brian to the Leicester City game. As we waited to catch the bus, the talk quickly turned to young Derek Forster. A local lad, he had been drafted into the side to replace the injured Jim Montgomery in goal.
At just 15 years and 185 days, Forster is still, I believe, the youngest player to turn out in the First Division, which, of course, was the old Premier League in those days. What must have been going through his mind as he walked out to the fabled Roker Roar?
Perched high, sitting on a steel crash barrier and clutching a programme, I looked around in awe at the 45,464 other souls crammed into this citadel of expectation.
The sound was deafening. On the field, young Foster showed signs of brilliance but conceded three goals. There was no shame in that. At the other end, the future England World Cup hero Gordon Banks was also forced to pick the ball out of his net three times.
In the end, a pulsating match ended in a 3-3 draw. As we walked out at the end, carried through the gates on a wave of humanity, I could not help but notice the lines of lost shoes. Roker Park had always had heart, now it had sole. On the bus back to East Rainton, I relived the 90 minutes of theatre in the pages of the Sunderland Echo after first checking on the West Ham score.
Little did I realise then that this day, and this game, would stick in my memory for the next 44 years, a precious snapshot of childhood. Everyone a hero. The Sunderland team that day: Derek Forster, Cecil Irwin, Len Ashurst, Martin Harvey, Charley Hurley, Jimmy McNab, Brian Usher, George Herd, Nick Sharkey, Johnny Crossan and George Mulhall.
Now for your questions…..
What did you think our respective clubs’ prospects before the season started? Have the first few games changed your mind?
I thought West Ham would have a pretty good season, but I’m not so sure now. Our problem is scoring goals. Losing the injured Dean Ashton has been a big blow. As for Sunderland, Roy Keane will keep them up again.
When did you last see SAFC v West Ham home or away, and what happened. Any other memorable games between us?
That’s a hard one. I remember on the way to promotion in 1992, the Hammers hit six past Sunderland at Upton Park. Great result. But what does stick in my memory is when Geoff Hurst scored six goals against you in the league back in 1968. Trevor Brooking and Bobby Moore grabbed the others in a thumping 8-0 victory. I was there that day, so was my dad.
Have you been to the Stadium of Light?
I’ve just been in the car park, but it looks a brilliant stadium. What do you think of Sunderland itself? It’s a special place. When I visit my sister in Washington, we usually spend an afternoon at Roker beach. Come rain or shine. What memories do you have of Roker Park? Cold ones . . . apart from my first trip there. That biting North-East wind could cut through the steel girders that hold up the Wear Bridge.
What do you make of the signings each has made?
It’s still a bit early to say, but I do like Herita IIunga. We signed him on deadline day from Toulouse and he looks a Premier League player. He is tough in the tackle and is good going forward. Everything you need from a modern day left back. The fans love him too, he was named player of the month for October in a poll on West Ham’s official website. I also hope Anton Ferdinand makes an impact at Sunderland. He has tremendous talent, but needs to take a leaf out of Rio’s book and work harder on his overall game.
Do you regard Millwall or Spurs or Charlton, or anyone else, much as we regard Newcastle? Or are you more grown-up about such things?
I’m afraid I can’t mention the M word.
Do any memories of players and/or management linked to both clubs spring to mind?
I don’t know about favourite memories as there are so many. But I will always remember Anton in tears after he missed the crucial penalty in the FA Cup shootout with Liverpool in 2006.
Did you ever see Bobby Moore, Trevor Brooking and other West Ham greats play?
Yes I did . . . and what a privilege it was. Bobby was the best defender this country has produced. He used to see the game in slow motion, which was a tremendous gift. His positional sense was exceptional, while he passed the ball like a creative midfield player. But my abiding memory of the man was not in a West Ham shirt, but in an England one. To watch him walk off arm-in-arm with Pele after playing the best game of his life against Brazil in the 1970 World Cup Finals brought a tear to my eye. As for Sir Trevor, he was incredibly talented, with an amazing passing range. Of course, I can’t leave out Geoff Hurst, Martin Peters or Billy Bonds. After all, Bonzo had claret and blue blood running through his veins. Who was the greatest player, and which has been the greatest team, you have ever seen in West Ham colours. And what was your best ever game. Bobby was the king. And the 1965 team that won the Cup Winners’ Cup at Wembley would have taken a lot of beating, despite the fact that Johnny “Budgie” Byrne, John Bond and Peter Brabrook were missing in the final. I also thought the side that finished third in the League in 1985-86 was outstanding. The tiny trio of Mark Ward, Tony Cottee and Frank McAvennie were fantastic. I’m pretty sure we piled up 84 points that year. Incredible. I’ll settle for 44 this year.
What do you make of the big takeovers, such as Man City, and, before them, Chelsea, Man Utd, Fulham and QPR? Would you have liked the Abu Dhabi deal for West Ham?
Again, money talks in football today. Every club is looking for a Sugar Daddy to bankroll them. We thought we had one when Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson bought the club. But it appears his financial assets have been frozen after Iceland’s economic crisis.
Club vs country. Who wins for you?
Put it this way, it was always Bobby Moore, of West Ham and England.
Who will win? Score? How will you keep tabs given that you live abroad? I’m banking on a draw. Possibly 1-1. I’ll watch the game on TV. It will be screened live in Abu Dhabi.
* Gordon Watts on Gordon Watts:
I’ve supported West Ham since 1963, and I can’t imagine a season without them. During the past 15 years, I’ve worked abroad a fair bit of the time and I’ve found it difficult to see them live at the Boleyn Ground. I get there when I can. After saying that, I don’t think there will be many Irons fans that have watched a game in the Coco Duck Club in Hong Kong at 4am, surrounded by characters who appeared to have walked straight out of a John Woo gangster movie.