My First Game #3 - Sunderland 1-0 Liverpool, 1997

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Time for another "My First Game"... where you get to be the writers and tell us all about your first game. The thoughts, the feelings, the general memories.

If you want to add your own, by all means go for it by emailing 500 or more words (something todays subject took liberally) on the subject, plus a bit about yourself to rokerreport [at] gmail [dot] com

Today, we have a rather epic tale from Chris Hunt. I'd usually use this little bit to waffle a little about Chris, what he does, who he is and so forth, but he's kind of done it already in the story, so we won't mess about other than to say follow Chris on Twitter - @Chris_Hunt_1 

Now for his incredible tale of SAFC's last game at Roker Park, Mickey Gray's backside and a whole lot more. I warn you now, it's pretty long, but frankly none of it could be taken out. It's all gold...

Now, normally I wouldn't put in to do something like this, you're all Sunderland fans, you all had a ‘first match' and you all know the basic elements of what these articles include. It is almost invariably a cold night, there's a smell of Bovril, there is the ever present noise of the crowd, you're with your dad or your granddad, we lose by two clear goals but it doesn't matter because you're smitten with the club. You know, the usual.

 I volunteered to write this because my story is different. My story is, I believe, fairly unique.

I am not going to lie to you, you're not going to believe a vast majority of this story but all I can tell you is that it is true. I remember most of it, and the rest of it I was told by my mother when, years later, I realised what a bizarre memory it was and asked her to clarify it for me just so I could be sure I wasn't insane.

Now, to begin I'm going to have to give you some seemingly irrelevant facts that will come into play later on in this story. I will start by letting you know I am from Easington Village (I hope you don't hold that against me) and that my primary school was the excellent Easington Village Church of England Primary School. This school had four classrooms, one hundred and fourteen pupils and four teachers. Basically, it was a pretty shoddy school. One thing it had going for it, however, was the fact that there was a real sense of community there, the small number of pupils and teachers meant we all knew each other, parents of the pupils would often get involved in the running of the school and my mother was one of these parents. My mother, tired of working around the house all day cleaning and polishing while I was at school, only to watch her good work be undone after 4pm as I returned home and put my grubby little hands all over everything, decided to apply to become a governor of the school.

My mother was in no way qualified to be a governor, she did not have devilish eyebrows, nor did she have a God complex. Luckily, my school was in no way qualified to be a school so the two were quite the pairing and she got the job. The job basically consisted of turning up for board meetings that never amounted to anything other than a slight feeling of self importance for those involved and my mother, enjoying this sense of importance after years of feeling like little more than a maid to what I can only describe as a little shit of a child, loved her new role. She began to get more involved until she became ‘head governor' - this was essentially the same job but she was provided with a badge which consisted of a photo of herself, her name and absolutely nothing else.

Right, that's the back-story out the way, onto the real thing.

My dad has been a Sunderland fan his whole life, he often tells me stories about watching games as a young lad, and he loved Roker Park. I was seven years old in 1997, and due to a combination of bad parenting and lack of interest from myself I had not yet been to a Sunderland game, this was all, however, about to change. Sunderland AFC were constructing the Stadium of Light, a new home and hopefully a new era for the club. Roker Park, unfortunately, was coming to the end of its time. I like to think that this struck a chord with my dad, who remembered it was Roker Park that first made him fall in love with the club, and that he wanted to take me there for the final game so I could witness some of the magic he witnessed himself as a child, I picture this now and in my mind I see clips of my dad's time at Roker Park as a child (in black and white obviously) mingled with images of me watching a game of my own, Elton John singing the circle of life in the background, a beautiful montage. The likely story is he couldn't get a babysitter, but we'll go with my own version as I think it adds a certain romance to proceedings which is about to be lost in the absurdity of the following events.

So it was agreed, the final game at Roker Park, Sunderland vs. Liverpool would be my first Sunderland game. I'm not an anorak, I couldn't tell you the line ups, I couldn't tell you who scored, but I can tell you what I do remember, and what I do remember is a first match experience that I often still think about today.

We all hopped into the car, I'm not sure if this was our sexy green Ford, or if this was still back in the halcyon days of my dad's bright red metro. Whichever it was, we packed in and set off for the game. My brother and I were kitted out in Sunderland shirts, Sunderland shorts, those giant Sunderland top hat things that belittled our parent's parenting techniques almost as much as they belittled us, there was no expense spared. We arrived at the ground early so my dad could take us for a walk around the stadium so we could drink it all in. At this point I wasn't overly impressed (although I hadn't been to a game before, I had been in Roker Park previously when it was empty, this was a trip that resulted in a bust nose for me courtesy of my uncle kicking me in the face, he maintains it was an accident to this day) but my little brother seemed to be enjoying it, he was four at the time so the sense of occasion must have made quite the impression on him.

My little brother was born with cerebral palsy, epilepsy, asthma, the lot. It was grim; in fact, when he was delivered the doctors asked my mam if she'd like a refund, when she refused they asked my little brother if he'd like a body transplant. He's alright now, due to the intervention of a Russian doctor named Archibald who had developed a type of medicine that was designed to improve my brother's balance etc and now you would never know that he used to have (still does have?) a condition.

That whole Russian doctor coming to set up shop in Sunderland thing wasn't just an excuse to tell you another fantastical story from my past, it was to let you all know that my little brother used to be quite the messed up individual, and it was this Russian doctor who inspired part of the day. This medicine he was giving was costing upwards of one thousand pounds a time; money, as you can guess, we didn't really have. Niall Quinn and Sunderland did get involved in fundraising for my brother further on down the line and even presented him with a Brave Heart award (it's infinitely less impressive than it sounds) but at the time our story takes place, we were on our own trying to raise the money.

My mother, having one of her rare moments of combined genius and idiocy, decided that she would simply walk into the main entrance of Roker Park, hunt down the big guns and ask them if they could do anything to help my brother. My dad stood back to let her attempt this, with what I like to imagine as a knowing smile spreading across his face, waiting for her to be turned away. In a remarkable instance of poor security a miracle occurred, the people on the door spotted my mother strolling confidently towards them, watched her quickly flash a badge, and let her in.

I leave the story for a short while at this point, and instead, we now follow my mother as she made her way deep into the bowels of Roker Park. Her recollection of being in there has her having such zany adventures as getting lost in corridors until she was finally discovered by a suited individual who asked her if she was with the Howey (or it could have been Cowie) party (we have never gotten to the bottom of this one, but I think it may have been Cowie as Howey was no longer playing for us at this point). At this point, my mother had two options:

Option one: Claim that she was not with the Howey (Cowie?) party, make up a story of who she was and why she was there and try and blag her way out of being discovered, or

Option two: Panic, reply that yes, she was indeed with the Howey party and allow herself to be led into a room where a number of people noticeably wealthier than her were socialising and preparing for a meal.

For reasons known only to herself, my mother chose option two.

She was led to the function room where she proceeded to try and make herself as invisible as possible. Obviously, this only made her stand out more until eventually questions were asked as to who the shoddily dressed frightened looking woman standing alone in the corner was. It was at this point my mother was discovered to be a fraud. Asked how she got into this area of the stadium, she replied that she had simply walked in, when the people asked her why she had come, she decided, finally, to be honest. She opened up about my little brother and admitted that she had originally snuck inside to ask about any particular fundraising the club could do or perhaps getting a signed shirt to raffle.

While this was occurring inside, my brother and I were still stood outside with my dad, who had gone from baffled, to chuffed, to worried about my mother, she had been gone a good half hour before she reappeared at the entrance flanked by security men, where she pointed out me and my brother. My dad says to this day he thought we were all going to be banned, but instead they waved us towards them. We were allowed entrance into Roker Park...

We were led down a hallway, with the men in suits, who I was relatively afraid of, explaining they would ‘look into getting a shirt' while smiling at us in a disturbingly over enthusiastic way. We twisted and turned making our way further into the stadium until we stopped outside a door. The men in suits, again looking overly enthusiastic told us that our signed shirt would be in that very room. Looking back now, they may as well have been elbowing each other in the ribs and stifling chuckling for the poor job of covering up what they were doing, but at the time I was oblivious.

The door opened, and my young, seven year old eyes were greeted with a sight they had never seen before. It was something I could never have expected. Something few people have seen. It was Mickey Gray's arse. His bare arse. Just standing there, staring into my soul. The other men in the room laughed uproariously, my dad chuckled, my mother stared a little too intently, the moment seemed to last forever. Mickey half turned and realised two children were watching his naked form, and quickly covered up. We had been led to the changing room to meet the team. I don't know how long I was in there, but I remember having a number of awkward conversations with a bunch of big, musky smelling men. The identities of these men were later revealed to me as being such luminaries of the game as Chris Waddle, Craig Russell, Kevin Ball etc. We spent some time with the players, which was both enlightening and disturbing as the presence of children in the room did little to deter them from changing into their strips, and were generally made the centre of attention. The players were aware we were after something to raffle for my little brother, and had been given a Sunderland AFC ball, which they all proceeded to sign for us.

We genuinely enjoyed our time in the changing room, and it seemed the players enjoyed having us there, I remember a lot of laughter in there, but alas, as with all good things, it had to come to an end. Peter Reid arrived wanting to deliver one of his sterling pre-match talks which, as you will all know, were not monologues that a seven year old and a four year old child should hear, so our time in the changing room drew to a close. We took our signed ball and went to leave, however there was another surprise in store for us. We left 11 black cats in the changing room, and were greeted by one, rather more furry, black cat outside. That's right, it was our good friend Samson. Samson took my brother, my mother and I down the tunnel, and it is at this point I must tell you one part of the story that, to this day, makes me cringe. There were a number of men in the tunnel, generally milling about and having a conversation. One of these men came between Samson, my brother and I and my mother. My mother, clearly letting the idea of self importance go to her head asked the man to move out of her way in what can be described as a less than pleasant way. She spent the next half hour talking about how some man had the cheek to push in front of her in the tunnel before pointing out said man to my dad, the man was Charlie Hurley. There was a collection of old ‘legends' present who were paraded on the pitch before the game, it was Charlie Hurley who had somehow had the sheer audacity to stand in my mother's way.

Anyway, whilst my mother was embarrassing herself to a living legend in an incident that I believe has genuinely led to my dad loving her a little bit less, Samson had taken my brother and I onto the pitch. We walked around the sidelines for a little while, posed for some photos and had a little pass about with the ball. I remember Samson always overhitting the ball when he passed it to me, and I began to think that he possibly had it in for me (this belief was reinforced two years later when Samson and I met on the pitch for a second time in a penalty shootout in South Hetton, mine was the only penalty he saved with a sterling dive to the lower left corner- I hold out hope that my chance for revenge will one day come).

After a while the game was due to begin, and we were escorted to our seats. The two suited men from earlier had reappeared and after leading us up where we were sat they took the signed ball from us in what appeared to be an act of pure, unadulterated, Disney villainy. Crestfallen we watched the first half of the game. Like I said, I can't tell you who scored, or how we played or anything to do with the game, my body may have been in the stands, but my mind was back in the changing room with Samson's fur, Kevin Ball's mad, mad eyes and Mickey Gray's fine, sculpted arse. Anyway, the game was played and won, and we, along with a lot of other fans, stayed behind a bit after the final whistle to say our last goodbyes. Robbie Fowler was the last man off the pitch, receiving applause from the Sunderland fans because of his claim that he could relate to the area and his support for the dockers. Once the game was all over with we made to leave, only for the two suited individuals to return, grinning more broadly than ever to return our ball. It transpires they had taken it from us in order to have it sent into the Liverpool dressing room to be signed by them as well, which they had done for us. Taking our incredible memento with us, we left the ground. It was my first game, but I think it says a lot about the experience of that day and the atmosphere in the ground that I cried as we were leaving. My little brother also began to cry, whether this was to do with the end of Roker or whether he was just trying to get in on my act I can't tell you, however, not one to be upstaged, I decided to cry until I vomited in the back of the car on the way on home. It was from this day that I counted myself as a Sunderland fan. We never did raffle that ball, as we decided it was better left in the family as a memory of that day.

So that was my first game! The day I met and fell in love with Sunderland AFC. Since then I've seen promotions, relegations, some more promotions and even more relegations, but I'll stick with them, and it's all down, in part, to a wonderful afternoon spent with Mickey Gray's arsecheeks.

And that my friends was that. An incredible read. Add your own to the mix, the details are above!

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