In May of 1997, younger readers maybe won’t remember, we played our last league game at our old home, Roker Park.
We tonked Everton 3-0 to give a fitting farewell to an old lady we all loved, but who was now less than fit for purpose. Also that season we were teetering perilously to an ignominious relegation to the second tier of English football.
As we trooped out of the Fulwell End for the final time one of our group uttered the prophetic words: “I wouldn’t care if relegation were a nailed-on given, it’s the hope I can’t stand!”
Then, when relegation was once again confirmed and we felt our views weren’t being represented in the fanzine market, we decided to set up our own. And that was the name we gave to it. It lasted a mere 17 issues and the project has been far outlived by A Love Supreme, the magazine which pushed us into action.
A clarion call was put out on the Blackcats mail list for all who were interested in starting a new fanzine.
The fanzine movement was well established at that point, but of the two main SAFC fanzines around at the time, one had just closed and the other was seen, by us, as too trendy for its own good. It was all style and no substance, had no depth, its writing was poor and was initially based in Newcastle. They were not holding the club to account for the extremely poor season we had just witnessed.
We called a meeting for those who showed an interest in the peculiar surroundings of the Jeremy Bentham pub in the academic district of Bloomsbury in London. Not the obvious place for the birth of a plain-speaking fanzine of a club based some 250 miles to the north, but the disparate nature of the internet saw SAFC exiles from publishing, IT and other creative industries flock down to Bloomsbury. Well, there were about seven of us, but it seemed giddy to us at the time. We wanted to write a magazine which we would want to read—we were later dubbed a Guardian-reader’s Sunderland fanzine.
The first issue was scheduled for the first day of the new season and at our new stadium.
We had joint editors – myself and Mark Egan. We made a number of editorial decisions with a doffed cap to The Economist newspaper, where I was working at the time. We had no bylines initially—all content was the view of the magazine as a whole—and we printed all swear words in full. Both decisions were reversed in future issues.
The first issue was exhilarating to put together, the whirlwind was energising and we managed to get it printed by some guy in South Wales.
Amazingly everything came together and on the day of the first fixture, we took delivery of two battered boxes containing our baby. Irritatingly, the front cover was printed incorrectly. It should have been in red, black and white, for obvious reasons. But the printer had forgotten to use red ink. So although the cover was fine, it looked like a Mag fanzine (a fact many punters lost no time in drunkenly pointing out when we went flogging it around the pubs later on).
Eventually we got a deal with a printer in Pallion and had “Printed in Pallion” put on the back, much to the annoyance of the deputy editor of the Newcastle-based fanzine.
We were playing Man City and the game had been brought forward to the Friday night for TV. It was a balmy evening and all were expectant. I don’t know how we swung it, but Metro Radio’s pre-match coverage must have been short of content and I got on an hour before kick off. When a cherubic Guy Mowbray asked for a prediction I confidently suggested 3-1 to the lads. He drove past us in the pub after the match, after we had indeed won by the very same scoreline, and asked me for the following night’s lottery numbers.
The week after publication there were two anonymous letters in the Football Echo slagging us off. To this day, we have no idea who they were from, but it meant we were doing something right.
Eventually things started getting slightly less chaotic. We managed to get photographers’ passes to many away games and Neil Chandler and his “f****** expensive” camera got some canny snaps. We were never allowed into home games in any official capacity, as was the case with all fanzines. The club didn’t quite know how to treat us, so they let it be known they didn’t officially sanction us, but they asked to be put on our distribution list.
We had some tales to tell. One notable one involved Kevin Ball.
When the time came for Bally to leave the club, he went to join Keegan at Fulham. Mark Egan wrote what we all thought was an affectionate summary of his time with the club. Bally didn’t think it was affectionate at all. I was sitting in a Soho restaurant with my girlfriend, about to go and ‘see a show’ and my mobile trills with a number I don’t recognise. A gruff voice asks if he was talking to Nic Wiseman, editor of ITHICS, I said he was.
“I don’t like what you wrote about me in your latest mag,” he growled. We had described him as a clogger, to which he took great exception. At the end of a 30-minute call, we were on the greatest of terms, chatting about the recent derby in which he had almost scored an own goal, and he even apologised for interrupting my evening.
We were also threatened with prosecution by the British Library. Who knew that all publications registered with the Post Office have to lodge a copy of each edition with their depository? They were hurriedly also added to the distribution list.
Despite the club’s reticence towards us, they were very keen in acquiring a cover of ours showing former chairman, Bob Murray, in a favourable light. They asked for the original so they could hang it in the boardroom. They weren’t prepared to pay a penny. I said OK and sent a copy. I don’t think it’s up any more.
We also heard of how an SAFC board member went to the offices of the Sunday Sun for lunch. There was a copy of our spoof of Neil Farrington’s column (which we dubbed ‘Fartington on Sunday’) pinned to the notice board. The SAFC official asked one of the journalists when that particular edition of the column was published as they didn’t recall seeing it in the paper. Stiffing a smirk, the journalist ignored the question and asked where they should go for lunch.
We printed 2,000 copies an issue and all sold out. We charged a pound a copy and got a bit of cash from a couple of advertisers. A nascent Sun FM advertised on the back of some of our issues.
We had some great covers and had some respected contributors, including illustrators from the Guardian and Observer. We appeared drunk on TV, with Tom Watt and Matt Smith. Tom Watt has often referred to us having the best name of any fanzine he had come across. I often appeared on the mid-morning phone in show with Mike Parr on BBC Radio Newcastle.
The fanzine name has become an SAFC lament and BBC Radio five live presenters are often heard using it (thanks, Ian Dennis).
ITHICS lasted until halfway through the first season of our second stint in the Premier League with Reidy. It was hard publishing an SAFC fanzine from London and all press and photographers’ passes were denied once we had stepped up a division. We’d had a great time and enjoyed doing it. We still get asked about it, but if it weren’t for the Blackcats mail list (Still just about alive! subscribe at www.blackcats.org.uk/), it would never have started in the first place.