Every Sunderland supporter has their own reasons for why they ended up falling in love with the club, and each of them are likely to have very different stories - particularly the more far and wide we are spread right across the globe.
Of course, for those of us that hail from the north east it’s likely that our dads gave us no other choice, but how on earth you explain why so many lads fans with absolutely no connection to the area ended up being red and whiters is all the more unique and interesting.
With that in mind I spoke to Ken Gambles, who runs the North Yorkshire branch of Sunderland supporters, to find out more about not only how they’ve kept the group going for over twenty years but also how a lad from Barnsley ended up following a team two hours north over fifty years ago.
RR: Hi! How did you come to start the branch, and how long has the branch been going?
KG: The branch was formed in 1995 by Zac Wright at the beginning of the wonderful Reid era, and totaled about 80 members.
After a couple of years Zac decided to wind up proceedings but a small group of us were determined to continue, and some 23 years later we are still going strong (well surviving anyway).
My daughter Claire - who was then studying at Sunderland University - took over as secretary for a few years before the pressure of work and family became too much, and so for the past fifteen years I’ve acted as secretary, ably assisted by Barry Robson as Chairman.
RR: How many members do you have?
KG: Currently we have about 40 members, who receive a newsletter 3 or 4 times a year. Being a small branch it’s been difficult to get speakers but over the years we’ve had visits from Richard Ord, Bobby Moncur, Andy Gray and Keith Douglas, who was commercial manager at the time of McMenemy. That was an interesting insight!
Simon Grayson had agreed to come (I knew his father from local football) as he said ‘when things settle down’. Of course they never did - I’m hopeful Jonny McLaughlin will come for a question and answer session as he is an ex-pupil, but nothing definite has been arranged yet.
The geographical spread of members from Ilkley to Northallerton to York is very wide and meetings are not really practical.
RR: It’s never been more exciting to be a Sunderland supporter. With the club becoming far more inclusive, how important is it to you to feel a part of what is going on?
KG: The last few years of Ellis Short’s tenure were clearly hard-going as disappointment on the pitch was all too common, but what seemed to annoy members most was the lack of information coming out of the club and a constant moan was ‘why have the club not made a statement?’ or ‘why doesn’t someone just clarify what’s going on?’.
We can contrast this with Quinny, who was always out and about and attempting to keep fans in the picture and involved in the life of SAFC. At the moment it’s brilliant to hear so much from Stewart and Charlie about hopes, dreams and ambitions coupled with an honesty about the financial restraints and problems.
It was brilliant at Doncaster to find Stewart Donald sitting six seats away in the midst of the travelling support and being patience itself in posing for photographs and speaking to fans. He was fully excited by the game as well, which was great to see.
RR: How did you become a Sunderland supporter?
KG: Being born and brought up in Barnsley yet supporting Sunderland for 53 years I suppose needs explaining.
I played in goal all my footballing life and as a teenager used to focus on keepers. Jimmy Montgomery was one such young keeper I admired and when a lad, Alwyn Lacy-Jones, whose dad was a vicar moved to Barnsley from Sunderland suggested that we went to Leeds to watch Sunderland on Jan 2nd 1965 I was all for it.
The support just blew me away and our goalie had a great game. Monty was injured but Sandy McLaughlan was terrific and so some 1500 or so games later here I am, still following the lads and watching a keeper called McLaughlin.
Monty however remains my favourite and all-time hero. There were times in the late sixties when he almost single-handedly earned us points and his Wembley performance and the win of course (against dirty Leeds) was something I would have scripted myself.
RR: Do you manage to get to many games/run buses to many games?
KG: The branch did run a mini-bus for a season and a bit, but it became too problematic in that some wanted to go up early to visit family or have a longer stay in the pub whereas others wanted to come back later after celebrating with a few pints.
In recent years the Greater Manchester branch and the West Yorkshire branch have picked up in the area and I’ve had to refer requests for travel to them.
Of our members I would say most are season card holders and go to all home matches (a round trip of about 150 miles ) and probably ten or so can regularly be seen at away matches.
RR: What are your hopes for your branch in the future?
KG: My biggest hope is that members will pay their subs!
We ask only for £3 to cover postage and printing costs yet so far fewer than ten folk have paid up. I know they’ll pay if and when they see me at games. It’s not specifically the branch, although members did contribute a fair amount, but ‘Black Catalogue’ - a collection of supporters’ memories - was published in 2006 and sold about 1200 copies.
I also produced a children’s story about Monty, a Sunderland cat meant for the Dads and Lads reading, but as I included some nasty magpies in the tale the club weren’t too pleased.
I sent copies of these to Stewart Donald to welcome him to the club but whether he received them or not I don’t know! It would be good to publish new collections of each. Jack Ross has written children’s books too so perhaps we could compare notes.
We would like to have more guest speakers but we’re a long way from Sunderland. Marco lives in nearby York but three separate invitations have been ignored (and I loved him as a player too!).
RR: How can fans in your area get involved with your branch?
KG: Our raison d’etre is to be of help to Sunderland supporters wherever we can, but our numbers and widespread membership means we can’t always be of use. We do try and although we are few in number, to be still going strong after 23 years is not bad.