For Sunderland fans that frequently travel to away games, the faces of Steve and Paul Dean are two of the most recognisable of all the folk that follow the lads around the country.
They head up the infamous Jarrow (Jarra) Branch, and have done so for almost forty years - a staggering length of time and a monumental commitment, both to the football club and their fellow supporters.
They haven’t missed a game together for 25 years, and that run would have been longer had Steve’s support of the club not been halted by a horrific car accident which left him in hospital for almost a year. They are, without a doubt, the two biggest Sunderland supporters walking this green Earth - and for that, they deserve an immense amount of respect.
But we wanted to delve deeper - so I sat down to chat with Steve in order to find out more about the branch, how it was formed, to hear some interesting stories about events over the years and just about everything else in-between!
RR: Hi Steve. So, the Jarrow branch... I’ve actually travelled with your branch a fair few times over the years, leaving from the Hackle on the Scotch Estate... how did you come to start the branch? Any particular stories about your formation and how that came about?
SD: We formed our Branch at the start of the 1980-81 season. Six of us, me my brother Paul Dean, Geordie Turnbull, Eddie Browne, Jackie Welsh and Phil McGhee approached George Forster of the SAFC Supporters Association to form an official Branch in 1980.
I and Paul have been Jarrow Branch Secretary and Chairman since then.
Myself and Paul made it our aim to run a Supporters Branch because in 1973 we were in our final year at School and got to every game in the cup run home and away, but missed out on the final which was just a lottery on who got tickets, and as we were still at school could not afford to get a ticket on the black market.
So, we vowed when we were old enough we would set up a SAFC supporters branch in Jarrow to try and ensure that all true genuine supporters got the chance to get tickets to cup finals, etc.
RR: Do you run the branch alone, or do you have a team of handy helpers?
SD: Sadly Geordie, Jackie, Eddie and just recently Phil are no longer with us, but we have a large number of founder members still involved to this day.
You will always see some of the ‘Jarra lads and lasses’ at the away games and many of our members rarely miss a match. Even in the dark days of when we were relegated to the old third division there was myself, my brother Paul, Tony O’Neill, Geordie Hunt and Susan Collier who never missed a game home or away in the 1987-88 season, and they are still travelling to games to this day with the branch.
RR: How often do you run travel to games?
SD: We arrange away travel to every game putting coaches on to all games often two coaches to the most popular games as far as the midlands and usually arrange train or air travel to the longer distance games. If we haven’t got enough members to fill a coach for some games we liaise with other South Tyneside branches to share a coach.
We always arrange travel to preseason tours, even to places like Canada and America, Hong Kong and South Korea - I have watched Sunderland play in 16 different countries.
RR: How many games have you missed in the last, say, ten years?
SD: Myself and Brother Paul have never missed a Sunderland game home or away for over 25 years. If it wasn’t for a serious road traffic accident in 1992 ( it was during the FA cup run, when I was on my way to Roker Park for tickets with 50 Gold cards in my pocket for our Branch members for the Oxford game, which resulted in me spending nearly a year in hospital) that 25 years would be longer... but that’s another story.
In fact, since Sky TV began screening live matches on TV in the early 90s we have never watched Sunderland live on TV because we have always been at the game.
RR: How often do the branch members meet up away from the match day?
SD: We often stage talk-ins at our base at the Red Hackle and at or former base The Neon Social Club next door to it.
Guests over the years have included former managers like Alan Durban, Denis Smith and Len Ashurst, and former players like our Branch President Chris Turner, Kevin Ball, Gary Bennett, Ally McCoist, Ian Atkins, Mick Buckley, Barry Venison, Dennis Tueart, Paul Bracewell, Rob Hindmarch, Eric Gates, Marco Gabbiadini, our 73 heroes Jim Montgomery, Dick Malone, Richie Pitt and Bobby Kerr, our very own Jarra lad Craig Russell (who used to travel as a kid with the Branch).
I think everyone’s favourite was Niall Quinn, when he came to celebrate our 25th anniversary as a branch - we had over 450 at the event. We always aim to have at least one special event a season.
RR: Would you say that you’ve made some good friends through the branch over the years?
SD: Yeah, too many to mention - especially friends from a website a group of us set up called the Mackem Boozer led by Mick (Flicky) Flannigan, and loads of exile supporters who I have regularly obtained match tickets for who affectionately refer to me as being “The Jarra Ticket Master”.
I will have to mention some of my friends from far away - Butch Kamena and his lovely family from America, Peter Littlemore from Canada and Aivo Averin from Estonia. I can think of about half a dozen Branch Romances over the years. where people have met their partners through traveling with the Branch!
RR: Sunderland’s new owners have worked hard to ensure that supporters are very much included in everything that goes on. How does their approach compare to the way you’ve dealt with the club over the years?
SD: As well as running the Jarrow Branch in the mid 80s, I became Secretary of the Branch Liaison Council and it is only this season I stepped down as Secretary due to commitments I have with becoming a Local Councillor.
At that time relations at the club were not as good as they are today, but certainly that changed for the better with the appointment of Bob Murray who from the offset was brilliant in getting the fans involved, where he set up regular meetings with the BLC and set up the Disabled Supporters & Escort Branch.
In 1994, at the request of Bob Murray, a group originally called The Roker Liaison Group was set up by a cross-section of supporters, to advise SAFC on expansion plans (Roker Park vs Nissan at the time).
When the Football Task Force visited the area in 1998 they met with supporters groups at the Stadium of Light and commended the Roker Liaison Group, as it was known then, and Sunderland AFC in the field of supporter consultation and described the set-up as “unique in British football and an example for all to follow”.
We’re all very proud of our long tradition and history at Roker Park but most supporters now identify more strongly with the new stadium and are looking into the future for success rather than reflect on the past. The group changed its name to the SAFC Liaison Group following relocation to the Stadium of Light.
I can’t speak highly enough of the respect I have for Bob Murray for what he has done for the club over the years, and he is carrying on this with his support for the Foundation of Light and setting up the excellent new facility of the Beacon of Light.
When Niall Quinn and his Drumaville consortium took over, Niall carried on where Bob left off and engaged with the fans, one way was by doing road shows visiting the various Branches.
When Ellis Short took over things weren’t so sweet, though officials at the club did still meet up with various fan groups but certainly not to the same extent. This was possibly a result of the many managerial changes we experienced during this period. Thankfully, the new owners are saying and doing the right things and certainly are engaging with the fans.
RR: Tell us - what’s the most disastrous away trip you’ve experienced when following the lads around?
SD: There have been a tremendous number of memories throughout my time as Secretary of the Branch and over the near 40 years, but one game that even surpassed the Easyjet fiasco (otherwise known as ‘Niall Quinn’s Taxi Cabs’) was when Sunderland were at an away game at Coventry’s Highfield Road in a League Cup replay in 1990.
What a fateful day that was! As if getting hammered 5-0 was not bad enough, we were on the coach listening to a Billy Hardy fight on the radio when the bus caught fire.
He was fighting for a Commonwealth title at The Crowtree Leisure Centre; we had a problem persuading people to get off the coach as they wanted to hear the result of the fight, which Hardy sadly lost.
Obviously people did not realise at the time the severity of the fire - the cause being an electrical fault from the hot water/coffee-making machine. A spark from it caused the curtain to set alight, and what looked to be an innocent little blaze ended up in what could have resulted in fatalities.
It was on the M1 near Leicester and we actually had to get people jumping off into the fast lane of the motorway from the emergency exit. The police eventually had to close the motorway down as the full extent of the fire reached 40 foot flames as the bus burnt out, the only remains being the chassis.
The first car that got stopped behind us was a car driven by a Sunderland AFC Director and Gary Owers (who had got sent off that night) was travelling in it. The first question Gary asked me at the time was if anyone was killed in the fire!
The story of the fire actually hit the national news, and the national and local newspapers the next day. A favourite chant after the fire on away trips was “Ashy didn’t start the fire” to the tune of Billy Joel’s “We didn’t start the fire”. If you bump into any of the old timers like Tony O’Neill, Ticka, Dinky, and Joe Abbot I’m sure they will tell you the significance of that chant. There were rumours too that some people tried to claim insurance for items lost in the fire but how on earth they thought they would get away with claiming for sheep skin and leather coats and sets of golf clubs, god only knows!
RR: If people wanted to join the Jarrow Branch, how would they get in touch? Are you active on social media?
SD: It’s great that we have a hardcore of existing members still travelling with us and a new younger enthusiastic element now travelling away too.
Hopefully many of you reading this will like to maybe join the Jarra Branch on its travels following the lads away, or if you just want to contact me for a bit crack about the team that’s fine too!
HAWAY THE LADS!