Like most regular match-goers, I found myself completely stunned when news reached me on Tuesday night that well-known Sunderland supporter Keith Charlton had passed away.
Keith - who was just 45 year old - was about as hardcore as Sunderland supporters come, and the sheer volume of tributes that have flooded in since the news came to light is a true mark of the person that he was - a loyal, passionate Lads fan who quite literally lived for his football club.
That sounds clichéd, but in Keith’s case that’s absolutely true.
The reason he was so well-known is because he could be found just about everywhere that Sunderland were - every pre-season trip, from far-flung places like Honk Kong and Sacramento; away games (Keith was one of only seven Sunderland fans that travelled away to Grimsby last season for a midweek Checkatrade Trophy dead-rubber U23s game); supporter liaison and branch meetings; as a steward at the Stadium of Light; at talk-ins at pubs all over the north east; at fan initiatives like the seat change and working from the ground up with the recently-opened Fans Museum; working at the Supporters’ Club with the legendary George Forster... I could probably sit here all night and list all of the things that Keith got up to over the years, but the gist of it is that this fella bled red and white.
Keith lived every day of his life battling with the terrible debilitating disease myotonic dystrophy, though his condition never defined him. Sure, sometimes it was hard to understand when Keith was talking to you (and even more so when he’d been on the beer all day!) but it certainly never changed who he was as a person, and he wasn’t treated differently because of it.
Keith lived his life to the full, and evidently he saw his calling in life to be as committed a Sunderland supporter as you can possibly wish to be.
Since the news came through I’ve enjoyed reading the hundreds and hundreds of stories from people all over about Keith and their interactions with him over the years.
We have been shocked and saddened by the news of Keith’s passing. Our thoughts and prayers are with Keith’s family and those closest to him at such a difficult time. https://t.co/4f5xlxb8JV— Sunderland AFC (@SunderlandAFC) November 29, 2018
Paul Magrs - Keith’s partner in crime whilst travelling the world watching Sunderland - tells a fantastic tale about when they stopped over in Southampton for Keith’s 40th birthday.
After a closely-fought 1-0 victory (Steven Fletcher scored) the lads naturally stayed out on the drink, and the night led them to a nice, quaint residential boozer which had an open fire. It was Keith’s round, and as he stepped up to get the beers in he was denied service by the young lad behind the bar, who mistook the effects of Keith’s condition as him being too drunk. Quick as a whip, Keith slammed down his medical card which explained he had a disease which affected his speech - and the colour drained right out of the naturally apologetic barman, who proceeded to hurriedly pour the drinks.
As Paul put it himself: “The poor lad was nearly in tears as he kept apologising while pouring our pints... of course, we were actually very p*ssed.”
Once we got talking, Marsey couldn’t help but reel off another couple of his favourite memories of Keith - strangely involving food:
The incident forever known as Chicken Burger Hill was in Galway pre-season when we were staying in a huge student accommodation complex. We had been out on the p*ss and it was late, and we were hungry and had lost our bearings - the accommodation had a huge fence all the way round and we didn't know how to get back in so just started walking round it and came across a takeaway about to close.
Keith got to the front before everyone else and pretty much got everything they had left so we ended up with chips - we eventually found a way back in to the digs but there was a small wall, and on the other side there was a very steep grass hill to negotiate.
So all the lads went first without incident - I was after Keith, who left his chicken burger on top of the wall. when he tried to run down the huge bank he lost his footing and fell, then started to roll all the way down to the bottom - it was hilarious but he didn't seem to stop rolling for ages, and I was convinced he was putting it on for comedy effect, but he insisted not - anyway, I nicked his burger and shared it with Carl and told him a seagull had eaten it...
Oh... and then there was the time that, while on pre-season in Dublin, Keith (a reknowned fussy eater) payed a tenner to get into a Chinese buffet... and came back with swiss roll and chips.
My own memories of Keith are vast, and mostly funny. Almost every time I met Keith we took the p*ss out of one another; harmless fun, but that made up my relationship with him. I’d pinch his hat whenever I caught him staring into space near a turnstile, he’d give me a bit of grief and try to give me a clip. Then I’d have a bit crack with Keith about the match and head off to my seat - standard, ordinary stuff that you often take for granted.
I remember quite literally p*ssing myself laughing at Keith when he turned up to a branch meeting with bright, bleached blonde hair. He blamed it on some derby fans that ‘forced’ him to do it, but I think we all knew he fancied a change of style - he was just making the most of the little hair he had left.
Some knew him as karaoke Keith - he wasn’t shy about getting up and doing a song, to the utter disdain of everyone in earshot. To say that howling alley-cats had more rhythm would be putting it mildly, but I’m not sure Keith really cared.
Since Keith passed I’ve received a load of messages from mutual friends that couldn’t believe it was true - that this man was gone, all at the tender age of 45. Some are ex-players of the club that Keith touched with his infectious personality over the years that want to attend his funeral, some old friends that probably hadn’t seen Keith in years but were overwhelmed when hearing he was gone.
That shows the measure of the man - he was his own person, he loved Sunderland AFC and for that I have the utmost respect. When the lads won on Tuesday night, I couldn’t help but think that the victory was for him.
Rest in peace, Keith.