I want to meet Colin Pascoe!
Me, in April 1988.
I was the mascot for the lads, against the mighty Chesterfield, exciting home of the crooked spire and a canal.
There was another mascot that night - he seemed a nice boy, but he jumped in first when we were asked which player we’d like to meet. Me - too shy to shout out - waited for him to say anybody but Marco Gabbiadini, but those two Italian words fell from his mouth like a pair of little daggers aimed directly at my immature heart.
In a panic, I shouted out the words Pascoe and Colin, like a sufferer of footballing Tourettes. It’s not that I didn’t want to meet the Welsh winger, but in 1988 it was all about Marco. This young matador of Italian heritage seemed like a giant among men. For a young boy, as I was then, his proportions were almost cartoonish.
Legs the width of an elephant’s, the speed of a cheetah, the raw strength of a silver-back Gorilla. Marco bashed his way, like an unorthodox wrecking ball, through lower league defences as if they were mere matchstick men and he were Conan the Barbarian. I did meet him in the end after I’d scored some playful penalties against Ian Hesford and was pulled to the halfway line by an enthusiastic club photographer, telling me while simultaneously smoking a Marlboro like an industrial Teesside chimney ‘you’ll get in the next program for this son.’
We won 3-2 and my father and I sat behind Bobby Kerr, where 22,000 of us watched enthusiastically as Sunderland battled endlessly to gain a well-deserved victory.
I met Bob Stokoe in the beautifully decorated boardroom that was a throwback to pot-bellied local chairmen, smoking fat Cuban cigars and driving home in their Arthur Daily style Jaguars while attempting to bribe players with a basic salary overseen by the bank manager and a supplementary brown paper envelope full of cash, left anonymously in the boot of their cars.
It was a topsy-turvy time, not to dissimilar to where we are now. We’d been sent down to the third tier of English football where we’d seen false dawn after false dawn.
A shiny, well reputed top-flight manager had wasted our money and killed the team spirit, all whilst happily lining his own pockets with what was then an incredible salary that we could not in truth afford.
Our previous Chairman Tom Cowie had gambled big with McMenemy and the price of that gamble felt cataclysmic, just as it feels now for the majority of Sunderland supporters as we sink ever close to another depressing relegation - once again into the third tier of our professional game.
A new owner had recently taken over and a young, hungry 40-year old manager was given the reigns of a falling giant and given the tools to do the job effectively. Denis Smith had only ever managed York, and many thought that this was surely too big a job for him - he was unknown and unfancied. He’d never taken a small country to the semi-finals of a European Championships and had never managed in the top flight, but he took hold of this crumbling behemoth and made all the right but simple decisions.
I used to go to away games back then with an older lad who could drive, a friend of the family and even today, Dean is a mad Sunderland fanatic. Dean and his mate Mark, an older brother of a friend of mine, were wannabe casuals, with the latest in Fred Perry polo shirts and stone-washed jeans. They were young adults really but to us they seemed like proper fellas - the business. How my young friends and I idolised them. I remember seeing them on Tyne Tees news outside Roker Park chasing what they thought was McMenemy’s car down the road in an act passionate defiance after the big man had been given the push by ambitious new owner Bob Murray.
My older pals were gutted when we were relegated from the old second division. ‘Doomed,’ they’d say on repeat. ‘We’re finished, we’ll never recover,’ they would recycle on a constant basis. My old man, like a mackem Captain Mainwaring, would calmly say, ‘Don’t worry son, if we can survive WW2 we can survive the third division.’
And so it was to be. Another re-incarnation was to take place. We’d had many before and we’ve had some since and right now, another resurrection is imminent.
In 1987-88 the Gabbiadini and Eric Gates strike force was the perfect mix of potency for a league full of the likes of Aldershot and Grimsby. Honestly, it was so joyous to watch that at times, we forgot all about the league we were in and just enjoyed the show.
Marco was a raw 18-year old kid with thighs so wide they’d block the sun from certain angles. But I’m sure some of the Sunderland supporters of the day were moaning and decrying the signing of an unknown youngster from York City for less than what Jack Rodwell earns in a week. Gatesy they claimed was a washed up elder statesman on his last legs- clinging on with this dodgy knees, for one last pay day.
Eric and Marco scored 40 goals between them that season, firing us to promotion as champions, with nearly 100 points on the board.
We even had a centre half in John McPhail who scored 16 goals that year - Another low-key signing, from the lower leagues, that we probably doubted, questioned and groaned about at the time, yet he formed the bedrock of the defence and led us to two promotions and back to the promised land.
We had hard working, industrious lads, like Gordon Armstrong, Gary Bennett and John Kay. Not the most gifted perhaps, but blessed with grit and determination.
We had some old timers like Gatesy and Frank Gray, whose experience and know how were extremely valuable. In a time when very few of us could even begin to circumnavigate, those wise older heads led us from the rough seas of the third division to the calmer waters of promotion.
It turned out we weren’t doomed at all, we were just awaiting a new dawn to begin.
So, while it appears that Sunderland AFC are heading towards financial and footballing oblivion, if our history is anything to go by we are just heading to the bottom of our well-rehearsed life-cycle.
It appears the God of football who watches over us is somewhat of a sadist. We aren’t lucky enough to be kept on a constant hamster-wheel of top flight football, but our excitement does not come from trophies, its forged from the pain of disappointment and then branded on our backs as the ecstasy of hope kicks in.
But as seasoned Sunderland supporters honestly know, true success rarely delivers its beautiful bounty on Wearside but does so enough to leave us constantly hungry and thirsty for more. We’re like the last man standing at a roulette table. His tie, raggedly pulled down, his overnight stubble kicking in and beads sweat pulsating from his forehead. He knows he shouldn’t put any more down, he knows his life would be immeasurably more secure if he just walked away from the table - but he has to take one last roll and he always does. Just like us.
There is no doubt that our recent experiences have been belly achingly awful. We’ve gambled for a seat at the top table of English football and we are all paying the price for it now. Back in 1987, fans felt the same. But from that near-death experience we spawned the green shoots of recovery that led to back to back promotion to the top flight. Our subsequent relegation saw yet a new transmutation of thought and direction which led to the cremation of Roker Park. But the phoenix that emerged from its ashes was the Stadium of Light and a knowledge that to move forward we need a home to match our ambition. This led to new owners again, Quinny, Keane and the Premier League.
Each new life has added a unique and rich chapter to our deep and colourful history. Yes, we’ve gone backwards and yes, it’s been agonising to witness. It always is. But I refuse to believe we are on the verge of extinction.
Just as we did in 1987, when the third tier of football was our playground, we will once again explode from our chrysalis and spread our red and white wings so that the world of football will know we have survived. We’ve survived before and we will survive again.
Just like Denis Smith, in Coleman we have a hungry young manager, crying in an almost audible anguish for the tools he genuinely needs to do his job effectively. We have a small core of industrious and loyal players, ready to bust a gut for the team and will surely flourish given more responsibility when we’ve ridden ourselves of all the negative dross that weighs them down. We may find a gem or two from the lower leagues, as raw as Marco and his thighs, but just as effective. We may give a chance to talent of our own from the academy who when put to the test passes with flying colours.
We are not on the edge of oblivion, but on precipice of yet another reincarnation.
If new owners come in to join the fray as is being touted then the metamorphosis can begin in earnest. There is so much groaning, wailing and gnashing of teeth that it’s easy to get swept up into the wild current of an uncontrolled river of cynicism.
I don’t blame anyone for that. It’s natural for Sunderland supporters - if not all football supporters to err on the side of pessimism. But I have negativity burn-out and wondered if there was any optimism left in this city? Is there anything to cling on to?
Of course there is! Our club’s entire past is a living example of re-invention.
So, if League One is truly our destiny then I won’t be hiring a stadium-sized hearse for the occasion. None of us should be mourning. As our history shows, this failure is a temporary detour and not a dead end.