The day started much like any other Saturday.
I was up early with my Dad and we had had breakfast together. I left the house to walk to church – I was an altar boy and mass was at 8.15am, so better to get there early. I dribbled a pebble all the way from my front door to the driveway of the church.
It was 1966 and the World Cup was coming to England that summer. I guess I was hoping Alf Ramsey would see what a great ballplayer I was and draft me into the team.
After the church service, the local Curate asked me what I was doing that afternoon, and if I would like to go to a football match at Roker Park.
I said yes, even though I was not sure where Roker Park was, or who was playing. As a seven-year-old these details were not important to me. He squared it with my Mam and I was to return to church at 12.30pm with a warm coat – we would be back in Morpeth at around 6pm, he told her.
I can remember thinking, ‘Where in the world am I going for that length of time without my parents? Or without being at school?’ I was excited at the prospect of this strange new experience.
So excited, in fact, I was back at church at midday, only to find three lads from the school year above me already there, kicking a ball about. I was asked to join in and was immediately up-ended for having the audacity to dummy one of the big lads: stingy palms and knees, but moral victory to start my first outing to Roker.
The journey seemed to take a long time, I sat quietly in the back of the car watching and listening. We crossed the Tyne Bridge and my excitement levels ramped up “surely not long now”.
It seemed an age till I spotted what I thought was the stadium and blurted out “there it is!”. The older lads in the car all laughed as the Curate explained gently to me that that stadium was, in fact, a greyhound stadium. But not to worry, he continued, we are ten 10 minutes away.
There were lots of cars and people all seemingly streaming in the same direction. Some had red and white scarves on. We parked up in the area I came to know as Fulwell (we would continue to park there for a decade or more) and went into a little corner shop for sweets. I did not have a penny to my name, but was handed a white paper bag with the chewiest jelly sweets I had ever tasted. I still to this day go to the sweet van outside the SOL and get myself some Sports Mixtures, Midget Gems or Wine Gums, to chew through the 90 minutes that’s to come.
The ground reared up out of the streets at me, I had not anticipated the height of the floodlights or the noise of the crowd I could see congregated in orderly queues outside and streaming up the steps into the Fulwell End.
We walked around the ground and went through a turnstile. I was not aware of paying but I guess someone did as the Curate had disappeared through another turnstile. I was intimidated by the noise and the structure that greeted me once through the turnstile.
One of the older lads grabbed me and half dragged me up some steps and out into daylight and the place that was to become my berth at Roker for the next five years or so, the Roker End right behind the goal.
The smell of cigarettes and Oxo can still evoke memories of that day, the laughter and carry on of youngsters gathered can as well. It was a new and happy kind of mayhem with few adults policing the antics in the enclosure.
The players come out and I sensed a change in focus all around me. Scarves are being waved. There’s clapping and shouting, “Ha’way Sunlun” and “Charlie, Charlie”.
I join in without a clue as to who or what I am shouting for. My excitement always manifests in my stomach and invariably comes out of my mouth… this has not changed in 54 years of following Sunderland, a guttural scream comes out of me and is heard by one of the older lads who joins in. I feel good. I feel like I belong.
They are about to start, the ball’s on the centre spot. A hush descends and is quickly followed by a different kind of noise. The loud gathering rumbling is the closest thing to man-made thunder I have ever heard. I have never forgotten my first experience of the Roker Roar. The hairs are standing up on the back of my neck and I feel like my heart is going to leap out of my chest as all of us join in.
I remember bizarre little details of that game. If I had the talent I could still paint the face of the lab-coated peanut seller, whose aim was nothing short of amazing as he fired paper bags of nuts at folk. I can still see the look of absolute joy on the face of the unknown lad in front of me as the first goal went in and we hugged and danced around like long-lost brothers.
The players I remember were Charlie Hurley, who did indeed seem head and shoulders bigger than any other player on the pitch, and whose trots forward for corners triggered the roar “Charlie, Charlie”.
Jim Baxter amazed me… he seemed to be playing a different game, strutting and pointing, posing and bossing the game. As I grew, I loved to think of myself as Baxter-like in my own game, but could always rely on my youngest brother, like me a die-hard Sunderland fan (who was not even born when I went to my first game) to bring me down to earth. These days, he tells me I was less Baxter, more Cattermole!
Martin Harvey seemed to tackle everything and never missed his man with a pass that day, he was one of my unsung heroes for years. Another Northern Irishman, John Parke, caught my eye. The full back was another who hardly missed a tackle and, like Harvey, kept feeding the phenomenon that was slim Jim.
Playing for the opposition that day, a ginger-haired small buzz bomb drew my attention. Alan Ball, sporting the tangerine of Blackpool, had the goods, putting in a dynamic, hard-tackling performance that drew fair praise from some of the adults close by. He was transferred to Everton that summer, having forced his way into the England set-up and was to be part of the World Cup winning team.
John O’Hare scored two of his eight goals for the season on that afternoon. I still feel like he scored them for me, the first-timer right behind the goal at the Roker End. I followed his career even after he left Sunderland, despite feeling a great deal of sadness at his transfer a few years later to Derby County. He was never prolific for a forward, but often recognised as a player that fans, players and managers wanted in their team.
It was 0-0 at half time, which seemed to come in a flash, then 2-1 at full time.
I could hardly believe the game was finished as I was grabbed by one of the older lads and swept along with the 26,000-plus out of the ground and on to the streets. The chat was light and joyous, a good win and a good performance somehow augured well for England to win the World Cup that summer, especially with Roker Park one of the World Cup grounds… the illogical logic of the fan whose team has just won a game!
I slept in the car going home, I was exhausted having kicked every ball (I am still, despite my years, smitten with adrenalin-sapped tiredness after every game. At 62 years old perhaps I should hang my boots up and just spectate… or maybe just one more game. One more season).
That night I knew I was hooked. I fell asleep with the image of Jimmy Monty’s wave and wink to me as he took his place in the goal.
I swear to you, he was telling me, “Ah Kelvin, glad you could make it. Welcome to Roker, bonny lad.”