Sunderland played three friendlies in the West Country in July 1998 and then three again in the summer of 2001. Crowds varied between the two and a half thousand who turned up to watch the second of these games against Weymouth in 1998, and the almost five thousand who turned up to Micky Heathcote’s testimonial at Plymouth in July 2001.
I have developed a complicated algorithm – too complicated to explain – to work out just how many Sunderland fans told their families in the Spring of 1998 and 2001 respectively that they didn’t fancy going abroad this year and that for twice the cost and half the sunshine they could be enjoying all the mysteries of the Costa del Lyme Regis.
I estimate this conversation went on in a good couple of thousand households and, alas, many of those involved were unsuspecting victims.
People who had anticipated nothing more than lazy days and the opportunity to give it everything on the Donkey Derby at Sandy Bay found themselves at Plainmoor on a sunny Saturday afternoon, watching Torquay Utd getting thrashed.
Both pre-season tours were hugely enjoyable. The 2001 games saw us score thirteen goals and concede none against Torquay, Plymouth and Exeter. David Bellion and Nicholas Medina starred against Torquay, a game in which new-boy Lillian Laslandes scored two. The future looked bright. Even brighter than the recent past. And yet now, looking back, we can see that we were on the brink of harder times. We narrowly avoided relegation in 2001-2002 and the next season we went down. That west country tour of 2001 was a marker of the last of the very good times we enjoyed in that era.
Three years earlier, the 1998 friendlies followed on from the play-off defeat against Charlton in the spring. Anyone who saw these games felt some measure of reassurance: we were the same team who had narrowly missed out on promotion the year before, only, if anything, that bit better.
I was at the first game of the tour against Plymouth Argyle. Paul Butler played. He was new. He was big. He was wide. He could defend. He even scored in the first half. I think Niall Quinn had said he was the most difficult defender to play against in the previous season when Butler was at Bury so Reid bought him... something like that.
An aside: Gordon Armstrong had also played against us for Bury the season before. I find it difficult to think of Armstrong playing for anyone else, but he still had a lot of games in him after he left us in 1996.
Thomas Sorensen was also starting his Sunderland career in the summer of 1998. Lionel Perez had been something of a haphazard genius as a keeper. Sorenson, who replaced him, appeared an orderly and commanding presence in the box. That was clear, even in the Argyle game. Both are well remembered and both were very different.
A couple of days after Argyle we beat Weymouth 3-0 and then a couple of days further on we faced Yeovil Town at their new-ish Huish Park stadium. Grounds have to get pretty old before you stop calling them new - I mean, do you still think of the SoL as new?
If you check our competitive record against Yeovil you will see we have only played them once. We lost. The game is well known as a feat of FA Cup giant-killing. In January 1949 we faced them in the fourth round. Yeovil were non-league then and Sunderland were one of the greatest sides in English football, yet to realise that they were never going to be as good post-war as they had been before it.
We lost away 2-1 on their old ground – unique for a marked slope in their pitch, from side to side. The game is commemorated in the west country whenever Yeovil make some progress in the cup, though there are few now who can remember it.
The new Huish Park had no slope. Over 2,700 people turned up on a pleasant Saturday afternoon to see the two teams face each other for the first time in forty-nine years. We arrived well before kick off, milled around, went into the away end behind one the goals and watched our lads go through drills before the game. I remember the young goalkeeper Luke Weaver warming up in front of us, though he didn’t make the bench. Kids went over to the players and asked for autographs and got them, all unhurried. It was chilled.
The game itself was more competitive than I expected, more so than any of the other west country friendlies we played. By half time it was 1-1. Danny Dichio scored for us after coming on to replace Kevin Phillips early in the game, and they equalised just before the break. Nicky Summerbee spent the afternoon tussling with their full-back. He wasn’t treating it as a lazy summer afternoon.
He loved to hold the ball and invite people on, no matter the opposition and if he couldn’t get past someone he could usually get the ball over anyway. His distinct lack of backlift made it hard to stop him: he was a great crosser of the ball.
At half time a man came round selling pasties, keen to fulfil stereotypes.
The second half carried on where the first had left off, Sunderland unable to dominate as completely as expected. Reid made no further subs though it was hot – perhaps he thought they all needed to work harder. This meant that I never got to see Guy Bakusa play. But then very few did. He had one game for us against Weymouth and I wasn’t there. You could boast about having seen players such as Thomas Helmer play for us, or Dominic Matteo, but if you saw Guy Bakusa, well, that is a very exclusive club. And he played the full game against Weymouth. Against Yeovil he never left the bench.
On sixty-nine minutes they scored an own goal, and we all celebrated. And that was the end of the goals. Except for a young Paul Thirlwell it was an experienced team who faced Yeovil that day. When Paul Durkin blew for full time we had achieved the unsought symmetry of beating them 2-1 as they had beaten us 2-1 in 1949.
Halcyon days those summer West Country tours: playing the calibre of teams in friendlies then, which we play in competitive games now.