Having no opportunity to watch my team play over this festive period got me thinking about the first time I went to see the Lads play at Christmas time.
It was season 1968/69, I had been going to Roker from my Morpeth home fairly regularly since 1966, courtesy of the local Curate, and considered myself a regular in the “Boys Enclosure”.
I was totally dependent on the Curate for transport to games and was aware that Christmas time was a very busy time of the year for my driver. Nonetheless, a car full of us left Morpeth on 21st December 1968, to see if we could beat West Ham. As usual, I was absolutely sure this would happen. In retrospect, I had no right to be; West Ham had absolutely hammered us 8 - 0 at the Boleyn earlier in the season. Geoff Hurst had scored a double hat-trick, and even though the first one was off his hand, Ronald Atkin of the Observer had recorded “Hurst was allowed to keep the match ball, which was only proper since he had it for most of the afternoon”.
Sunderland’s form coming into the game was hardly encouraging, either having won 7, lost 9 and drawn 7 in the first division. There was concern of relegation, but that Christmas I was having none of it!
I was one of the older boys in the car, so had the responsibility of seeing the younger ones through the turnstile and up into the Enclosure by way of the toilets, because no way was I coming out with any young’un’s during the game!
As a “regular” I was now on “nodding” acquaintance with other lads in the Boys Enclosure, even though their accents seemed very different to my rich Northumbrian twang. There were girls in there too, but I was not interested in them at this point. I also had my match day “uniform” on of jeans and basers and my scarf at my wrist like some of the bigger lads, (my duffle coat was probably taking the edge off that look I imagine now).
The West Ham team that day included Bobby Moore, Martin Peters and Hurst, as well as Billy Bonds and a young Harry Redknapp.
With Alan Brown back at the helm, Sunderland’s team had a good sprinkling of youth turning out, with Colin Todd, Bobby Kerr, Colin Suggett and Billy Hughes all starting and Ian Porterfield on the bench. Hurley, Harvey Irwin, Harris, Palmer and Mullhall made up the Sunderland outfield, with Monty in goal.
In what might be described as a “good going game”, we got to half time 2-1 in front. We scored very early on through Calvin Palmer (one of his four goals for us that season). Shortly after this we scored again through Gordon Harris (one of his seven goals for us that season). I remember back then never being sure about Harris, he seemed slow, old and awkward to me (he looked older than he was, had gained an England cap in 1966 and was often played out of position by the manager, so shows you what I know!).
Remarkably Hurst took his tally to nine against us for the season with a goal just before half time. My memory of the second half was of West Ham being the better team, but Todd and Kerr having particularly good games. Porterfield came on for Mullhall midway through the second half and played okay. The game finished with a mighty roar of relief as Sunderland claimed the win, and we were away out into the grim December evening, off home with all talk of relegation dispelled (in my head at least).
I jumped out of the car at Morpeth with no idea of when my next visit to Roker would be, just sure that it could not come soon enough! Little was I to realise that my next visit would be a lot sooner than even I could have wished.
For a Christmas present I had been given a new Sunderland scarf, which when opened I had rather ungraciously bemoaned not knowing when I would be back at Roker again, rather than thanking “Santa” for my gift.
On Boxing Day morning, I receive an invitation by the Curate to go to the home game that afternoon against Sheff Wed. My parents agreeing to this in hindsight, was something of a pivotal moment in Beattie family Christmas’s. Despite not having “two happeth” to rub together, my parents always made a huge effort at Christmas time. Boxing Day was a big family day, with as big a dinner as Christmas Day, as well as games and lots of good crack. I floated down to the church pick up point and off we go again. It was the best Christmas I could ever remember at that point in my life, two games within five days!
Even back then I knew my parents were making a huge concession in letting me opt out of this. My Mam was to have a few goes about this moment over the next few years, and would often say Christmas was never the same again and “make harsh motherly references” to my Christmas being dependent on Sunderland results. As I matured, I would add with the benefit of hindsight, I know she meant their Christmas (as well as mine) being dependent on results. I can recall a few God Almighty huff’s at bad results on Boxing Day, and being sent to my bedroom for threatening my gloating Toony supporting younger brother!
Shef Wed arrived at Roker as one of the teams predicted to struggle to stay up that season. Their team included Jim McCalliog, Peter Eustace and Don Megson, with Peter Springett in goal.
Over 26,000 festively cheered souls made their way to Roker that day, with what I might describe as a feeling of anticipation in the air. We had beaten the “School of Soccer Science” in our last game, these relegation candidates were going to be no problem!
In what I would come to recognise as a recurring theme, we drew the game 0-0 and crushed the anticipation to a degree. We did have quite a young team out that day, with Todd, Porterfield, Kerr, Hughes, Tuert and Suggett all starting. My memory of the game was though fairly positive, despite the then dropped point. Hughes, Porterfield and Suggett all made pretty good contributions. Todd continued to look like he was going to be a great player and Hurley as usual just looked like a man mountain to me, a man you could not do without.
For the record, we finished 17th that season and flirted with relegation for most of the back end of the season. West Ham and Sheff Wed both finished above us. The end of this 68/69 season saw Ralph Brand, George Mullhall and to my dismay Charlie Hurley given free transfers. At the time I did not realise that a free transfer was a club’s way of rewarding players of whom they felt deserving. I knew as a young lad I was going to miss Hurley and that chant “Charlie Charlie” that always got a good crescendo in the Boy’s Enclosure.
My Mam was right, Christmas’s were never the same. By the time we got to the following year, I had identified an additional way of getting to Roker and the question became, not was I going, but what dates were the games? Over the years things have not changed. Even living out of the area for 38 years, the festive period HAD to include a trip to Roker (and later the Stadium of Light) and was passed on to my youngest brother, as well as my own son and included some eventful away days ….but that is another story.
So, to a different festive period this year. I will be attempting to maintain a mature posture and be the life and soul of our very different festive period... inside though, you know I am still that grumpy kid who wants his Roker fix!
A very safe, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all my fellow fans, can you remember your first Christmas Game?