I was sitting on the carpet of the classroom in Fulwell Infants School. The teacher asked if anyone had any news. My classmates sat all around me. I can’t remember what they said but I proudly announced that I was going to the match tonight. The significance of the event did not appear to be lost on the teacher but it was lost on the six year olds, sat fidgeting, waiting for the bell. But then, it was also lost on me.
As a six year old, on the 12th May 1980, I was going to see my first ever game and I wasn’t quite sure what that meant.
I had been to Roker Park before, at least to the outside. My Mam, my older brother and myself had walked there from Seaburn to get the tickets and it was a long way. After such an attritional journey I expected something more. What I saw was brick-work and red boards and gates, stretching for miles, all around the ground. And the walls were high so you couldn’t see what was inside. And there was graffiti everywhere. Pylons towered above the corners; they looked frail and ready to fall at any minute. The whole place was hemmed in by rows of terraced houses and it was quiet on the streets all around, like Roker Park had just landed there and been left deserted.
My older brother Steve, who really did like football, and who must have been to a game before, said to me: it doesn’t look very good outside but when you get in, it’s brilliant. You walk up the steps and look down and all the people are there and the pitch looks amazing. And it’s really loud.
This was the sum total of my knowledge of what I was heading for that spring-time Monday evening as we headed for the game. But my experience this time was very different. For a start we parked not far from the ground: so, no attritional marching. Walking to Roker Park was like walking into a different world from the moonscape I had previously visited. The rows of houses still stood to attention but the streets were now full of those heading to the ground and when we got there the queues snaked away as people, all bigger than me, waited to get in.
We didn’t wait. We had tickets. I had marched.
I was not prepared for the narrow ticket gate and having to push the barrier. But others had gone ahead of me and made it to the other side. A man to my right gave me encouragement through a small rectangular opening in his window. I got through! Inside the ground felt calmer and less crowded than outside but there was no time to rest. I was instructed to climb steps and there were a lot of them. My Uncle Alf was leading our party up to the top corner of the Main Stand, towards the Roker End.
It was tiring ascending the concrete steps, my face never far from the step in front. But then, unexpectedly, I was at the summit, looking down on to the pitch and the crowds all facing it. And it really was something - like my brother had said. And I wondered if it was deliberate: the way the scruffy outside hid something special within.
Our seats were, I think, wood and metal and it was dark up there looking down onto the brightness of the pitch. The height would have scared me but there were so many tall people in front, shielding me from the dangers of a fall.
At first I was interested. That many people all looking the same way - it was clear I’d better look that way too. And there was some noise at the start as the other team - West Ham, funny name, you know ham? How do you get named after meat? - came out, and we came out and I knew who we were because of the red and white stripes. Although, thinking about it, we came out first. Did we clap them out? This all seemed very polite. We didn’t do any clapping before we played with the tennis ball in the infant school.
The game started and many people who were stood up sat down and the ball went up and down the pitch. I could see before me, though at some distance, those who I had only previously seen on the doubled up Panini football stickers of that year. My older brother had explained to me that they had got Shaun Elliott wrong. This was in fact Kevin Arnott. I didn’t know who either were so it didn’t mean a great deal to me. I was interested in Steve Whitworth though. He was the captain. He had a determined look about him on the sticker and I watched out for him at something called ‘right-back’.
An aside: Steve Whitworth was next to Jeff Clarke on that sticker. In 1982 I was in the back of the car at the Blue Bell traffic lights in Fulwell, and bored, I turned to look at the car behind. A man with permed blonde hair sat alone in his car. I also had blonde hair - but no perm. I began pulling faces at the man who politely ignored me. My Dad checked the mirror: that’s Jeff Clarke, he said, on his way to Newcastle. Yes, I’d seen him off.
My older brother - my main source of intelligence - had also alerted me to how Sunderland had beaten Watford away 5-0 a couple of weeks before. The goals had been on Match of The Day. I was expecting goals against West Ham but after twenty minutes there hadn’t been any and I began to take a lot of interest in the wooden and metal framed chair I was sat on. In fact I took so much interest I think I got off the chair and spent a good deal of time looking at it. That was until My Uncle Alf gave out the loudest shout I had ever heard in my whole life. One minute: nothing. The next: he exploded into the air, electrified, and gave a battle cry that would’ve done the Zulu nation proud. I also jumped into the air. Mine was a cry of sheer terror. What had happened to Uncle Alf?
But then I noticed other people were also shouting. My mother for one. And everybody in our row. And when I turned there was a mass of moving arms all around the ground and a sound like the sea. Kevin Arnott (who had posed as Shaun Elliott) had scored and I had missed it.
I wouldn’t miss the next goal though. I couldn’t face being surprised by another Uncle Alf explosion. Whatever was going on, on the pitch, was clearly important and even aged six I determined to suppress any thoughts of boredom and to watch carefully for Sunderland’s next goal. It never once occurred to me that the opposition could also score.
I watched. Half time came. I watched again. One of our players was bald. Others had a lot of hair. I kept watching and late into the game I got my reward. Stan Cummins jinked and jinked again and shot into the corner of the net. It was, in my six year old mind, the sort of goal a footballer should score, and the goalkeeper, diving hopelessly, completed the picture.
I celebrated this time. I was not taken by surprise. The roar was louder than ever. We had achieved something. And at the end when the whistle went and my fellow supporters in the stand drifted away, we watched the celebration of those who had spilled onto the pitch.
Yes, carpet time would be something special tomorrow.