By the time I had reached my eleventh birthday I had seen four Sunderland games, as far as I can recall. All were at home and all were victories.
One of them was a pre-season friendly versus Newcastle on the 22nd August 1981. My Dad took me, and just me, which makes me suspect he had taken my older brother to another, better game, that I can’t recall, and this was the pay-off.
I think we stood in the Roker End but this could be wrong. We won 2-1 with Sam Allardyce and John Hawley scoring for us. Chris Waddle was playing for them. This was a return fixture from the previous Tuesday where we had drawn 1-1; Tom Ritchie scoring for us then.
I have the home match programme somewhere but it doesn’t jog any memories. I’m left wondering why we played Newcastle in two friendlies. They were the division below and we hadn’t played each other for a couple of seasons: maybe we were missing each other.
Towards the end of the 1981-1982 campaign my Dad took us to see Sunderland beat Everton 3-1 at Roker Park. This was in the April of a difficult season - the one where television cameras captured a very young Barry Venison scoring a belter versus Manchester City away. I was told before the Everton game: we could get relegated. But we won, as I was used to. We also stayed up. Gary Rowell scored two, including a penalty, Colin West scored one and Stan Cummins, to my surprise, scored none.
By the end of the 1984-1985 season Ken Knighton, and the sheepskin coat I always picture him in, had gone. Alan Durban, a man my Dad speaks positively of, had likewise departed. Len Ashurst was now the manager. His long and impressive career for us as a player was not something I was aware of in 1985.
There is a photograph of him, as our manager, wearing a very fresh Nike kagool where he is looking stoically into the distance. He doesn’t quite carry it off as well as Steve Whitworth on that 1979 Panini football sticker. But then Whitworth is looking towards Division One. Ashurst has his hands on his hips, like he is expecting trouble. He was sacked not long after the Ipswich game.
That season was, of course, the time of our first League Cup final appearance and the games to get there had been exciting. Chris Turner had made a brilliant penalty save down at Spurs and my older brother had stood in the Fulwell End to see us beat Chelsea in the first leg of the semi-final. There was the added bonus of their fans ripping up chairs and lobbing them at anyone they could. Best get off home lads, a policeman had helpfully told my brother and his friends, as carnage ensued.
We couldn’t go to the final but lots of people I knew went and some of these had never shown any interest in football before. This was no consolation until I watched the game on the television: it was a desperately disappointing match.
After that there were twelve games until the end of the season. We won one and lost eight. By the time of the Ipswich game, the final game, we were well and truly sunk and less than ten thousand turned up to see the end of it.
This was the first time I had ever seen Sunderland lose.
My Dad took me and my older brother to watch from the Main Stand Paddocks. It was a novelty for me to stand or to lean against the red painted iron work. But there was plenty of room and it was a pleasant Saturday Springtime afternoon.
The match was a half-hearted affair, played out to fulfil a commitment whose usefulness was already used up.
I was aware of Burley, Butcher and Gates: all players for Ipswich. This was bad, I thought. If I’ve heard of them then they must be good. ‘Romeo Zondervan’ I thought a splendid name. I didn’t know anything about him but having seen him play at Roker Park I have always been delighted to remake his acquaintance on old Panini football stickers.
I was a keen collector in the mid-eighties. I remember in the 1983-1984 season coming out of Nevins, the newsagents on Sea Road, opposite Fulwell Junior School, and opening a packet of stickers. The prize was there, an edge of shiny foil nestled behind some mid-table player I wasn’t particularly interested in. It was the Manchester United badge.
I was quickly directed towards the main dealer in the playground, a boy of so many swaps his hand could barely span the mass of them and a whole strata of silver in amongst it. He did not have the Manchester United badge (neither did I). He wanted it. What did I want for it? Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it?
The team which played on the last day of the season in 1985 was new to me. Steve Whitworth and Kevin Arnott were long gone. Pop Robson had been, gone, come back, done something heroic versus Leicester City last season, and gone again. Gary Rowell was recently gone and Stan Cummins was soon to go.
John Cornforth made his debut that day. Nick Pickering was there: still young though I had the impression he had been playing for us forever. He and Barry Venison were always cited as our hope for the future. Nick Pickering had won an England cap in 1983.
Early in the game Kevin Wilson scored for them and then Ian Wallace for us and then Kevin Wilson scored again towards the end. The last goal was met with an air of resignation. It was a surprise it had taken so long. The 11th May 1985 was a good day for Ipswich: Norwich went down too.
Previously when I had been to the match, at certain moments, a wave of electricity had gone through the crowd, jolting it to life: its great potential power becoming actual. But against Ipswich we flat-lined. Aged eleven, I couldn’t fully comprehend it.
One thing I find of rare and odd comfort looking back was the inclusion of a very young Gordon Armstrong and the proto-talismanic Gary Bennett. Both were SAFC reference points for me throughout the next decade of my life and both were to be part of the team I probably remember best.
Bennett had been bought from Cardiff by Ashurst. Perhaps he wondered whether he would be following Ashurst out of the door when he went. But he stayed.
In the Ipswich game he was subbed late on, coming off for Shaun Elliott.
There is something significant here as one era gave way to another, only it would’ve been tidier for my narrative if it had been Elliott coming off for Bennett.