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How two former Sunderland players helped me through a tough first year at school

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“What do two Sunderland players have to do with a shy first year student being jumped on by three second year lads in the cloakroom of a Newcastle school?”

Sunderland FC Photo by R. L. Palmer/Express/Getty Images

It’s two in the morning and once again my mind and memory are working overtime trying to decipher an unlikely but very vivid dream.

Jim Baxter, Kevin Arnott, Nicola Sturgeon and I are playing head tennis in the cloak room at my old high school. What is that all about and would you not think at the age of 62 years old, I might have stopped dreaming about football?

It was hours later, on my lockdown exercise walk along the beautiful Derwent Walk before I unravelled it properly.

Nicola Sturgeon (apart from being a very fine politician and human being) is a Sunderland AFC supporter, we are her English team.

Baxter and Arnott were two of the most skilful players I had ever seen play for Sunderland.

The school cloakroom was the scene and start of a particularly challenging period in my life and at each new chapter of my life, my dreams will take me back there.

So there you have it, my bizarre dream was about a new chapter in my life, a challenge. I had retired from my clinical role to work part time and this was/is a bit of a new challenge. Added to that I had then agreed to come out of retirement and help out on the front line so to speak for the duration of the Coronavirus pandemic.

Nicola Sturgeon Announces Funding Agreement For Scotland Women’s Football Team Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

This challenge was going to require cool clear thinking, skill, energy and imagination; hence my playing around with my pals Nicola, Jim and Kevin in my dreams.

Sometimes it can take me days to unravel one of these dreams and unfortunately I cannot leave it alone until it is unravelled, I was glad to get that one put to bed (if you will pardon the pun).

The recurring “itch” that is the school cloakroom came back into my head, how did that all start?

And… what do two Sunderland players have to do with a shy first year student being jumped on by three second year lads in the cloakroom of a Newcastle school?

I arrived at St Mary’s school in Newcastle in 1968 already consumed with football and all things Sunderland AFC. On my second day at school, having undertaken the hour and a half journey from my Morpeth home to Longbenton, I was set upon in the cloakroom by three second year lads.

They were after my red and white scarf and although I was cussing, struggling, fighting as best I could, I was losing badly.

My parents had thought I was attending a reasonably posh all boys catholic grammar school in the leafy superb of South Gosforth, little realising they had actually sent me to an inner city war zone, where lads from the east of the city battled lads from the west and heaven help you if you were from “up country” like me. Do not get me wrong, I did learn a thing or two, just not quite what they had hoped when they packed me off in my brand new school shorts and brief case.

Sunderland v Burnley - Emirates FA Cup - Third Round - Stadium of Light Photo by Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images

Back to that cloakroom and the pasting I am taking. I was losing and despite hanging onto my scarf for dear life my grip and resolve was starting to weaken. From nowhere (not that I could see where he came from, being curled up and face down in the corner) a prefect came to the rescue.

My assailants legged it, the prefect picked me up and took me in to the adjacent 6th form common room. I had a bloody nose and lip as well as looking like I had been dragged through a hedge backwards. The prefect was kind enough to hand me a drink of water and a wet cloth to stem the blood. I was pretty shook up and was adamant, as I tried to stem tears, I was not staying in this crazy dangerous place. He started chatting to me quietly almost gently, asking my name, where I was from and what I was in to, as well as what team I supported. It turned out that Sunderland was his team too. He advised me not to wear my colours to school (advice I continued to ignore despite the unwelcome attention this sometimes drew) and told me how hard he had found it in his first year, like me a lad from “up country”.

He also told me about two lads who had helped him get through his first very difficult year, two older lads who like him were right in to their football and had both been picked up by the Sunderland youth system and subsequently had both signed professional contracts with our team. He told me to use these two as inspiration, if they could do it then so could I.

He regularly stopped and chatted throughout that first year, even showing up at a couple of school matches once I had gotten over my shyness and played my way in to the first team. Always there would be some news about our two lads and their progress. I am not sure if I could have made it through that first year, I was painfully shy and not particularly aware of my own strengths and skill set. The thing is I did not have to do it all myself, I had my two Sunderland players my “mentors” whom I came to think of as rooting for me, as well as my contact man, the prefect.

Sunderland FC Photo by R. L. Palmer/Express/Getty Images

At the end of that school year the prefect left, I never saw him again and sadly never knew his name. As I matured I realised it was the prefect who had done such a good job of supporting me... though I still like to tell folk that Brian Chambers and Mick McGiven helped me through my first year at school. Even though they will not have a clue who I was, they went to my school.

I was at the Coventry game in 1969 at Roker when Mick McGiven made his debut. Chambers made his debut at Luton in 1970 on his 21st birthday and then played the following week at Roker in a victory over Birmingham - a game I was also proud to be at.

Frustratingly for me, my two “mentors” rarely started a game together that season, often one would start and the other would be sub. It would be October in the 71/72 season before they would both feature in the starting eleven together at Oxford away in a 2-1 reverse and then at Roker on 13th November in a 0-0 draw against Blackpool.

I was one of the 17,000 plus that day and was one of the proudest peacocks in the Roker End as my two “mentors” took the field together blissfully unaware of their role in getting me through that frightening first year and on to a fulfilling academic and sporting career at our school.

Soccer - FA Cup Third-fourth Place Match - Arsenal v Wolverhampton Wanderers - Highbury Stadium Photo by R. Bluffield/PA Images via Getty Images

For the record, Brian Chambers made 70 appearances for Sunderland (including as a substitute). He was a midfielder who scored 7 goals in his Sunderland first team appearances. He left the club in 1973, the week after the FA Cup Final in a £30,000 transfer to Arsenal. Bizarrely having been the sub for Sunderland in the semi-final against Arsenal in 1973, he went on to play for Arsenal in the 3rd/4th place losing semi-finalist game.

Brian Chambers also earned 7 England schoolboy caps in 1965 and played for Luton, Millwall, Bournemouth & Halifax for whom he played his last league game on 02/05/81 scoring the only goal of the game. He made 251 appearances and scored 31 goals throughout his league career, before moving into non-league football as a player-manager.

Mick McGiven made a total of 127 appearances for Sunderland (including 8 as sub) from 1969 to 1973. He scored a total of 12 goals for the Lads - not a bad haul for a defender by any standard.

He joined West Ham in December 1973 in a £20,000 deal where he replaced the Upton Park icon that was Bobby Moore. He forged a very effective working relationship with John Lyall at West Ham and joined the coaching staff at West Ham in 1978. He continued to work with John Lyall at Ipswich where he held the managerial reigns for a while. He then coached/scouted at Chelsea over a 30 year period occupying a number of roles, where he is credited with being instrumental in the careers the likes of John Terry, Graham Le Saux, Robert Huth, Eddie Newton & Carlton Cole.

He retired in 2018 and is held in high esteem at Chelsea though always happiest in the background quietly getting on with his work, he was said to have had a particularly good ability at scouting the opposition, noted by Jose Mourinho no less.

“Brian Chambers and Mick McGiven, they went to my school”.