The season after beating West Ham, I was back at Roker Park to see Sunderland versus Leeds United. Apparently we didn’t like Leeds very much, but the man who sat next to me wearing a blue v-neck sweater, with a small Leeds motif over the chest, seemed very nice. He smiled in a friendly way as I took my seat next to him.
I was now in the posh seats - hence the odd opposition dignitary. I was sitting on a plastic red chair with a shallow curved back, somewhere towards the middle of the main stand and a tier up. I was near the front of the section, the low barrier wall reassuringly close should there be any danger of falling into the paddocks. This was a step up from the back corner of the main stand - it wouldn’t be long before I was in the dugout.
What I distinctly remember from Roker Park was the smell of pipe tobacco. I found it comforting then and deeply evocative now - though it is a memory rarely evoked.
47,000 had joined me for my last game and nearly 30,000 did likewise on that warm enough September afternoon. We were in Division 1 now (old money top tier) and not doing too badly. I watched more of the game than I had last time but, being six years old, remember little of it. We won 4-1. Gary Rowell scored one and Pop Robson scored two and it was all capped off when Kevin Arnott played Alan Brown through for the fourth.
My older brother had told me that Kevin Arnott was a good player - a playmaker who had some flair. My six year old self did not really grasp what this meant and I was suspicious of how good anybody was if Panini couldn’t even get their picture right.
When the fourth goal went in my main thought was for poor blue v-neck sweater man. At least he’d had one goal to enjoy.
For myself it seemed clear that whenever you went to Roker Park Sunderland would win. I had been twice. They had won twice. This was inductive reasoning at its best. Thinking further, I reflected on all the times I had seen various family members and friends reduced to paroxysms of spasmodic grief when casually passed some news about ‘how the Lads were getting on’. This sort of stuff happened while I was out and about wearing my cowboy gun belt and Starsky and Hutch t-shirt. These people needed to get themselves along to Roker Park - they’d soon see everything was going along just fine.
Even with my limited understanding at such a young age, I had some awareness our team wasn’t too bad. My opinions were formed by a mixture of direct instruction from my elders and my own thoughts.
Pop Robson was good - he was bald and he had a great name - ‘Pop’. I couldn’t imagine you needing much more. ‘Shaun Elliott’ was not as exciting a name but it was the name of a very good defender. Kevin Arnott I’ve already discussed and Gary Rowell doesn’t need discussing given his place in the collective memory of older fans.
Sam Allardyce sounded like an exotic brand of aftershave though my thoughts about our former manager no longer hinge on the word exotic. Joe Bolton was tough and there is some sort of onomatopoeic nominative determinism going on there i.e. he sounded tough. And Chris Turner was a great keeper who never seemed very tall even when I was small. I reserve special mention for Stan Cummins.
Stan Cummins is the first player I watched and recognised as skilful. My older brother told me so, but even I, of limited football understanding, could see it for myself.
The previous season I had seen Stan Cummins’ goal against West Ham, which had clinched promotion and various television snippets substantiated my belief in his ability to shimmy like no other Sunderland player could.
In my half-interested way I got wind of the fact that he went off to America to play for a bit. Well, I surmised, the Americans are good at many things, like making Coca Cola and ‘The Red Hand Gang,’ but if I knew anything for certain it was that they were useless at football.
I imagined Stan Cummins spending his whole time running round and round American players who just couldn’t get the ball off him: exhausting. At least in England you could give the ball to Pop Robson when you got tired.
That was the only game I remember watching in the 1980-1981 season; however, two further things are worthy of note. Firstly, on Saturday 29th November, Sunderland played Liverpool and lost 4-2. My Dad took my older brother Steve to see it. My Mam took me to Joplings.
At the time I didn’t think much of this. I wasn’t that bothered about going to the game, but I wasn’t bothered about going to town either. This usually involved lots of hustle and bustle and a bit of dodging as burning cigarettes swung past my ears in the waist high crooked finger grip of adults. The toy sections of Binns and Joplings were my only comfort. Joseph’s had some serious military hardware but we never got that far. It was a cold day, maybe sleeting, and it was dark when we started on our journey home.
We got off the train at Monkwearmouth just as the police let all the Liverpool fans pour over the narrow footbridge and onto their train. I lost all sight of my Mam and held on tightly to the railings as they streamed past me. They were loud, there were lots of them and it was all a bit surprising but for some reason I didn’t feel scared. When the masses evaporated we were both still there, holding on to the railings. A policeman came past and said something nondescript and reassuring.
That night the game was on Match of The Day. They scored four and we scored two late on. Cummins and Brown for us. I imagine we were never in it. In later years I have wished I’d gone to that game, simply because it was a great Liverpool team and worth seeing. Joplings you could go to any time, I thought.
The other thing I remember from this season was the return league fixture with Liverpool at Anfield on the 2nd May. They didn’t win the league that year but they did beat Real Madrid in the final of the European Cup. Sunderland needed to beat them and did: 1-0. Stan Cummins scored. We heard it on the radio. Relegation was avoided. The adults were dumbfounded.
It was difficult to explain this act of deliverance. Perhaps Bob Paisley had taken pity on us, after all, he was from somewhere called Hetton-le-Hole, which was not too far away, although probably further than Joseph’s. We repaid the favour versus Real Madrid when Sunderland-born Alan Kennedy scored the winner for Liverpool.