Exiles live on scraps, especially ones in their teens, without cars, and with only four channels on TV to choose from. The opportunity to go to any Sunderland game was welcomed in our small corner of the West Country.
Things improved significantly when my older brother, Steve, started working. He began to get something called ‘disposable income’ and he used some of it to buy from the club VHS tapes showing some of our victories.
We had watched Marco put three past Tony Coton in a 4-0 victory against Watford in September. Later in the season we watched as Sunderland beat West Ham 4-3 and somebody called Kieron Brady demonstrated exactly what he might become for us. Parts of that VHS tape were re-run and well gawped over.
Brady not only scored by hooking the ball over his shoulder before celebrating with a passing ball-boy (it wasn’t clear to me if his team mates knew him that well) and he also won a penalty with a run where the ball simply went in a straight line, and he dummied so beautifully that the opponents - obligingly - rolled out of the way. He also set up Gary Owers’ goal, turning West Ham’s George Parris inside out and leaving him wondering, for far too long a length of time, where Brady had gone.
Clive Pearson, the club commentator, whose VHS oratory was much loved in our house, and not always for aesthetic reasons, makes a great throw away remark on this tape where he says: “Now Brady has it and goes round Parris for the umpteenth time.” Pearson sounded like a gentleman, I don’t recall him say anything bad about anyone. On the Pearson scale, this was unwittingly visceral.
Parris may have seen the team sheet that day and thought ‘I’m marking some kid I’ve never heard of - no problem!’ But Brady was unerringly a potential genius, and while I’ve watched him play... I’ve never seen him play anything like he played in that game.
So, VHS cassettes: they was something. But more than that, my brother had a friend at work called Andy. His family lived in the next small town - hey were all from Sunderland too.
Andy could drive. I think you can see where this is going.
I was low on the pecking order for away game opportunities. I never got to go, as my brother did, to the League Cup tie at Exeter, where we avoided embarrassment late on, coming back from 2-0 down to draw 2-2. I did see it on Midweek Sports Special - or was it Sportsnight? My main memory is Hardyman’s backpass going straight over Tim Carter’s head and hitting the post. Carter rushed back and caught the rebound and had to work hard not to run it into his own net.
Despite my aforementioned low pecking order status, in January 1990 I was fortunate enough to be in the car for the trip to Reading in the third round of the FA Cup. I think it was Steve, Andy, his brother Glenn and me. This game was played at the old Elm Park. The most noticeable thing about it - aside from losing - was the experience of being in the crowd, on the terraces.
In December we had been to Portsmouth to see a 3-3 draw, Kevin Ball getting the final goal of the game for them. I had looked out from our terrace behind one goal, to theirs behind another, and saw people putting up umbrellas as it started to rain. I had never seen this before at a football match.
The crowd at Reading was officially 9,334. Many of them were in the away stand, behind the goal. Terraces allowed you to stand where you wanted - which was good because if you didn’t want to stand next to some bloke with an inexplicable plastic bag, telling you how his first game had been in 1968 and how we’ve never really replaced Colin Todd, even since then, well, you didn’t have to.
Nor did you have to stand next to the vociferous shell suited youth wing of the fan base, or anybody really tall. However, at Reading, on that day, it got to the point where you didn’t have a choice. The away end was very cosily packed as the game got under way.
It is the only time I have been on terraces where I could lift my legs without falling down. At times in the game the crowd surged and like a rubber band kind of motion I moved forwards and back without control.
I loved it. It was funny: like being on a ride. I was fifteen.
My Dad had been at the Manchester United game at Roker Park in March 1964. Officially 46,727 people attended the sixth round FA cup replay, but nobody knows the real figure as the gates were forced. My Dad was with my Granda, who then, still being a relatively young man, had turned to help an older supporter who had fallen in the surge. They were split up as the crowd carried my Dad forward.
The experience at Reading was not that but it was different to today.
Amongst other things, some fans sang: ‘We hate cockneys, oh we hate cockneys.’ I have also heard this at Swindon and Oxford. Big bells those Bow Bells.
It was, to my mind, largely the Old Guard who turned out for us in this game, wearing those amazing shiny yellow Hummel tops with Vaux across the middle: the likes of Owers, Armstrong, MacPhail and Kay. Armstrong scored in the first minute when one of their players fell over.
Despite the promising start and the confidence that comes with playing a team a league below you, we spent the rest of the game looking like we might lose and, lo and behold, we did. The player who fell over, Linden Jones, subsequently scored twice for them.
It was a cold, wet afternoon and though we had chances, and I was sure that if we had been at home we would have found the referee much more generous, we weren’t in any way convincing.
New signing Tommy Lynch played for us that day. Like the rest of the team he didn’t play so well and he got some stick. One man, over my shoulder, let loose with an endless tirade of abuse aimed at him and his red hair. This man was very close behind me but perhaps he hadn’t noticed the man very close in front, who was fully 6’2”, very red haired and very broad shouldered. I remember this man in front had the old badge right in the middle of the back of his scarf, right in the middle of his neck. I spent a lot of the game waiting for him to turn around.
In many ways the expectation on Lynch was too great. People hoped much of Dennis Smith’s signings: after all, he had bought Marco - who was there on the pitch in front of us - for only a small fee. Tommy had cost a similarly small fee.
After just four starts for us, Lynch left; he went on to have a good career with Shrewsbury Town.
The final whistle signalled our second defeat of a six day old decade – we’d also lost away to Hull on New Year’s Day. It was the 24th February before we finally won a game in the 90s, beating Brighton 2-1 at Roker Park.
It was a new decade, sure, but some things don’t change!