I think it was February 1990 when I first met Gordon Armstrong.
My brother and I went to Roker Park to get tickets for a game against Brighton. We also visited the club shop and milled about for a bit and while I stood in the car park area at the front of Roker Park, under the shallow over-hanging roof, Gordon Armstrong walked past and said “alright mate?”.
I had seen him coming towards me and I had thought: it can’t be. But it was. And yes: he was talking to fifteen-year-old me. There was no-one else around. I nodded meekly in acknowledgement, and I was very pleased by this minimalist encounter.
Thinking about it later, I was struck by the fact that he had spoken to me: not the other way round. Gordon Armstrong had initiated the conversation (not really a conversation) and I had simply responded. I wondered who else might say ‘alright, mate?’ if I stood long enough in the same spot outside Roker Park, on a week day, in February.
And I thought how, when he was near me, and he had spoken those significant words, he didn’t seem that tall, which was a surprise because he certainly won a lot of headers. In fact one of my most iconic-generic memories of that era is of Tony Norman taking goal-kicks to the flanks and Armstrong’s distinct jump, arms out, horizontal for leverage, while turning his back to flick the ball on.
I have to admit, this has been my only conversation with Gordon Armstrong (so far) in my life. But you never know when another ‘alright, mate?’ might be coming.
It was difficult to know what was coming in any game in the 1989-1990 season. We beat Brighton 2-1. I watched for the first time from the Fulwell End. I remember some fans chanting ‘Celtic’ while others chanted ‘Rangers’. I had no idea what this meant. I also remember Thomas Hauser scoring a goal by kicking the ball from beneath their crouching goalkeeper’s legs, two yards out.
A short time later we were down in Plymouth to watch a 3-0 defeat. Tommy Tynan started the scoring for them on thirty-five minutes and our optimism faded away. Some blokes sat around playing cards and didn’t even bother watching. At this match one small section of the away supporters chanted ‘Gabbiadini’, opposed by another group who took their turn to chant ‘Hauser’. This went on, at least, until the thirty-fifth minute.
It was a strange season in that we clearly had a good team if not a very consistent one. Impressive victories followed uninspiring defeats. Things looked promising when we beat Sheffield United away, in April; Paul Bracewell scoring a rare wonder goal.
In May I saw an outstanding Oldham team beat us 3-2 in the last game of the season at Roker Park. Despite the defeat we made the play-offs. At the end of the game some Sunderland fans invaded the pitch, stood opposite the away end, and clapped their counterparts in recognition of their impressive season. The Oldham fans duly clapped back.
I never saw that great Newcastle game. But I did go to Wembley to see the play-off final against Swindon.
Before the match our fans were raucous. It was a beautiful day and the pitch luminescent green and glistening in the afternoon sun. Swindon came out in red and we came out in the same Hummel blue that we had worn to defeat Newcastle.
Much was hoped for from the Gates-Gabbiadini combination, and we started relatively brightly. Then they got the ball.
I worked with a Swindon fan twenty years later. He was also there on that day. He said to me it was the most one-sided 1-0 victory he had ever seen. He was right. They passed and passed and wore us down to an attritional stub. Gary Bennett deflected in their only goal despite myriad chances. Tony Norman put in an incredible performance for us, making the unrespectable seem respectable.
Tony Norman was our one positive of the game. Swindon played us off the park that day and 72,873 people saw it.
This was not the last time I saw Swindon outplay us. Two years later I was at the County Ground to see a 5-3 defeat. Again the scoreline flattered us, although I enjoyed my friend Gordon Armstrong’s ninetieth minute wonder-punt goal. Glen Hoddle was managing and playing for them then. Micky Hazard also lined up against us. We were never in it.
Should we, at some point in the future, become Europe’s best team and Swindon fall so low that they end up in their own Swindon & District League, and we draw them in the FA Cup third round, and beat them 1-0 at home, such is the emotional scarring, I will still think: we beat Swindon, phew, that was lucky.
As we left Wembley, red and white haemorrhaging out all around us, one fan turned to my little brother and said: never mind son, at least we beat the Mags.
And, you know… we still went up.