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Sunderland football fans in buoyant mood at Roker Park, circa October 1948

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The Sunderland journey begins!

Supporting Sunderland is a way of life, and it’s the sort of relationship that can lead to unforgettable moments and memories, as Kelvin Beattie writes.

Photo by ncjMedia Ltd/NCJ Archive/Mirrorpix via Getty Images

The day started much like any other Saturday.

I was up early with my dad and we had breakfast together before I left the house early in order to walk to church. At the time, I was an altar boy and Mass was at 8.15am, so it was better to get there early!

I dribbled a pebble all the way from my front door to the driveway of the church. It was March 1966 and the World Cup was coming to England that summer, so I was hoping that Alf Ramsey would see what a great player I was and draft me into the team!

Sir Alf Ramsay at Loftus Road Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

After service, the local curate asked me what I was doing that afternoon and whether I’d like to go to a football match at Roker Park.

I said yes, even though I wasn’t sure where Roker Park was or who was playing. After all, as a seven and three quarter-year-old, these details weren’t important to me.

He squared it with my mam and I was to be back at church at 12.30pm, with a warm coat, and we’d be home at around 6:00pm. I can remember thinking ‘Where in the world am I going for that length of time without my parents or not being at school?’

I was excited at the prospect of this strange new experience. So excited in fact, that I was back at church at twelve, only to find three lads from the school year above me already there, kicking a ball about.

I was asked to join in and was immediately upended for having the audacity to dummy one of the big lads. Stingy palms and knee, but a moral victory to start my first outing to Roker Park!

Soccer - Roker Park Stadium - Sunderland Photo by S&G/PA Images via Getty Images

The journey seemed to take a long time, and I sat quietly in the back, watching and listening. As we crossed the Tyne Bridge, my excitement increased. ‘Surely not long now’, I thought to myself.

It seemed like an age until I spotted what I thought was the stadium.

“There it is!” I blurted out.

The older lads in the car laughed as the Curate explained that it was a greyhound stadium but not to worry, as we were only ten minutes away.

Lots of cars and people were all seemingly streaming in the same direction, and some had red and white scarves on. We parked up in the area I came to know as Fulwell, and we headed to a little corner shop for sweets.

I didn’t have a penny to my name but was handed a white paper bag with the chewiest jelly sweets I’d ever tasted. To this day, I still go to the sweet van outside the Stadium of Light and get myself some sports mixtures, midget gems, or wine gums to chew my way through ninety minutes!

The ground reared up at me, and I hadn’t anticipated the height of the floodlights or the noise of the crowd I could see congregated in orderly queues outside and streaming up the steps into the Fulwell End.

Soccer - FA Carling Premiership - Sunderland v Everton Photo by Peter Robinson/EMPICS via Getty Images

We walked around the ground and went through the turnstile. I wasn’t aware of paying but I guess someone did, as the Curate had disappeared through another turnstile.

Feeling intimidated by the noise and the structure that greeted me once through the turnstile, one of the older lads grabbed me and half dragged me up some steps and into the daylight.

This was the place that was to become my berth at Roker for the next five years or so- the ‘boys’ enclosure’ right behind the goal.

The smell of cigarettes and Oxo can still evoke memories of that day. The laughter and ‘carry on’ of youngsters gathered can do that as well. It was a new and happy kind of mayhem, with few adults policing the antics in the enclosure.

The players came out and I sensed a change in focus of everyone around me.

Scarves were being waved and there was clapping and shouts of ‘Haway Sunlun’ and ‘Charlie, Charlie!’.

Charlie Hurley Photo by Daily Mirror/Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix via Getty Images

I joined in without a clue as to who or what I was shouting for.

I’d already been to a couple of games at Newcastle, and whilst I’d enjoyed the football and the experience, this feels different. I’m very excited and totally consumed by the atmosphere and the moment.

I join in with the singing and one of the older lads hears me and joins in too. It feels good. I feel good, like I belong.

They’re about to start. The ball is on the centre spot. A hush descends and is quickly followed by a different kind of noise.

The loud gathering rumbling is the closest thing to man-made thunder I’ve ever heard, and I’ve never forgotten my first experience of the ‘Roker Roar’. The hairs are standing up on the back of my neck and I feel like my heart is going to leap out of my chest as all of us join in.

I remember the bizarre little details of that game.

If I could paint or draw, I could still paint the face of the lab-coated peanut seller whose aim was nothing short of amazing as he fired paper bags of nuts at folk.

I can still see the look of absolute joy on the face of the unknown lad in front of me as the first goal went in and we hugged and danced around like long lost brothers. Likewise, the older girl who grabbed me when the second goal went in!

The players I remember were Charlie Hurley, who did indeed seem head and shoulders above any other player on the pitch and whose trots forward for corners triggered the roar of ‘Charlie, Charlie!’.

Jim Baxter amazed me.

Soccer - Football League Division One - Sunderland Photocall Photo by Peter Robinson/EMPICS via Getty Images

He seemed to be playing a different game, strutting and pointing, posing and bossing the game.

As I grew, I loved to think of myself as ‘Baxter-like’ in my own game but I could always rely on my youngest brother (a diehard Sunderland fan who wasn’t even born when I went to my first game), to bring me down to earth with more realistic comparisons to a poor man’s Lee Cattermole!

Martin Harvey seemed to tackle everything and never missed his man with a pass that day, and he became one of my unsung heroes for years.

Meanwhile, another Northern Irishman, John Parke, caught my eye as this eleven-times capped full back also hardly missed a tackle. Like Harvey, he kept feeding the phenomenon that was ‘Slim’ Jim Baxter.

Another small, ginger haired buzzbomb also caught my attention, but he had a Blackpool shirt on.

Alan Ball looked like he had the goods that day, with a dynamic, hard-tackling performance that drew fair praise from some of the adults close by. He was transferred to Everton that summer, having forced his way into the England setup and eventually becoming part of the World Cup-winning team.

Elsewhere, John O’Hare scored two of his eight goals for the season that afternoon, and I still feel like he scored them for me, the ‘first timer’ right behind the goal at the Roker End.

John O’Hare Photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

I followed his career even after he left Sunderland, despite feeling a great deal of sadness at his eventual transfer to Derby County. He was never prolific for a forward but often recognised as an unselfish player who fans, teammates and managers wanted in their team.

It was 0-0 at half time, which seemed to come in a flash, and 2-1 at full time.

I could hardly believe the game was finished as I was grabbed by one of the older lads and swept along with the 26,000+ out of the ground and onto the streets.

The chat and banter was light and joyous, and a good win and a good performance somehow augured well for England to win the World Cup that summer, especially with Roker Park set to host games- the illogical logic of the fan whose team has just won a game!

I was exhausted having kicked every ball, and I slept in the car on the way home.

Despite my years, I’m still smitten with adrenaline-sapped tiredness after every game. At sixty five years old, perhaps I should hang my boots up and just spectate, or maybe just one more game or season!

That night, I knew I was ‘Sunderland ‘Til I Die’.

I fell asleep with the image of Jimmy Montgomery’s wave and wink to me as he took his place in goal.

I swear that he was telling me, “Ah, Kelvin. Glad you could make it. Welcome to Roker, bonny lad”.


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