There’s three of us – Martyn, Joe and myself – and we’re standing at the first bar we can find in A Coruña. We didn’t necessarily come here on purpose, but it sounds lively from the outside and our bottoms are still numb from ten hours in the car; any port in a storm. To our right, Josep, a Spanish Fighter Pilot with a couple of days leave from UN sorties into Kosovo, minces around in full dress uniform, leering only at the other people in the bar – a largely female group of drunken students who are standing on the benches singing. They finally stop. Even at the age of four, Joe has an instinct to play up to the women, and asks if he can sing a song back. He goes and stands on the table, closest to the middle of the bar. All the women look at Joe. He hesitates, a little nervous. The bar is silent now. They don’t understand a word of it, but Joe’s cute rendition of Niall Quinn’s Disco Pants goes down a storm and broodiness levels hit an all time high on the tip of north west Spain.
It was a week since we left Sunderland, and frankly, we had needed a holiday. You can only celebrate promotion for so long before you reach a sort of happiness critical mass and burn out. It had taken us this long to clear our heads, just wandering southwest through Europe, via Disneyland Paris and San Sebastián. We felt better now, but were getting bored. People who don’t like football bang on about how short the gap between seasons is, but by our reckoning we had 88 days to fill from Birmingham at home to Chelsea away, and we needed something to take our minds off it. We needed a mission. It was Martyn who came up with one.
“It’s a kick in the arse between here and Portugal.” He said, poking a map. “We could get down to Porto in an afternoon, and then it’s only about the same distance again to Lisbon. We could go to the Stadium of Light. The proper one, like.”
Within the hour, our week was all mapped out. We would head through Portugal to Lisbon and find Benfica’s Stadium. From there we were to race back to Sunderland, Stadium of Light to Stadium of Light, driving as quickly as we could. We would measure time and distance as we went, and spread the word about. You never know what will capture some people’s imaginations, and if a couple of other Sunderland fans are ever in the neighbourhood, they might do it too, only shorter and faster. It could be like a sort of a Cannonball Run, but for Mackems.
We left the next day heading south through the border to Portugal. It is the second-poorest country in the EC, surpassed only by Greece, and to be honest, the city of Porto was a bit of a shock. We hadn’t expected that volume of beggars and street children, poor people and flash cars. We tried not to think guilty thoughts, so we talked about football instead; Iain had rung to tell us that Reidy was apparently in for Benfica’s Mark Pembridge. But transfer speculation could not hide the fact that we were itching to leave Porto, and when we found ourselves in McDonald’s at half past ten on a Saturday night because it was the only place open to go to, we gave up and went to bed. Joe didn’t even finish his ice cream.
Before we arrived in Lisbon, we knew that just turning up to the Stadium of Light wouldn’t be enough. If we were there, we were bloody well going to have a good look around the ground and since they didn’t run tours, this meant blagging in. Fresh from strolling the pitch at Deportiva A Coruña though, we were on a roll and pulled up beside the statue of Eusebio brimming with confidence. I approached the old man who sat smoking in reception and explained, slowly and loudly, all about our plan to drive between two clubs that are so very different, yet so inexorably linked. He listened patiently to my, at times quite touching, monologue before smiling the smile of a man who knows not a word of English. He picked up the phone, called for reinforcements and Benfica’s press officer duly appeared. Despite our obvious holiday costume, we explained to him that we were journalists writing an article about the Stadiums of Light, and he looked quizzically at Joe before agreeing to show us round. “Daddy,” said Joe to Martyn, “I need a poo.”
Ela’dio Parames turned out to be an all round top lad and was impressed when we showed him pictures of our Stadium of Light in A Love Supreme. As we ambled leisurely through the Estadio da Luz, he answered questions about the club with surprising honesty and openness. Benfica have won the Portuguese league thirty times in the sixty-one years the league has been running, but it is Porto who have won the championship the last five times on the bounce. He explained that there was great hope when manager Souness arrived and for the first half of last season he did quite well. By March, Benfica were a point behind Porto and at home to Boavista. Souness elected to play Steve Harkness despite the fact he had only been at the club for a week, and threw Gary Charles into his first game since getting injured in December. Benfica lost 3-0, it all started to go pear-shaped and Souness became unpopular.
He made no effort to learn Portuguese, brought in a host of decent, but not inspiring English players – Mark Pembridge, Michael Thomas, Dean Saunders and Brian Deane – and began to change the team around too much. Things started to get nasty when he called the President of the club a liar. Souness was suspended and both sides are now locked in a legal wrangle. It seemed a million miles from Sunderland’s record-breaking season with Peter Reid surfing on a wave of public adoration on Wearside. At the time, we didn’t know that the wave was going to break with the Lee Clark T-shirt debacle and that Reid was going to create outrage in Sunderland by transfer listing Michael Bridges and Allan Johnston.
The two stadiums couldn’t be much different either. Our seemingly palatial 42,000 capacity is dwarfed by Benfica’s 78,000 seats. Whilst theirs is a modernist tribute to concrete, begun in 1954 and completed in three phases over thirty-one years, we knocked ours up in a season, with all the advantages of end-of-millennium stadium technology and colour psychologists designing the dressing-rooms. Faced with numerous and major improvements should Portugal get the European Championships in 2004, the club would prefer to knock the ground down and start again. It would be cheaper than modernising the current stadium, and the finished result would be better, but the 90,000 plus members – who pay between and a thousand and six thousand escudos (£3-£18) to see a game – won’t hear of it. “This is their cathedral,” Ela’dio said. Whilst Benfica wonder how best to incorporate a roof onto their Stadium of Light, Sunderland prepare to take the roof off theirs so that an extra tier can be inserted into what was the Vaux Stand.
We left the ground mid-afternoon, aiming northwest for Spain before nightfall, and once we were finally on the Stadium of Light run, we had to clarify a few rules. We estimated, at a push, that the trip could be done in two and a half days hard driving, but with six days holiday left and a four-year-old to consider this was neither desirable nor fair. We left Lisbon on a Tuesday, the Friday was Martyn’s birthday, and he undesirably didn’t want to spend it in the car, which complicated things further. In the end, we got round all three problems by declaring whole days spent in places on the way exempt from inclusion in calculating the time of the run, as long as we didn’t actually go anywhere. This gave us scope to separate race time from holiday time and had the added bonus of proving that we’re not totally sad. Leaving the hills of Portugal as we had entered them – quietly and without anybody really noticing that we were ever there – we managed the 323 miles on abysmal roads to beautiful Spanish town of Salamanca in one push and spent a blissful day sunning ourselves by the river to celebrate.
It was after Salamanca that we got distracted. Before Keegan took over the national team, the last Sunderland player to represent England in a full international was Nick Pickering back in the early eighties. The obvious conclusion to draw is that in the ensuing years, Sunderland have not enjoyed much success. Yet this would be to trivialise the full horror of daily life in planet Sunderland. And while we bought beans at Netto, our genial Geordie neighbours stood round the ready-cooked meals counter in Marks & Spencers. What irony then that it was to be former-Newcastle darling, Kevin Keegan, who handed caps to Michael Gray and Kevin Phillips.
Our leaving Salamanca coincided with the England-Bulgaria game, and Iain had dutifully rung again to tell us that Mickey was starting. Now Martyn feels no particular affinity with the England team, and refuses to get emotionally involved. I myself am no great patriot, but the presence in the team of a lad with a Sunderland tattoo made me feel somehow included, and I was suddenly desperate to watch the match. Understanding my desire, and, I think, secretly curious himself, Martyn agreed that we should try, and we bribed Joe for his consent with service station lollypops. It was four hours to kick-off, which became our goal, we were too far from Salamanca to turn back, and we knew that it would be nigh on impossible to find a place that was showing the game in the semi-arid countryside of Spain. This left two options: San Sebastián, which was pushing it, and Barcelona… which was pushing it. We chose Barcelona – out of our way as regards the Stadium of Light run, but a better bet for our race within a race.
We had to stop the car so that I could vomit. The fish pie that I’d had for breakfast (don’t ask) was dodgy. A stomach churningly excruciating period of time later, it became apparent that we weren’t going to make it to Barcelona in time, and we had to revert to plan B. Martyn once went on holiday to the resort town of Salou, fifty or so miles south of Barcelona, and thus a considerably more realistic target. Best of all, he remembered the exact location of a couple of bars which would surely be showing the match. We altered our route, unwrapped another lolly and managed a full pint before kick-off. It rained as we watched the match from some steps outside of an Irish bar, and when Michael Gray looped in the cross for Mary Poppins to score, he did so without the faintest idea that three Sunderland fans had sped in excess of five hundred miles across Spain in a single afternoon to see him do it.
Going all the way over to the east coast affected our time and mileage, but there was a sugar coating on the bitter pill. We were fifty miles from Barcelona, a cracking city, and the new home of a top mate of ours, Yan. A couple of months ago, Yan went on a weekend break to Barcelona and, coming out of the toilet in a bar, literally bumped into a girl he’d had a one night stand with when he lived in Bradford, who now lives there, teaching English to the Spanish. He fell in love and moved out to be with her in Barcelona. Our little detour presented us with the opportunity of meeting Dianne, from Stockton of all places, and reporting back to everyone at home.
We took Martyn’s birthday off, variously visiting the zoo, Barcelona FC’s Nou Camp, and a posh restaurant. The night disappeared amidst fantastic food, a seemingly endless flow of alcohol and idle chat, and when we waved goodbye to Yan and Dianne, we were ready for the two-day marathon ahead. Our little detour had left us playing catch-up. To do Barcelona-Sunderland in forty-eight hours basically meant we had to get somewhere near Calais in one day. Calais was 900 miles away. We were hungover, which was bad, but the péages were deserted, which was good. We made light of the distance, despite not leaving Barcelona until midday and managed to arrive in Abbeville, sixty miles from the Eurotunnel, an hour before midnight. We had crossed the Channel by mid-morning, and from there, it wasn’t that much different from Palace away.
And so it came to be that on the last day of June 1999, two men and a little boy became the first ever people to drive from the Estadio da Luz in Lisbon, Portugal, to the Stadium of Light, in Monkwearmouth, Sunderland. Foyer to foyer, the Stadiums of Light are 2116.6 miles apart, a distance definitely coverable in four days. The journey was conceived on a bored whim, and completed in the vain hope that someone else might one day wonder how quickly you can drive from Stadium of Light to Stadium of Light.