It is a cold, dark afternoon- late October, 1999- and, depending upon whose watch you believe, Sunderland are anywhere from 30 seconds to two minutes away from becoming the new leaders of the Premiership (or First Division as us old codgers tend to call it). “Can this really be happening?” I ask myself. Of course, true to form, West Ham score and all of our hopes disappear. Nevertheless, it sets me thinking, when did this sort of thing ever happen to Sunderland? My mind starts wandering, going back over all of the years, and it’s easy for me to remember. You see, the last time we made a sustained effort to lead the top division was way back in 1954/55, by strange coincidence, the first season I ever saw the Lads play.
Time had come full circle, and I drifted back, even beyond those heady days. I was born to working class parents in the severe winter of 1946/47 in a tiny County Durham village. Such was the depth of the snow that apparently I didn’t see the outside world for four months. It must have been during this period that my dad, a Sunderland fanatic, started brainwashing me on the joys of being a Sunderland supporter. With hindsight, it was OK for him, he had never witnessed one relegation, never mind the seven that were to follow, never witnessed Division Three football, and just for good measure he had seen the Lads win both the FA Cup and the League Championship.
Anyhow, he must have done a good job on me, as I could tell anyone who was stupid enough to listen the names of the 1937 Cup winning team before I could spell my name or tell you what two and two was. Looking back, I must have thought that Sunderland were invincible as all I ever heard were tales of heroic victories. Little did I know that times they were achanging, and pretty quickly at that.
By the time I started school I had still not seen a game, partly because of my tender age but mainly, I suspect because money was so short and could not be wasted on taking five-year-olds to football. Mind you my dad must have managed somehow because every two weeks he would disappear on a Saturday afternoon. Today's youngsters will find this hard to believe, but in those days the majority of people didn’t have a television and there was hardly any live broadcasting of football on the wireless (radio to you) - so I remember sitting at home fretting until dad came home with the score and a run down of the game. Delight if we won, despair if we lost. I can still remember some of the things he told me today, even if I couldn’t understand everything he said - for example I can vividly remember him telling me that Ray Daniel had won a cap. Dad seemed pleased about this, but I just remember thinking, why does he need a cap and where is he going to wear it?
My desire to go to Roker Park became more and more acute, especially as my two older cousins, Colin (the eldest) and Ken, had started to go to games and would gleefully come home and torment me with tales of famous players. Eventually, however, I wore my mam and dad down and on the 18th September 1954 I was to be taken to my first match, Sunderland against Blackpool, Stanley Matthews and all. I thought the days leading up to the game were never going to pass - I couldn’t get there quick enough. Finally the day arrived and off we went - Dad, my two cousins and me. I was totally beside myself with excitement and we got to the ground around 1.30pm in order to find a safe spot.
There weren’t many at this early time as we climbed the huge concrete stairs at the rear of the Roker End. Despite being prepared for a view from the top of the stand I was totally overwhelmed by the view that greeted me. We seemed to be miles high and the sight of my first proper football pitch took my breath away. Without doubt it was, and still is one of the greatest sights I have ever seen and will stay with me until my dying day. I loved Roker Park and was delighted some 43 years later when I managed to obtain a Roker End turnstile sign when the old ground was laid to rest and items auctioned off.
Younger supporters, and indeed many middle aged ones can not appreciate just how special Roker Park was in its prime. To me and thousands like me, it was an unbelievable place and this is the reason so many didn’t want to leave. To the older generations the place had so many happy memories and was as if it had been passed from generation to generation for safe keeping, passed on to you by your dad, who had it passed to him by his dad. Roker Park will forever be in the hearts of older supporters. Having said that, the Stadium of Light is magnificent and far better than I expected it to be, and I hope this generation of fans will become as attached to it as we were to Roker Park, and eventually take their sons and grandsons along - and daughters and granddaughters too, if they want to go along. Keep up the tradition lads - you know it’s worth it.
Anyhow, I digress. Back to 18th September 1954. My dad propped us behind one of the old concrete crash barriers so that we wouldn’t get crushed. I had a great view until about 2.30pm when the place started to fill up. 51,000 turned up and suddenly I could see almost nothing. The game kicked off and I only saw the ball when it was kicked high into the air. But then, miracle of miracles, there was a surge forward and I saw Ken Chisholm score at the Roker End. We eventually won 2-0, Chisholm scoring both goals. If I wasn’t hooked before I certainly was then. It was the start of a love affair that continues to this day despite all the heartaches. My dad has a lot to answer for.
If I thought I was going to be a regular attender, I was to be disappointed; due to a shortage of cash I was to see only two more games that season - Sunderland 3 Manchester City 2 and Sunderland 3 Everton 0 on the last day of the season. We finished fourth and Chelsea won the league for the only time in their history. We lost the fewest games of any side that season, but drew too many, especially at home, and we finished four points behind. Still not bad – I thought every season was going to be like this… little did I know
That year we also had a good run in the Cup, reaching the Semi Final. I distinctly remember listening to the radio with my father and finding out that we drew 3-3 at Preston in the fourth round. A good result according to Dad, but he didn’t take me to the replay which we won 2-0. I can also remember finding out, again from the radio that we had beaten the mighty Wolves 2-0 at Roker in the Quarter Final. Half the lads in our street supported the Mags and I remember they reached the Semi Final as well, providing the first chance of a Sunderland and Newcastle Final. Newcastle eventually got there and won the Cup, whilst we lost to Manchester City 1-0 in our Semi final at Villa Park. I can recall sitting crying on my mothers knee as the Mags, who had only drawn their first game with little York, were outside taunting (seems they got easy draws in those days as well); it had been my eldest cousin’s first ever away game, but no one wanted a summary of the match. My first season was over and amidst the great memories of the players that still live on today - who can forget the likes of Fraser, Hedley, McDonald, the brilliant Stan Anderson, Daniel, Aitken, Bingham, Fleming, Purdon, Chisholm, Elliott and of course the genius that was Len Shackleton? I had experienced my first taste of heartache. Thank God I didn’t know what was to come.
Part 2 Next Month