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Back in ’84, the temptation of £85 each, including the ferry, for a week’s B&B, with the bairn going free (at thirteen months, he didn’t eat more than one pie a day anyway), coupled with the chance to watch the Lads’ pre-season tour, was too much to resist. We duly blagged a lift to Heysham with Grandma and Grandad Sobs (with a day out in Morecambe as bait), and found, to my delight, that we were sharing the ship with the Lads, and Carlisle United. The mood in the red and white camp was fairly upbeat - despite needing a last day win at Leicester to be sure of safety, the two points had shot us up to 13th, and new manager “loopy” Len Ashurst had actually bought players we had heard of ! Howard Gayle wasn’t aboard, but we were treated to close ups of our other new boys, and it was interesting to judge the character of the players by their off-field manner – Benno chatted to everybody, and Clive “flasher” Walker spent the whole time in the casino.

Rodger Wylde was making a passable impersonation of the intelligent, widely travelled elder statesman of soccer, but Barry Venison plagued the life out him by constantly flicking the “Times” that he was reading, and generally acting like the cheeky teenager that he was. Steve Berry was fairly anonymous, which just about sums up his career. I sent the bairn across to the Carlisle team to kick Alan Shoulder, but he picked the wrong man, and gave former Roker hero Jackie Ashurst a good welly. Thankfully he didn’t go for their manager, Bob Stokoe!

Also sharing the boat was Paul “Hi de hi” Shane, who was booked on at the Villa Marina, where he followed Ronricco (the world’s greatest hypnotist – he told me to say that) and preceded the all star wrestling and Larry Grayson. To make it a real camping holiday, the only other show in town was John Inman in “pyjama tops” at the Gaiety theatre. Thankfully, the pubs opened at 10.30 AM, and stayed open until 11, or even 12 at night, so we sought entertainment there.

The best part of the week was that all of the supporters (Blackburn, St Mirren, Carlisle, us, and Athlone Town) stayed in Douglas, as did the teams. This meant that the fans drank with each other and the players – a particular favourite with the players was the Lion Bar (honest). We shared our breakfast table with two young lads from Wearmouth Colliery who had saved all year to get there, despite the strike, and happily fed young Gary his Weetabix all week.

Game one was against Carlisle on the Monday evening, up the coast at Ramsay, and the bus trip there provided the only instance of bad behaviour amongst the fans. The bus was free, and fans of both teams were aboard, engaging in good-natured banter – apart from one young Cumbrian in the front seat. He’d obviously got full of beer, and spent the first half of the trip abusing everyone who wasn’t wearing a blue and white scarf, much to his girlfriend’s embarrassment. He spent the second half of the trip in stony silence, after being told (by fans of both persuasions) to stop showing off before he was thrown off the moving bus. We arrived in Ramsay in time for a swift couple in the Bridge Inn with our new-found Cumbrian pals, and then on to the big match. Mark Proctor equalised a goal from Malcolm Poskett (no relation, says Pos), with Chis popping up with a last-minute winner.

The next morning we duly turned up at the playing field above the town, near the brewery, for a kickabout with some of the Carlisle lads, and found that Blackburn, St Mirren, and Athlone had a similar arrangement. So began a week-long series of fantastic 84-a-side matches – does anyone remember who won any of them? Were pre-match stimulants supplied by St Mirren’s star of the future, a certain Mr McAvennie? Does anyone care?

Game two was in the Douglas Bowl, which, unbelievably, is the island’s premier sports ground. It had three empty sides, and a knackered stand on the fourth, where 99% of the crowd congregated, having walked through the players’ pre-match warm-up in the adjacent field. This was young Gary’s first ever match, and he was more than baffled by a group of female fans who’d taken an instant liking to Benno, and spent the whole match screaming “Gary, Gary”. Athlone Town looked like a Nothern League team, with a good selection of over 35s wearing grey beards. They played like one as well, with their rough-house tactics leading to the Sunderland bench calling the ref. over and complaining that our precious stars needed more protection, as some of them intended to earn a living from the sport. As the second half began, Athlone won a throw in, and, as it was taken, a cry of “get stuck in” came from the Sunderland bench. Westy got stuck in, and seconds later the ambulance came hurtling across the pitch to scrape up what was left of the unfortunate Irishman who’d been the recipient of the throw. That soured Anglo-Irish relationships in the pubs of Douglas a bit, especially as he scored the only goal as well.

So, a win and a draw saw us back at the Bowl, in the final against Bobby Saxton’s Blackburn on the Saturday. For some reason, we took an instant dislike to Art Garfunkel lookalike Noel Brotherston, and barracked him for the entire match. The proximity of the crowd to the players led him to foolishly confront a couple of his tormentors (author included), but not much else happened on the field. The perimeter fence (one bar at a height of three feet) proved no match for an active one-year-old, and, after Sobs junior had run onto the pitch for the tenth time, he was rugby tackled by Paul Atkinson, who sat him on his knee for the rest of the match. Is this the youngest person ever to sit on a Sunderland bench? Westy mistimed a jump, the ball shot in off the back of his head for the only goal, and the Gore Trophy was ours for the second year running.

Homeward bound the next day, and the propeller shaft broke in the harbour, making us several hours late, and having to sprint for the last service bus out of Heysham. Being well-prepared, responsible parents, we had 50p left after paying our fares, so we used this to bribe the driver to drop us off at the bottom of our street to save us the walk from the bus station.

Family holidays – you can’t beat them!

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wooly back buffoonery on tour
The man with nee socks. Dunno about the tie, mind.


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