Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Cheesy Chips on Wembley Way

I’m nine, maybe ten years old, in the garden of our house in South Shields, in about 1997. I’m with my Dad, brother and sister, and our mate, Ali, who lives further up the road but is always round ours. We’re egging my Dad on: pleading with him to make the biggest goalkeeper kicks he can. He blasts the ball up into the air like David Seaman, or Peter Schmeichel — or Lionel Perez. It thunders into the air and arcs, disappears. Three seconds later the apple tree shivers, sending the Mitre ricocheting out like a pinball. We all laugh hysterically.

It’s the penalty shoot out next, Dad in goal. He’s just finished building a set of goal posts for us out of some wooden beams, strategically positioned them in front of a row of conifers, to prevent broken greenhouses, screaming neighbours. DIY doesn’t run strong in our family – I was known to hurl the simplest of Airfix models at the wall in a temper as a kid, and I can just about cobble together Ikea furniture these days – but those goalposts were a thing of beauty. I remember how they were painted a diaphanous, matt white; how we were forbidden from hanging on them, but did so anyway; and how, if a ball was toe-poked hard enough off their crossbar, the whole structure would come tumbling down, the unfortunate goalie running for his or her life from the felled beams.

Later that season, we’re on a family holiday in Majorca. Sunderland are playing Charlton Athletic in the Division One play-off final at Wembley. Dad’s at the bar, talking broken Spanish to the waiter, trying to get them to switch the telly on to the English Footy. The game inches by. Dad gets more drunk; we play in the pool, occasionally coming over to catch up on the score; Mam reads her book, raises her eyebrows at my Dad, propping the bar up, head in hands. It gets to penalties. We all know what happened. Michael Gray, the unfortunate sod who sent his last penalty over the bar and Charlton – not his hometown club – into the Premier League, has since said of the experience: “Looking back, I think it marked a point where I became a stronger person and it helped get me to where I got in my career.”

But we’re still there, 16 years ago, as Sunderland crash out and Dad hides himself in the toilets for the best part of an hour, leaving us to wonder how a football game can ruin a beautiful, sunny day on holiday in the Mediterranean.

We get promoted, of course, and the rivalry between Robbie and Ali, supporters of Newcastle, our arch nemesis, and myself and Emmy grows as derbies at the Stadium of Light and St James’s Park take on deeper significance and a greater reward on the taunting and craic. We get bigger, better, stronger. The homemade goal posts are no longer tall enough; the ball flies over next door’s fence every other kick.

We start playing on the streets: Ali in his Newcastle Brown Ale, me in my Lambtons or Reg Vardy. And we start playing five-a-side for Viasystems at Temple Park, and we’re shit, but the training sessions on Saturday mornings are class and we get muddy and have to walk back home looking like the dirtiest kids in Shields; and I go to the matches once every other home game because me and Emmy share a kid’s season ticket which Dad has bought us; and the seat’s in the South West corner, just opposite the away fans; and this is where I really learn to swear, and what the chants actually mean, and how, in the seconds it takes for Kevin Phillips’s 25 yard piledriver to zoom past Ed de Goey and in to the top corner, I come to know why they call this the beautiful game.

And I store the Football Echoes up in a pile every weekend after my Dad’s read them; and there’s loads of scuffed knees and bost balls and arguments about whether PES is better than FIFA; and within my first month of starting in year 7, me and my Granddad drive down to Bradford for the first away match of my life; and this is the first time I’ve seen a man spill his blood as he tumbles, pissed as a rat, down a flight of stairs at Valley Parade; and I miss our last goal because my Granddad has driven coaches all of his life and even though he’s got the car, he can’t avoid the habit of leaving on the 85th minute to get the engine started for the hoard of fans travelling back to the North East.

And we continue to play football wherever we can: in Harton Cemetry; at St Peter’s Church Hall (smashed window, us all legging it, the alarm whirring into the distance); and every now and then, in the garden still, with goalpoasts made of jumpers and garden gnomes. Emmy starts playing for the Sunderland Girls’ Youth Team, and she’s fucking good, and Robbie plays for Whitburn and Cleadon, and I play 4 unremarkable games for Whitburn School, against teams in the arse ends of County Durham and South Tyneside.

And before I know it, I haven’t been to a game in ages. I’m into punk rock music: power chords and blast beats at gigs in the basement of Newcastle University; sneaky cans of lager that I’ve nicked off my Dad with absolutely no concern for being surreptitious; clothes that stink of Morrisons vodka and stale Lynx Africa. Even in Sixth Form, in the heart of Sunderland at St. Aidan’s, I don’t really care about the lads anymore. I’m too interested in listening to the new Rise Against album on repeat, or going crackers in Ku or Pure to really bother with what Mick McCarthy’s doing – or not doing – because I’m 17, for fuck’s sake: I just want to leave this place and find my way.

So uni rolls by. Chester. 180 miles from home, where new mates from Lancashire and Cheshire are mocked for thinking they’re “Northern”. I go to the odd game, maybe once or twice a season. I have a vague memory of taking Kate to the Stadium of Light for the first time in – what was it, the 10-11 season? – to watch us play Birmingham, and I think Cattermole got sent off and we drew 2-2, but ultimately, I wasn’t interested. I’d found something else to pour my heart into at uni, besides a girlfriend and a bunch of mates from around the UK. That thing was writing.

I went on to write my MA dissertation in a very similar vein to this: wistful, nostalgic poems that looked at my childhood and recent memories of the North East. Some of those poems were about football: ill-fated trips to the Stadium of Light in the middle of winter; early memories of Roker Park, in all its shabby glory. I was back in the North East by this time, but spending nearly every day in Newcastle, where the writing community was strong and supportive, its love of drinking until well after the last Metros had departed matching mine.

But I went full-circle, getting a job at the University of Chester in November last year. Then, soon after, in January, the chance of a second trip to Old Trafford. But, before that, my first: stuffed into the back of one of my Dad’s first company vans, he drove me and Alan – Tizer – down the M62 to the Theatre of Dreams for the Semi Final of the FA Cup, where we lost 1-0 to Millwall. I remember next to nothing about it.

Which is odd, because my Dad and Robbie have an uncanny ability to synchronise places and events with football scores and sending offs. But this was 2004, and I think, looking back, 2004 must have been the year that football kicked me in the gonads. Nearly every young man – and, clearly, a lot of young women – experience the pain and embarrassment of realising that they will never make it as professional player. We all have stories of the game, or season, where we lost faith; where we knew, intrinsically, that we would never don the Three Lions at the Maracanã, or even jog onto a scabby pitch to the cheer of several thousand fans at an obscure League Two club. Mine came on a spring afternoon not long before I finished school, playing on the right wing for Whitburn against – I think – St Joseph’s from Hebburn. My recollection is that we lost 3-2, but all I really remember is spending the full game looking at the other lads thinking, “Fuck. Nearly every one of these is stronger, fitter and more skilful than me.” A similar thing happened when I was a fresher, when I went to try out for (one of) the University’s teams. I never had a hope in hell’s chance: I’d not ran for two years and some of those boys had played for Shropshire County teams. So I lost faith in myself, yes, but I also realised that I wasn’t – and was never going to be – cut out for this sport, and as I got more and more into obscure ska and punk bands and started reading poetry rather than watching Match of the Day, I lost virtually all interest in the game.

So why am I writing this? There will be football fans, not just Sunderland fans, reading this thinking “he didn’t deserve a seat at Wembley last weekend”. But actually, clichéd as it most certainly is, this game is in my blood and it’s in my family and it’s in the region I come from, so I believe I did deserve a seat at Wembley, and although we lost, and although probably everything that could or needs to be said about it has been said, I’m unbelievably pleased and proud that I was there, so I’m going to give my version of events. Because that’s what writers should do: bear witness and tell about what is significant.

Rewinding slightly, the semi final was a pretty crap game, on the whole. The penalties were abysmal, but they did the job, and while those ten thousand or so Sunderland fans who’d travelled down to Manchester on that Wednesday night in January were jubilant, it wasn’t really until they converged on the capital that it became apparent why.

I travelled down from Chester, meeting my Dad, David and Alan – Tizer (who, barring a night on the piss in Newcastle in 2010, I’d last seen in New Zealand in 2007, and before that in the back of that bloody van on our way to watch Millwall crush some dreams). Things off the pitch went the only way they could have – you don’t need a diarised description. We got pissed, we woke up, we had a full English, we went to the game, it was class. But we lost. You’ve seen the photos on your mates’ Facebook profiles: thousands of Mackems crowded in and around the pubs at Covent Garden, the bloke up the tree who refused to come down, the Conservative MP who branded our fans “hooligans” cos we interrupted his and his missus’s steak and claret. You’ve heard Poyet’s reaction to the game, and you’ve doubtless watched Borini’s goal back a few hundred times on YouTube, just to savour those moments, when Pantilimon’s net still rippled and half of Wembley Stadium went absolutely and utterly bonkers.

Sitting there, in the last 5 minutes of the game, when it was apparent we weren’t going to be taking any silverware back to Wearside, I wanted to absolutely howl at the lack of City support in London town the night before. And it’s true: the ratio of Sunderland to Manchester City Fans outside of Wembley was roughly 1,000 to 1 all weekend. Our supporters were going crackers in just about every enclave within earshot of a beer tap. In a pub between Piccadilly and Covent Garden (Lord knows where, I’d chucked at least 8 pints down my neck by this stage), a spontaneous chant started, first with a few middle aged blokes singing “Oooh, Vito Mannone!” and then 90% of the pub descending into “He’s here, he’s there, he’s every-fucking-where, Bobby Kerr!” A big Dutch bloke from Eindhoven stopped us on the way out, politely asking “Excuse me, but who is this Bobby Kerr they are singing about?” The fact that they were singing about the captain who last led us to victory 40+ years ago was not lost on this fella: he was impressed, if a little confused, that such a legacy was still being sung about.

But of course it was, because football is a legacy sport. It’s why fathers follow their father’s teams, and why sons carry on. Unless they’re my brother, Robbie, who has always supported Newcastle (after a brief spell as a Liverpool fan, aged 4); or David, who joined him as a clandestine black and whiter in the Bobby Moore Suite, courtesy of a free pair of ‘posh bastard tickets’ via one of my Dad’s main suppliers at work. And they didn’t rib us too much after the game. We’re from Shields, remember: loyalties split, quite often across families. There’s the usual banter, aye, but that’s why it’s great being from South Shields: it doesn’t matter if you’re an Indian curry chef on Ocean Road who’s been a lifelong Toon fan, or a white bloke from Westoe who’s followed the Roker Roar all his life.  

And then there was Tizer, who’d travelled from Taupo on the North Island of New Zealand just for the fixture. Bumping into random Mackems in pubs around the capital, we became convinced that nobody had travelled further than Tizer to watch this game. Lots of people I’ve spoken to have told me that he was daft to do so, especially knowing who we were up against in the final. But that misses the point entirely. Football is a sort of anchor, bringing us together, even if we are on the other side of the world. My sister, Emmy, is currently based in Switzerland, but she was texting me after the game, and I know fine well if she could have afforded the flight an could have had the time off work, she would have been there. As it was, she watched it from a bar in Zermatt, which we’ve all done before, even if we’re the only fans in and we’ve had to argue with the landlord to change the channel.

It was a glorious meeting of the old and the new, the big smoke and the city by the sea 400 miles to the north, and of course Manchester, whose fans were dignified and deserving, but no doubt include some amongst their ranks who never went to Maine Road. But that’s an easy, snide dig: City’s first two goals were world-class, and that is what big money can buy you, and so yes, they were the rightful winners. But there are things that no amount of foreign investment can buy, like that Saturday night in Covent Garden and that Sunday evening stumbling around Brick Lane, chanting chants – of players I’ve known and loved, and others who pre-date me – and being in the capital of the country, whose economy is escalating far quicker than those of the cities whose teams graced it this weekend, particularly Sunderland’s; being surrounded by friends and family and people who became friends when you were getting the rounds in because they were from Seaham and you were from Shields and who gave a toss because at the end of the day it’s about the club, its history, and most importantly those who chose to support it. That feeling, of inclusiveness, of belonging, of enjoying the moment regardless and being smashed and smiling and talking to random but very real people who make up the regions in which these clubs actually exist – that will live with me until the day I die. The day three generations of my family and some of their closest friends came from near and far, walked up Wembley Way and remembered, if for however small a period, why they first fell in love with this game in the first place. 

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