Tales From The Final League Game Of The Season

Sunderland vs. Chelsea : 24 May 2009.

I awoke at 5.15am with a long day ahead of me. To be brutally frank, I was in a mixed mood leading up to this game. It has been a long season for us all and I have mentioned before that I am limping over the finish line. The fact that the fixtures computer spewed out an away trip for Chelsea in far-away Sunderland on the last weekend of the season seemed to be typically cruel. However, in all of my years of supporting the club, I have never attended all of our league games in one season. Last season, I did fifty-five games in total, but didn’t go to a handful of away games. Ironically, the last league game I missed was the away fixture at Sunderland last March, when I succumbed to a flu bug and couldn’t face the 600 mile round trip. So, for this reason alone, I had to be there. Staying at home was not an option. I set off at 6am.

“For the last time this league season : Jack Kerouac.”

Into Frome for a McBreakfast and their large coffee buzzed me to life. I fuelled up at Beckington as the bright sun began burning away the early-morning fog.

I was on my way. I drove up The Fosseway for the fourth time this season and was in no rush. I had again arranged a lift from Nuneaton with my mate Andy and, boy, was I grateful. My head was a bit fuzzy on the way north…my mind flitted from thoughts about the past season, the game at Sunderland, the FA Cup Final and the trip to America in the summer. My mind seemed to lack focus. To be expected I guess – all these games, all these plans flying around my brain. I had only visited Sunderland once before…that horrible 4-1 defeat in December 1999. Strangely, just after that, we all regrouped on the Monday at Heathrow and flew off for a Champions League game in Rome. How it so easily could have been the same this year!

I thought back on season 1983-84.Our penultimate game was a match against Barnsley on Bank Holiday Monday. I travelled up with my parents for this game, who went off to do some shopping or sightseeing around London during the day. Promotion was already secured, but still over 29,000 attended the game. It was a lovely feeling to know that I would know some friends at the game, even though no plans had been made. I merely made my way into The Benches and sat with Alan, Paul and Mark, my new friends at Chelsea. I think I am correct in saying that Keith Dublin, our second black player, made his debut in the game. David Speedie opened the scoring from yet another piece of Pat Nevin magic, but Barnsley equalised through David Geddis. With ten minutes remaining, a Dale Jasper shot was swept in by Nevin and the crowd, in a repeat of the Leeds game, surrounded the pitch. I have quite a few blurred photos from this game and they capture the excitement of the day very well. In the last move of the game, Nevin dribbled through the Barnsley defence and everyone just knew we were going to score again. Kerry Dixon seemed to get in the way of the shot, but Wee Pat smashed it home from an angle. Brilliant! Another pitch invasion and then the final whistle. Another home win for us. The players came out onto the balcony of the East Upper again and I was on the pitch in a repeat of the Leeds game. I made a point of walking to both goalmouths and loved seeing the stands from the pitch. I eventually left the ground, scene of many fantastic memories during that unforgettable season. Meanwhile, Sheffield Wednesday were held 0-0 at home by Manchester City and so Chelsea went into the final game, at Grimsby, on top of the pile.

Twenty-five years on, I drove through Coventry and picked up Lovejoy just before 9am. Then, the short drive to Nuneaton to meet Andy. We collected Woody at 9.45am and headed north. Talk was of the FA Cup Final, but also of the fight against relegation. I fancied Newcastle to nick a point at Villa and stay up. So did Andy. I made the point that in days gone by, on such a day, over 10,000 Geordies would have invaded Villa Park. These days, a different ball game – the most any team gets for an away fixture is 3,000, or 5,000 at Wigan or Blackburn, whose home fans don’t always turn up. After an initial flurry of chat, I gave way to some sleep – quite a surprise on the way to a game. The season was obviously taking its toll.

Lacoste Watch –

Andy – racing green
Chris – beige

The weather was perfect and Andy made good time. Lovejoy was in the front passenger seat and I was able to admire his beautifully constructed barnet. It surely is a thing of beauty and it all stays intact via a series of strings and pulleys. At 1pm we pulled into a pub in Sunderland and stayed for an hour or so. Three pints of “Coors Light” and the third Toby Carvery of the season. It was the business. I wondered if Andy has named his dog Toby for this reason alone. After we devoured our food, we were able to observe the eating habits of the locals as they spooned various foodstuffs onto their plates.

“That one has just meat and about twenty potatoes!”

“Go on girl, get stuck in!”

“Look at that, the greedy get – two Yorkshire puddings!”

“Good job they bloody wear stripes.”

“What a bunch of fat gets.”

Andy was able to park up no more than twenty yards from the away end. Sunderland used to play at Roker Park but moved into the oddly-named The Stadium Of Light in around 1997. I wanted to take a few shots outside so disappeared off for a few moments. The stadium, which holds 48,000, has been built on the site of the old Monkwearmouth Colliery, high on a hill overlooking the River Wear. Out in the car park, two remnants of old Roker Park remain…two forty foot sections of Archibald Leitch ( yeah, him again ) balconies from the old stadium have been placed amid flower beds and the effect is quite striking. Just love those cross-hatch supports. Outside the main entrance, there is a wheel from the colliery in Sunderland red.

I find it a bit odd that Sunderland chose such an ill-fitting name for their new stadium. It is the same name as Benfica’s stadium and appears to be named for that reason alone. However, “light” in Portuguese is “luce” which is the area of Lisbon where the stadium is built. So – are you all still paying attention? – a stadium in Sunderland named after the anglicised version of the name of an area in which a stadium in Lisbon is built. Work that one out! I find it odd they chose the new moniker of “The Black Cats” to coincide with the move out of Roker, too. That a club with such a rich history should reinvent itself is a bit bizarre.

I bought a programme for a change and it was a good read. They put the “away fans” figures in the programme and it was interesting to see how other London teams fared at Sunderland this season –

Arsenal – 2,715
Tottenham – 1,378
West Ham – 807
Fulham – 251

Into the stadium and I quickly found Alan and Gary nursing pints. Alan said that Sir Bobby Robson, ailing with cancer and in a wheelchair, was seen entering the stadium. He was given a rousing reception by both seats of fans. I bought a pint of “Fosters” and played “spot the face” amongst the Chelsea support. Of my immediate mates, Alan, Gary and Andy had not missed a league game all season, while Lovejoy missed just one.

Out into the stadium, blue skies overhead. I was in a seat right next to the Sunderland fans in the corner, the noisiest section of the entire stadium. They were wearing red and white shirts like they were going out of fashion. I think we have to acknowledge that their hated rivals Newcastle were the first set of fans to take to wearing replica shirts en masse at games, circa 1994.

Can’t see the fascination, myself.

A big surprise that Frank didn’t play…we wondered why. I also wondered why we were back to wearing the “old” shirts…and why we were wearing blue socks.

I spotted several lads, mainly in their late forties and early fifties wearing Ben Shermans, braces, jeans and DMs…I guess an “old school fancy dress away game” had been planned amongst a certain section of our support. In addition to Cathy and Mo, I bumped into two other Chelsea fans – Kevin and Ian – who will be in Baltimore and Dallas.

Of course, the Sunderland fans to my left made a right racket throughout the game, but their focus was on the games at Hull, West Ham and Villa too. They celebrated wildly when goals at the KC and Upton Park were scored. Our support wasn’t fantastic. To be honest, I felt a bit dazed. It was weird for nothing to be “on” this game for us. It was just a case of us being there, to get the game done. A quiet first half ended with Malouda rattling the crossbar.

What a fantastic strike from Anelka…loved the way he just refused to pass on his meandering run from inside his own half. With Ronaldo not even on the bench, his Golden Boot was assured. Then some poor defending allowed Sunderland to equalise. The stand shook as the home fans celebrated. And then again when news leaked through of Villa’s goal against Newcastle. Not to worry, substitute Kalou whacked home a great goal which I captured on film. This restored our lead.

The home fans in the corner sang throughout the game, but I couldn’t decipher much of it. Ashley Cole’s wife came in for a bit of predictable abuse.

“Your wife’s a Geordie slag.”

“Yeah – as if you’d turn her down” bellowed Gary.

I was then the target of some “banter” from a few of the natives…one of whom seemed to make a deal of the way I was provocatively wearing some sunglasses.

I was deeply hurt.

Ashley tucked in a third and my protagonist left…what a muppet. Still time for Kenwyne Jones, who I rate, to make it 3-2. And so it ended. Another away win for us. The players came over to applaud us.

“See you next Saturday, boys.”

Game 38 – tick.

I had worked out I had travelled 9,300 miles from my home in Somerset to follow the boys during the league campaign this season. Definitely a proud moment for me.

We were soon out and away, the natives still bouncing with the demise of Newcastle United. Andy drove down the A19 on the way south, a route which gave us lovely views of the North Sea, but then of Middlesbrough, the other relegated team on this most brutal of days.

And so, the end of our league season…

…third place for us. No complaints.

I have to commend Fulham for nicking a European place, especially since they got it at the expense of Spurs. Fulham in Europe – crazy!

And next year’s teams have been decided. Up come Wolves, Birmingham and Burnley…I’m pleased about Burnley. I remember how they almost became a non-league team in 1987 and survived on the last day of the season with my boyhood hero Ian Britton scoring one of their two goals. They have been out of the top flight since 1976. With Burnley, Stoke City, Birmingham City and Wolves in the division, the league is starting to resemble something from my childhood in the early-seventies.

Funny – in 1983-84, I was looking forward to loads of new stadia to visit in the new season. In 2009, I’m still desperate for new stadia. Next season, it will be just Burnley…oh well, better than no new grounds at all.

We got back to Andy’s at 9am and I dropped off Lovejoy at 9.30pm.

“Be lucky.”

As I drove south, I felt increasingly tired and even picked up a banging headache during the last few miles. I reached home at 12.30am, totally knackered.

One game to go.

See you at Wembley.

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