Mon 17th Apr 2006 Sunderland 1 Newcastle 4
You might think that seeing your team defeat the bitterest of rivals on their own turf in the most comprehensive fashion would be a highlight of your spectating life, and you’d be right up to a point. So much was memorable about this game, the biggest away derby victory for 50 years, Alan Shearer’s last ever game, last ever goal, and consequently the setting of Newcastle’s all-time goalscoring record. On a personal level, my first ever away derby. Even Luque scored. But I remember it for all the wrong reasons.
Sunderland had already been relegated at Old Trafford a few days previously, in one of their terrible seasons-to-end-all-seasons, their main focus for some time by then having been trying desperately not to break their own record for the lowest ever Premier League points total. Newcastle hadn’t had such a great season either, dry eyes all round had watched as Graeme Souness was jettisoned with the club in a slump, though interim appointment Glenn Roeder had perked the club up to the extent that they were by now challenging for an unlikely European qualification spot. Shearer had been persuaded to postpone his retirement for a year the summer before with the club goalscoring record within his reach, but that goal had already been reached before going into this game. Michael Owen had been injured since New Year and was unavailable for the game, though he would make a comeback of sorts before the end of the season in a successful bid to be selected for that summer’s World Cup.
On the morning of the match I hadn’t even been going. An Everton-supporting friend of my wife who’d got tickets to sample the atmosphere phoned a few hours before kick-off. They couldn’t go, thanks to an outbreak of severe gut-rot, their tee-total vegetarianism and consequent colonic purity surprisingly not helping them much. Did I want their tickets? There had to be a catch, and it turned out there were two. Firstly the seats were in the Sunderland section, and secondly I had to take my mother-in-law. You only live once, I thought, I’d never been to a derby at their place, and Etta always struck me as a woman who’d be handy in a rumble so I zipped round to pick up the tickets wearing virtually a full bio-hazard suit to ward off the lurgy. An hour later I was strolling around the stadium with the theme to ‘Get Carter’ playing in my head, telling myself my grounding in Bond movies, usually unnoticed cool and imaginary ninja skills would see me pass without detection through the unwelcoming hordes. So it proved as I entered, feeling like Foghorn Leghorn breaking into the Bernard Matthews compound, though my nightmare vision of a stadium entirely filled with telepathic killers thankfully proved wide of the mark.
This wasn’t my first visit to the stadium. My wife as a season ticket holder would often invite me along to accompany her if her Dad couldn’t make it. I’d be meeting her and her family after the game so there was extra reason not to want a bad result. We’ve always had an unwritten agreement not to dwell on the subject too much, and downplay the rivalry in private, if only for sanity’s sake. The mask has only really slipped once, a few years later, when she leapt and punched the air in our living room as the final whistle went at Villa Park and we were relegated. Though to be fair I did take her out after the 5-1 to cheer her up but went to a pub with the highlights on the big screen. “Might as well watch now we’re here”. Let those without sin cast the first stone I suppose. The stakes were high anyway. I never previously had any problem in following the proceedings on my visits to Sunderland from a neutral viewpoint. But this one was different. In my more feverish imaginings I assumed that somehow my allegiances would be transparent to all, perhaps through being checked along with my passport at the Border Control station at Brockley Whins and a massive “NUFC” stamped upon my forehead.
I should mention at this point that, in common football parlance, if you ever needed someone to stand beside you in the trenches you most definitely wouldn’t pick me unless you needed someone to tell you when to duck. Self-preservation has always been my game. I’d say I’m a lover not a fighter but in truth I’m not much cop at that either. So the world’s most sensitive danger antennae had been yelling at me since long before kick-off. Needless to say, there was no nonsense like wearing my colours underneath an outer layer as I attempted to eliminate all potential banana skins from my path. As neither side showed much intention of getting near the goal for the first half-hour, I managed to calm myself. If it finished 0-0 there might be no trouble. But then, disaster. We went a goal down, a typical comedy of errors for that season, and aware of a number of spotters scanning the unfamiliar faces in the crowd, I knew what I had to do. I stood. I clapped. I smiled. l was so convincing, a little bloke with a porn tache even caught my eye and gave me the sign of two clenched fists as I nodded non-commitally. I was being a little too successful at blending in. Perhaps you now begin to comprehend my misery, defeat and betrayal in one handy package.
At half time the home fans were pretty chipper, and I realised just how many Sunderland fans I know as pretty much every single one of them recognised me. Probably the most frightening encounter was with my wife’s uncle, who approached me from behind as I relieved myself and growled in my ear “You shouldn’t be here…”, though that scare had little to do with football it has to be said. All, thankfully, decided not to divulge my secret identity so my cover remained intact for the second half. That kicked off and again it seemed like there was no danger of us getting back into the game and my mask slipping for a second. Our heroes-to-be showed no sign of bucking their ideas up at this stage, and I was in two minds whether that was my preferred option by now. The away end, below us and to our right were on the receiving end of gloating “Scum!” chants as arms pointed. Even I didn’t join in that one, but as I glanced left, I noticed Mum-in-Law laughing and pointing not at the Black and White massed ranks, but at me! Etta man, pack it in, you’ll give the game away! Harry Palmer didn’t have to put up with this, never mind Bond.
Then the game changed. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Chopra trotted on as a sub, carried on trotting as a free-kick was taken, and all of a sudden he’s standing a yard out with the ball at his feet and no-one within ten yards. He decisively finishes it, and I watch as the mood changes around me. I’m sitting on my hands. I’d sit on my tongue if I could, just to stop it saying the wrong thing. Before people have even sat down we’re back up the pitch and the ref is pointing at the spot. Shearer scores then milks it, as is to be expected. Smiles have turned into snarls and the spotters are searching around them for a head to pop up above the barricades. I look at my shoes. I look at my shoes a lot. If I was trapped in a toilet cubicle with Mike Tyson angrily hammering on the door I couldn’t have been feeling more dread. Sunderland’s spirit and fragile confidence have crumbled in a game-defining couple of minutes and there is no way back for them now. As N’Zogbia dances through and scores a peach only minutes later (remember when we liked him?), it just gets worse. People start smashing seats up and throwing them in all directions. Porn tache and his dead-eyed mates are still clenching their fists, but not in triumph any more. It’s getting genuinely scary now, and my fight or flight instincts work out the way they always do. Remembering Mike Tyson, I decide to go and hide in the bogs for a few minutes until it all dies down. It’s quiet down there and there’s no-one hammering on the door after all so I feel slightly braver fairly soon and risk going back outside against the flow of bodies now leaving, just in time to see Luque finish the rout. A bit lucky to get the ball in the first place, but a tidy finish, and if I’d been somewhere else I’d have enjoyed us underlining the emphatic victory. Here, it just underlines how exposed I feel.
Strangely then, both Michael Chopra and Albert Luque scored their only Premier League goals for the club in this game. I’d have liked both to make long successful careers for themselves at Newcastle, for different reasons. Chopra’s Dad used to run the newsagent at the end of my street when Michael was a kid, played 5-a-side with some of my mates, and seemed a decent sort. As for Luque, had he been more of a success, I’d have had more of an opportunity to popularise the song I’d thought up, based on Prefab Sprout’s 1988 hit “The King of Rock and Roll”, whose chorus, “hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque!” lent itself to modification in Luque’s honour. The original song is about a one-hit wonder remembered for his single moment of success, though at the time the appropriateness of this to Luque’s Newcastle career was as yet unclear.
Towards the end of the game, Julio Arca had fallen awkwardly in a tackle on Alan Shearer. Shearer’s knee ligaments were damaged and he didn’t play competitively for the club again. An inauspicious exit from the stage for someone who had been the centre of attention for so many years, but his final and record-setting goal from the penalty spot here at least exorcised the demon of his penalty miss in a 2-1 defeat at St James’ Park a few years previously.
As I left the stadium, much of the menace I felt previously had gone, despite the usual crackers congregating near the away end. Most just wanted to get away from the stadium, but the change was quite obviously all in my head, suggesting perhaps that my worry too had been my own creation rather than based on any real danger. Surprisingly, nutcases at football cannot see into the souls of their fellow men, though that didn’t stop me worrying about it. Every year I read of interlopers in the home end at a derby being attacked when they’re no longer able to keep their counsel for whatever reason. Though I don’t approve of the violence, I never fail to be astonished when it happens, and it always does. What exactly do they expect in such a tense atmosphere? Whether you approve of it or not, and I don’t, you have to be aware that relations between fans of the two clubs have never been worse and some will object to your presence among them. Keep your head down and follow the crowd if you can and you’ll be alright seems to be my conclusion though it’s not advice I’d take myself after this.
In hindsight, this was a great win, I’m glad I was there to see it, and this was the only way I’d ever have got in. But I didn’t enjoy the experience at all, fearing for my life for a lot of it and just wishing the final whistle would blow for most of the second half. Choosing not to be true to myself in the interests of survival left a nasty taste in my mouth, though I know that in the same situation I’d always act the same way. I wouldn’t recommend to anyone that they do this. If you can’t enjoy a great win against your closest rivals like this then you shouldn’t be there, and next time I won’t be – certainly not in the wrong end anyway.