Behind Enemy Lines: Operation Newcastle & Sunderland

Back in the 1992/93 season Brendan Hobbs made two road trips to the North East to support Swindon Town at Newcastle United and Sunderland, which cannot be repeated for what we’ve all lost…

The scene: It’s a wonderfully fresh spring afternoon, the low sun peers inquisitively beneath the main stand bathing two friends in seasonal tepid warmth but failing to touch the boggy and winter bruised football pitch. The two are huddled together awaiting a good afternoon of football, they sit amongst thousands of home fans all eager as late-night drunks focusing on a kebab shop menu board.

Some random facts: A new manager is in place, one friend has a moustache, the other has a massive hangover, it’s 1993, the guy sat to the right of the two is wearing an impressive deer stalker hat, Whitney Houston’s “I will always love you” is STILL enchanting us all at number one.

Some context: Today is the newly installed manager’s first game – the home fans are expectant of a turnaround in the once proud club’s flagging fortunes. The celebrated ex-England international is introduced to the crowd by the enthusiastic match-day host, the noise swells, the level of anticipation also. There’s lots of traditional scarf waving, clenched fist shaking – all of which fuels the home crowd’s soaring optimism.

Time fast forward: 90mins is showing on the stadium clock and the same two friends are nervously awaiting the conversion of an injury time penalty. One which will gift the home team an undeserved point, drawing the proverbial get out of jail free card if you will, whilst the away side have definitely landed on a hotel-maxed Mayfair.

The action: The taker looks nervous having already seen an earlier penalty missed by a team-mate. One friend can barely watch, the home crowd that surrounds them are struggling as well. The midfielder quietly places the ball, an ethereal hush gathers as thousands of onlookers hold their breath. He strides forward and in the drawn out second between two heartbeats he calmly strokes it wide and into the advertising hoardings. The incongruent sharp bang of faux leather against polycarbonate resin echoes loudly, shocking everyone.

The atmosphere: Disconsolate, the home fans stare, lacking comprehension, howls of derision can be heard, abuse welling in their throats. One friend hangs their head and buries it in the shoulder of his moustached friend. To the casual onlooker his buried face and staccato shoulder jerks gives the distinct impression that he’s sobbing with disappointment. Only Mr Moustache knows the truth, he can feel the rumbling laughter through his shoulder, across his chest and down into his ribcage.

The scene: The whistle goes, boos ring out and home fans pour haphazardly out of every exit like blood streaming from a freshly hung animal corpse, everyone is disgruntled, their wondrous new dawn has suddenly dissipated into familiar rain and thunder. Deer Stalker lets a resigned ‘f*ck it’ slip from his thin mouth, he nods at the two friends and slides out of his seat. The two go to move as well, oddly detached smiles hang from their faces as they push through the remaining clogging gore and viscera of the dripping masses. They look distant, out of place, like two guys who’ve just dropped acid before being dragged Christmas shopping by their wives. Amazingly high, but in WHSmiths, a back-to-school stationery pack away from a freak-out.

Time fast forward: Silently our two friends merge onto a crowded football special which thins with every stop, regularly puking its contents out onto the cold streets like some sort of a Haribo-overdosed toddler. Eventually they’re the last two passengers. Only then do they actually talk about the game, the game that still remains, for one of them, their most memorable away game.

The detail: I was one of the friends, the staccato shouldered one actually, Mr Moustache was the other, a Newcastle United loving, Allied Dunbar-employed Geordie. He loved his football and he would often go to watch Swindon as it was his local team, but his main love was the Magpies.

He asked me if I wanted to visit his homeland, go out on the beer, stay with friends and take in the Newcastle -Swindon game, it sounded a hoot so I agreed. Unfortunately things didn’t quite turn out as expected. My ticket was in the Newcastle end, a packed terrace full of boisterous locals expecting nothing but a home win. When I asked him about his wisdom of us being in the Newcastle end, he said that he’d stick out more in the Swindon end, than I would in the Newcastle end.

I was not sure about this logic, but I took my place, hoping that I would not be noticed. My friend then calmly announced to everyone that I was a Swindon fan, who was ‘handy with his fists’ and therefore not to be messed with. I almost soiled myself.

Thankfully Swindon held the Keegan inspired Magpies to a 0-0 draw. Not everyone was happy, one local commented to me at the end that he was ‘relieved’ that Newcastle didn’t beat us, as he probably would’ve suffered a beating from my ‘handy fists’. It was all very amicable.

It was a great road trip, one that we decided to repeat for Town’s game against Sunderland the following February. We travelled up the Friday, popped into see his parents in Annfield Plain before travelling north to Alnwick, where we and his friends embarked on a pub crawl of Keith Moon proportions. The next day was difficult, traveling back down to Newcastle was tough, sunlight was endured, food contemplated and walking a struggle.

We caught a bus to Roker Park and my friend repeated his ‘home end’ trick once more – a Newcastle fan and Swindon fan sitting among thousands of Mackems in Roker Park’s Clock Stand – what’s the worst that could happen? What was wrong with the Swindon end this time I asked him? He bought the tickets in person at the ground the previous week, and obviously couldn’t buy for the away end. Genius.

The whole afternoon was totally surreal. Sunderland, struggling near the bottom of the second tier had the newly installed Terry Butcher as player-manager; I was sat there, clapping the bloodied stereotype along with everyone else. Deer Stalker said to me, those c*nts have Keegan, and these f*cking bumpkins have Hoddle, but we’ve got a proper manager, the real McCoy.

I nodded enthusiastically in agreement, saying something derogatory about f*cking bumpkins, because in truth I was fearing a prison shower block style shivving.

Sunderland were hopeless, I mean really bad and Town tore them a new one from start to finish. The slick, quick passing was too much for the Rokerites and the wave of optimism that everyone was previously happy to surf suddenly hollowed and crashed onto utter contempt beach. Seriously, some of the ‘home team’ abuse I hear at the County Ground these days has nothing on stuff these boys were ladling out – nothing short of steaming bowlfuls of pure hate.

Despite their shapeless ineptitude, Sunderland were given the first clear cut chance to open the scoring via the penalty spot, a clumsy handball by Shaun Taylor brought Peter Davenport face-to-face with Diggers. He saved, pushing the effort onto the post – the temperature went up a notch and the soup kitchen of hate called for fresh supplies of berating broth.

Things only got worse when Town finally took the lead they deserved after a typical sweeping move which saw the red-hot Paul Bodin scythe into the penalty area before cracking the ball past a despairing keeper

Jubilation, not from me, but from the small pocket of Town fans opposite that I so desperately longed to be a part of. Inside I was woohoo-ing away, such was my joy that I allowed myself to say a mock-angry f*ckin c*nting bumpkins to Deer Stalker, he nodded approvingly.

Town were coasting, the home fans were cursing, I was laughing inside whilst launching abuse at the home team. “Sort ’em f*cking out Butcher etc. etc.” It was quite liberating.

I was loving it, right up to the 93rd minute, when an unseen hand from David Mitchell got in the way of an in-swinging corner.

Penalty, the fans around me went mental, I died a little inside. Kevin Ball volunteered for penalty duties and stepped forward to duplicate the earlier effort from his colleague and miss. An outpouring of hate and anger ensued, I buried my head into my friends shoulder and laughed and laughed and laughed, he even stroked my hair and whispered something like ‘there, there’. I’m convinced to this day that a total stranger put a conciliatory arm briefly on my back. Bonkers.

The whistle went, and the boos that accompanied Butchers exit down the tunnel where considerably louder than the cheers that greeted him.

So raw was the surrounding emotion that we didn’t dare discuss the game until we were well clear of any possible lynch mobs.

Two things from that weekend are no longer with us, the first, Roker Park, an Archie Leech classic. Old school, large, creaking and charming.  Every time the ball was belted into the roof or any supporting strut we were greeted by a shower of rust, like bitter, post-apocalyptic confetti.

The second is my friend, sadly killed a year later in a car accident on the A346 between Swindon and Marlborough. A tragedy that I reflect on often, especially when I think of those two weekends lost in a post-alcoholic haze. Hopefully he still remembers the time as fondly as I do – wherever he is; maybe he is looking down and reading this. If that’s the case – dude, I still have your Total Recall video that you lent me before you went, I hope you don’t mind.

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