It was my first glimpse into being a Sunderland supporter.
I was six years old and standing in a darkened shop doorway as the men trudged past with looks on their faces which I would soon recognize because I’d wear one just the same countless times to come.
It was the stunned look that a child would wear if he got up on Christmas morning and found the few toys he had were gone – stolen by that mean man in the red coat.
On this particular day, fifty long years ago, the thief wore the colours of Chelsea Football Club but the looks of unexpected pain and confusion were the same.
The next season would be one of the best in Sunderland’s history and, as it would prove to be my first, probably the one that has the sweetest memories. We would steamroller back to Division One, a mystical place where my dad and uncles said we belonged.
But on this depressing late afternoon in May 1963 it was my mother who knew the score, so to speak. ‘They got beat,” was all she said.
She didn’t need any smart phone to give her that news: she’d seen the look so many times as wives as mothers did back then. Knew from their men’s faces what had happened before they opened their mouths as they returned for Saturday night dinner before shuffling off to the pub to live over that afternoon’s pilgrimage with fellow sufferers.
My dad and two uncles finally arrived, a planned meeting so we could all go to have our tea at Binns cafe over the town. And, yes indeed, we had got beat 0-1 on that, our last game of the season.
Sitting top of the league and essentially needing just a point to be promoted, 48,000 had turned up to rejoice at Roker Park only to see us lose to Chelsea who would, in the end, take that second promotion spot behind champions Stoke. We lost out on goal average.
It was lesson that I could have learnt back then. But that hope always gets a hold of you and dulls the memory. Until nights like Monday’s debacle against Villa yet again drag you back to reality like a reluctant Don Corleone into the Family.
After a few weeks in which we were in dreamland – victory at St James, dirty knees and punched police horses, then victory over the ancient nemesis of Everton, along with a crazy new manager to lift the gloom as amplified Verdi blared out over the Stadium of Light – those who have visited this altar enough times would have had that sly suspicion that this wouldn’t and couldn’t last. It never, ever does.
So the wheels fell off and we’re back yet again wondering what the next game holds. Such as it has always been.
And, after shipping six goals, a look in the mirror at my own face, a lot different from that of a six year old boy, can bring back memories of that day a half century ago where I discovered, even before seeing a ball kicked in anger, what it meant to be a Sunderland supporter.
(Our Canadian Correspondent)