Welcome to an overspill site for Salut! Sunderland, a place to put longer files that some but not all people may wish to see. In addition, where the Who Are They? feature includes more than one article, the "overmatter" will - in time - have a link to here from the sub-category list in the main site's sidebar. The following is a very long - chapter length - expansion of my oft-argued reasons for placing passion for my football club some miles ahead of anything I feel for the national side. It was written for the Sunderand fanzine A Love Supreme's book More 24 Hour SAFC People, published in late 2007 and my share of the proceeds has been donated to charity
Looking back, it was as golden an opportunity as Daniel Dichio's sitter in the Wembley playoff final against Charlton, or indeed the chance of his at Upton Park that would, if converted, have put us top of the Premiership. And I missed mine just as glaringly as Danny had missed his.
In one of the love letters that passed between us long ago, Joelle, then my wife-to-be, wrote that she could think of only one fault in me that she would change. I smoked too much. She might have added others: permanently broke, holes in my socks and underpants, coming from Shildon, being lousy at her native language, French. She has certainly added plenty since and while the French has improved, there isn't much I can do about coming from Shildon. But back then, it was the fags that concerned her. If only I would cut down, she wrote to me from Le Mans, her home town, she would in return do anything I asked of her.
Talk about open goals. There it was, my cue to secure a lifetime of pass-outs to watch Sunderland !
"Well, ma cherie," I could and should have replied. "I will move mountains to give up the cigarettes because although I love smoking, I love you so much more. But there is something you can do for me. It's simple really. You just say you'll always be happy for me to go to see Sunderland, wherever and whenever they play. It won't be every single game, but it would be great for us to have that established before we get married. You can even come with me sometimes if you like."
There was a trump card I could have played, too. "It's a huge sacrifice for me, ma petite poupette," I might have said. "But I will not only keep to my side of the bargain and do something about the cigarettes. I also promise faithfully that I will never take the mick and ask permission to go to an England game.
That, of course, would have been my Br'er Rabbit moment. How could Joelle possibly know that going to Wembley for an international was my equivalent of the rabbit being tossed by the fox into a briar patch?
Unknown to her, I had resolved my own club versus country debate long before the time this imaginary pre-marital bartering would have been taking place. The last time I had cared about England as much as I have always fretted about Sunderland had been in 1966. I was much the same as any other teenage English boy of the epoch, cheering on our national side to that barnstorming 4-2 World Cup victory over Germany.
Sadly, my commitment to England has been in decline ever since, and that decline was to become steeper and steeper as the era of the football hooligan took its ugly shape.
All through my life, the passion for Sunderland has grown and grown, undiminished by all those lean years I have known since my first game, Boro away with Cloughie scoring our winner, in 1962.
And the simple truth is that I care more about a Sunderland game on which nothing whatsoever depends than I do about a do-or-die international where England's very presence in World Cup or European Championship qualification is at stake. If England lose such a game, I am genuinely disappointed. If they win, I am pleased. But that's it. Test me next day and I'll have all but forgotten. When Sunderland lost 3-1 in an end-of season match at Spurs, I was - as ever when we lose - devastated. The scoreline didn't matter. We still finished a highly creditable seventh top in the Premiership; winning would not have put us any higher. A place in Europe was already out of reach. But my team, the club I love, had lost and I had wanted an amazingly good season - does it get any better than safe by Christmas, for Pete's sake? - end on a high.
In the event, prompted by repeated chest complaints aggravated by over-indulgence, I did manage to stop smoking altogether. But because of my failure to drive a proper bargain when it was there for the taking, I was stuck with a lifetime of having to treat football as a matter for delicate domestic negotiation. Joelle loathes the game, and cannot understand why any man would want to spend all or part of a day away from his wife and family just to watch other blokes kicking a ball around a field. It took her years to get over the fact that one of our daughters not only loves football but plays it pretty well, too.
Because she's also incurably romantic, Joelle did once buy me a season ticket. It was our second year at the Stadium of Light. But to her, it was like choosing, say, a set of Fawlty Towers DVDs. Once I had it, and had used it, I wouldn't want it again. It would be out of my system. She just didn't get it that I'd inevitably renew year after year.
The upshot of this severe culture clash is that throughout my marriage I have had to organise games around family duties, wifely expectations as well as work. She'd tell you I have been to endless matches; I'd tell you about all those I've missed.
Think about Easter. How often has the immediate future of Sunderland been strongly influenced by the outcome of the games played over that weekend? A natural consequence of being one of football's yo-yo clubs is that we often enter the last few weeks chasing promotion or staring relegation in the face. And where, year after year, have I been come Easter? With the French part of my family in Le Mans, or on holiday with them in Brittany.
I remember one season when I was playing football with relatives by marriage at the farm of one of my wife's uncles. The Lads were pressing for promotion and the BBC was covering a crucial match. I selflessly volunteered to go in goal for the whole game for the sole reason that I could at least then try to listen to the commentary on a crackly transistor.
Christmas and New Year are the same. Either we're in France, or France - her part of France - comes to us. No point in asking for leave of absence then. It's years since I last saw a game over the festive period.
Lots of fans I know lead much more uncomplicated lives. They go religiously to games without their partners' objections. Or they insist on going even if there is objection. Some of them even manage to stay married.
But I have had to be more ingenious in my approach, and necessity is a great teacher. I learned long ago that there were ways of ensuring we were within striking distance of a game. Visits to Nana back in the North East somehow always coincided with Sunderland at home. What better time to go and see a daughter at university in Manchester than when the Lads were at Oldham?
Once a year when we were living in London, Joelle's work would take her to Cannes for the film festival. It always takes place in early May, just as the season is drawing to a close, or often in our case to a nerve-wracking climax for one of the obvious two reasons.
This was always my excuse to pack in as much football as possible. In 2001, the year of one of those two seventh top Premiership seasons under Peter Reid, Sunderland Reserves had one game left. A win at Leeds - or more accurately York , where Leeds played their second string games - would have given us the Premiership reserve league title.
This will sound incredibly sad, but with the cat away, this mouse seriously considered playing: a midweek expedition to York to watch that game. Only the lack of a late enough train to get me back to London the same night stopped me making the journey.
We lost anyway. The fact that this hurt at the time is not so important. The real point is that I was prepared to organise a day off work and make a long midweek trek to watch our reserves.
So why wouldn't the same football-daft English male necessarily cross the street to watch England ? Why wouldn't he lose any sleep if he went to bed before the result?
I wish I had a completely satisfactory answer. Believe it or not, I actually envy the Scots, Irish and Welsh fans who so fervently support their national sides.
Fans of other countries show impressive national loyalty, too. I remember finding myself among a trainload of Dutch fans on their way from the central station in Amsterdam to a Euro 2000 game. The carriage was a sea of orange and seemed to be rocking. It was impossible not to be struck by the depth of devotion. Despite being an ordinarily patriotic Englishman, I simply cannot summon the same emotional attachment.
This does not mean I am ashamed of my country. Far from it. There is so much in our history and culture to admire. I love the spirit of tolerance that still manages to triumph, more often than not, over nastiness and prejudice in a snarling modern age. It is just that I lack that strength of feeling, when it comes to football at national level, that binds the Celtic tribes of the British Isles, along with the French, the Dutch, the Spanish, South Americans......
The explanation for my overwhelming preference for club over country is more complex than my deep dislike of hard-of-thinking hooliganism.
I agree with my big pal Pete Sixsmith that Sir Alf Ramsey's refusal to select Jimmy Montgomery for the 1970 World Cup squad was reprehensible (in Pete's case reason enough to bother little or nothing for England ever since). And it can hardly be argued that Len Shackleton, Brian Clough or Kevin Phillips were ever given fair cracks of the international whip.
But there is not the slightest doubt in my mind that the yob factor is a strong, probably the strongest, cause of my disenchantment.
Every team has had its share of troublemakers. The fan base may incorporate a hooligan fringe of five per cent, 10 per cent depending on the club. We could be mischievous and suggest that the proportion rises to nearly 100 per cent at Millwall or, if you ignore docile glory seekers, Chelsea.
My contention is that virtually every single one of those hooligans is also an England supporter, and many of them are active in their support, home and especially away. That undeniably drives the percentage higher. I once reduced a sports editor to spluttering rage by suggesting at a morning editorial conference that the proportion of yobs among England's travelling support was therefore as high as 30 or 40 per cent.
It was an exaggeration, but one based on the assessment applied by the National Crime Intelligence Service (NCIS), which used to monitor football-related violence. When slotting football fans into categories. NCIS had Category C fans as out and out thugs or trouble organisers, there for the ruck whether or not they actually liked football as well. In Category A were what we might call ordinary, decent fans, the sort of people that restore your faith in the England following. Category B fans, I remember NCIS officials saying, were those who could veer either way: essentially boisterous but harmless, though liable to join in if trouble flared.
Just before the 1998 World Cup finals in France, England played Saudi Arabia in a warm up friendly at Wembley. I took my football-loving younger daughter, but could not get tickets for us to sit together. We were a few rows apart, each surrounded by, to be honest, evil little toe rags. My lot, who supported Portsmouth, struck up an early chant with words along the lines of: "Where's your camel, where's your camel, where's your f****** camel gone."
They sang it repeatedly before and during the (awful) game. There was some casual racist abuse and, for good measure, a bit of sexual innuendo. The fans in question were young and drunk, but had no other excuse for their obnoxious behaviour. My daughter reported similar unpleasantness from the people around her seat, Reading followers if memory serves me right.
And I bet a few of our matchday neighbours then found their way to France, where the behaviour of some England fans yet again brought shame on their nation.
For most of the first half of 1998, I had been dreading the World Cup. As a senior reporter at the Telegraph, I was expecting to spend the tournament in France, covering events outside rather than inside the grounds. My apprehension had nothing to do with cowardice; I have covered riots, been as close to war as I'd ever want, faced threats in bleak parts of Belfast, stared into the barrels of rifles brandished by drug-crazed Third World soldiers and dodged stones lobbed by Muslim youths.
But I love football. To have to watch and report on the antics of people who besmirch the game, and the country they claim to love, pains me beyond belief.
It is impossible to overstate the joy I felt when someone told me a few weeks before France 98 began that I was not going to the finals after all, but around the world as part of a bizarre World Cup project. The High Street menswear chain Burton's had agreed to sponsor a series of travel-cum-football articles under the heading of Around the World in 18 Days. I was one of three journalists chosen to carve up the 32 qualifying countries. I then travelled to each of those on my list and reported on how their fans back home were following events in France.
From Oslo to Soweto , Kingston to Miami and back again to a clutch of European countries, I joined locals as they watched the first round games in crowded squares, heaving little bars, a township shebeen and even a mosque. I thought of colleagues in France and thanked my lucky stars. It would have been a dream assignment in any circumstances, but what it meant I was not doing made it seem better still.
No, I do not buy the "all England fans are trouble" philosophy that has so often dictated Continental police practices, and far too much of the media coverage. I have willingly investigated and written about the legitimate grievances of innocent fans caught up in violence and wrongly accused. But the blameless casualties are victims of the rotten apples as much as of incompetent or unjust policing. When aggrieved England fans cry "we woz provoked", they sometimes mean no more than that someone spoke to them in their own language in their own country.
If some fans behave like morons, they can hardly be surprised to be treated as such. Even some otherwise rational England followers have in the past defended trouble-makers on the basis that local police over-reacted to high spirits. But there is not really any good reason why the French or Greek or Turkish police should have to tolerate drunken louts trashing their national flag, or getting out of hand in city centre bars.
If France 98 was a blessed relief for me, my luck was to run out when Euro 2000 came around. Off I went to Holland and Belgium, with no escape tunnel to spare me the task of monitoring the deeds and misdeeds of the England support.
I will never forget the sunny Saturday that I sat in the square at Charleroi, sipping beer and exchanging footballing reminiscences with great lads, including Sunderland fans recognised from home, long before England v Germany kicked off. The day before, I had even been roped into playing in a bridge-building friendly between England and Germany fans.
So much for building bridges. Only a couple of hours after I'd enjoyed those beers with fellow SAFC fans, little pockets of fighting began to erupt around the large square. Glasses were thrown, the rival chanting became more aggressive.
Before long the yobs, with a good few Germans happy to get stuck in, too, had turned the square into a battleground. The scenes were not that dreadful, and were probably made to seem much worse on television as each outbreak was screened over and over again. Each skirmish, each robust intervention by Belgian police lasted only a minute or two. Yet there was no reason why the ordinary people of a small Belgian town should have had to put up with even that extent of disorder.
My guess at the time was that England fans prone to lawlessness had been encouraged by the comparatively relaxed approach of the Dutch police earlier in the competition.
But the scenes in Charleroi were really quite tame by comparison with what had gone on the previous night in the centre of Brussels as English fans swarmed into the city.
One or two bars were taken over by scores of English supporters. No problem, in itself. But as the gestures and chanting became steadily more aggressive, the Belgian police grew impatient and edgy. It was the cue for a series of running battles that stretched long into the night. Tear gas was used, often indiscriminately, and I have no doubt that a lot of fans, including many of those rounded up and unceremoniously kicked out of Belgium, were treated very unfairly. Thuggish elements from the north African community of Brussels also became involved and, I suspect, got away with rather more than a lot of England fans.
Once again, however, I blamed not the heavy-handed cops, or the willingness of Muslim louts to engage any young Englishman they encountered, but those very England hoodlums whose conduct invariably causes each clash in the first place. And no one can have been unaware that Belgian police chiefs had warned in the run-up to Euro 2000 that they would respond firmly to any unacceptable behaviour.
Of course I cannot pretend that everyone who has ever supported my beloved football club is or was a model of restraint and decent behaviour.
I am well aware that several of the countries with relatively trouble-free records in internationals - Holland being one good example - have failed to defeat inter-club supporter violence with anything like the success of the English authorities. In France, rival crews are content to forget their shared allegiance to the same club, Paris St Germain, and fight each other for supposed supremacy. It is also true that the worst single act of violence at France 98 involved not English but German fans (the horrific attack on a French policeman).
But in well over 40 years of following the Lads, home and away and some seasons more than others, I have rarely if ever felt threatened or especially uncomfortable, or guilty about having a daughter in tow. I cannot say the same about the England games I have attended, in whatever capacity.
A lot of people will strongly disagree with my attitude, but I have attempted to explain the context of my feelings. In the end those feelings are my problem, no one else's. As crowd trouble has become gradually less commonplace at football, I should have mellowed. I realise I am in a small minority when I say that at the Blackburn game in September, I was completely bemused as to why David Bentley was attracting stick from some of our fans every time he touched the ball. I was still scratching my head in search of some forgotten Newcastle link, or to remember that he had been guilty of a Mido/Nugent-like refusal to join SAFC, when I saw in the paper that he'd snubbed the England under-21 squad.
Some will be thinking: "Quite right that he was booed." I honestly couldn't give a stuff what he thought of the call-up.
Others, neutrals or those with a liking for the supposedly bigger clubs (in reality not clubs at all, just brands), might have some sneaking regard for my club-before-country stance if only I supported one of these win-win-win brands.
And maybe they'd be the ones with a point. Just say Joelle and I had struck a deal: no more smoking but as much of the Lads as I wanted in the 36 years that have ensued. How much more of those eight relegation seasons, four Wembley defeats, missed promotions, desperate escapes and bitter disappointments would any sane man have wanted to inflict on himself, especially if he couldn't even resort between each setback to a comforting fag?