Malcolm Dawson writes….back in 1997/98 despite living in the Midlands I made 43 Sunderland games over the course of the season but as I hadn’t bothered with a season ticket, I was not guaranteed a ticket for the play off final at Wembley and when they went on general sale I was working and unable to get to the ground or even to a phone, so I missed out. What made it even more galling was hearing tell of people who had never ever been to a match before queuing up and getting seats for the big day while I ended up watching it on the telly.

At the first game of the new season, where if memory serves me right, Tommy Sorensen made his debut and Lee Clark broke his leg, I saw an article in ALS about the formation of a new Supporters’ Association branch, based in Coventry, got in touch next day and joined up. That branch was the Heart of England and at that time there were loads of season ticket holders and soon membership took off to the point where there were coaches to every weekend home game. 

The branch is still going strong with our regular contributor Wrinkly Pete (Lynn) being a stalwart and although I have been back in the North East for seven years now I still meet up with my old mates when we can. Branch Chair Sue Laffey takes up the story.

Quinny at the HoE

HEART OF ENGLAND BRANCH

The Heart of England branch was formed in 1998 so this is our 20th anniversary! We were formed after the 1998 play-off final by our stalwart members Chris Herriott, Julie Harris, Steve Hay and Paul Walsh who wanted to find a group of like-minded fans to watch games with. It all took off from there and we are still going strong.

The branch covers pretty much the whole of the Midlands. We have just over 60 members, many of whom live in the area around Coventry where we are based, but we also have fans from as far east as Corby, as far west as Monmouth, as far south as Trowbridge and as far north as Nottingham. We also have a few exiles in London and the North East. Because we cover such a large geographical area, we find it hard to get everyone together but we organise coaches to home games as often as we can. We are always represented at away games too. There are around a dozen members who travel to virtually every home game despite the distance involved.

Monty signs Wrinkly Pete’s Cup Final programme.

We are honoured to have Kevin Ball as our President and he has been to Coventry to visit us. We have also had visits from, amongst others, Niall Quinn, Gary Rowell, Bobby Kerr, Dave Watson, John O’Hare, Len Ashurst, Gary Bennett, Jimmy Montgomery, Dick Malone and Micky Horswill.

In the early years we had a monthly newsletter “Turnips are Big and Purple” the name of which came about through the regional confusion between what is a turnip and what is a swede – you have to live down south to understand! That’s been replaced with regular email updates as we move with the times.

We do an annual predictions competition and last year gave half of the proceeds to the Bradley Lowery Foundation continuing a history of charity fundraising which started in 2002 when five branch members went to all 92 football league grounds in 69 hours, raising £4000 for the British Heart Foundation in the process.

Dick Malone’s visit to the HoE Branch with member Mark Strong

We have many amusing anecdotes that have involved branch members.

One of the best featured a member who had lived in the Midlands for a while and then moved back home to the North East. In those early days we were running coaches to every home game and many of us would have a pre match pint in the Howard Arms where we would meet up with friends and family.

On one occasion this former member came in and told us that on his way to the City Centre he had passed a pony which he was sure was lying dead on a grass verge at the side of the road. After stopping his car he went over to check and though convinced it was dead gave it a kick. Of course the poor beast had only been sleeping and jumped up, startled.

Two weeks later at the next home game on his coming into the pub we are regaled with the story of how he’s had a letter from the RSPCA outlining the incident and how having been reported by a concerned member of the public who had taken his car registration, they were obliged to investigate whether or not there was the possibility of an animal cruelty charge and asking for a written statement from him. He’s devastated, claiming he only went to check to see if the poor pony was alive.

No animals were harmed in the making of this website

What he had failed to see was the name of the RSPCA Inspector a Mr. T Hickhead and that the address was that of a member in Houghton. However, he dutifully responded claiming ‘there was no sign of life, snorting, panting or movement as I gingerly edged up to the rear of the animal’.

At the next home game after receiving his branch newsletter he was not amused at the antics of some of our members. Even today he still gets reminded of his brush with the pony whenever we see him.

A few seasons back, after an enjoyable visit to Gillingham a few of us decided that we would go back the next season, even though we were in different divisions, for another of their games and visit the pub where we had received a warm welcome and had a great night. We chose to go for their final home fixture of the season when they were due to play Walsall. We turned up in our red and white shirts and got some rather strange looks from the home fans, telling us we were at the wrong ground and stewards trying to direct us to the away end! After the match we went back to the pub where they were ordering pizzas and invited us to join in with their end of season party but unfortunately we had a train to catch back to the Midlands, via London.

Other incidents, too detailed to go into here, involved breakfast beers and lobster before a trip to London and the attempted (though ultimately unsuccessful) unfurling of a branch flag at a live broadcast of the National Lottery following a game at Loftus Road.

After the early days of the branch we now find it less viable to run coaches to every home game now but we still get to two or three fixtures a year, co-ordinate lift shares and apply for tickets for away fixtures, though we can’t always guarantee success, especially with the small allocation the club gets from some clubs in this division.

However, for exiles living away from the North East, those who through family connections grew up supporting The Lads or for those in the region who chose to follow SAFC for whatever reason the branch is a great way of forming friendships and sharing the joys and tribulations of following the team.

Live in the Midlands and want to join us? Contact our membership secretary, Karen, at karen.haysunderland@hotmail.co.uk

Sue Laffey

HoE committee with Benno

HoE members complete their tour of the 92 league grounds for the British Heart Foundation

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Born in Hetton le Hole, deputy editor Malcolm Dawson's first game at Roker Park was the three all draw with Leicester City at the beginning of the 64-65 season. Having spent more than thirty years living in the East Midlands, he was Chairman and Information Officer of the Heart of England Branch of the Supporters' Association but has now returned to live in County Durham.

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