Soapbox: they don’t make Easter like they used to

Soapbox

Hot cross buns, church on Sunday, chocolate eggs to hunt in the garden? Not exactly. Pete Sixsmith, while sharing the hope that this weekend should bring our first away goals of 2008 (and more than Villa can score), reflects on other Easter traditions, sadly no more than a memory

It’s a disappointing Easter holiday this year. First of all, it’s the earliest it’s been since 1913, secondly the weather forecast is for cold, rain, snow and sleet and thirdly the Premier League doesn’t seem to think that Easter deserves more than one game.

In the past, Easter was when promotion or relegation was decided. It usually meant playing the same opponents twice, on the Friday and the Monday, with a Saturday game sandwiched in between.

In my first regular season, 1963-64, we played Rotherham twice, drawing at Millmoor and beating them with two George Herd goals at Roker Park in front of 56,000 which included Colin and me.

Other Easter games that stick in the memory are visits to Hull in 1973 and 1976. The 73 game saw Monty make a save that was as good as, if not better than the one at Wembley. I drove home (1966 Hillman Minx) believing we would win the Cup. Three years later we took 15,000 fans, saw Gary Rowell score his first goal for the club in a 4-1 win and came back on a special train so awash with beer that it could well have filled the Humber.

Even last year was an Easter special with two thrilling wins over Wolves and Southampton which convinced me that we would once more win the Championship (you know, I would love it, really love it, never to have to write those words again). This year we get one game at Villa and for a further footie fix you’ve got to look below the Championship into Leagues 1 and 2 or into non-league.

The best Easter was 1980. It was quite late, we were pushing for promotion under Ken Knighton and the fixture card had given us one at home and two away. The home one was a visit from our dear Tyneside friends who were also pushing for promotion and who had been clear at the top for a while but were beginning to slip back.

Roker was full with 40,000+, the game was scrappy and they were the better side for much of it. We grabbed a winner towards the end through Stan Cummins (last time we beat them at home) and looked forward to visits to Wrexham and Shrewsbury on the Monday and Tuesday.

What a thoughtful Football League we had in those pre-Premier League juggernaut days. Wrexham and Shrewsbury are close to each other so there was no need for two trips; you could do it in one. And we did. It was the legendary camping trip to Wem.

We chose Wem for three reasons: it had a campsite, a railway station and (most important) a brewery. Camping gear was borrowed from Ferryhill School, Dougie Bones loaded up his Vauxhall Chevette with stoves, food and cool boxes and off we went.

We arrived at Wem, found the camp site and put up the tents without too much bother. Then, on to Wrexham, and a 2-1 win thanks to late goals from our Punk Rocker Wayne Entwistle and soon to be prison officer Alan Brown. It was a cheerful group of four (Doug, Ian Douglass, Steven Wilson and me) that drove back to the site to find another group of Red and Whites struggling to put a tent up. Aided by cans of cider and lager they eventually managed, only discover they had the whole thing inside out and had to start again. Our offer to help was rejected and they got it up in 30 minutes. Inside out again. We left them to it and ventured into the badlands of East Shropshire.

Wem was like something out of Straw Dogs with groups of suspiciously similar locals eying up the strangers in town as if we were the aliens. We ended up in a pub full of farmers who sat tight at 10.30 closing time knowing that as soon as we left there would be a lock-in and they could get on with sacrificing a virgin to the Green Man or whatever they did to fill in their time when they were not pursuing Shropshire’s best looking sheep.

We sat tight, they sat tighter and eventually the landlord grudgingly served us a pint of Wem Bitter at 10.55 with the heartwarming scowl: “Just the one then”.

Suitably impressed by the warm welcome given to itinerant football fans we drank it slowly and left at 11.30 to the sound of Shropshire farmers dashing to the bar to refill their glasses of Johnnie Walker.

A brisk walk back to the campsite, past a huge hole in the road (if Shropshire County Council ever want to know how the road lamps ended up in an adjoining field, I am now prepared to finger the culprit) and on to the site to see a large inside out tent full of snoring Mackems.

Up the next day for a breakfast full of calories and then on to Wem station to pick up the train to Shrewsbury. What a lovely town apparently. We holed up inside a pub opposite the station, where Mr Wilson (only 17 at the time) disgraced himself by drinking Double Diamond in preference to the Ansells, Wem and MB ales on display. Out at 3pm when the pub closed, into Marks and Spencers to buy bottles of wine which were then drunk on the streets of Shrewsbury accompanied by fits of the giggles and some loud singing of From the Banks of the River Wear.

We eventually staggered into Gay Meadow having searched in vain for the coracle that was used to fish the ball out of the River Severn and witnessed a goalkeeping display by Chris Turner that was the equal of anything Monty had produced seven years earlier.

Alan Brown came up trumps again and Stan Cummins rounded off a perfect Easter by scoring the winner with a tremendous free kick. All the pubs in the town had been told to close by the police, so no celebratory drink until we returned to the camp site where a bottle of Asti Spumante was opened to celebrate six points and a growing conviction that we would go up.

As usual, we left it until the last game (West Ham at home) but the poor old Mags had gone into freefall and missed out in those pre-playoff days. I remember talking a few years later to Dave Barton, who said the win on Good Friday destroyed their confidence and that Bill McGarry withdrew into himself and never spoke a positive word until he was sacked at the end of the season.

Wouldn’t it be nice if the same happened to KK after April 19?

Salut! Sunderland is written, illustrated and edited by - and principally for - supporters of Sunderland AFC. The site aims to be sufficiently literate and entertaining to appeal to people who do not follow SAFC but enjoy good football writing.

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