Sixer: ‘oh well, back to the day job’

Salut! Sunderland is proud to contribute to SAFC matchday programmes. Finally free of his annual Santa duties, Pete Sixsmith joined the 46,039 present at the game against Bradford City. Those who bought the programme will have seen these recollections of past Boxing Day encounters …


Boxing Day is a wonderful day.

It’s a chance to get out into the great wide yonder and watch at least one game of football with family and friends.

In the “olden days” it was a chance to smoke those Castella cigars that cousin Norman had given you, while in later days, you could christen that lovely jumper with the snowflakes on that Auntie Beattie had handed you the day before. With a bit of luck, someone would spill a pint all over it and that would be the end of the wretched thing.

Boxing Day at Sunderland is a day when the Red and White diaspora come home. My Greek sister-in-law saw her only game of football on Boxing Day 1997 when we beat today’s visitors 2-0. She was most upset when the man behind hit her on the head when Alan Johnston wrapped it up in the 58th minute. She has never been back.

The first Boxing Day game I saw at Roker was in 1964 when Liverpool were the visitors. For a 13-year-old, Liverpool meant “Ee-i-adio”, The Beatles and Bill Shankly. We got two of them that day as his team won a real thriller by the odd goal in five.

Gordon Milne, a much-underrated player in that fine Shankly team, put them ahead in the 5th minute and another unsung hero, Willie Stevenson, doubled the lead in the 30th. I was stood in the Main Stand Paddock (season ticket, £6.6s 0d – an early Christmas present), wearing my new red and white scarf (Star Knitting Company of Huddersfield) and feeling a severe lack of the cheer that is associated with the so-called “most wonderful time of the year”.

But then Nicky Sharkey and George Mulhall scored in the 61st and 64th minute to send the huge crowd crazy and the last 20 minutes were nip and tuck. Alas, Stevenson grabbed the winner with eight minutes left and we trooped back to Billy Reilly’s bus crestfallen.

Six years later we were back in the Second Division and making no headway. Somehow, Alan Brown had persuaded the directors to sanction the signing of the Rotherham United centre forward Dave Watson, for £100,000 and he had scored on his debut at Watford the previous week.

Desperate to get away from the hearth and Billy Smart’s Circus on TV, 42,617 came to Roker to see Watson’s home debut against Middlesbrough. They weren’t disappointed; although he did not score, his strength in the air set up Bobby Kerr for an early opener, but a John Hickton double sent the Boro in ahead at the break. Another prodigious Watson leap created a chance for Billy Hughes which was taken and the general consensus was that we had ourselves a cracker.

Sometimes the fixture setters pull out some unbelievable away trips. In 1989, Oxford United had to make the long journey north for what was a largely uninspiring game apart from a fine Marco Gabbiadini goal.

Roker was a shadow of what it had been but there were still 24,075 in it and the Castellas and the flasks of Bell’s Finest Firewater were being handed around.

The fixture setter got his revenge the next year when he sent us to Crystal Palace for an 11.30 kick off. We lost.

Our last Boxing Day at Roker was in 1996 when goals from Dickie Ord and Craig Russell, Red and Whites to the core, saw off a Derby County side who had a certain Marco Gabbiadini on the bench. Roker was packed out with 22,715 in; 12 months later, when Bradford City arrived at the Stadium of Light, there were 40,055, including Veta Tsaliki.

By 2006, we had lived the dream and had been up and down like the proverbial bride’s nightie. Under Niall Quinn and then Roy Keane, we had gone from abysmal to competent but there was a feeling that something was beginning to happen. Our Christmas visitors were our old rivals from West Yorkshire, Leeds United.

They were a dreadful side and the 40,116 who were there that day, must have wondered how on earth they got away with only a 2-0 beating. Under soon to be Newcastle United employee, Dennis Wise, they were awful and were relegated by a mile at the end of the season, but they hung on in this one until David Connolly, a real one season wonder, broke the deadlock in the 65th minute. Grant Leadbitter notched the second as Leeds fans turned on their manager and owner much to the merriment of the Sunderland support.

Finally, no account of Boxing Day games would be complete without a mention of the awful tackle perpetrated on Leon Osman in the Sunderland penalty box in 2011.

The Everton midfielder turned pundit was hacked down in the box and referee Howard Webb pointed immediately to the spot. Up stepped the ever-reliable Leighton Baines to despatch the penalty, cancelling out a rare Jack Colback goal for The Lads,

Webb failed to book or send off the miscreant responsible for the foul due to the fact that Osman had managed to trip himself up in the box and went down in such a way that the vastly experienced referee believed he had been tackled by an opponent. He hadn’t been. He took a kick at the ball, missed it and fell over without a Sunderland player anywhere near him.

No Castellas for Mr Webb!

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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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