Men of Steel at Stadium of Light

It is Sunday morning, 7.40. I enter Huddersfield station an hour and a half before my 9.18 train is due to leave for Newcastle. I hope to find some breakfast and a quiet place to write on my blogpost about the two matches the previous day. But there is nowhere to have a breakfast in the station, and matters go from bad to worse when I look on the departure board and see that 9.18 for Newcastle has been cancelled!

P1260683Next train for Newcastle is 11.18 – and as I have to check-in my suitcase in Newcastle before going on to Sunderland for the afternoon kick-off, what looked like a nice quiet Sunday, suddenly appear stressful. There is, at least, a lady in the otherwise empty station. “I have a ticket for the 9.18 to Newcastle”. “Well, that has been cancelled”, she says in a way that makes it sound as though it is quite normal.

“What do I do then?” I say. “You get on the 9.46 to Scarborough and get off at Leeds and find a train for Newcastle there”. It doesn’t sound convincing. And my lack of conviction must show in my face, because she proceeds to check on her computer. “No, in fact, you should go to York, and catch a connection there.” She prints out a new schedule, according to which I will have 9 spare minutes in York to catch the connection – which will get me to Newcastle 45 minutes late. Still plenty of time to get to the match.

I ask her, if she knows of a place for something to eat. “Try the city centre”. Having just arrived from the city centre, I know McDonald’s is the only open place there, and as I am not that desperate, I head in the opposite direction. It is almost 8 now, and the owner of Café Caledonian is removing the shutters from the windows of the café. I get in as the first customer of the day, and ask for their full breakfast – with coffee rather than tea which is the standard drink for it. “You will have to pay an additional 40p for coffee”. I don’t mind. “The coffee is not ready yet”. I don’t mind that either. I sit at a table and take out my laptop and start writing.

Soon, local customers come along. They chat about the football yesterday – Manchester United against Bournemouth and Huddersfield Town against Newcastle United. None of them have been to the game. But everybody has noticed the heavy police presence, but, fortunately, no trouble. “They are all right, the Newcastle fans” the owner says. “It is only when they have too much to drink, there are problems”. I guess that that may be bad enough. They also talk about Zlatan.

9.15 I go back to the station. Somehow, I have a naïve hope that the train will turn up after all. But it doesn’t. Instead another one has been cancelled. And the Scarborough train is running first 1, then 2, 3, 4 and 5 minutes late. I am beginning to get a bit nervous.

It is like watching the tide. The calculated delay get as far as 7 of the 9 minutes I will have in York, but then it receeds to 6 and finally 5 minutes. That is comforting, and even more so to see that most of the passengers aboard the train, when it finally arrives, are Manchester City supporters travelling to the match. They discuss the delay, but one of the leading characters say in a calm way that “we should be all right”, it is worse for some of their mates who apparently have chosen another route.

As we approach Leeds, however, the train driver tells that this train will terminate here. Passengers for Scarborough have to catch another train, whereas this train 35 minutes later will proceed to Newcastle. I am caught between two minds. Should I try to get the Scarborough train – with a very high risk that it won’t catch the connection in York, leaving me to wait for this train, which may be full of match-going fans by the time it gets to York? Or should I stay and accept that I will be more than an hour delayed?

As all the City fans decide to do the latter, I consider it wisest to follow their example. After all, they have more experience of the Transpennine Express on Sundays than I do. I don’t listen to all the football talk around me, but concentrate on my blog.

P1260943.JPGWe get to Newcastle and cross one of the impressive bridges over the river Tyne, before reaching the station at 12.20. Newcastle really looks a nice place. As we proceed along the station platform, one of the older City supporters, almost as tall of me, takes a photo of the impressive ceiling of the station with his smartphone. The others laugh at him. “He is playing tourist!” He protests. He just thinks that it is beautiful. They laugh even more.

These City fans probably wouldn’t appreciate visiting a good old Archibald Leitch stand. Brought up on carpark architecture, what seems to matter to them is going out for a drink and a match with their mates. I wonder how many English fans actually care about their home ground. I remember talking to a colleague at the Imperial War Museum who was a Colchester United fan. He wouldn’t go to their new ground – everything was spoiled. A City supporter, also from the IWM, didn’t bother to go to the Etihad after the move from Maine Road. A Derby supporter, I met on the train, told me his heart was bleeding, having to leave the Baseball Ground. But he did go the new ground after all.  Maybe it is only a minority of nurdish historians like me who care about it? The thought makes me shatter.

In Newcastle, I have gone for the Jury’s Inn hotel, which is only 5 minutes’ walk from the station. The Jury’s Inns may look the same in every city, but you know that you will always get a decent quality. Back at the station, I buy a British Rail ticket for Sunderland. I am surprised that so few football supporters are on it – but most supporters chose the Metro that goes directly to the Stadium of Light.

P1260689It is a 25 minutes’ ride on the train that takes me to the centre of Sunderland. It is 1.30, 2 and half hours to kick off. By now, I am desperately hungry and thirsty, and as I see a nice little restaurant just before the Wearmouth Bridge, I decide to have a proper meal before venturing out on the bridge. I don’t like heights.

“Elizabeth’s” it is called. The wallpaper is red and white, probably not a coincidence. And the food is good old fashioned English food. At first, I find the main waitress a little frightening. As she approaches my table, she says “what will you have then” in a very business like manner. I go for a roast turkey with lots of gravy, mashed as well as fried potatoes – and a whole range of vegetables, boiled beyond recognition (well, I do recognize the carrots and peas). The waitress, however, is very friendly with the locals. I can see my drink is put on the bar desk, but the waitress is too busy talking to with an elderly lady to bother. After about 5 minutes, the waitress at the bar desk decides that she have better take action herself and bring it to my table “is this for you?”.

At the table next to me, there is a couple in their 70’s. Her hair is smart, she wears her best clothes, makeup, pearls in her ears. He wears a Sunderland replica shirt. I wonder whether this is some sort of compromise. First going to Elizabeth’s for tea with the other ladies. And then going to the match with the lads.

A couple take their little baby into the restaurant, and my waitress is overjoyed. So much so that she smiles and asks me if everything is all right. I feel accepted. But I fear that I have once again got my logistics wrong. How am I to eat a proper pre-match meal at the ground now?P1260688

I cross the Wearmouth Bridge. It is impressive – with a view of the North Sea in the distance.

P1260696It is 20 years since Sunderland moved to the Stadium of Light from their old ground Roker Park. They have really made a great effort to make it their new home. In the streets leading to the ground, the traffic posts are red and white with Sunderland badges, banners with former players’ names hang from the streetlamps, and huge billboards relive great moments in Sunderland’s recent history.

In front of the stadium, there is a huge fanzone, with beer tent, live music, children’s playgrounds etc. Four other tourists ask me to take a photo of them in front of the statue of manager Bob Stokoe, who led Sunderland to a famous FA Cup victory over Leeds in 1973, the first FA Cup final I really remember. Most clubs nowadays have statues of their heroes outside the ground. But the real special thing about Sunderland is the way they commemorate their fans.

The Stadium of Light is built on the site of the former Wearmouth Colliery. Apparently, the name “Stadium of Light” refers to the miners that emerged from the darkness into the light every day. A giant pit wheel from the mine is displayed outside the ground – and on the hillside leading down to the river, the sculptures “Men of steel” show a group of steel robots rolling coal/stones up from the deep. This really is a moving tribute to the men of Sunderland who have worked down the mine, where the stadium now is.

A little closer to the ground, a bronze statue shows a man, a woman, a boy and a girl carrying a football and something that looks like a globe. It is a tribute to the fans who have passed away, whose support is carried on by today’s fans, it says. The statue is fenced in by small ship-shaped brick walls.

Not only does Sunderland tie the history of the site, the miners and the fans together through these art pieces. They also nit their history into it. A bit of Archibald Leitch’s trademark criss cross balconies are displayed in the car park, and decorated gates “Into the light – Ha’away the lads” mark the main entrance to the ground.

I can’t recall seeing such a fine tribute to its community from any other club. But Sunderland also welcome visiting fans, as they have just opened a hotel next to the ground.

P1260708Whereas stadiums from the early 90s such as Millwall’s, Wigan’s, Stoke’s and Huddersfield’s consist of four separate stands, the Stadium of Light is built as a very harmonic, giant bowl. Even though two of the stands have been extended, it still is very harmonic to look at. After a short visit to the club shop, I enter the East stand.

It is not just on the outside, that the stadium looks good. The concourse is really nice. It extends the entire length of the pitch, although a bit curiously, some of it is sectioned off. The family stand is further away, in the corner of the South stand, and the away fans are put in the upper section of the North Stand. So why they have put up a barrier in the middle of the concourse, I don’t know.

P1260778Fans are busy watching the Tottenham-Everton match on the screens. Despite not really being hungry after my meal at Elizabeth’s, I decide I just have to taste the pies in such a good-looking place. I go for the steak ‘n ale pie, and it is pretty good.

The architecture inside the ground is also top class. The way the old and the new extended stands are fitted together is so discreet. And there is a broad gangway running all around the ground, enabling fans to walk all the way around the pitch if they want to. I guess it is made for the sake of wheel chair users. But it adds to the community feeling of the ground. Some seats in the South stand are covered, segregating a section of the stand from the rest. But it is not the away fans standing here, it is the hardcore Sunderland fans, who stand up during the game.

Talking of the fans, I do my customary count of 100 spectators in my session. And it reflects the special community atmosphere. There are no less than 23% women. The only other ground where I have recorded more than 20% is Old Trafford – but only yesterday, there were just 13% women in the Stretford End. A group of seven Asian tourists also see to that the traditional 98 or 99% white audience(apart from Old Trafford) is broken. Quality music is being played over the PA during the warm up. Led Zeppelin and Bob Marley among others. It is nice here in the East Stand, with the early spring sun spreading a bit of warmth.

P1260783.JPGAs the players enter the field, a huge banner with a Jermaine Defoe picture is unfolded in the South stand. The PA system turns to Elvis Presley “Cant’ help falling in love with you” and the crowd joins in on the chorus.

Sunderland are at the foot of the table, whereas Manchester City will go third in the table with a win. It is hard to see how Sunderland are going to get anything from this game. But the players battle, and whenever somebody puts in a sliding tackle, the crowd makes its appreciation heard. City look much the neater side, but it is Sunderland who carry most threat. A shot from Defoe smacks the post, and Borini gets in a couple of headers. But just before half-time a quick break from City, ends with Aguero tapping in a cross at the near post. The City fans really get going after this, whereas the Sunderland fans go quiet.

That is what happens, when you have seen so many disappointments. You lose faith. When City go 2-0 up on another quick break down the other flank 15 minutes into the second half, many of the Sunderland fans have seen enough. They start to leave with. The exodus gathers momentum. By the time, we enter stoppage time, I guess that less than a third of the crowd are still in the ground.

It is quite a different experience to leave the ground today compared to leaving Old Trafford yesterday. Although the attendance is 41.000, the gradual exodus has scattered the crowd. I make my way to the station. There are two metros leaving before the British Rail train. I ask the station security crew if my ticket is valid for the metro. “Well, I think it is on match days, but I would wait for the rail anyway. It is quicker, and the Metro will be crowded when it stops at the ground.”

P1260840So, I wait for the train, and the security man is right. There is plenty of room in this, and it only has one stop before Newcastle. I am about to have a look at the match day programme, when a drama starts to unfold in the seats on the opposite site of the aisle. After showing the conductor his railcard, somehow, a young man manages to drop it – and it falls down through the gaps into the heater.

He crawls on the floor, trying to retrieve it, but to no avail. Then he calls the security crew on the train. “How can I get this off?” he says, and points to the heater. “Well, you can’t. You would have to dismantle it down through the entire wagon”. They suggest that a maybe a screwdriver could dig it out. The conductor comes along. Triumphantly, she pulls a screwdriver out of her back, and the security man tries to locate the card with his torch. But in vain.

The guy explains that he has just renewed the card for a month. So he really needs to get it back. And in fact, how is he to exit the station without a ticket? The conductor discusses the possibilities with him. She could write a note for the station about what had happened, and if he could get a transcript of his bank account, he may be able to get a replacement card.

Suddenly, though she gets an idea. She disappears, but a couple of minutes later, she asks over the public address system: “I know it is an odd question, but does any of our passengers happen to be carrying a pair of tweezers?” A lady comes forward. By now, the security crew have gone patrolling the train, so she has to ask, if anybody has a torch. Another lady steps forward. Still, they can’t really get to it. Then she uses her strength to pull off the seat with loud crack. She rises and shouts down the wagon “it’s all right, everything is fine”. A minute later the guy gets up – holding his railcard high in the air! All the wagon starts clapping and cheering. Finally something to cheer and celebrate in Sunderland! The day ends on a high after all.

Well, for me not quite. I decide to head straight for the hotel to have some food there. But as I wait for it in the bar, the fire alarm goes off. We are all shepherded into the backyard, and have to wait some 10 or 15 minutes before we are allowed to reenter. Judging from the waiting time, I could well have been my food burning in the oven. Certainly, they must have started all over again after the alarm, because it takes quite a while.P1260944.JPG



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