‘The Open University! I’ve got plenty of time for the Open University!’ This was in the free Park and Ride bus last Sunday, on the way to see Sunderland play Fulham at the Stadium of Light. During my Devonian exile, I’ve had the excuse of distance not to see my hometown team in action, but now they’re only up the road, it is tempting, especially given the parking system. So off I went to see if the team could, after over ten weeks of draws and defeats, make amends. As it happens, it was a) dire, b) rubbish, c) depressing and d) [add your own disillusioned adjective]: reading the papers the next day you got the impression that there was some goalmouth action of some sort. For maybe a minute of the ninety. You have to wonder how Steve Bruce (the manager) is handling the woeful form. His message to the fans later was something along the lines of ‘Not a clue. I may have to pack it in’ , which may be the conclusion his paymasters come to.
But you don’t go to the SoL just to get a hefty and masochistic hit of woe. After all, they’ve not won anything meaningful since 1973 (and before that, 1937, although the 1890s were terrific). One day the 1973 team will die out entirely: Sunderland regularly parades its giant-killing squad on big occasions, and, 37 years later, it’s getting a bit sad. (The numerologists were hoping that since 37 and 73 add up to 110, 2010 might be our year. Not a great piece of mathematical thinking.) Nor do you – and the 40,000 others – go for the freezing weather and the dodgy meat pies. It’s about conversations with strangers.
The man on the bus who mentioned my employers ranged intimately over many subjects, including the likelihood of a new Falklands war, and it’s part of the pleasure to join in the banter. Sunderland is filled with talkative gurus. The man next to me as we watched the farrago – does Kenwyne Jones think the ball will come to him by magic and that he has time to dither over it? – kept up a running commentary, addressed to each and every player, for the full 90 minutes. It was almost worth the price of the ticket. He should have been the manager. He should probably have been on the pitch.
Sunderland 0, Fulham 0. It was good to be back.