Last year, after my dad had died, I stayed holding his hand for about quarter of an hour and then left the nurses to it. In the hospital waiting room I made three calls. The first was to Sunderland Civic Centre to register the death. The second was to the undertakers. And the third was to The Independent to tell them that I was, after all, free to cover Sunderland v Burnley the next day.
I know a lot of people found that odd. To be honest, looking back, it seems odd to me. At the time, though, it seemed perfectly natural.
Part of it, of course, was that I needed something else to do; that I couldn’t bear just to sit at home with my mam, wallowing in that blend of grief and relief that comes after the death of a loved one who has been tormented by illness. Part of it was about honouring my dad’s militant unemotionalism, his insistence on getting on with things no
matter what. And part of it was because football and my dad were so closely related.
That evening, discussing funeral arrangements with the undertaker, I mentioned that the first game Sunderland had played after the death of the great inside-forward Raich Carter had also been against Burnley. I realised that my mam and the undertaker were looking at me strangely, at which it dawned on me what an odd thing it was to know.
I have no idea how I knew it – I certainly don’t have a checklist of first games played after famous player’s deaths – but I’ve looked it up and I was right. It was the kind of detail in which my dad would have delighted.
He was not, in any sense, a talkative man, but on long drives he would regularly, after minutes of silence, ask, “Do you know what happened on this weekend 20 years ago?” and, when my mam and I admitted we didn’t, he’d reveal that it was the anniversary of a Brian Clough goal against Walsall, or of Kevin Arnott’s debut, or of Jim Montgomery’s
save at Huddersfield which, he always maintained, was better than the more famous one in the 1973 FA Cup final.
After Carter’s death, Sunderland and Burnley had played out a scruffy 1-1 draw. They had the decency, at least, to mark my dad’s passing with a comfortable 2-1 win that mathematically confirmed they would not be relegated: nothing flash or extravagant, but proficient and economical, just as my dad would have liked it.
My dad grew up about 200 yards from Roker Park, Sunderland’s old ground, and his mother lived in the same house on Appley Terrace until a few weeks before her death in December 1995. When I was a kid, we often used to go there for tea on a Saturday. When I was six, my dad started to take me to the ground for the last 15-20 minutes of games, sneaking in when they opened the gates to let people out. The first thing I saw was Steve Williams sidefooting an equaliser for Southampton. I’d been to about a dozen games before, a year later, I saw Sunderland score for the first time, Gary Rowell heading in at the back post against Leicester.
Looking back, it occurs to me that we talked about football remarkably little, but then we didn’t really need to. We saw the game the same way, knew what each other was thinking. We both disdained the flashy, both admired calmness and precision and respected deep-lying central midfielders who distributed the ball without fuss. It was only at his funeral that I found out he’d played right-back for his school team: needless to say, that was the position I played for my college side.
When we watched football on television together, we communicated in a series of tuts and grunts. After Sunderland had lost on penalties to Charlton in the 1998 play-off final, following a 4-4 draw, we looked at each other and turned for the exit simultaneously, ignoring Sunderland’s lap of honour. We collected the father of a friend to
whom we’d given a lift, and drove back to Oxford. Only when we met my mam did we realise neither of us had spoken for over two hours (if, by any chance, Mr Wilkinson, you’re reading this, I apologise for our grumpiness).
My gran was cremated on January 6, the day Sunderland played away at Manchester United in the third round of the FA Cup. In the afternoon following the funeral, my dad drove me back to university. As we passed the end of Appley Terrace, Nicky Butt gave United the lead. There was, I think, almost a sense of relief. Neither of us would have said it, but I suspect we had both dreamed of some kind of send-off; this at least punctured those hopes early, and let them gently deflate. But then, in quick succession, Steve Agnew and Craig Russell scored. There may have been a snort at the ridiculousness of it all, but otherwise we were silent, recognising what this could mean. But there are, of course, no fates; there is no guiding force. Football does not hand out sentimental favours. Eric Cantona equalised with a late header and United won the replay.
A few weeks before my dad died, I signed a deal to write a biography of Brian Clough.
His memory was gone by then, ravaged by Alzheimer’s, but when I told him, I saw a flicker in his eyes. “Do you remember Clough?” I asked, talking, to be honest, for the sake of talking; he couldn’t have told me, by then, what day it was or what he’d had for lunch. “Of course I do,” he snapped, and went to talk about a hat-trick Clough had scored against Grimsby. Although I continued to visit every day, that was probably the last “proper” conversation we had.
Why do I bring this up? Well, it comes from trying to explain what being a fan means – to me. I realise this is personal, and I don’t want to suggest there’s a “right” way to be a fan, but supporting Sunderland was never a choice. It just was. I’ve spent a lot of time in Argentina and people, naturally, have asked if I have an Argentinian team. My then-girlfriend and her family are Boca Juniors fans, and so I tried to support them, but the truth was that I didn’t care. I didn’t feel sick with nerves when they took the lead, and I certainly didn’t feel tears pricking at my eyes when I recalled their greatest triumphs.
I don’t really like being so emotional about Sunderland, but I am. And of course it has nothing to do with whichever bunch of players happens to be wearing the candystripes this season. Nothing to do with the manager, the style of play or success. It’s to do with home, and family, and a sense of the club as representative of a strand of belonging stretching back generations. My dad’s last game was the 4-0 defeat to Manchester United on Boxing Day 2007, but in a sense he has been with me at every game I’ve been at since. What I hadn’t realised till last year is that his father, who died before I was born, had been coming with us for years as well.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of an acclaimed history of tactics,Inverting the Pyramid. He is also the editor of The Blizzard.
His biography of Brian Clough, Brian Clough: Nobody Ever Says Thank You is out now.
This article first appeared at the SB Info Plus website