It isn't normally like this at Easter. The long weekend is usually packed with football and traditionally it has been a make or break time for relegation, promotion and title hopes. In the olden days teams would play three games over the Easter weekend, taking a break only for the holy Sunday when all things stopped. It was only from about the late 1970's onwards that the tradition of playing the Good Friday, Easter Saturday and Easter Monday eased up.
Easter, of course, also traditionally marks the start of the ‘T-Shirt football season’, those few weeks in spring when fans can occasionally attend the match without a hat and coat. That is, unless you’re one of those big Geordie lads who whip their lardy bellies out for the cameras every now and again regardless of the weather.
For those stuck in mid table mediocrity and out of any cup competitions, O.B.E (‘Over By Easter’) is the point at which supporters start filling the void left by the absence of any remaining interest in the season by starting to think of what their team needs in the summer and where the club might stage its pre-season shenanigans. O.B.E in the league is, of course, something Sunderland supporters could only dream of in recent years such has been the significance of Easter and the subsequent run in during our now traditional scrape with relegation.
This year, the footballing powers that be have decided such traditions should be done away with so that we can all enjoy a Euro 2016 warm up with some international friendlies. If you’re like me, interest in England and international football has probably been waning since Euro ’96 (if you’re old enough). The complete commercialisation of the England team was achieved several years ago and for supporters of north east clubs, recent international tournaments have been devoid of much local interest such is the apparent ignorance of Messrs Hodgson and his FA chums of anything which goes on outside of London or ManPool*.
(*a mooted name for merging the cities of Manchester and Liverpool in the Northern Powerhouse debate)
So, faced with a quiet Sunderland footballing weekend, WaW looks back at some of the highlights of Easter in years gone by and ponders can history teach us a lesson at this time of the year?
Easter Saturday 1909, April 10th, Sunderland 3 v Newcastle 1
I picked the 1908-1909 season to start with because, even though Newcastle United won the title, it was the year in which one of the most famous Sunderland victories occurred. In December we had visited St James Park and routed the Magpies 9-1. The result and the scoreline have gone down in history as more significant than the Magpie's title in many ways and it will likely never be bettered. The return fixture at Roker Park on Easter Saturday saw another success with Sunderland, trailing to a goal down at half time, running out 3 – 1 winners to do the league double over our neighbours .
Playing in both games was Arthur Bridgett. He had signed from Stoke in January 1903 and scored 108 goals during his 10 year stint with Sunderland. Reputedly Stoke were able to build a new stand thanks to the proceeds of the transfer fee received from Sunderland. He was a Methodist local preacher and he is widely quoted as refusing to play on any religious days including Good Friday and Christmas Day. However, he certainly played a good many Good Friday fixtures for Sunderland and had appeared on Christmas Day in 1906 against Middlesbrough. It was not until 1910, seven years into his Sunderland career, that he felt he could no longer play on holy days and asked the Sunderland directors to be excluded from the upcoming Good Friday fixture. In between his football, Bridgett toured the north east and beyond, preaching and advocating temperance. He was quite a remarkable man and was something of a celebrity, his guest appearances at pulpits locally and nationally attracting newspaper headlines.
Bridgett was part of the first England side to travel abroad, scoring in a six goals to one win against Austria in 1908. After he hung up his leather-playing boots, he went on to manage both North and South Shields, but by 1934 he was back in the pages of the Sunderland Echo and Shipping Gazette for very different reasons. After football, Bridgett had married at the age of 36 and went on to have eight children. He invested his savings in the family business of fishmonger shops which were originally based in Stoke. While he pursued his football career he left the business in the hands of his brother and his sister Once retired from football, he opened a shop in Sunderland because “he thought he had left a reputation behind at Sunderland which might be useful to him in business”. The opening of Stoke market on a Friday for the first time hit his business hard, it being his busiest day of the week and this combined with an “unsatisfactory” manager put in charge of his Sunderland store meant he ended up in debt and ultimately bankrupt.
Easter Monday, 1973, April 30th, Orient 1 v Sunderland 1
Not the most remarkable game or score-line obviously, but this game was Sunderland’s warm up for the FA Cup final taking place the following week. On the Easter Saturday, two days before, Sunderland had faced Blackpool at home in front of 27,000 fans. The following day, the lads travelled to Selsdon Park in Surrey, selected as the club’s Cup Final HQ. After unpacking their cases Sunderland made the short trip to Brisbane Road on the Easter Monday. David Young scored in the second minute but would remain on the bench for the Cup Final five days later.
In the run up to the final, Sunderland’s cup heroes had played seven games in three weeks, including five in nine days. It was only thanks to protestations to the football league that it had not been more, with a game against Cardiff pushed back to May, after the final. Bob Stokoe, in the Echo of April 10th thanked Jimmy Scoular, then Cardiff manager for this offer of help in agreeing to move the fixture. Scoular was a cracker of a character during his playing days, once described as playing as if he hated everyone on the pitch. He had made his debut for Newcastle as a wing-half twenty years earlier in a Tyne Wear derby and was partly responsible for one of the mackem’s favourite taunts as he captained the side that won the Mag’s last major honour, the 1955 FA Cup (and no, we’re not counting the Fairs Cup).
The Easter Monday game fizzled out with Orient grabbing an equaliser ten minutes from time. From a crowd of 9,000 that night to 100,000 at Wembley five days later Sunderland could still only dream of the place in history they would secure when they returned to Selsdon that night.
Easter Monday 1992, April 20th, Sunderland 1 v Middlesbrough 0
Fast forward to the season which included Sunderland’s next ‘underdog’ appearance in an FA Cup Final, 1991-1992. The season was significant in many ways, not least the departure of Marco Gabbiadini in the September and Denis Smith in the December. The Easter weekend saw the visit of local rivals ‘Boro to Roker Park. Sunderland had secured their FA Cup final place three weeks earlier but in the midst of cup fever everyone still had one eye on relegation with the club lingering in nineteenth place in the table. Peter Davenport, signed from Middlesbrough in the summer of 1990, was the hero with the only goal of the game in front of the second biggest crowd of the league season, (Newcastle being the highest). It would be the last win of the season for a Sunderland side who just about did enough to stay up by drawing the next four games. Davenport who had endured a miserable spell at the ‘Boro before signing for the lads scored in front of a decent sized Teesside contingent at the Roker End, wagging his finger at them for good measure.
Good Friday 1999, April 3rd, Sunderland 3 v West Brom 0
The 1998-99 season was a fantastic one to be following Sunderland. Top of the table from mid-October, promotion never seemed to be in doubt. Sunderland welcomed West Brom to the Stadium of Light on Good Friday unbeaten in ten games. A 3-0 win saw us remain unbeaten for the remaining seven games of the season to canter to the First Division title with 105 points, scoring 91 goals in the process. Sunderland destroyed the Baggies that day with two goals from Kevin Phillips either side of a Lee Clark cracker. It should have been more with the lads forcing three corners, hitting the post, forcing two saves from their goalkeeper and having two penalty shouts waved away in the first few minutes. The atmosphere inside the new Stadium of Light was electric and the 41,000 fans started the Easter weekend in buoyant fashion.
Haunted by lessons not learned: Easter at the ‘escape from relegation’ years
Bringing us right up to date, this weekend at least gives us some respite from the desperate relegation threatened Easters of this and the last three seasons. Last year it was Newcastle at home on Easter Sunday when Mr Defoe scored that belter to impart some optimism in Dick Advocaat’s reign which would end up seeing us safe. The season before, Good Friday was the start of Poyet’s great escape with a win over Chelsea having us all starting to believe in miracles. Prior to that, Easter Saturday 2013 was the final straw for Martin O’Neill’s wretched run of eight games without a win when Manchester United beat us 1-0 at home in their most recent title winning season.
If Easter is the point of the season at which we begin to reflect, then this year more than ever the lessons we should have learned last year and the year before and the year before become even starker. It’s only a period of respite which allows us the breathing space to think what another disaster this season has been. We’ve only had one good transfer window since Steve Bruce left us in 2011 and that was the most recent. Only Kaboul, Borini, Van Aanholt and Defoe remain as signings in windows prior to the that who featured last weekend against the Mags. The likes of Fletcher, Graham, Altidore, Giaccherini, Bridcutt, Buckley and Coates are testament to the millions wasted by managers and Sporting Directors who, frankly, were not up to the task.
Things look different this year, the Chief Executive has gone, the Director of Football has gone but has the complacency and mis-management gone? It will be a massive summer for Sunderland. It is still perfectly likely that we will be rebuilding in the Championship. Allardyce would not be drawn recently on whether he has a break clause in his contract with Sunderland should we be relegated. It could be all change at the Stadium of Light but right now, we live in the moment not daring to draw breath and contemplate what comes next. Easter signals a time of hope and once again we spend this weekend desperate for redemption in our bid to retain our Premier League status.