The day they began to pull down Roker Park was a sad one for us all.
The few times I’ve driven down Roker Baths Road I get struck with a strange feeling. It’s confusing because as I turn off Fulwell Road it’s like I’m transported back in time. All at once, every time I got off the bus and walked past the Roker Pie Shop on my way to training races through my mind.
Barry Carmichael picking up a bottle of milk or orange juice from a different doorstep each morning. Drawing lots to see whose turn it was to go and fetch the bacon sandwiches after we’d finished cleaning the boots. Running up to Ladbrokes in the snow to put a coupon on for Gary Owers. Then, as you get to where the ground once stood and you see it’s no longer there, it makes you question whether it ever happened at all.
It wasn’t just some memories of football that died the day the walls came down. There was actually a piece of Roker Park that was all my own. On Valentine’s day 1993, high up on the wall above the players’ entrance, someone had written “DAVID PREECE IS LUSH” in paint. Four and a half years it stood there. Obviously too high up for anyone to take the time to wash it off and too inoffensive for anyone to be bothered anyway. I was quite glad because more than most of my playing achievements at Sunderland, it was a great sense of pride and a great pick-me-up whenever I entered the ground feeling a bit down in the dumps.
That was the same Valentine’s day a big cookie arrived addressed to me with “I LOVE YOU” on it. Forever flattered but more than a bit aware my girlfriend, who was the club’s receptionist at the time, might be a bit peeved by my admirer, I threw it to the rest of the lads to help it disappear, along with my irrationally guilty conscience. A potential fifth degree line of questioning avoided, until I got home of course, when my girlfriend asked me if I’d got anything in the post for Valentine’s Day.
“Nope. Nothing at all,” I said with perhaps too much feigned disappointment. “Really? That’s strange. I sent you one of those big cookies you like with ‘I love you’ on.”. Facepalming wasn’t a much-used phrase back then but it was something I participated in with great regularity. Luckily for me, my feet were half a size smaller than my mouth and fitted perfectly.
In other related Valentine’s stories, there was a lot of love flying about for Jermain Defoe at the North East Sports Writers Awards last Sunday. And rightly so too.
Usually, I reserve my man love for Gianluigi Buffon but it’s difficult not to sit back an admire Jermain. It was apt that on a night that not only celebrates achievements of players on the pitch but recognises the work done off it too, that Jermain was a recipient of the Player of the Year award.
Naturally it was his excellence in front of goal that won him the prize but the main reason we’ve all taken to him like we have is because of his humility and the way he conducts himself outside the 18-yard box. Despite my years in football, I can still be the same as everyone else when it comes to judging books by their covers. Not that I ever thought anything negative of Jermain but after speaking to him you can see there’s a warmth to him and a realness.
Even when saying the right things, you can generally tell when players are just paying lip service to what they have been told to say, or at least what they think they should say. Not Jermain.
The presentations had got off to an emotional start with a long VT of Sir Bobby Robson and the work being done in his name in the fight against cancer.
Jordan Pickford got his rave on and collected his Young Player of the Year award, then it was Jermain’s turn. And he was captivating. The way he spoke about his emotional attachment to the club and the fans made you realise how cynical we can be about the game these days. The whole night was a reminder of the good football can do and the good people within the game stopping it from going completely to hell in a handcart.
It was impossible for the BBC’s Ian Dennis to interview Jermain without mentioning his little mate, Bradley Lowery, and the way he spoke of him showed how much he has become part, not just of Jermain’s life, but all of ours.
As Jermain talked us through Bradley telling him to get into bed with him, pulling his blanket over the both of them and getting the nurse to switch off the light so he could go to sleep cuddling him, it was difficult not to well up.
We’ve had our heroes to worship in their pairs before; Monty and Bob Stokoe, Gabbers and Eric Gates, Super Kev and Quinny, and now we’ve got another pairing who are going to go down in the history of the club. The story of Bradley and Jermain might just be the most touching of them all.
No matter what happens come the season’s end, Jermain is the type of character you want around the club, scoring goals and being a role model for the younger players around him. He might only stand 5’7”, but he’s someone all of us can look up to.