LAST Sunday presented the perfect day not just for Sunderland players on the pitch, but those off it too – led by Craig Gardner’s now celebrated trip to St James’s Park.
GRAEME ANDERSON looks at the players past and present who were spectators on a special day for Sunderland.
BY the time suspended Craig Gardner got on the Sunderland team coach after his side’s 3-0 defeat of Newcastle United last Sunday, he was already as much of a hero in the eyes of many fans as any of his team-mates who had given every ounce of energy on the pitch to achieve the club’s best result at St James’s Park for more than 30 years.
Though he understandably chose to head back to Wearside in the company of his jubilant colleagues on the coach, it was his journey to, rather than away from Tyneside, that had made him such a star in the eyes of supporters.
Serving a suspension for the Newcastle game, and this weekend’s game against Everton, Gardner had chosen to go to the derby with the fans after getting the go-ahead from Paolo Di Canio.
“I couldn’t very well deny him, if that is what he wanted to do,” the Italian told the Football Echo.
“I couldn’t say ‘no’ because that was what I once used to do when I was a player and I loved it – I just reminded him to stay safe and out of trouble.”
Gardner travelled to the ground by Metro with Sunderland boxing promoter Phil Jeffries, father of Tony, and it is Phil who took the video on the train which has gone viral on YouTube.
Phil told the Football Echo: “I posted it on my Facebook page but someone put it up on YouTube and it went crackers – I think it has clocked up 70,000 hits so far.
“But it doesn’t surprise me – it’s a funny clip – and you just don’t see players travelling to ground for games like that these days.
“It’s great publicity for Craig and for Sunderland Football Club because players are always getting stick for not caring enough and in his case he just genuinely wanted to enjoy the fan experience of going to a game.
“He had an absolutely fantastic time and I think fans thought it was great that he wanted to go with them.
“He couldn’t have chosen a better game because to be part of that crowd was amazing, especially when the goals went in and then at the end when Di Canio and the players came over.”
Gardner wasn’t the only Sunderland player in the away crowd.
David Meyler, who joined Hull City in the January transfer window after a five-year stay at the Stadium of Light remains as passionate a Black Cats’ fan as you could wish to meet – as does Gavin McCann, who was in the away end with his mate, the former Metro and Sun Fm sports commentator Simon Crabtree.
Crabbers was always a big fan of partisan sports reporting – which reached its high point in the Black Cats 2-1 win at St James Park in November 2000 when he launched into his celebrated ‘Can you hear me Tony Blair...’ tirade.
Commentary on Sunday’s game never quite reached that one-sided level, although in the Press Box you could hear Gary Bennett, former Sunderland skipper now Radio Newcastle summariser, screaming ‘goallllllllll’ with every successful strike.
However with Sunderland legend Niall Quinn commentating for Sky TV and former Black Cats captain Mickey Gray broadcasting for TalkSport, there was also clearly something of an away bias in terms of emotional support if nothing else.
Gray’s reactions to Sunderland’s goals left no-one in any doubt what it meant to him, while Quinn’s responses were not dissimilar and the chairman clearly loved the antics of Paolo Di Canio on the touchline.
The BBC ’s Guy Mowbray, who reported on Sunderland games for years for Metro Radio, was commendably more restrained but you felt you could sense the satisfaction he was getting as he reported on the unfolding drama.
Freeze-frame that Match of the Day coverage when it shows you celebrating Sunderland fans and in the bottom left-hand corner you’ll be able to see Gardner and Jeffries going mental along with the thousands of other fans who enjoyed one of the best days of their sporting lines.
Jeffries said: “As far as Craig goes, he couldn’t have chosen a better day to go to a Sunderland game. It was unbelievable.
“Everyone was on a massive high.
“And that video on the Metro turned out not to be a bad memento of the day – you can tell how much Craig is enjoying it and how much the fans loved him being there.”
•Don’t miss your Football Echo this weekend for the full story of Gardner and Jeffries day and the former Black Cats players on the terraces and the commentary box who enjoyed a Sunderland derby to savour.