HUGELY respected Sunderland press box veteran Frank Johnson used to have a cautionary piece of advice to any young football reporter kicking his heels and bored waiting around for kick-off.
“Better to arrive two hours early than two minutes late!” he would remind them waspishly, almost threateningly, with a Thick of It narrowing of bushy eyebrows and a warning wag of his pen.
The Northern Echo man was an absolute stickler for time-keeping and never regretted once the minutes waiting – which he saw as minutes avoiding fretting in a traffic queue or delay.
Good advice for any sports reporter.
Yesterday, myself and Echo colleague Chris Young arrived at the Etihad Stadium for Sunderland’s game against Manchester City a full four hours before kick-off.
It turned out to be just enough time!
The journey down had been awkward, the occasional gale force burst against the car, the spells of heavy rain, the white knuckled steer past the HGVs.
But our trip was nothing compared to those that followed.
With red alert weather warnings all along the journey from Sunderland to Manchester, the weather worsened after our arrival and conditions got much, much more dangerous.
A lorry, predictably, jack-knifed on the M62 in the treacherous weather – the three-lane motorway closed in both directions causing enormous snarl-ups.
Radio Newcastle’s Gary Bennett was caught up in it and never made it to the match. Gary Rowell got there but only minutes before the game was called off.
Northern Echo man Scott Wilson, the Chronicle’s James Hunter, the Journal’s Stuart Rayner all arrived, wet, bedraggled, and with tales to tell of horrendous weather conditions.
Behind them were hundreds of stranded fans. One sent a message that it had taken him one hour 45 minutes to get from Junction 26 of the M62 to Junction 24.
Lorne Downey tweeted that he had a coach of 50-plus Sunderland fans all stuck on the M62 near Huddersfield where the accident was that blocked the motorway.
By this stage, the authorities needed to be thinking about cancelling the game. More than just thinking about it, they had to be ready to announce it.
We had walked to the Etihad almost being swept off our feet.
A wall at the stadium had blown down. Programme booths were being bowled over. A window in an executive box had exploded. The corner flags were blowing wildly at 45 degrees.
As news filtered into the Press room about the M62 being blocked in both directions, about the M60 being closed, about Manchester Piccadilly railway station being shut because of emergency rail works, about Manchester airport closed because of damage to a roof, of Virgin trains being cancelled on the mainline, it was obvious the game HAD to be called off.
But it wasn’t. Not just yet.
Eventually the news we had all been waiting for came through, just over an hour before kick-off.
The announcement was swayed by safety concerns from the police and no-one could argue.
“Right decision,” said Sunderland head coach Gus Poyet as his players lingered in the tunnel and the hurricane winds howled outside.
And it was the right decision too.
It was just a shame that the decision could not have been made earlier.
All credit to those who wanted the match on – these things are an always inexact science and the decision made is always a compromise, always a delicate dance between many interested, and often conflicting, parties.
But for the fans who made yesterday’s dangerous journey from Sunderland to Manchester – 15 minutes, 30 minutes, an hour, would have made all the difference.
And they deserved better. They should have been the first consideration.
And the decision made could have been made sooner – certainly 15-30 minutes earlier, as all the weather information mounted up.
It might seem churlish to quibble about quarter-of-an-hour or half-an-hour in such circumstances.
But it is no exaggeration to say it could have made all the difference between life and death.
Hopefully the authorities can learn by what happened last night.
“Right decision,” said Poyet.
It was just a pity that with all the evidence coming in, it could not have been made that little bit sooner.
Fans have got used to being considered last when it comes to the Premier League equation but when it comes to safety, they should always, ALWAYS, be considered first.