Why Sunderland’s football of 30 years ago should be revered like Batfink

Clive Walker back in 1985
Clive Walker back in 1985
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Nostalgia does strange things to you doesn’t it? You look back at certain times in your life and your mind plays tricks on you making memories brighter, more vivid and positively exaggerated than they actually were, as if your consciousness has slipped a pair of Hunter S. Thompson’s amber-tinted sunglasses over your brain.

The best thing about modern technology though, is that for many of those memories you had as a child, the ones you thought were ace at the time, the ones where your mind allows their legend to grow so much you become that near 40-year-old man telling 20-year-olds everything was better “back in the day”, we now have YouTube to use as evidence to back up what we proclaim, like cartoons such as Jamie and the Magic Torch and Batfink hosing all over Spongebob Squarepants every day of the week.

Len Ashurst with Roger Wylde, Gary Bennett and Clive Walker

Len Ashurst with Roger Wylde, Gary Bennett and Clive Walker

The opposite can be said of football though. I’ve allowed myself, as many others have, to be drawn into thinking that the game is so much better now, than it was when I was a kid, that the modern game is far superior than I remember it.

Of course there have been many great strides made to improve the game but as a spectacle of 90 minutes, we insult ourselves by thinking of today’s game as “better”.

How I quantify “better” might take more than an extra paragraph here, yet I do believe we have been lured into thinking just because the players are quicker, stronger, and the game is played at a higher tempo now, we shouldn’t necessarily see that as evidence of “better”, in the same way because we didn’t have pretentious sounding labels put on the tricks we all tried to replicate in the schoolyard doesn’t mean we were any less sophisticated as players back then either.

Though it is an often mocked notion that football was invented with the advent of the Premier League, many records such as the current one for scoring in consecutive games being held by Ruud van Nistelrooy and Jamie Vardy add to this belief. But if you can remember going to a game during the prior to 1992, you’ll look beyond the dawning of the new age and acknowledge the real holder of that record is Jimmy Dunne, who scored 18 goals in 12 consecutive games between October 24, 1931, and January 1, 1932, for the then top-flight Sheffield United.

If I was a relative of the prolific Irishman who ended that season with 41 goals, I’d be pretty upset that it’s van Nisterooy who has been seen as the leader of an illustrious pack of hot streak strikers and not Jimmy Dunne, a player, if you take a brief look at his career, who is every bit as deserving of all the accolades.

It just doesn’t seem right that Dunne is erased from most reports on the matter. Until now, Sky Sports and Premier League football have been inextricably linked. They WERE the Premier League for 20 years but it doesn’t mean we should ignore what has gone before, particularly since they cover league football extensively too. Don’t think for one minute this is a pop at Sky, but when a player from the Football League, let’s say Middlesborough striker David Nugent for example, goes on a long run of scoring in consecutive games, whose record will they say he’ll be breaking?

They say football is a religion, and in this respect I see the game a bit like Christianity; in those terms you can correlate the beginning of the Premier League with that of the birth of Jesus.

I know, I know, you think I’ve lost the plot taking my analogies too far but hear me out here. The world and religion in its many forms had been around long before JC arrived but from 1AD he took all the attention and fame from the major players from the Old Testament. I’ll stop short of saying William Webb Ellis is football’s Moses, mainly because of the lateness of the hour I’m writing this and my Sunday School knowledge is deserting me.

If you’re wondering where this retrospective, religious train of thought came from, it was triggered by tweets from Andy Dawson (@profanityswan) and Daniel Harris (@DanielHarris) of a Sunderland game from November 24, 1984 against Manchester United at Roker Park. The final score was a 3-2 win which included a red card each for Mark Hughes and my old gaffer, David Hodgson, and a Clive Walker hat-trick.

Watching the footage, which you can find on YouTube by the way, I realised that perhaps the comparisons with religion weren’t so daft after all.

We’ve been brainwashed into thinking that football teams before 1992 were filled with cloggers who kicked the opposition further than they could kick a ball and the odd maverick who had just arrived at the ground before kick off direct from the pub but watching Bryan Robson, Norman Whiteside and Hughes’s link-up play to give United a two goal lead had everything you’d see in a current top team at their devastating best.

And the one and two-touch combination play between Peter Daniel, Colin West and Stan Cummins that brought bought the equalising penalty kick was a joy to behold. This was football worthy of today’s ticket prices, not just the kick and rush story anyone under thirty years old is being sold.

I have to say though, the sending off incident was particularly amusing to me. Hodgson has been a central figure in my career ever since the day he signed me for Darlington, and I know I shouldn’t laugh really, but on more than one occasion in training I felt how sharp his elbows could be and now I know I have at least one thing in common with Mark Hughes, who also walked for his petulant slap in retaliation.

I can’t say it was all beautiful soccer, there was some suspect defending and goalkeeping on show to match the myriad of horrendous haircuts of that time but it reaffirmed my belief that “dinosaurs” we all dismiss so readily, still knew how football should be played.

Guardiola and Wenger didn’t invent the beautiful game but they spread the word, they are the disciples of what is good about the game. There were plenty who went before in our own game, whose names weren’t as exotic as Cruyff and Michels and we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves when we look back on those “dark days” of the eighties.

Watching those highlights kicked off an afternoon’s trawling through other archived footage on YouTube, which led me to a montage of the League Cup run of that year which ended in defeat to Norwich City in the final, and if you want a tenuous link between this week’s football and this column, then I’ll give you one in the form of Crystal Palace. Last Monday’s opponents notably gave us our first away win of the season but they were also the first victims of Len Ashurst’s side’s journey to Wembley.

So if you have two minutes to yourself, see if you can find Roger Wylde’s brace of goals against Palace on YouTube and compare it to the action from Monday night’s game and decide for yourself. Who’s to say that our minds aren’t playing tricks on us and football was better 30 years ago?