BILLY'S CONTRACT does a bit of traitoring

With Pools away at Shrewsbury, and with nothing else to do on the day, I thought I would wander up to Sunderland to catch The Happy 'Ammers.

According to Sunderland's Internettywebby thing, their ticket office closes at one o'clock on match days which meant that I had to set off much earlier than I planned. For old times’ sakes I opted to take the train rather than drive up just for the sheer hell of it...and it was sheer hell.

On the platform at Hartlepool Station there were about eighty people waiting for the Metro Centre/Eldon Square express that would carry them and their unwanted Christmas pressies to said shopping centres. Others on the platform I noted were keenly clutching their HMV, Comet and Jessops gift vouchers perhaps looking for the deal of the century.

The train spluttered into the station ...all two chock a block carriages of it. Standing room only. As we were passing the remains of the Palliser site (Steetley for our younger readers), I engaged in conversation with a lad from the town who was going up to Asda Park (Ashley Sports Direct Arena). Out of curiosity I asked who the Mags were playing, and got the reply of “oh they are away at Norwich, but myself and my son are doing the tour of St James Park.”

I was staggered that not only the someone from Hartlepool was a Plastic Mag, but his knowledge of all things Hartlepool United was nil. He had earlier asked me who Pools new manager is, and where Pools were in the league. At that point I clammed up and took to looking at the caravans as the locomotive, sorry toilet on wheels, passed by Crimdon Dene.

I got into football late in life at around fourteen or fifteen years old, and before getting hooked on Pools, West Ham were my team. As it was not always possible to get to see a team based in London, myself and my mates would arrive at Hartlepool railway station on spec and either blast up to Sunderland or Newcastle just to take a game in, any game (even in those days Middlesbrough was not on the agenda).

"To be fair British Rail or whoever, have spent some money on the place since last I was there if only by putting in 60 watt light bulbs instead of 40 watt." Looking back I have been privileged and honoured even to see the likes of Hurst, Moore and Peters, Best, Law and Charlton, Greaves, Gilzean and Knowles, Bell, Lee and Summerbee, Hunt, Heighway and Tommy Smith. All the greats of the era.

Ironically due to my passion for supporting Pools I will have been lucky to see a couple of dozen Premier league games since its inception, thereby never seeing the modern day greats like Zola, Ronaldo, Van Nistelroy, Torres, Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Gareth Bale, and of course not forgetting Emile Heskey and Darius Vassell.

It must be around thirty years since I set foot in Sunderland Railway station. To me it was foreboding place. I always felt that you would get beaten up there or at the very least that some nutter would push you under an oncoming train. It was and still is an underground station - dark and dank but functional, a bit like the down stairs car park in Middleton Grange without the cars. To be fair British Rail or whoever, have spent some money on the place since last I was there if only by putting in 60 watt light bulbs instead of 40 watt.

Apart from football matches and concerts I have only once ever visited Sunderland and from what I recall I was not impressed, mainly because I spent a considerable amount of my time stuck in a one way system.

First impressions count in any town or city as you leave the railway station. The first thing that greeted me face on was a Greggs, which in fairness I later visited. Neighbouring this well known provider of cholesterol was a parade of shops that made the shops on Northgate on the Headland look like Oxford Street (that’s the one in London, not the one near St Aidan’s church).

Outside one of the Charity Shops was a woman of eastern European origin playing of all things in Sunderland, 'The Blaydon Races' on an accordion. She looked a little surprised that her begging bowl was empty though not as surprised as me.

On the other side of the road there was a chap in his late his thirties well wrapped up against the winter cold holding a placard with an arrow that was pointing to a slot machine arcade. Over his gloved hands to prevent them getting wet he had Tesco carried bags fastened over them with elastic bands. A girl came out of the Arcade and gave him a coffee for which he seemed eternally grateful.

It is only a ten minute walk to The Stadium of Light from the most depressing town centre in the north east, which could have doubled as a film set for a Ridley Scott movie depicting a nuclear conflagration. Match ticket purchased from a humourless Mackem, what was I to do now with a three and a quarter hours to pass in Sunderland? I certainly wasn't going to go back to the town centre!

I had a wander over to view the statue of Bob Stokoe outside the Stadium. Now that is scary. Very scary. For those readers who have not seen it, the statue recaptures the Sunderland manager Bob Stokoe’s celebrations after the final whistle, when he ran on to the Wembley turf after Sunderland's never to be forgotten FA Cup final win over Leeds United. He is wearing a trench coat and a trilby hat which was used to keep his Bobby Charlton combover in place.

The statue as I said earlier can only be described as scary. Unlike say the 'funny' statue of Billy Bremner outside Elland Road, which bears no resemblance at all to the dirty cheating Scottish ankle tapping moaning chewy Leeds captain.

The Bob Stokoe sculpture however is like something from a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. I would best describe the structure as a cross between The Bogeyman and Freddie Kruger pursuing his already doomed victim across some wasteland. The psychotic expression on Stokoe’s cast bronze face is bad enough, but you want to take a look at those long spread out fingers on his hand, something which Edward Scissorhands would have been justly proud of.

Three hours to go before kick-off saw me explore the Railway Museum in Monkwearmouth from top to bottom. This left me with a mere two hours and fifty minutes to kill!

With that I decided to take a stroll to Roker beach which really wasn't worth the effort. Every sea front that I have seen, either home or abroad (excluding The Headland) which faces or backs on to the North Sea is a grey and depressing place, and Roker seafront is no exception.

I resisted the temptation to make a detour to the site of the old Roker Park, as I guessed it would now be a housing estate of some type and I have a rough idea of what they look like.

After around a three and a half mile round trip from Roker I was back at The Stadium of Light. I still had forty five minutes left before the match started. To pass the time I purposely purchased a brew from a burger van outside the ground, which cost £1. I knew I would get ''ripped' inside the ground, which as it turned out charged £2.50 for a cuppa and £3.60 for a pint of John Smiths.

As for the match itself, I had a cracking seat bang on the half way line. The atmosphere I have to say was very good, as Sunderland's Kop has now switched ends so the home fans are now in the old away end. As the stadium roof is lower on that side of the ground it creates a better atmosphere. To be fair to the Sunderland fans they sang for the full ninety minutes...mainly at Kevin Nolan's expense - 'please kick him again' they chanted.

The result. A pedestrian Sunderland team beat, with the exception of Nolan and Joe Cole, a very uninterested West Ham side three nil .It has to be said that Sunderland's first goal was a peach. Their other two goals could be classed as West Ham assists. West Ham's Alou Diarra has to be the slowest player in the whole of the Football League and that is saying something when you see some of the speed merchants we have at The Vic.

One thing for me which put a damper on the match, apart from the result, was that there is little or no physical contact between the players. The referee was blowing for fouls for what we would consider to be run of the mill tackles in League One. The sad thing is that the crowd is now of the same mind. The game is becoming sanitised.

The Sunderland fan sat next to me made a comment about a particular tackle and I told him that would be 'play on in our league.' By the way, guess what I got for Christmas? The 'X' rated video of the Chelsea v Leeds cup final replay. I heard only one player got booked in that match and that was on the production of a death certificate! Former referee Graham Poll recently watched the match, and said that if that match was played today all twenty two players would have been booked and six sent off.

Speaking hypothetically I have wondered, if the good town of Hartlepool did not have a football team which north east team would I follow. Sometimes I lean to the Mags, others the Mackems.

Sunderland always seem to be the better run club, Newcastle have a bigger ground but there is more of an atmosphere at Sunderland, albeit I would say the Mags are more passionate about their team.

Strip wise I have always preferred the black and white stripes of Newcastle to the red and white of Sunderland. One of my all time favourite footballers was Bryan 'Pop' Robson who played for Newcastle ...and Sunderland.

I attended the first leg of The Inter City Fairs Cup final which the Mags won three - one. A great night with a brilliant atmosphere.

When Sunderland played Leeds in the 1972 FA Cup final I shouted myself hoarse for the Mackems. It wasn't so much my love of Sunderland that I cheered them onto victory, but my absolute hatred of Leeds.

Luckily it is a decision I do not have to make as Hartlepool has its own football club even if we are bottom of our league.

After the match I made a mad dash back to Sunderland's salubrious railway station to catch the 17.15 back to civilisation. Got there in time only to see the train pull out. Even the station clock confirmed it had departed two minutes early, obviously the conductor wanted to avoid his carriages full of football supporters.

Whilst waiting for the next train to arrive I got chatting to a West Ham fan from Hartlepool. Rather than discuss the match we got talking about music and uncannily we attended the same three Jethro Tull concerts in the 70's: Sunderland (Aqualung tour) Stockton ABC (Thick as a Brick tour) & Newcastle Odeon (Warchild tour). During our conversation on all things Tull, who should stroll down the Station Platform but David Milliband, after exiting the Grand Central train from London. He would make a great centre half the height of him. It did cross my mind that if 'push came to shove' he probably would push his brother Ed under the next train if he was in the vicinity. I probably would give him a hand!

The train to God's country finally arrived full to the gills with around one hundred people wanting to get on board, and as ever Northern rail only had put two coaches on. Happy days!