The day an American shared Sunderland joy in Newcastle

Posted by Colin Randall

Alan Shearer rues his penalty miss against Sunderland in 2000GettyImagesAlan Shearer rues his penalty miss against Sunderland in 2000

It is not a feeling I have often known, but walking along Northumberland Street in Newcastle after watching Sunderland win at St James' Park is, if you happened to want such an outcome, one of life's more rewarding experiences.

There are people in my family and among my friends who would quarrel with that description and in principle, of course, they'd be right. I'd still put it up there with - very well, after - such occasions as a wedding day, the births of children and others you may care to nominate.

When Sunday's Tyne-Wear derby comes around, a great American friend of mine, my part-namesake Jim Randall, may cast an eye back across the Atlantic and remember sharing such a moment with me.

It was November 18, 2000, a date that sticks rather embarrassingly in the mind as the last one on which Sunderland managed to beat their fierce local rivals on their own territory. The fact that it was the second such 2-1 victory in successive seasons makes that record seem only slightly less shameful.

There can be no serious argument with the proposition that Newcastle United have, by and large and despite their own ups and downs, been more successful in modern times. Sunderland have more recently won a meaningful trophy, the FA Cup in 1973; Newcastle have fared better in the league.

Sunderland supporters cling to memories, their own or handed down. And they do not get much more handed-down than the result of the equivalent top-tier fixture on December 5, 1908: Newcastle United 1-9 Sunderland. This scoreline was all the more astonishing not because honours were even at half time, but because it occurred in a title-winning season for the Magpies. The return game was closer, though most of us would settle for beating the champions-elect 3-1 win after being behind at the interval.

But back, or rather forward, to Big Jim and the year 2000.

He was a teacher at a United States Air Force base in England. We had met on holiday in Corfu where, standing in what he'd call a line and I call a queue, we discovered we had the same surname. It seems a slim basis for friendship but friends we became.

Jim had other friendships in the UK. He and his partner, Virgina, also an American teacher, were culture vultures determined to make the most of their stay in England. They had signed up as Friends of an assortment of London institutions ranging from the Tate to Wigmore Hall. For the remainder of their time in Suffolk, until I moved abroad and they returned to the States, Jim and Virginia would regularly invite the "London Randalls" to concerts and exhibitions, often insisting on treating us to lunch afterwards.

How on earth could I reciprocate?

I could not hope to match his highbrow pursuits so asked instead: "What would you say if I could get tickets for the Sunderland end at Newcastle?"

Just to be sure, I added that we could stay in a beautiful spot in the Yorkshire Dales before heading south next day. Jim jumped at the chance. The kids he taught would be thrilled, he said, to hear of his encounter with red-hot English football passion. They might favour the big London or North-western clubs but knew exactly who Alan Shearer and Kevin Phillips were. Virginia was just happy to meet up again and smiled at the prospect of a Sunday morning ramble along the banks of the River Swale.

Before the game, Jim and I stood and watched a column of Sunderland fans marching under heavy police escort towards the visitors' entrances to St James' Park. I had to shatter his sense of detached fascination and point out that we were heading for the same location and would sooner or later be deemed in need of similar protection.

The first problem was the turnstile. Jim was of substantial build, notably in a horizontal direction, and could not pass through. Stewards chortled as they opened a side gate for him and we then began the painful ascent to what passes for an away end, somewhere up in the skies above the city. Jim was a sportsman in younger days, playing rugby of all games, but his weight was now an issue and it was for him a breathless climb with occasional pauses. I was much later to take spiteful delight in Sunderland's decision to shunt away fans as high as can be reached in the North Stand of the Stadium of Light; it was an exquisite form of revenge on most of the Premier League clubs and their long-established arrangements for visitors.

The 2000 Tyne-Wear derby began at a high pace, all of it directed towards Thomas Sorensen's goal. I feared Sunderland were about to be thrashed. When Gary Speed scored, it seemed further home goals were inevitable.

But the Newcastle pressure evaporated and Sunderland's second-half revival was sublime. Don Hutchison, though a Geordie, kissed the Sunderland badge when he equalised. Then there came a move that looked so clinical and precise from our lofty perch that I was happy to be up there.

Sorensen caught the ball to break up a Newcastle attack and smartly threw it down the left channel. Alex Rae passed towards Julio Arca whose clever dummy allowed Michael Gray to charge on and deliver a magnificent cross that Niall Quinn converted with a fine header.

Thomas Sorensen and Emmerson Thome celebrate victory over Newcastle
GettyImagesSunderland duo Thomas Sorensen and Emmerson Thome celebrate victory over Newcastle

And the best was still to come. As Sunderland tigerishly defended the 2-1 lead, Newcastle won a late penalty.

Up stepped Shearer. I could not imagine him missing so crucial an opportunity. So worried was I that 2-2 would perhaps become 3-2 in the remaining minutes that I barely considered the possibility of Sorensen actually saving it. But he did and Sunderland had three more points towards a second seventh-top finish running. Nothing better had been achieved in the top flight since the 1950s and it may well be some time before it happens again or is bettered.

That sensation, heading back through the city centre (wisely minus colours) to meet our partners after the game, was - as I described it in Wear Down South, the magazine of the London branch of the Sunderland Supporters' Association, at the time - "like walking on air".

Jim had loved it, too, and couldn't wait to tell the US servicemen's kids all about it in school on the Monday.

Dutifully, our womenfolk asked how it had gone.

"Gee it was fun," said Big Jim. "England's hot shot had a free hit on goal from 10 feet and the stopper blocked it."

Not quite how I would have answered the same question, and not quite the right distance between penalty spot and goal, but his words had succinct charm.

I have no idea how things will go on Sunday, starting at 1pm. Any repeat of the scenario Jim described, with an up-to-date cast but the same winning result for Sunderland, would be a morale-booster of massive proportions. It would not guarantee survival for Sunderland and nor would defeat condemn Paolo Di Canio to failure in his mission as escapologist.

But the supporters, whose passion and commitment are so rarely replicated by the players PDC has inherited, know how important the day is. In the North East, throughout the respective catchment areas of Magpie and Mackem support, people's moods for the ensuing week will be defined by the scoreline. It would be the same if nothing, in the eyes of the football world in general, were at stake.

There'll be plenty of predictions when I write more about the derby at Salut! Sunderland and invite readers to guess the score. Most Sunderland fans will act on loyalty and go for an away win or a draw. Lurking Magpies will suggest a home romp.

Just to show I am not afraid to offer some sort of forecast myself, you may take it from me the match will not finish Newcastle United 1, Sunderland 9. It is a prediction I make often, and I have yet to be proved wrong. But in the event of any away win at all, I fully expect Jim to raise a glass.

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