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SUNDERLAND was a tough one. Character required. I wanted nothing more than a nice day under the duvet watching films with my wife before we all went back to work. An alarm that said six something wasn’t exactly what I needed. I got up at 3:30pm after Manchester City on New Year’s Day and by 4:30pm I was picking up the nine-seater for Sunderland. Something has gone wrong there, hasn’t it?

Dan Austin is first pick up at an arranged time of 7:15. At 7:20 I was still de-icing the car, cursing my life and wondering if I can just turn my phone off and go back to bed. I scraped just about enough to see the road and got on my way, knowing Rob would be texting any minute.

I picked everyone up slightly late, but we were still on the motorway just after 8am, which felt like a win. The troop for this one was Dan, The Gutmann man and boys, Neil Atkinson, Adam Melia, Ally McGovern and Steve Graves.

The first part of the journey was sleepy, save for mild disagreements over where we are stopping for breakfast and how far we wanted to go first. We settled on Hartshead Moor Services, which was a resounding disappointment. It felt like a real failure for democracy, and an early win for the benefits of the Rob Gutmann dictatorship. Although, given that Rob wanted to stop at Sandbach services close to 25 miles down the M6 and in the wrong direction, maybe his decisions aren’t perfect either.

All told, what we did manage to grab food and drink wise energised us and soon spirits — and indeed wine and beer — were high. Adam took over the driving, Steve Graves was on DJing duty and suddenly everything was possible. It’s amazing what a bacon butty can do. Well, that and swapping a steering wheel for a bottle of lager.

We suddenly realised we were making too good time and would be in Sunderland around 11. Not sure what time the pubs opened there, we decided to stop in Hetton Le Hole, just south of Sunderland and most famously the birthplace of Bob Paisley — the fella who won loads of trophies. Hetton has two great things. One is a monument to Liverpool’s great manager. We got a picture.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BOwq1BVhKLX/?taken-by=theanfieldwrap&hl=en

The other is a brilliant working men’s club, aptly named Victory. Liverpool fans always get a warm welcome in there. Possibly to do with the friendly nature of the locals and possibly to do with the amount Liverpool fans traditionally put behind a bar. It’s a great place, though, and we were sad to leave. Especially when the Irregular Bus turned up with loads of familiar faces. But Rob had booked us in for lunch.

We arrived at the surprisingly named Ship ISIS pub to find a lovely looking dining area that was closed. We enquired behind the bar, where Rob insists he had made a booking but they said they had no record of it. However, they do give us the chef’s number if we wanted to ring him and see if he would come in. Conscious of the time we politely declined getting a chef out of bed to come and cook for us. I doubt he’d have been in the mood.

By then, Sunderland fan Steve Goldsmith, of Coach Home fame, had arrived. We had a drink with him and he gave us some tips on where we could go to get lunch before the game. Neil thanked him by spilling white wine on his coat. I think Steve and his Mackem mates were suspicious enough of the white wine before a match without wearing it.

We went with Steve to a burger and beer place called 2 Church Lane which is exceptional. It didn’t look like they were going to be able to fit us but suddenly everything came together and we had been fed and watered in no time. Go ‘ed Sunderland.

I wanted to stay and drink their Vedett forever but there was a football match, and that. It had suddenly got very cold outside, to the extent that it was a very tempting option to go back. I tried to buy a red and white hat but they all had Sunderland on, which isn’t really on-message. So we just went in and climbed all the stairs.

Next season Premier League teams won’t be allowed to shove away fans as high as possible, they have to be pitchside rather than up in the gods away from the action. Newcastle do it too, scared you might try and cheer your team on more effectively. In fact, come to think of it, Middlesbrough have moved the away fans too. Now I’m not calling the entire North East shithouses here, but I’m glad they are being forced to change.

But for now we have the climb and the terrible, terrible jokes they put up the stairs to cheer you up. Think of the worst jokes you can think of about football and height. Now see if they are worse than “nine more steps, or one for Peter Crouch” and “this is how high Chris Waddle’s penalty went in 1990”. Worse than you could have imagined, aren’t they? Like taking a lovely walk through Jimmy Tarbuck’s joke book.

SUNDERLAND, ENGLAND - Monday, January 2, 2017: Floodlights on the roof of Sunderland's Stadium of Light during the FA Premier League match against Liverpool. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

We were on row four of the upper tier. Or row one as it effectively is. They have kept the first three rows clear to stop you throwing things over. They are literally losing money as a football club rather than putting away fans in the lower tier. I tell you what though, their home form speaks for itself.

Our row was absolutely packed. It appeared that everyone I know had decided where they were was a bit rubbish and had come to stand by me. There was nowhere to go. I’m all for a tight three, but that was ridiculous. I think at one point I had Gary Ward on my feet and Mick Clarke on my shoulders. When Daniel Sturridge scored I just ended up falling back and having a bit of a lean on the seat. Not the best celebration of all time, but that is where the momentum took me. The only time there was any space was when everyone cleared off for a pint. I celebrated my new found space by clearing off for a pint as well. Well, they’d scored by then. And the bar was two floors down.

You saw what happened next. You got angry with the referee too. Although I doubt as much as Atkinson, who had he been closer might have made Anthony Taylor cry. People were dejected on the way out. And cold. Very, very cold. We then had a drive to York to have fun.

I’m sure when we planned a night out in York on the way home it was going to be a top-of-the-table celebration. Instead it was a longer-than-you-thought drive to a Monday night in York. And we had to do the bloody Pink when we got there. Steve tried his best on the wheels of steel, or his phone and a bluetooth connection, and we drank loads of wine.

Once there, we recorded the bloody Pink and it was off out. York has loads of great pubs, they are excellent at them. We found one called Ye Olde Starre Inne, which contains more letters in it’s name than necessary, but was still serving food. The mood was still downbeat. Not helped by the fact that everyone wanted to talk about the worst draws in Liverpool’s history. Which was an awful topic of conversation.

“Hey everyone, when have you been most depressed?”

“Not sure but let me think!”

SUNDERLAND, ENGLAND - Monday, January 2, 2017: Liverpool's manager Jürgen Klopp argues with referee Anthony Taylor after he awarded Sunderland two penalties to give them two equalising goals for a 2-2 draw during the FA Premier League match at the Stadium of Light. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

I’m not sure what saved the night from ruin but I’m pretty sure it was Blurred Lines. It came on and I commented that the song seemed to be back. Rob said he’d never heard it. I said: “Yes you have, it’s Blurred Lines.”

He said: “Never heard of it. What’s it called, Red Line?”

I’m incredulous by this. Rob has just turned 50. He owns bars that play music. He has an active interest in music and indeed naked women. He follows current events. Yet he missed…

– The song Blurred Lines coming out and being everywhere
– The video to Blurred Lines coming out and the Emily Ratajkowski phenomenon
– Everyone realising the song was a bit rapey
– The very public outcry against it
Several universities banning it
Marvin Gaye’s estate suing them for copyright and winning in a landmark case
Robin Thicke admitting he hadn’t written any of it because he was too off his face on drugs

The above conversations contain a lot of buzzwords for Rob but he missed the lot. Doing what I ask? I can only guess watching YouTube videos of players Liverpool aren’t going to buy takes a lot more time than I thought.

Anyway, after that we were flying. We won £3 on a quiz machine. We found a bar called House Of The Trembling Madness which is above a liquor shop and somehow sells brilliant wine for £12.95 a bottle. There were actual flapper girls in there just having a drink. I mean they had probably been to work or something, but still. It really added to the ambience. Just as much as all the stuffed animal heads, that Rob was able to reel off the market value of.

From there, me, Adam and Dan Austin went to Stone Roses Bar. A bar which was as indie as it sounds. Everyone was very indie, but it was a lot of fun. The cocktails were named after Beatles and the barman was drunker than us. Well, maybe not Dan. Dan was too drunk to drink. He was pretty much too drunk to talk. Yet, despite all these barriers that would hinder lesser men, he still managed to pull on the way out. Now sometimes, you just have to take your hat off.

Hey, hey, hey!

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