Having secured the final piece of documentation in Part One (that vital 'one year' passport) on a frantic Friday before departure, it was then off to GGL on the Saturday afternoon with fingers crossed. Not so much for the result, but that the players avoided injury against a bunch of bruisers from Tilbury way. John Rains, as he so often did, scored as U’s won 1-0 against the Dockers to consolidate a mid-table Isthmian League position.
With domestic duties over for a week, the excitement began to ramp up over the following hours and a very boring Sunday - weren’t they all boring back then? – was made less so by preparing for my first ever trip to foreign climes. Not that much prep was actually needed. An old army style rucksack can only hold so much and travelling light was going to be the order of this trip. Spare undies and socks of course, a couple of shirts folded neatly, which proved pointless and food. Yes, food. This was going to be a four day marathon where I would be relying on my own rations. You see, all that mysterious foreign fodder was a no, no and I'll admit my palate has changed little over the years. Therefore it was copious rounds of sandwiches (ham and cheese) along with an obligatory helping of spring onion to stave off scurvy. The cheese and onion variety would later become legendary.
A quick few hours spent at the girlfriend’s house helped Sunday pass by and Monday arrived with the anticipation mounting up further. An early evening train to Victoria from Sutton was the start of the journey and I left home in good time calling for another of my fellow travellers on the way. JC, another recent guest blogger here on Gandermonium, was a more seasoned traveller than I, having been going abroad for holidays for a number of years; there'd be no stack of sarnies for him, his more educated palate was well up for this one.
Welly Waite, Coronation Man and MK joined us at Sutton station. If memory serves right (which I have to say isn’t always the case) the other two of the Magnificent Seven, PT and LB, the latter the only lady of the group, met us at Victoria.
From Victoria it was a rattler down to Folkestone to pick up the overnight ferry to Oostende. Yes, back then Dover wasn’t the only south coast port offering such services. According to my ticket we caught the 2144 from Victoria and then the 2345 ferry arriving in Oostende at a delightful 0400. A couple of beers and a few zeds were grabbed on the night crossing over, as well as the all important 200 duty-free Rothmans. A habit that I only kicked, albeit for a vape instead, just three years ago and such are my lungs now, that this has led me into self-imposed isolation for the foreseeable. Twat.
The next leg was Oostende to Brussels Midi. This train left around 0530 and would take just over the hour. It was a commuter train and we must have looked well out of place alongside the factory workers and other manually employed who appeared to populate the service. Certainly no comfort was offered and an hour sat on those hard wooden benches was more than enough for my tender, young cheeks. Christ knows what it did for Coronation Man’s gathering medical issues in that area or perhaps it is this that started them off. I am sure he will be well happy that I have shared this on an internet website, but then again this is as good a site as any for revealing that sort of information.
The wait in Brussels was a good two hours, so we ventured out of the station to catch a few glimpses of some cobbled streets and trams (a form of conveyance not seen in our neck of the globe for some years). In fact, only Welly could actually recall them and trolley-buses; he also recalled rationing that was still in place in the early 1950’s. Yep, comparatively speaking, he’s fucking old is Welly.
Underneath the platforms we grabbed - to blatantly steal from Totts - a morning cup of splosh and watched the Belgium capital’s workers rush around as they headed for a day’s toil. With our departure fast arriving we headed up the steps to the platform to watch this huge (in length) train roll in. Destination Milan. The train looked little different to the ones seen used in the film 'The Great Escape'. All dark Green carriages with corridors. There was a drab buffet car that would soon be labelled the “Shant Wagon”, using Welly’s favourite term for beer. This train was to be our home for the next thirteen and a half hours and would travel through Luxembourg, France and Switzerland no less before crossing finally into Italy. Having never seen Europe before, I was certainly going to get a decent view of it on this trip.
We found an empty compartment and settled down to enjoy the view which would become, not surprisingly, superb in the early evening light as we headed towards The Alps. That was a long way off though and some of us dozed while the others talked crap whilst taking in the views of the countryside and various small towns. It was probably somewhere between Strasbourg and Colmar that Coronation Man decided a proper cup of English splosh was in order. Our tickets had been checked already, but while one kept watch for the guard, CM unzipped his bag and produced his one ring camping stove. Balanced on its source of heat, he lit the ring and placed a small saucepan of water upon it and sat back to await his brew.
Now, I am unsure of the health and safety rules on trans-European trains back then but whilst probably not as draconian as they no doubt are now, I suspect this was still a flagrant breach of some sort or other. Looking back now, what could have gone wrong with this setup is somewhat alarming. A hot pan of water precariously nestling on a lit primus stove in a train carriage gently rocking its way south across Europe; a sudden bit of dodgy rail such as is experienced south of Gatwick on the Brighton line and the bloody compartment would probably have been awash with boiling water or worse still, ablaze and us looking at a stretch in some French jail. And I hate garlic. I also suspect that, being a fresh-faced 17 year old, that the seasoning in my gruel would have been the least of my concerns and indeed, discomfort.
Fortunately, none of those bad things occurred and a decent cup of PG was had by those in need. In fact the worst trouble we got into was at one point the guard ticking us off for having our stocking feet on the seats. A bit harsh when you consider the British trait of filthy footwear on tube seats being a rather common occurrence. In some ways, a proportion of our society really are fucking arseholes.
Into Switzerland, we passed Basel’s football ground, a venue at which I would see Fulham qualify for the knockout stages of the Europa League some 31 years later. The Alps approached before we then headed underground to travel literally through the iconic mountains. For the life of me, I cannot recall the name of the tunnel but we were underneath thousands of tonnes of rock for quite some time. An amazing feat of engineering, but since they have built the Large Hadron Collider and the world’s longest road and rail tunnel in the interim, I guess it was just par for the Swiss.
Emerging the other side, we eventually crawled over the border into northern Italy, now in darkness. I was a naïve seventeen year old and both I and Coro Man had some sense of foreboding at this point (can you imagine if we were doing this trip now!!). Italy was to us, at that time, full of potential evils. What irrational knobheads.
Arriving at Milan Centrale we had another hour’s wait before the next leg of an eight hour overnight journey to Rome. And this wasn’t going to be quite so comfortable. April 25th, the day of the final itself, was also Liberation Day in Italy and all roads led to Rome. Liberation Day marks the fall of Mussolini and the end of Nazi occupation and it seemed that the whole of the country was getting on our overnight service to the capital.
For a good four plus hours we stood in the corridor along with the natives, one even managed to squeeze into the luggage rack for a kip. Probably a circus contortionist in his spare time. Having been travelling now for 24 hours, it was hardly what any of us was expecting or needed. Fortunately the train half emptied at Firenze and some valuable shut-eye was finally and gleefully taken.
Into Rome and a very quick turn round here to buy a return ticket to Chieti (which was not covered by our £40 outlay to our friends at Transalpino) and then yet another four hour journey across the more rural parts of mid-Italy where a new game was born to pass the time. It was called “Spot the Hovel”, because some of the dwellings we saw out of the window along the way looked not much more than stone crofts used for sheltering animals. Five of us had managed to claim one compartment, with a single surly looking Italian our travelling companion. He probably wasn’t surly at all, but just tired and to be honest I shouldn’t think his description of us bedraggled, stinking Brits would have been any more polite. And he’d have a had point.
We finally arrived into Chieti around mid-day and soon all were taking lunch in a nearby restaurant. Well, all but me who, with his aversion to anything foreign, stood outside tucking into the last of my stack of ham and spring onion sarnies. Lovely. Still, I wasn't completely ignorant to the ways of the locals, dining as I was, alfresco, as they say in these parts.
The ground was a twenty minute walk from the station and we arrived to applause from those Sutton fans who had taken the shorter, easier and more expensive flight option. The team soon rocked up and we all applauded them off their coach. The ground, the 'Guido Angelini', was a large oval with one covered area down the touchline. The back drop was impressive, with green hills with some grand looking villas perched precariously and dotted around amongst them.
Now, I hate carnivals, processions and the like so the pre-match pageantry out on the pitch pretty much passed me by. I was only there for one thing after all, the football, and the rest, as far as I was concerned was just nonsense. People who are attracted to the Lord Mayor’s Show or similar, to me, must have some void in their life. I know charities do well out of such events but that doesn’t stop me thinking “what a load of old shit”. No doubt such people would argue my fifty year obsession with SUFC is no different. And, to be fair, they probably have a point. Still, fuck ‘em.
So, I suppose I ought to talk about the match at some stage? Even the Gandermonium regulars usually manage that much.
Sutton United FC: Collyer, T Rains, Jablonski, J Rains, Dyer, Fraser (Stephens), Walden, Pritchard, McKinnon, Harris (Joyce), Southam
The FA had allowed Sutton to wear the full England kit for the occasion – a nice touch. Now, anyone who knows their football history will be aware of the outcome, but I'll run through it one more time for the less well educated. Following a fine first half where late goals from Bobby Southam and John Rains gave U’s a deserved two goal advantage, the hosts roared on by a near 8,000 crowd pushed hard after the break, scored one but couldn’t force extra-time. The Swiss ref officiating (of course he was Swiss!) had an odd afternoon. He gave Sutton everything in the first half, including turning down a blatant penalty for the hosts in the first minute, before favouring them heavily after the break. One thing about Chieti was they never really resorted to some of the worst of Italian football of that era that we'd seen in the qualifying rounds. What some might call the “dark arts” or others just street thuggery, where an off the ball punch or kick to an opponent was fine and dandy. It took me a long time thereafter to respect Italian football and the fact that one Anglo-Italian purposely tried to break my leg one Sunday afternoon a few years later certainly added to that lack of appreciation. Fucking tosser.
So, now for my not so big reveal. From the start of the trip I had this massive gut feeling that Sutton would win. To me it was inevitable, although I kept it quiet until after the match. When it comes to Sutton I am normally glass half empty, so I was not surprised by the victory but ecstatic all the same. I have only experienced that feeling so strongly on one other occasion and that came true too, although a far more sombre occasion.
When the ref blew for time we of course went radio rental. Thirty of us surrounded by hoards of locals who had turned up expecting their heroes to whip these English pretenders. With no bubbly on offer, Welly poured some Scotch he just so happened to have about his person into the trophy as a substitute and the unknowing John Rains took a couple of big gulps before realising!
Despite the celebrations, we had to shoot off pretty quick after the match to catch the train home, mainly to ensure we were back in time for the local derby against Carshalton. We had no bother making it, but learned later that one U's fan, travelling solo, got a kicking on the way back to the station. The way home was going to be a long one, but there would at least be enough time to ponder, contemplate and absorb that we had made a tremendous effort to watch SUFC make football history.
On the way back we learnt from a large, well-dressed, Swiss gent that Nottingham Forest had won 1-0 in Cologne to reach the European Cup Final. There they would defeat Malmo in the final and that would be the destination for the following season for U’s then victorious manager, Keith Blunt.
The cheese and onion sarnies also made their final appearance on the way back. Over three days since they had seen the inside of fridge; they were a dripping, stinking mess by now. They tasted wonderful, although I believe some of my fellow travellers didn’t quite appreciate them as much. The journey home back through Europe was far more comfortable, with no packed trains or commuters.
Our arrival back in Blighty coincided with the morning rush hour and as “we” were on strike for the Friday afternoon I opted to go straight into work. To say I was unkempt was an under-statement. No proper wash for four days, bum fluff doing its upmost to form a five o’clock shadow on my chin- more 'just before mid-day' in my case – and greasy, lank hair was what greeted the big boss’s immaculately turned out secretary when I bowled in. The look of disgust I got from her was well earned. Any attempts to rectify the situation in the gents’ bogs failed miserably and the four hours I “worked” naturally crawled by. An anti-climactic end to a truly wonderful week! I popped into my old school that afternoon and the girlfriend was rather cool with me and a few days later I was dumped for a younger (by a year) model. Thus I learned how a massive high could be rapidly pulled down into the depths without the need for any chemicals stimulus.
Still, not many non-league fans can boast they have seen their team win a one-off cup final on foreign soil. Even fewer can do so following a train journey of epic proportions. Seven of us can say we did and should be rightly proud. The memories have certainly stayed with us for many a year.
It would be remiss of me not to mention how brilliantly the train network across Europe worked back then, as any slight hiccup would have had severe ramifications for us in making the game. Not sure I would have trusted BR back then or indeed any of the current private operators forced upon us now to have performed so well over such a distance.
Since that wonderful afternoon in April 1979, I have seen Sutton defeat Coventry in the FA Cup, reach the fifth round of that same competition and host Arsenal in it. Five league titles have been won and countless other cups too along the way but this trip, this magnificent historic victory, will always be my number one favourite memory. It was the culmination of a month of excitement and change for me.
If I could go back, I’d of course do it all again but hopefully with a little bit more nous than I had back then, which wouldn't be that hard because at that point I had fuck all.
Huge thanks to Frakey for this! And also an equally huge thank you to Welly "I've never been called a responsible adult before" Waite for supplying the majority of the pictures on this opus. So, fancy featuring on the pages of this absolute shit show yourself? Drop us a line. We're far from a closed shop and if you've got something interesting to tell, read a football book you want to review or even fancy taking the plunge headlong down the rabbit hole and doing a match blog, let us know.