Football: 'He was one of us. It is just like being at a death'

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It was already a grey day on Tyneside as the news broke. The grey suddenly turned black as the clouds over St James' Park seemed heavier and the raw wind that little bit colder.

For the hundreds gathered outside it appeared the sun would shine no more. The man they all loved had gone. No one seemed to know why. No one seemed to understand. But they all felt they had to come to the ground.

"I have been crying all the way across here," said 41-year-old Paul Atkinson, a jewellery shop manager in the region's other success story, the Metro Centre and also a season ticket holder.

"I heard it on the local radio. I am totally shocked. Part of the club has died today. I just had to be here. I honestly can't think of anyone who can replace him. He was one of us. It is just like being at a death."

Even the massive club shop had joined in the sombre mood. There were sale signs on the outside and little sign of action inside. Shop staff had apparently been told not to give their reaction. It was a family affair and they were united in their private grief.

The whole mood of the city was the same. Local radio had suddenly become a sound check for the Samaritans, with one distraught caller after another.

Gazing towards the main entrance 66-year-old retired upholsterer Ray Young said. "It is a sad day. But I think Mr Hall has pushed him too far saying you must win something, you must win something. Ferguson went for years without winning anything and now look what's happened."

Standing nearby was Les Clydesdale, aged 58, a television broadcast engineer from the city's desirable Jesmond area. "It is not a big shock," he commented. " He has been very unhappy in the past few weeks so it is not unexpected. He is not the greatest in the world. If you talk to the more knowledgeable supporters he has made tactical mistakes. The sale of Huckerby, no reserve team. But he is still God and I would still like to see him here."

Lunchtime trade in the famous Strawberry Pub only yards from the Gallowgate End had been brisk. "It's been busier than usual but it has been like a wake," said barmaid Joy James (37). Punter Doug Cowx, aged 37 from North Shields, said: "We haven't got the full story yet. He wanted to stay until the end of the season. We should get to the fifth round of the FA Cup at least, we're off to Monaco in March, the League is still anybody's and we have already beaten Man United 5-0. For the moment we are all going to get very, very drunk tonight."

Mrs Alison Wilkins, 31, who had travelled up from Hartlepool as soon as they heard the news, said: "My husband is still waiting outside the ground. We are all very upset. We have even got a cockatiel named Keegan."

Sunderland fan Craig Thompson, aged 26, said: "I am elated. He was supposed to have been the Messiah but he has turned out to be a waste of money. Peter Reid has won as many trophies and that's only the First Division title."