Dear readers, I have a confession to make.
While anyone who has had a listen to the podcast (and if that doesn't apply to you - you should be ashamed of yourself, go and play catch up now) may have guessed, gathered or noticed, I'm not from Sunderland.
Nope, and there is even worse to come. I'm about to share a secret that I have never even told the other Roker Reporters... I haven't always supported the Lads either. I know that some will argue that you should never change your allegiance, and I haven't in some respects, as Barnsley FC will always hold a place in my heart, but I couldn't help it. I moved to Sunderland in 2002 and was instantly drawn in by the town, and its love for the team that sits so proudly in the Stadium of Light.
I hope that I can be forgiven for being an outsider, and possibly not up to scratch on everything historically, or before my time, as it were, but I can assure you, I've done my best to catch up, reading everything that I can about Sunderland AFC, watching old videos and celebrating every time I rewatch the '73 final.
However, if you feel you can't forgive me, just remember this, it isn't my fault. Football in Sunderland is like a drug that there will never be enough of. The passion and pride associated with the team, even in its darkest hours, is unbelivable, and the club quite honestly soaked into my bones during my time in the town. I may not be a proper fan, as I can't claim to be Sunderland born and bred, but I'm the closest comparison that you will ever find. I mean, come on, as you will have notice from the date that I moved to Sunderland in, my first season saw the team pick up 19 points, and employ Howard Wilkinson!
And I have of course got this far in my waffling confessions to realise that I am yet to even mention the reason that I'm here, the Tyne-Wear Derby.
Football fans up and down the country will always claim that their derby is the fiercest encounter, the biggest scrap and the most important in the land. Having been to these games elsewhere, i can honestly say that I have never seen anything like Sunderland and Newcastle on my travels. I used to think that Barnsley v Sheffield Wednesday was 'heated', but now I've come to realise that it is barely even lukewarm.
It may well stem back to the fact that this is more than just a sporting rivalry, with the town towns often competing for business and industry many moons ago. There is also the factor that, while the two teams are quite close geographically, they are two fully seperate places. Manchester United and City fans have no business in slagging off their opponent's home, as they probably live on the same street (well, the United fan probably lives in Surrey). The same, however, can't usually be said for fans of the top two North East teams.
I personally have two very different experiences of NE derbies, and certainly treasure one memory rather a lot more than the other.
We all know what the build up to derby day does to us, it turns us into nervous wrecks, as we confidently predict that the Black Cats will pick up all three points, while simutaneously filling our pants that we might get turned over again. Well that summed up my mood perfectly as I got a ticket to see the lads visit St James' Park. There was to be one snag in the plan though, my seat was in and among the Newcastle faithful.
Never in my life have I been gripped with such emotion, that I had to bottle up. It was October of 2005, Stephen Elliot had just scored a screamer, and I was sitting on my hands, trying my hardest not to screech with joy. As tempting as it was, I had seen a bloke two rows down subtly cheering a Sunderland attack moments earlier, and, having been punched in the face, escorted from the ground by the stewards. It was at that point that I knew I had to keep things quiet. However, as Emre curled in the winning free kick, I felt like crying. While those around me flung themselves up in the air, I sat down in a moment of despair. That was also the moment that I knew it was it for my ex and I, as she bumped into me, cheering the strike, I looked at her with a feeling of such repulsion that I knew we could never stay together, well, that and she was a total bitch...
However, that instance did also highlight an obvious downside to having such a bitter rival. The violence. While almost all football fans are happy to not get involved, things are always more likely to flair up when supporters of Newcastle and Sunderland get together. I personally have never been involved in a football-related fight in my 20 years of watching live football, but have seen plenty.
If you try and explain this passion to a none-sports fan, they will look at you as though you are mentally ill. However, the same applies when looking at other sports. Castres (the town where i live) have a supposedly fierce rivalry with nearby Toulouse in rugby union, but you will find their supporters standing side by side during the game, chatting about how things are going and buying each other beer. Admittedly that is more down to the nature of the sport and its fans, rather than the intensity of the rivalry, but it is a world away from the hatred that I've seen at a live Tyne-Wear derby.
Which brings me on to my second, and favourite experience. It's not one that needs much introduction. Again, due to not living in the town by this point, I had to beg for tickets to get to the match, going as far as trusting someone on the now defunct BBC sport forum to sort things for me. I willingly payed money into a stranger's account, knowing full well that I could be being ripped off, all due to the fact that I would, probably, end up with a ticket. In any other walk of life, would we really take that risk? Would you stop a stranger in the street, pass them £40 and ask them to go a buy you the latest copy of Fifa, relying purely on good faith that they wouldn't just stroll away with the cash? Seems unlikely.
However, get the tickets I did, and with a good mate, we made our way to Sunderland, had a beer or five to settle the nerves, and set off to the ground. About four minutes later, we realised that we were positioned two seats, and a line of policemen away from the Mag fans. This could get interesting.
It's safe to say that the atmosphere was both electric and poisonous in equal measures. Goals were met by goading, and in some cases spitting from rival fans, while the obligatory waving of keys was also in full flow. I won't give you a detailed match report here, but let's just say that Kieran Richardson sent us into absolute hysteria, and I've probably never felt joy like that in my life. I've also never got out of a ground so quickly either, as the fights kicked off pretty much in our seats.
So there you have it, that's me, a Barnsley fan by birth in and among the world's greatest fans, taking part in everything associated with the greatest match that Sunderland feature in on an annual basis.
The thing about the Black Cats is, as I said, they seep into your bones. Although I was born in the eighties, I bristled with pride when reading Lance Hardy's tale of the 1973 final, despite living in France, I see every minute of every game, and have all SAFC publications land in my letter box when they become available, and despite being from Barnsley, I'm Sunderland AFC through-and-through. Let's just hope that, come Saturday, each and every one of the eleven heroes that takes to the field for our magnificent club, feels the same way.