The match in which I fully realised that supporting Sunderland was an exercise in frustration came, perhaps unsurprisingly, during the 15 points season. Walking to The Stadium of Light on a cold night in January to watch a game against Middlesbrough, I felt strangely optimistic. Being in my early teens, I still carried some of the naivety of my childhood years, and genuinely believed that we could stay up. A win against our nearby rivals would surely give us the momentum needed to start a good run of form, and furthermore we had our big, bruising striker Kevin Kyle back from a long-term injury. Of course, what actually occurred was a 3-0 loss in a desperately poor display, followed by the inevitable relegation and I quickly realised that supporting Sunderland would ultimately be a stressful pursuit. Also that Kevin Kyle wasn't actually very good at football.
During the very bad times, it's normal to ask yourself whether it's worth putting so much of yourself into supporting a football club. To ask 'just what is it about Sunderland that's made me stick with them?' Firstly, I was born and I grew up in the city itself. My family, particularly my father, were huge Sunderland fans so, as I imagine is the same with most people reading this, I didn't really have a choice in the matter. From a young age I would follow the matches on Ceefax, before moving up to radio, and then actually going to watch the team in person. My first match was the 1999 League Cup Semi-Final first leg at home to Leicester. We were beaten 2-1 and were later went out of the competition. Coming so close to a Wembley final, only to have our hopes dashed at the final hurdle should have taught me earlier about the futility of expecting success at Sunderland, but I had to wait a little longer to learn that lesson.
Perhaps I also felt an affinity with the team because they were such underdogs. It was hard not to see comparisons between the football club and the city itself, a city that had been in decline throughout most of the 80's and 90's, living on the memories of it's past glories as a thriving industrial city. What better representative for a town that has been let down by countless numbers of councils and politicians than a football team that can contrive to score three own goals in one match. The teams from the 19 and 15 points seasons might have been losers, but by god they were our losers and I was always able to maintain a certain level of self-deprecation and humour while watching those sides. The idea of supporting a larger team seems strange to me. I don't think I'd get anywhere near as much enjoyment out of following Manchester United or Chelsea as I do watching Sunderland. There's certain element of romanticism in supporting the underdog, because on those few occasions when the good times do come around, it feels all the more sweeter, and I have managed to see some of these occasions in my time supporting Sunderland.
If I'm being honest, I've actually had it fairly easy. I was born too late to see the stale years of the early nineties, and generally throughout my time as a supporter, we've either been in the Premier League or the upper reaches of the second tier. As a young kid I got to see the likes of Kevin Phillips and Nicky Summerbee in their pomp in that very good Peter Reid side (I still maintain to this day that Summerbee was just as good a crosser of the ball as Beckham). Just a few months after the afromentioned match against Middlesbrough, Niall Quinn, being the generous man that he is, gave us the gifts of financial backing and never having to hear his punditry again for the next three years, and ever since then being a Sunderland fan has been a lot more hope-filled and enjoyable.
Of course even since then there have been many ups and downs. The scintillating 3-0 win at Chelsea was as stunning as the 5-1 defeat at St. James Park that came just weeks earlier was painful. The poor start to the 2011/2012 season under Steve Bruce was immediately followed by the excellent run of results under O'Neill. Even this season we're only just starting to recover from a difficult start, but would we really expect it to be any other way?
But it's more than just success on the pitch which draws me to Sunderland, and to an extent it's more than just my upbringing too. The atmosphere in the ground is genuinely one of the best in the country, and I have particularly fond memories of the 2007/2008 season, Roy Keane's first as a Premier League manager, where the atmosphere was electric, and the crowd as loud as they've been in my lifetime. The noise during the Tyne and Wear derby that season was deafening, and remains one of my favourite games as a Sunderland fan, despite the fact we only managed a 1-1 draw.
Hearing 'Dance of the Knights' before every home game has always given me goosebumps, and while I'm not superstitious enough to have many pre-match rituals, one of them involves making sure I get to the ground early enough to hear it. My favourite Sunderland memory also involves music; that of listening to 40,000+ Mackems singing Elvis' 'Can't Help Falling in Love' after 2008's 2-1 derby victory over Newcastle. It's hard to think of many games in England that produce the same emotional intensity as that one, and it's certainly one of the plus points of being a Sunderland fan that we get to be a part of that. Even if they aren't always the most pleasurable of experiences.
That is a basic summary of what it is for me to be a Sunderland fan, and I'm looking forward to sharing more of these experiences with you good readers in the future. Hopefully you'll all get to know me a little better through my articles. Basically, if you like someone who'll litter his writing with obscure Simpson's references and who doesn't remember Rade Prica being as bad as everyone makes out, then we'll get along fine. And if we don't then feel free to abuse me on Twitter. These are exciting times to be a Sunderland fan, and I'm please I'll get the chance to write about this period in our history. With Martin O'Neill now at the helm there is a genuine feeling around the club that we might actually be going somewhere this time. And if it goes wrong...well it's not as if, deep down, we weren't expecting it to happen all along anyway.