Like most Sunderland supporters, I had no choice. I was born into it. A replica home shirt was waiting for me before I'd set eyes on the world. It would turn out to be one of my favourite Sunderland shirts, the Nike one with white sleeves, which we wore in 1985/1986. Well, the design itself remains a favourite, the one I still own - bit small for me now mind you - isn't. In those days, you had to stitch or glue the club badge on yourself and somehow my mother managed to apply it underneath the Nike tick, rather than in the big space on the opposite side. Thanks Mam, classic shirt ruined.
In a way, that shirt and it's badly placed badge sums up supporting the Lads; something always goes wrong. I was born in the middle of the McMenemy era. We struggled to an 18th placed Division Two finish that season, my birthday sandwiched between a draw with Carlisle United and defeat to Huddersfield Town. Worse was to follow in the season after. If I needed any warning of what I had to come as a football supporter in the subsequent 26 years of my life, this was it.
I must have been to Roker Park countless times as a young lad, though my memories of being there are pretty vague. What I do remember is that my dad was a Fulwell Ender, which meant standing up. I know a lot of fans would like the return of terracing in some form or another, but as a pre teen boy, all I wanted to do was sit, in a seat. Instead, I watched - mostly defeats - hoisted on my dad's shoulders or sat on a cement block that jutted out at one side of the stand. I was learning what it meant to be a Sunderland fan, taking in games during the Buxton and Butcher eras. Any happiness I felt at the games had very little to do with what was going on, on the pitch. Bar a handful of seasons, this was to be the way as the years rolled by.
Roker was home to a number of dismal managers during my lifetime but it did also host a number of my favourite players. I've always idolised right backs, as far back as I can remember, and not just Sunderland ones. My Dad was a huge John Kay fan, so I'm holding him accountable. I've heard the story of him "rowing" on the stretcher with his broken leg countless times, and my Sister still harks back to the time she was there when he scored his only goal for us in a reserve match. My Dad still has an ALS t-shirt kicking around the house, with a picture of Kay on and "John Kay, Red and White Tractor" written on it. My first proper idol was Kubicki. I had his name on the back of that pretty hideous teal Avec away shirt, with 26 underneath. To this day, like a number of fans, I still look back with dismay at that record number of consecutive appearances being cruelly snatched away from him by an apparently unaware Peter Reid.
On the back of relegation from the Premier League, Kubicki left and Roker was demolished, as Sunderland moved into a new stadium on the banks of the River Wear. I'm sure I'm not the only supporter who grabbed themselves a token from the site of the old ground. A brick isn't really much of a souvenir I suppose, but it's still housed in my parents' garage. Still not into my teenage years, the Stadium of Light provided the setting for my clearest and happiest memories as a Sunderland fan, where I was delighted to be able to sit down for 90 minutes.
The first four seasons in our new home were incredible. The football was great, and the atmosphere second to none. Who can forget that electric night against Sheffield Utd at home in the play offs? Typical Sunderland was to follow of course, drawing huge numbers down to London only for it all to end in tears at Wembley. That remains my only visit to our national stadium, in either old or new form, leaving me with bittersweet memories of the place. It was almost fitting, given our recent history, that Sunderland would be on the losing side in one of the greatest games ever seen there or anywhere else for that matter. It would be daft to suggest we're in some way unique, but it feels like no other club does highs and lows quite like Sunderland.
Thankfully, a record breaking title win and two seventh placed Premier League seasons followed, including some fantastic games at the Stadium of Light with a standout 4-1 win over Chelsea standing out. It wasn't just the exciting football that was enjoyable in those days though, it was the atmosphere. After a breathtaking 2-2 derby draw, a BBC microphone was blown out and Kieron Dyer is credited with saying, "That's the best atmosphere I've played in. St James' Park is special but this was something else." High praise indeed, coming from a man who was at the time a Newcastle United player.
If there is anything that makes us unique or special, then it is those fans that generated the atmosphere on days like that. Starved of anything for almost 40 years now, bar the odd couple final, we still turn up in our numbers, and we still generate a noise like few others in England. I'm proud to call myself one of the people who is part of regular crowds around the 40k mark. I've heard it mentioned that our average attendance is unrivalled around Europe for a club which has failed to appear in European competition during the last 40 years. Remarkable support, epitomised by those who travelled to Southampton recently, and the two bumper North West crowds I was recently luckily enough to be a part of. You could argue that were it not for our support, we'd be a pretty unremarkable club, in terms of our recent lack of success anyway. We're a huge part of what makes Sunderland AFC what it is and we should be proud of it. I know I am.
I have interests outside of Sunderland too, following football around Europe and the globe. I am an atmosphere junky and would love to attend a Superclásico in Argentina, and have soft spots for a number of smaller clubs all over the place. In fact, I like to think I've taken the Sunderland jinx around Europe. On a trip to Italy, I took a few games in over a weekend, developing a soft spot for Sampdoria after seeing them lose to Inter Milan at home. Of course, they went on to be relegated that season. On a trip to Krakow, I went to a Cracovia game, spotting a rather edgy looking fan in a Sunderland shirt, and lo and behold they were relegated that season too. I attract these clubs it seems, and they attract me. It wouldn't sit right with me to follow one of Europe's biggest sides.
No, life as a Sunderland supporter is all about hope, hope that is usually dashed and crushed. How many clubs have fans who would still turn up in hope after humiliating relegations with record low points? There's certainly one set of fans who do. We'll continue to do so as well. Perhaps we're on the verge of finally being rewarded too. Not with a league win, not even a top 4 finish; no, just to finish in the top 10 and have a couple of cup runs would satisfy us. I don't think it would be greedy to ask for a cup win at some point either, O'Neill knows we've waited long enough. And it's in this man that our current hopes rest with. At last we have a manager who understands us and who is capable of turning the tide. Martin O'Neill knows what it means to be a supporter of this club. From McMenemy to Martin, it's been some journey, with lows outweighing the highs, but I'm enjoying the ride more than ever.
Ha'way the Lads.