I'm from the West Country. Contrary to popular opinion, it actually isn't a footballing Mecca with teams playing beautiful liquid football scattered liberally throughout the countryside. There are, however, a lot of cows. You win some, you lose some. So, with no decent football teams in the local area, it was very easy for my Mum to tempt me into supporting her hometown club with promises of replica shirts and glory. In fairness to her, I did sometimes get the shirts for birthdays or Christmas, and the glory? Well, I guess one out of two isn't bad. My first game, so far as I can remember, was a 1999 match away at Bristol City, with a late Kevin Phillips penalty snatching the lads a win. I'd love to say that this show of last-minute salvation was a taster for things to come, but I'm talking about Sunderland here. The majority of the rest of my memories of childhood games consistent of trudging away in disappointment from stadiums across the country after defeats, and stopping teary-eyed at service-stations on the drive home. Even the weather would sometimes seem to conspire against me; I remember one home game being snowed off after we had driven for seven hours up to Sunderland to see it.
In many ways I guess I have had a very different experience as a Sunderland fan to most others. Whereas a lot of supporters can remember going to a load of home games and the odd away, for me it was the exact opposite. Living in the South-West, trips to London, Midlands and South Coast clubs were all fairly easy, whereas the trek to the opposite end of the country to see a home game was extremely difficult. This is still a problem for me today, whenever I manage to get up to Sunderland for a match at the Stadium of Light I'm always reminded of how much I love it, and how annoying it is that I can only go a few times a season. My age and location have also meant that sadly I never went to Roker Park; the closest I've come to seeing a game in the old stadium would probably be having a kick about in my great-uncle's back garden in front of his row of seats from the ground.
The phrase that has always summed Sunderland up for me is "it's the hope that kills you". Just when you think the lads have turned a corner and are on an upwards curve, suddenly everything falls apart. In 2010/11 we had the genuinely impressive striking trifecta (to borrow a Man vs. Food-ism) of Darren Bent, Asamoah Gyan and Danny Welbeck. Que injury, betrayal and horrific loss of form. Mid-way through 2011/12 we finally ended up with Martin O'Neill, the fan's choice for Sunderland manager since the last Ice Age. O'Neill proceeded to take us on an unbelievable run of form, with the exciting and explosive winger James McClean being plucked from reserves obscurity and set to Rampage Mode down the left flank, and screamers being howitzered in from every conceivable angle. We also started a Cup run; but yet again the wheels started to come off. Just as I was finalising my plans for a giant back-piece tattoo of the FA Cup with 'SUNDERLAND CHAMPIONS 2012' beneath it, that Everton replay happened and our good form disappeared over the horizon without even a kiss goodbye.
We've had our share of false dawns this season as well, from our impressive summer signings failing to dig us out of the end of last season's slump, to the sucker-punch of last Monday's game against Aston Villa coming after Paolo Di Canio's hugely impressive start as Sunderland manager. Ultimately, you can never trust Sunderland to follow through on the hope we all invest. Just when things are starting to look sunny, you have to suspect that the showers are waiting just out of sight. But, frankly, that just makes those times when we do believe, and when it looks like it is all going to start to change for the better, all the sweeter. I stood in the pub with a Chelsea supporting mate to watch the Champions League final last season. He was obviously deliriously happy that his team won pretty much the highest honour in football at the moment, but I still don't think that had a patch on how I felt when the final whistle blew against Newcastle a few weeks ago, and I finally realised that we had actually done it. If we turned up every week and played like Brazil, then moments like the derby win, and the Everton win the next week, just would not be so overwhelmingly beautiful. We're like a rollercoaster, but in reverse. Without the dull going up bits, you would not get the thrills of plummeting downwards. Likewise with Sunderland - without the gnawing awfulness of when we're on the slide, we wouldn't get to experience the dizzying highs of when we actually appear to be on the up (I don't care what any of you say, that simile makes perfect sense). I think what I'm saying is: just hang on for the ride.
As I walked away from Villa Park last week, I experienced the same pit of misery in my stomach that by now I'm so used to. On the train and in the pub my scarf attracted taunts from various locals ("You lot are awful mate, awful. We're terrible and we absolutely stuffed you"), my phone wouldn't stop buzzing with friends reveling in the apparent hilarity of our defeat, and even the guy in the corner shop started to take the mickey. But it doesn't matter, because we're Sunderland and this is what we do; we defy all expectations, both good and bad, and as fans we get stuck through the wringer week in, week out. But this is a great club, and it's my club, and I'm proud to be a part of it. Hopefully as a writer for Sunderland's finest fan-site I'll be able to contribute more to the fans who make this club what it is.
Keep the faith.