I have done plenty of match previews before. It will usually involve me rattling off statistics regarding historically how well we have performed against the team in question, who scored the goals in past meetings and who's in form for either side. Don't get me wrong, it's all good fun, but this one is not a regular match preview. It's appropriate because this is not a regular match. This is a cup final. Tell to that to a football fan, more specifically a Sunderland fan and they'll immediately acknowledge the significance of the occasion. For others, a bit of perspective might be useful. This is my personal perspective of supporting Sunderland.
At the age of 6, the play off final in 1998 is my first football memory. I'd been to Roker Park previous to that, on one occasion my dad and I left at half time because I couldn't tolerate the wall of noise on my adolescent ears, the other was the very last game at the ground. I can remember neither of them. What I can remember is that match against Charlton. I remember my family crowded around the television like an Ian Holloway Blackpool side crowded around the opposition goal. I remember wearing full Sunderland kit before it was deemed uncool to do so; that infamous memorable mustard away kit. I remember the weather outside, the silence in the streets, the smell of burnt sausages on that filthy red barbecue that would only come out twice a year, if that. What I remember perhaps more clearly than anything else though was that I simply was not interested in the match.
I did not appreciate the gravity or significance of the game, I did not appreciate the irony of a Sunderland born lad putting three goals past us that afternoon in London and I certainly did not appreciate my dad and my uncle Dave refusing to have a kick about with me in the garden only to stay inside and watch other people having a kick about on the tele. Sound logic I suppose, even for a 6 year old. What I did appreciate however, was when Micky missed that penalty. My mam hovering out of the room, her skin so colourless, so lifeless. My uncle cross legged on the floor, face buried in his hands, that ugly carpet clashing with his red and white bucket hat. Peter Reid with his arm around the shoulder of the unfortunate fall guy, my dad mirroring that gesture with myself. It was a perfect freeze frame of chaos and tragedy, I remember it so vividly because I consider it a milestone in my life, almost a disturbing experience. I thought the world had ended, in retrospect I was probably right. I think that's the first time I realised what it meant to people around here.
It pained me to see my family so distraught, but I think the real pain that day was not attributable to the heartbreak or the emotional exhaustion, I think it was because it was on that day which I physically felt Sunderland AFC force itself under my skin.
Football is deeply rooted in this region's heritage and ethos. The city and the football team are almost as one, almost inseparable. The parallels are infinite. Sunderland is the forgotten city, the novelty city, the wounded underdog city that has slowly bled since the 80s, since before I was even born. A city left to fight for itself after the theft of its industry and identity, the identity which was once reflected in the club badge by a sole ship riding on the crest of the wave. We built that ship and we built this club on the same principles that we still hold true today, the latin that graces our new badge; Consectatio Excellentiae - In pursuit of excellence. Always in pursuit, never grasping it.
Wembley Stadium is excellence personified. In order to play there you must first pursue it, and it is at Wembley that excellence is achieved. I haven't actually been to Wembley in my lifetime, I'm not really interested in seeing England play, and I'd like to say I was secretly waiting for Sunderland to get to Wembley for me to visit the stadium for the first time, but in truth, I didn't think that would ever happen. You see teams like Stoke, Swansea, Wigan and Birmingham get to Wembley, by and large unglamorous mid-table to relegation battling sides. You watch their fans take that infamously long and humbling walk down Wembley Way and wonder; 'why can't that happen to Sunderland?' I could make comparisons to our other trips to Wembley, but Charlton is all I know. When I think about it, it's quite surreal; that day was probably one of the worst days of my life, which probably extends to quite a lot of you and yet we've craved a return to that ground ever since.
Still, 16 years later and here we are. Wembley again. A decade and a half of supporting Sunderland later and I'm back where I started. Wembley. Finally Wembley. 16 years in pursuit of excellence without even seeing the opportunity of excellence present itself, until this one day. 16 gruelling, testing, heartbreaking years for this one day. This one match. My whole lifetime duration of Sunderland fandom in pursuit of excellence encapsulated in an afternoon of football.
This is not the end of my journey, but rather this chapter of my journey supporting Sunderland AFC. For others, this may be the beginning, another 6 year old lad or lass kitted up, semi deflated football under their arm, eyeing the spread their family have prepared rather than watching the madness unfold in front of them on the television, wondering why their dad is tearing up as Wise Men Say roars out from the ocean of red and white shirts in the stands. For better or for worse, this will be the day they realise how much it means to people around here. The day it gets under their skin. The day they find the magic.
Assistant Editor of A Love Supreme