I’m looking down at a huge Sunderland badge floating across a stand of supporters. It ripples from corner to corner as hundreds of fans reach up and pull it across them. A surfer flag, they call it, and the name couldn’t be more apt. Like a surfer, the flag rides the wave of supporters with only the force of the tide to keep it moving. The water is steady and kind, and the huge canvas drifts across the bank of red and white shirts behind the goal before making its way around the corner of the Sunderland end, never once showing signs of faltering, never once showing signs of falling. Things like this don’t happen to Sunderland very often, reaching Wembley finals, and so whatever the outcome today, it’s going to be special.
I travelled a long way to get here today, but Sunderland AFC have travelled even further. After triumphing in the earlier rounds, the Lads had to overcome Southampton, Chelsea in extra time, and Manchester United over two legs and penalties to be able to call themselves finalists today. But the work started long before that. Sunderland haven’t won a major trophy since 1973, and though they’ve reached finals since then, they’ve never once looked like winning. I came here, or at least to the old Wembley, in 1998 to see Sunderland lose the greatest play-off final ever contested, though it didn’t feel so great to me.
I cried when Michael Gray missed his penalty, and my dad had to console me as I sobbed into his chest, tell me that we’d be back again one day, though I never believed him. When we left the ground, I saw Sunderland fans smiling and joking with Charlton fans, and I asked my dad how they could take it on the chin like that, how they could accept defeat so soon after the event. He told me it’s because we’re Sunderland fans, and falling at the last hurdle is something we’re used to. He told me that even though we lost the match, we could be proud of how our team played, and that we could be grateful for the experience. He said that even though it felt like the world was ending, it was merely a new beginning. Learn from it, he said, we’d found another way to fail. Maybe the next time we came to Wembley, we’d find a way to win. I’m looking at my dad now, standing two seats away from me, and he’s smiling from ear to ear. It’s so good to have my family here with me to share this incredible occasion, and I owe that to John.
Today could potentially be the greatest day of my life. When I took that walk down Wembley Way with my family either side of me, I didn’t expect to find John waiting for me, shaking like a leaf, with a ring in his hand. In view of thousands of people, he got down on one knee and proposed to me. I couldn’t believe it. It’s something I’ve always dreamed of him doing, but never expected it to happen, especially not in these circumstances. It was so unexpected. People stopped to look at us, and take pictures on their phones. We’ve spent the full weekend together, and he’s had every opportunity to do it while we’ve been alone, but he waited until now. Until the busiest part of the weekend, where everyone could see it, including my family. It’s the most romantic thing anyone has ever done for me, and I didn’t even need to consider my answer. I’m holding my hand out and looking at the diamond-encrusted platinum ring that sits proudly on my finger, and my mam catches me doing so. She’s been crying ever since it happened, and seeing her look at me with such pride and happiness sets me off again. I hug my mam, and then Beth joins in as well. We’re at a cup final, and we’re crying before the game has even started.
John Foster is the love of my life. I met him on Halloween night in 2010, and while I didn’t believe in love at first sight, I can only concede that it does exist; I experienced it myself. John charmed me instantly, and even though we’ve had some tough times along the way in our relationship, we’ve never been closer together than we are now. John’s such a handsome man, and he works so hard. He’s everything a girl would want in a partner. I just wish he could be more open with me, and feel comfortable talking about what he’s thinking. Part of my attraction to him is how thoughtful and mysterious he can be, but sometimes I think that he could be much happier if he just talked about the things he was going through. He keeps everything bottled up, and after all that he’s been through, it can’t be healthy. I’m looking around to see where he is, as he hasn’t joined us yet, but I know how superstitious he can be. He doesn’t even watch the derby matches, that’s how nervous he gets. He just goes on one of his long walks, and always returns looking troubled.
They’ve cleared all the bells and whistles from the pitch now. There were things spitting fire into the air, and a lady with a parachute flying down with the trophy in her hands. I don’t know who coordinates these things, but I don’t think football fans are interested in anything like that. They could have used that money to make tickets cheaper, or something. Either way, seeing the pitch cleared like that is making my stomach roll over, as I know it won’t be long before the players come out. I think we could have our strongest team out today.
The hero Vito Mannone is in goal, with Bardsley and Alonso our full backs, and the dream team of O’Shea and Brown in the centre. While I wasn’t initially a fan of Larsson playing centre midfield, he’s almost reinvented himself under Gus Poyet, with Cattermole also enjoying arguably the form of his life. Finishing the midfield three is Ki Sung-yueng, whose composed passing game has been the staple of any success we’ve enjoyed in the league this season. Surprisingly, Colback has been great on the left-hand side. He hasn’t necessarily been playing as a winger, but rather a dynamic part of the midfield. With Alonso’s regular bursts up that wing, all Colback needs to do is keep it tidy and look for the overlap. It’s a fantastic system that Poyet has championed, and he seems to have found roles for players in the team that no manager before him has even touched on exploring.
You know what you’re going to get with Johnson on the right, and many of our attacks can be attributed to him pulling players out of the match, or creating chances himself. Then there’s Borini. My hero. Him and John are the two most important men in my life right now. Fabio Borini is everything. I’m so glad he’s playing up front today, not just because he’s beautiful, but because you know whenever he steps on the pitch that he’s going to play his heart out. He’s quick, he’s clever, and I think he’s our best attacking option against that City defence, who will be relying on strength and organisation rather than their pace. I imagine we’ll be looking to catch them on the break, so Borini is definitely the best option for that.
The players are walking out of the tunnel now and our fans are going mental. The stadium is divided in half, though these City fans will be used to seeing things like this. We aren’t. Seeing the Lads walk out onto the Wembley pitch is incredible enough, without even considering what it would be like if we won the match. They’re lining up while the TV camera scans past them, and there’s a trio of men in suits walking along the line, shaking players’ hands. Our fans are screaming about their beloved club. We’re by far the greatest team the world has ever seen. Even when the national anthem starts playing, some of our fans are still singing Sunderland chants. This isn’t a day to be patriotic about your country, today is all about your city; your football team.
I’m looking around, but I can’t see John. He knows a lot of people who go to Sunderland matches and does plenty of business networking, so it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s been pulled into an executive box or something and plied with champagne. I’d love to have him here with me, but at least I have my family standing next to me. They’d love to have him here as well, as they think the world of him, and they can see how happy he makes me. He does make me happy; really, really happy. But for a long time, John couldn’t accept that that he was enough for me. His proposal does all but confirm the fact that I want to spend forever with him, but he never seems convinced. The look he had in his eyes when he left me just there; he looked so troubled, not at all like he’d just proposed to his girlfriend. Maybe it’s the cup final nerves, for he’s been weird all morning.
Man City are kicking off and they’re shooting towards us. Our fans will have to make as much noise as possible to terrify them into bottling this. They are the clear favourites and there really isn’t any excuse for them not to win, given the talent they have at their disposal, but so much of football comes down to the day. After all, we have beaten Man City four out of the last seven times we’ve played them, including the last two meetings. We were supposed to play them two weeks ago, actually, but the weather conditions meant the game had to be cancelled. They reckon that Manchester was so windy; David Silva would have blown away.
The match hasn’t been going on for two minutes when Phil Bardsley lands a crunching tackle on Silva, but he wins the ball clean and the ref refrains from giving a foul. City are trying to keep the ball here, as everyone knew they would, and I expect that the possession stats will probably hover around 65/35 in their favour throughout the game. While Poyet preaches the possession game, that only applies when we actually have the ball. His style could be better described as being more composed in possession, than trying to dominate possession. With the calibre of players we have, it would be naïve to go out there and try to outpass Manchester City, one of the emerging superpowers in world football.
Sergio Aguero was a doubt for today’s match, but he passed a late fitness test. Typical, really. The ball falls to him outside the box and he fires it across Mannone. Vito just manages to palm it away, to save what would have been a great goal inside ten minutes. We’re already starting to feel the pressure, and even though the Sunderland fans loved that save from their keeper, the nerves of seeing Aguero shoot like that is enough to make you sick. If anyone’s going to score for these today, I’d put my money on him. We can’t let him have shots at goal.
The game is really intense already. Man City have dug their claws into the occasion while we are still figuring it out. But it was always going to be that way. When a team like Man City comes up against you, you have to absorb their pressure, sap the life out of them, and attack whenever you can. You can’t take the game to a team like this, for they will punish you on your first mistake. We’re doing the right thing so far, we just need to not concede and we’ll be fine. They’re working it around their midfield, trying to find a way in, Aguero bursts down the wing and tries to cross it, but Brown clears high into the air, out for a throw. They immediately restart and now Silva has it, and he plays it to Fernandinho, the intelligent Brazilian, but Cattermole reads the play and is straight out to dispossess Man City.
Larsson picks it up and takes it across the field, shielding off Fernandinho, who has already tracked back. Larsson plays it out wide to Johnson, who takes a touch and looks up. Borini has started making a run, and Johnson spots it. The ball is played long and in the air, lofted gracefully over the defence. Borini is running between Kompany and Demichelis, City’s two powerful centre backs, desperately attempting to get there first. The ball bounces and Kompany tries to clear with his boot, but Borini bravely ducks his head in and blocks the defender’s clearance whilst shepherding him off balance, outpacing him, beating him. Borini has the ball under control and he bounds towards goal, approaching it from a narrow angle, the right-hand side of the penalty area. Pantilimon sprints out towards him, narrowing the angle even further, while Demichelis now closes in as well. People all around me are standing, their arms on each other’s shoulders, transfixed by Borini. ‘Go on,’ they’re willing him, their mouths open, anxious. He takes a touch with the inside of his right foot to steady the erratic bounce of the ball, and sets up for the shot.
Fabio Borini strikes the ball with the outside of his right boot. It swerves through the air inside Wembley stadium, bending around the keeper in a crescent shape. Pantilimon’s arms and legs are as long as you’ll ever find on a professional footballer, but they aren’t long enough to stop Borini’s shot. It skids along the ground and into the bottom-left corner of the goal, thrashing the net. It’s an explosion of sound; a cataclysm of noise. A sudden change in atmosphere that nothing else in life could produce. My family has huddled together and I’m being dragged in. We’re falling over. My dad is screaming at the top of his lungs and my mam and Beth are squealing. Mam’s in tears, Beth is shaking both fists and jumping on the spot. I look below, and there’s a swirling pool of Sunderland supporters. Fans are floating on the surface, twisting and thrashing, limbs flailing in the euphoric celebratory maelstrom. The red-and-white half of Wembley Stadium, thousands upon thousands of fans who have travelled hundreds of miles to be here, cleared their bank accounts, put their lives on hold, they’re all overwhelmed with joy. We’re 1-0 up in the cup final. We're gonna win the cup!