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My First Game: #1 - Arsenal, January 1997

We're looking for our readers to pass on their tales of their first ever Sunderland game - kicking off this reboot of an old Roker Report favourite is our very own Callum Mackay, who first watched the lads in a game against Arsenal at Roker Park in 1997.

If you're reading this article, then this feature is open to you. We want to hear YOUR tales of your first ever Sunderland game.

If you're interested in telling us your story, please send us an email - rokerreport@yahoo.co.uk - and provide us with no less than 500 words. We'll be more than happy to publish your piece and give full credit.

It can be about anything - the smell of the burger vans, buying your first matchday programme, the roar of the crowd or even holding your dad's hand as you climbed up the steps for the very first time - we want to hear your first ever memories of going to a Sunderland game.

To kick us off our very own Callum Mackay is here to tell his story of the first time he watched Sunderland play, in a game against Arsenal at Roker Park. Enjoy...

Football clubs are like religions. If your parents follow one, it’s likely you’ll follow it too.

Of course, when you’re older you might change your mind, be swayed to support other teams, or decide that none of them are for you. But while you’re young, there will be considerable exposure to the passion and vigour of a certain team and the chances are - nine times out of ten - you’ll be hooked.

There is a picture of me as a baby, sitting on the kitchen counter next to my grandfather, both of us covered in Sunderland merchandise. Scarfs, shirts, hats, gloves. One glance at this picture, and it would appear that I never really had a choice. For as long as I can remember I have been obsessed with Sunderland AFC. As a young boy I practiced drawing the badge over and over again, I designed my own kits to send to the club in the hope they’d wear it next season and I watched season reviews on repeat.

When I went to my first game, I was six years old. It was January 11th 1997. The opposition were Arsenal, whose players current or future status as Premier League legends was wholly lost on me. We were in the Premiership, as it was then, and I of course had no understanding of our precarious league position, our best players or the complexities of football tactics. At that age, it’s all about the spectacle, the feeling, the emotion. The Roar.

It was the final season at Roker Park. I sat in the Main Stand, side on with the Roker End goal, with the floodlights illuminating the stadium. There’s something indescribably pure and intoxicating about a floodlit football match in winter, a tangible quality that permeates and alters the atmosphere.

I remember being amazed by our proximity to the pitch and the action, which was encapsulated as a clearance launched the ball towards us and just over our heads, hitting the perspex window of one of the boxes behind us. The signature football smell of grass and mud being churned was apparent, only serving to increase my feeling of involvement in the match.

And I of course remember the winning goal. The ball was collected on the left wing and a cross was bent in towards the six yard box. Tony Adams stuck out a boot, stretching to stop the cross. However, all he could do was get a decisive touch that directed the ball in at the near post, as I sat and watched the net bulge from a perfect side on view. 1-0 to the Lads and that’s how it stayed.

The noise was unlike anything I had heard before. The jubilation was infectious, as I was swept away in a wave of emotion and cheers. The passion was something I have never forgotten. As the youngest of four generations of Sunderland fans watching this match together, I can remember celebrating with my family and feeling genuine happiness and belonging.

After all, first games are rarely about the finer details. The stats, the line ups, the possession; all meaningless when casting your memory back. It’s about the tangible, if indescribable, sensory experiences and feelings that football is one of few things to be able to deliver. The score and the opposition perhaps helped cement the goal in my mind, but I remember more clearly the unmistakable attraction I felt to the sport and the club.

I have often wondered whether it was my family’s influence, or experiencing a match for myself that made me love football and Sunderland so much. There’s no reason it cannot be a bit of both, I suppose. But I think the reason attending football matches is so exciting for youngsters is because you feel as though you are a part of the match you are watching and influencing the game somehow. This feeling of participation is something I now look back on as what made watching football in the ground so much more enjoyable than watching it on television.

Thanks to the love affair that this first experience ignited, I have felt real joy and pride during my unwavering attendance at matches ever since. I have also felt heartbreak, disappointment and anger. This is what it means to be a football fan. To experience unconditional attachment, often in spite of the rational faculties that we all know should dissuade our dedication. It didn’t matter too much whether it was a positive or negative score. Fortunately for me, I got to see a win. But it was so much more than that.

If football were a rational passion, maybe I should have just quit while I was ahead. After all, since my first game I have seen many crushing defeats and bitter lows. But we all know that’s not how it works. The result is not what hooked me on Sunderland, or on attending the matches. It was the atmosphere, the sensory stimulation and emotion that we all feel but cannot really describe.

Had I not attended a match, I’m sure I would have had more of a choice to sway from the footballing allegiances of my family later on in life. However, I had no choice about the intense attachment I felt upon experiencing a Sunderland match for the first time. It was here, not as a baby clothed in Sunderland attire, that I genuinely had no choice but to be a Sunderland fan.

It was the feeling of being with my family amongst thousands of strangers who were all cheering for the same reason and passionate about the same thing. For a child not yet aware of the underlying complexity of football, the feeling of such intense participation is a powerful motivation with which to form a passion.

That’s what I remember most about my first Sunderland game. I knew I belonged.