My first game; a 1-0 home loss to a West Ham side containing a host of familiar faces, came at a difficult time for the club.
Peter Reid had just been shown the door, and in came Howard Wilkinson, tasked with saving our calamitous season with the help of right-hand man Steve Cotterill. Of course, being the age I was I didn’t know any of this; in my head I was going to watch the team I played as on FIFA a lot, and the player who scored all of my FIFA goals - Marcus Stewart.
With me being so young, there are only a few things I remember about the day vividly enough to recount. For one, I was adamant that before kick-off, we were allowed on the pitch to have a kick-about ourselves, and upon entering the ground I couldn’t understand why no one was taking free-kicks at the South Stand goal or playing doing keepie-uppies in the centre circle. I lost interest in everything else somewhat after being told I couldn’t go on the pitch, there was nothing else appealing to me here so I just sat in my seat, in a bit of a huff.
The only memory I have of the actual match is West Ham’s goal. I remember the ball being smashed into the roof of the net by a player who wasn’t wearing red and white, so I didn’t celebrate. I know now that it was Trevor Sinclair who got the goal, and a certain Mr. Paolo Di Canio with the assist, nearly eleven years before he dirtied his knees ten miles up the road.
Looking back at the team sheets, there were quite a few familiar faces in addition to Di Canio. Future goalkeeper coach Raimond van der Gouw was on the bench for the Irons, and Gary Breen came on as a sub midway through the second half, but the most notable Hammer on the pitch that day was Jermain Defoe. In the Sunderland side were the likes of Kevin Phillips, Kevin Kilbane, Micky Gray, Claudio Reyna, but most importantly for me, Marcus Stewart; the only player 4-year-old me was really bothered about seeing.
The half-time whistle came and as the players walked back off down the tunnel, I assumed that was it. I asked if we could go home now, only to be told we were only half way through, and another forty-five minutes of Howard Wilkinson-era Sunderland had to be endured before I could get back on the bus.
The second half kicked back off and I watched until about the 60th minute, when Stewart was inexplicably taken off for this tall bloke I’d never seen in my life, by the name of Niall Quinn. As the 45,000 strong crowd thinned towards the end of the match, a row of about five seats became free to the right of me. Bored of watching Sunderland play badly, I decided to lie down and stretch out on these seats (still red at the time) waiting for the full-time whistle to come.
This rest was interrupted by the old biddy sitting five seats along, who literally screamed at me to get up because I was lying on her son’s seat. After a few heads were turned and I’d sat back up, I just watched quietly as the Lads slumped to the first of many defeats I’d be present for.
It’s mental, looking back, that this is what made me fall in love with Sunderland. I wasn’t interested so much in the football at the time, and the combination of a loss and a telling-off shouldn’t have ignited a passion for the club. I still didn’t check the league tables or anything after this match, which was probably for the best as it was the season we went down with nineteen points.
However, as I got a bit older, about 7 or 8, and had mates who were supporting Man Utd and Chelsea, I stuck with Sunderland because I’d been to see them play, even if it was a totally uninteresting 1-0 defeat via a Trevor Sinclair goal.
It wasn’t as memorable a game as some of the others people have written about, and it came during a terrible time for the club, but it’s the reason I’m a Sunderland fan now, and the reason I’m stuck with them.