My first Sunderland game took place absolutely nowhere near Sunderland.
It was, for that matter, nowhere near Britain, a country I’ve never set foot in. The game was an exhibition, utterly forgettable for nearly all – unless, like me, it represented what could be the only chance in my life to see SAFC in person.
And, probably not surprisingly, Sunderland lost.
Perhaps now a fuller picture is required: I grew up in hilly farm country ninety minutes north of Philadelphia and two hours west of New York City. My hometown was and remains small, rural and socially conservative. Soccer, let alone soccer on another continent, was folly; American football – whether through our town’s high school, colleges of interest like Penn State and Notre Dame, or the Philadelphia Eagles of the National Football League – commanded the bulk of the town’s appetite for sports.
My career as a nobody sportswriter led me from my hometown to the suburbs of Washington, D.C.; there, soccer was a more accepted part of the sporting scene. And it was there I began to understand that soccer players have discrete skills to which they should be afforded credit; it wasn’t merely a marathon with a scoring system, as I’d once believed. (Really, this should have been clear to me earlier. It was always easy to appreciate the athletic gifts of a chiseled, 6-foot-5, 240-pound American football player who could not only beat you to a pulp, but give you a head start, chase you down, catch you, and then beat you to a pulp. Why didn’t I understand that soccer players may not be able to do that, but their skills are no less impressive?)
On the weekends, I usually woke up earlier than my wife. Saturday morning TV is a wasteland, and the only thing live, and even remotely interesting, was the ESPN broadcast of the Premier League, usually around 7 a.m. on the East Coast. I began to look forward to the broadcast and enjoying the drama; but it was also unfulfilling. I needed someone to cheer for.
A sportswriting acquaintance – a Brit and diehard Cambridge United fan – recommended Sunderland. One of their primary colors is red, he said, like a couple of the professional teams in Philadelphia I’d grown up rooting for. Another similarity: the fan passion. Despite years of disappointment, the fans never stopped caring.
(That being said, as best as I can tell, SAFC fans are a tad less intense than Philadelphia fans. This is a good thing.)
Life as a Sunderland fan became apparent quickly; a few weeks after I declared my fandom, Steve Bruce was fired.
You know what’s happened since then.
In truth, all the ups and downs have only endeared them to me that much more. It’s kind of perverse, right? (Maybe it’s all those years of cheering for a bunch of Philadelphia losers. Back in 2008, when the Phillies baseball team won the World Series, I cried like I was a 4-year old. I had long ago given up hope that a Philadelphia team would win a championship in my lifetime, even though I was only 33 at the time.)
I’ve stuck with Sunderland, and I’m happy to be here.
A few months after our family moved west to Seattle, I saw news that the team would be coming to the U.S. To the West Coast, even! I wasn’t sure if it was doable. Finances were tight, with two kids – one all of six months old – and me still looking for a job. Miraculously, I was able to find a cheap flight and a good bargain on a hotel room.
Holy crap. I was going to see Sunderland with my own eyes.
SAFC played two exhibitions in Sacramento, California; I made it to the second, against Liga MX side CF Pachuca. At the time, California was in the midst of a historic drought; the searing temperatures complemented the in-stadium advertisements that urged the conservation of water. The game was being played at the same time as the California State Fair; I made plans to get there early, as I had no idea how full the stadium would be. Plus, I wanted to be there when the gates opened; if this was my one chance, I wanted to savor every second.
After milling around the fair and drenching my shirt with sweat, I was grateful to see the gates open; I was equally grateful that one could use a credit card to buy a beer, which was not the case at the rest of the fair for some reason.
I hung around the southwest corner of the stadium, as that’s where the teams would enter from. When at last they did, I was beyond excited: Here were these guys I’d spent so many years (OK, four) watching from half a world away. That reaction was more than I’d expected: I’d been to pro and major college games most of my adult life; I’ve seen my favorite college football team play in a stadium that has more than twice the capacity of the Stadium of Light. Yet here I was, just like a little kid.
Those skills that changed my mind about soccer? It was incredible to see it up close. As Wes Brown was warming up, he fielded a fourty-yard kick off of his knee and straight into the air, as collected and composed as if he was guiding it with a string. It’s so elementary for a guy that has spent the better part of two decades in the Premier League and came up through the Manchester United youth system. But seeing it for the first time was awe-inspiring, not unlike my first time seeing the NFL, Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, the PGA Tour and NASCAR up close. TV cannot do it justice.
I watched Brown and the rest of the squad from a cluster of tents on the south end of the field. It was there I struck up a conversation with Sunderland’s bus driver. He left shortly before the game, but I stayed; if no one was going to ask me to leave the VIP area, why would I?
And no one did. I sat close enough to spit into the goal that Jordan Pickford was defending. Plus, I thought, this is great: in the second half, I’ll get to see Sunderland’s offense up close.
Except they were dismal. Pachuca dominated possession in the second half. I didn’t witness more than a couple of shots on goal, and Sunderland lost.
Welcome to SAFC fandom, I guess.