I moved to Sunderland as a student in September 2006. It looked like I was timing my arrival well. Roy Keane had just been appointed after Niall Quinn’s disastrous start. Things could only get better.
That first season I kept an ear out for their results and I was genuinely pleased to see Sunderland promoted – a club I had liked since seeing their circular cut grass at Roker Park on TV as a kid.
Born into a family of rugby fanatics in rural Leicestershire, football was not my first love. In fact, I didn’t even play football until a new kid from the nearby town of Melton Mowbray moved to the village.
As the only townie any of us had met in our primary school of fifty-two people, he was immediately cool. He knew about football, collected Merlin football stickers and supported Manchester United. My favourite colour was red. I wanted to ingratiate myself to the new cool kid. It was an easy decision.
I supported Manchester United until Saturday, 29th March 2008. That was the day that began my torturous journey down a path of fear, inexorable disappointment and the tantalising, faint glimmer of stupid bloody hope.
It was the day I went to the Stadium of Light for the first time. I’d been to Old Trafford several times, each visit more soulless than the last. Fans would sit silently, waiting, expecting to be entertained by their superstars like a spoilt child. I never felt like they really cared. I stopped caring about them too.
The Stadium of Light that day was different, brimming with vociferous passion. It was clear this meant everything to the fans, and it was only West Ham. Sunderland went behind early via a deflected Freddie Ljungberg shot. In hindsight, the football Gods were warning me.
Kenwyne Jones equalised. Tension bubbled. Both teams pushed. Half time. Sunderland grew as the match went on. Daryl Murphy booted it over late on (the Gods again). At the end of 6 minutes of added time Carlos Edwards got the ball in space on the right and floated the ball into the box.
Flicked on. Was that a defender or Kenwyne? I can’t make it out. Where’s the ball going? It’s dropping to the back stick. The crowd are on their feet. I can’t quite see. Then it came, the moment I fell in love with Sunderland. I don’t know if it felt like it at the time, but I remember it only in slow motion.
The ball drops and Andy Reid’s impressively doughy figure gracefully volleys home a 96th minute winner. The place goes batshit. I was jumping about with everyone else.
That moment got under my skin and into my veins. Instantly I was in love. Addicted. Give me more of this.
Give me Richardson’s free kick, give me Jiiiiiiiiiiiiii, give me the beach ball, give me Danny Collins, give me 0-3, give me 0-3 again, give me Bolo Zenden’s dance, give me The Gus Bus, Big Dick, Big Sam, dirty knees and the tears of Defoe. Give me the first 45 of the League Cup Final.
Give me Paul McShane, give me Dwight Yorke the holding midfielder, El Hadji Diouf, Titus Bramble and cold steak bakes from Greggs on the way home. Give me the second 45 minutes of the League Cup Final.
Logically, I should have stuck with Manchester United, but love is not logical. Keep your trophies, this is worth so much more. If only fools rush in, I’m a proper idiot, but I’m happy.