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The Day That I Fell In Love With Sunderland AFC

If I had a pound for every time I told the story of my first Sunderland game I would have been able to live comfortably for life before I had even left school.

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Sunderland 1-3 Charlton on February 1st 2003 was one of the darkest days in the club’s recent history.

I won’t have to remind you about the three own goals that we scored in that game, or Michael Proctor playing right wing back. Sargent Wilko looked like a confused pensioner in the Tesco veg isle and his assistant, Steve Cottrell, furiously scribbled on his notepad for most of the game - rumour has it he still can’t spell "shite".

Weirdly, I wear this like a badge of honour - as painful as the game is to recollect, I still take a strange sense of pride in my first match being such a carnival of incompetence.

But this isn’t the game I want to talk about this time, although the outcome was equally depressing. I want to talk about the game that made me fall in love with Sunderland - the day that I really reached the point of no return.

Since that Charlton game I had been to matches fairly regularly, but at the age of seven, match days were a nice day out and whether I got a one pound bag of cola bottles were as significant to me as a Sunderland victory. Sure, I used to jump around a lot when we scored and I loved seeing the look of pure joy in my parent’s faces when we scored but I hadn’t been properly bitten by the bug until the day that we played Millwall in the FA Cup semi-final back in 2004.

Usually pre-match nerves didn’t get hold of me, but the weeks building up to this game were different. Very different. From the moment we beat Sheffield United, to get to within a game of the prestigious cup final, I nagged my mam and dad to get tickets on a daily basis.

In the week building up to it I must have been a nightmare to live with. Every night I would be out playing football in my Sunderland top pretending to be errrrm Tommy Smith and John Oster….God I had a deprived upbringing.

Every night I dreamt of a win at Old Trafford to send us to the Millennium Stadium and just tried to imagine the delirium the moment would bring.

The night before I was the stereotypical kid on Christmas Eve - I must have played Sunderland versus Millwall on the Playstation one hundred times, although FIFA wasn’t as realistic in those days and I didn’t lose to a Tim Cahill goal.

With sleep proving an impossibility I was treated to a rerun of the 1973 cup final victory, with my dad lecturing me about the key players of the era and how much the win meant to the club. This only increased my pre-match excitement. I just watched the sea of red and white in awe and the noise of the fans at full time made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, and for the first time I heard those immortal words "they came down in their thousands from the north east, they came down with hope and they go back with the cup."

This sent my mind racing - what if we did that now; what if?

After a night of little sleep I was still a bundle of energy and proudly put on my retro Sunderland shirt - "that top is from the year we beat Millwall in the semis in 1937, that’ll bring good luck". Aye reeto.

The bus journey down to Manchester was one of the highlights of the day, nobody on the bus seemed tired or grumpy at the early start, and the whole bus was decked out in red and white and singing Sunderland songs. As we got closer and closer to Manchester the chants got slightly more choice, and I remember innocently saying "mam, why does Shearer not have a birth certificate?"

Upon arrival at Old Trafford I was awe struck. I got off the bus and was met with a sea of red and white.

As we headed towards the stadium one lad shouted "ha’way the lads" at the top of his voice, which was soon echoed like a tribal war cry. Once inside a rendition of wise men say started up and I was almost overcome with emotion, the noise level was something I had not yet experienced. The next moment to make my hairs stand on end was the arrival of the players from the tunnel the roar was absolutely deafening I waved my red and white flag enthusiastically shouting myself hoarse. There was just no way we could lose.

Except we did. I remember very little of the game itself, only wincing as Tim (bastard) Cahill scored from close range and John Oster coming agonisingly close early on. But this wasn’t about the football. As I said at the beginning, this was the day I fell in love with Sunderland AFC, and my life has never been quite the same since.

Everything about that day just encapsulates what it is to support the football club - the hope, the expectation and the unbelievable support only for all your hopes and dreams to be crushed, time and time again.

Although I was only seven the magnitude of the occasion was not lost on me, and I did shed a few tears at full time, but I remember saying to my dad on the return journey, "dad, I wouldn’t swap today for the world, I love Sunderland".

It is perhaps telling that in this entire piece I have rarely mentioned a moment of football action.

That is very much secondary in the life of a Sunderland supporter - twelve years on I’ve travelled all over the country and witnessed a consistent series of incompetent displays and heartbreak. That said, they have also given me some of the best memories and days of my life.

On that day I realised that this is a special football club, and despite everything they put me through I wouldn’t have it any other way.