"Wembley. We are going to Wembley. I can’t pass this opportunity up."
I had just watched the penalty shoot-out at Old Trafford and was buzzing over the result and knew that I somehow needed to get to the final. It was this train of thought the pushed me down the slippery slope to being a true Lads fan.
The real roots of my Sunderland obsession can be traced back to 2010. I was studying in Spain at the time and a school friend come visit from England. He was living in the Northeast and is a Sunderland supporter. He introduced me to the club and began to explain the history and passion that the fans have for Sunderland. During his weekend trip, we went to a pub and caught that weekend’s Sunderland match on television. It was a completely uninspired nil-nil draw away to Fulham. To say that it was not love at first sight would be an understatement.
As an American who was not burdened with a team allegiance from birth, I was inclined to choose a glamorous team. I had just watched Ronaldo and company at the Bernabeau several days before and was convinced that Real Madrid would be my true passion, not a team that huffs and puffs its way to a scoreless draw at Craven Cottage.
Fast forward a few years of eyeing the Sunderland results from afar and catching the odd game on television, I made the rash decision to book a trip to see the Capital One Cup final at Wembley and the following week’s FA Cup match at Hull. I contacted my Sunderland supporting friend and he secured tickets to both matches, I was on my way.
As soon as I arrived and got on the Tube in London, I started seeing red and white all over the city. I couldn’t help but to get caught up in the excitement that they were all feeling. The morning of the match we made our way down to the pubs full of Sunderland supporters near Wembley and were treated to a scene of unabashed excitement, songs of praise for the red and white with the requisite side of Mag bashing. It was a contagious feeling.
I began to see and hear what it meant to everyone to be back at Wembley after such a long wait. Within a few short hours I knew that my life as football fan was changing. The final nail in the proverbial coffin came part way through the first half of the match, Fab’s goal. I have never witnessed or been a part of a celebration that came close the Sunderland end at that moment, I was hooked. I was jumping up and down and screaming myself hoarse alongside fans that had been born with red and white in their veins. I felt welcome and a part of something special.
Even though the result did not turn out in our favor at Wembley, or at the dismal game at Hull that followed, I was blown away by the supporters and their passion for the club. The Sunderland end was in full voice for the full ninety at Wembley and again at the KC Stadium. I began to understand what it meant to be a Sunderland supporter. The loyalty and dedication of the fans left me in awe.
Since I returned to the US from that trip, I have spent innumerable weekends cursing and celebrating the team that I couldn’t help but love. I have experienced the highs and lows of the past few seasons alongside every other Mackem.
Every August I dream of a mid-table finish for the Lads, and every May I wonder how much closer to the end of the season we can leave it before we secure safety. Game after game, season after season, one thought remains constant, "Ha’way the Lads!".