Does anyone else remember how miserable the last weeks of the Gus Poyet era at Sunderland were? I know I do. And the memory is even more vivid, because it was in his last game as our head coach that I first traveled down to Sunderland to see my first game at the Stadium of Light.
I should rewind my story first to give a little background to why I was traveling to Sunderland that day. Unlike most Sunderland fans I'm not from the northeast, nor do I have any family ties to that area. I grew up in Florida (basically the same climate as Sunderland right?) and spent my youth playing football but all my energy as a fan of sports teams was poured into American football. It wasn't until later in life when I stumbled across a Premier League game TV that I had an epiphany and realized that my time would be much better spent following a proper football league rather than the NFL. It was 2010, Sunderland were on TV (and losing) and I decided there and then that Sunderland were the club for me. About five years later I committed to a new job that was going to have my family move to Scotland and I knew that my dream of going to a game in Sunderland would soon come true.
So now we are back to the present day of my first trip down to Sunderland on March 14th, 2015. I had lived in Scotland for a couple of months and had finally bought tickets (through the help of Sunderland fan and podcaster Stephen Goldsmith) and was traveling down with my neighbour and his two sons. I should have known this trip was a bad idea because an hour into the drive the six-year-old boy in the backseat got sick and his breakfast of yoghurt and a bagel ended up all over the backseat of the car. I thought to myself "surely we should just turn around, this day will only get worse if we try and finish this four hour drive". But I quickly vanquished that thought and remembered how much joy was awaiting us at the Stadium of Light. We foolishly soldiered on only to be met with more sick about forty-five minutes later. You would have thought that would stop us. But no way, not with thought of joining in with the 45,000 other fans singing and cheering Sunderland on to victory. So we proceeded on.
Unfortunately all these interruptions to clean up the vomit in the backseat caused some delays in our trip and instead of arriving in town a few hours before kickoff we arrived and found a place to park with kickoff only five minutes away.
Fortunately for us Stephen's partner Claire had picked up our tickets for us from the box office, given them to Stephen, and he was waiting in town to give them to us. We then ran across the bridge to the Stadium. During our short sprint to the Stadium I assured my friend and his kids that Sunderland have been quite dull this year, and we weren't likely to miss much if we were a bit late. Up to that point I had yet to think about the very real possibility that Sunderland would play poorly and lose, but shortly after we took our seats reality set in and we saw Christian Benteke give Villa a deserved lead. No worries I thought, plenty of time for us to respond. Two minutes later Gabby Agbonlahor made it 0-2. Surely it won't get worse right? On 37 minutes it was 0-3 and then by the 44th minute it was 0-4.
I left my friend and his kids during halftime to go find Stephen to say thank you for getting our ticket and I remember thinking, "as a Sunderland fan this seems like an appropriate way for a first game to go". I found Stephen, lamented how the game was going, and trudged back to my seats. About the only exciting thing that happened during the second half was a fan in our section trying to climb out of the stands and into the Sunderland bench so he could fight Gus Poyet. It seemed a strangely appropriate response to how the game was going. Because we had driven four hours to the match and we knew we had four hours to drive home we stayed for the full 90 minutes and then slowly walked back to the car and headed for home.
As I reflect back on the day I can only remember it fondly. Why would I have expected it to go any other way? No amount of sick, poor football, or long drives was going to change how I felt about Sunderland. Soon after Gus Poyet was fired, Dick Advocaat was hired, and another great escape was on.
This season I've been back to Sunderland four times. I saw us lose 0-1 to Southampton, Watford, and Liverpool before finally breaking my winless (and goalless) streak and I witnessed the 2-1 win against Manchester United.
In the end there isn't much in this story that I'd like to change. Except maybe the 26 wasted years of watching the NFL instead of supporting Sunderland AFC.