I had my first Sunderland season ticket from the age of nine. It was the last season at Roker Park and my Mum had given me an early birthday present; a Clockstand Paddock season ticket book so I could finally indulge in my latest hobby - watching Sunderland AFC. I had started to grow out of He-Man and having never went through the comic book stage, at least not at that age - it was a logical present.
Although my Dad was the man who took me to the matches from an early age, I would ultimately blame my obsession on my Grandparents. My Nanna Babs was part of the record crowd at Roker Park, whereas my Granda would talk me through old away days and legendary players of his era. My excitement when watching old VHS tapes before Match of the Day at my Grandparents house is something I still hold dear to this day.
My Grandparents are the ones to blame for putting me in my first red and white strip, and also responsible for taking me to the games in my first season as a season ticket holder. You see, my Grandad followed Sunderland home and away during his youthful days, but due to his deteriorating health, it had become apparent his away days were behind him - even the home games had become a little bit of struggle for him.
I've always been jealous that he had spent his youth watching the Lads away on the terraces of places like Grimsby, Stoke and Derby. He loved Sunderland, and he made it sound like Sunderland loved him too. Although one stadium my Grandad had failed to visit as part of his list of the ninety two was White Hart Lane. He had planned a visit in his younger days and unfortunately his coach that he had boarded had broken down before they had even reached a quarter of the way to London.
In the early nineties an unexpected promotion gave my Grandad the opportunity to take my Dad with him to Spurs' home, this time facing the likes of England's number one striker Gary Lineker and Italia '90 hero Gazza. Another coach journey was the order of the day.
The game was played in early December - snow was piling up on the roads on the way down and low and behold, once again, his journey to White Hart Lane was stopped in its tracks. Clearly gutted, he admitted to me that night he felt he was destined never to tick of White Hart Lane from his list. He missed a damn good game that day too - an entertaining 3-3 draw included all of the usual Sunderland habits of losing two goal leads and conceding last minute equalisers. Missing out due to weather conditions, my Granddad was determined as ever to go back the following season and finally tick off his final London ground. As luck would have it though, Denis Smith’s team would tumble out of the top tier that year, finishing second from bottom of the league, as Tottenham sat comfortable in a tenth place.
Sunderland would not face Spurs at White Hart Lane for another six years as we dilly-dallied around the Division One table.
Our promotion under Peter Reid In 1996 provided my Granddad with another chance to visit White Hart Lane, only this time with his son and Grandson in tow. Whilst everyone else scrambled for the dates of the glamour ties to Manchester United and Liverpool, we immediately pin pointed Spurs away in one final attempt to get my Granddad to White Hart Lane.
I had never been to an away game at this point, and all my Granddad’s stories of following the Lads away were finally coming true to me. Typically, we would be drawn against Spurs a month earlier in the League Cup too! My Granddad could not have booked up midweek in London with his boys quick enough. Like a bus – two visits to Spurs’ came along for him at once.
The games were both largely forgettable. A last minute defeat in the cup, and a routine 2-0 Spurs’ win the following month, but my Granddad got to the Lane. He spent the evening with a massive smile on his face; he sipped on a pint of Stones, as I sipped on my Coca Cola and talked of the game. He finally got to tick off the ground he thought he would never get to - and he got there with us, his family. We had lost twice, and played poorly, but he was there – supporting Sunderland and making memories is all that mattered to him.
My Grandad died almost simultaneously with Roker Park - literally less than a month after the season ended and the famous stadium closed for good. Now whenever we play Spurs, I always remember the look on his face that night, as the froth from his pint covered his moustache, as he told me, “Look son, I know it can be tough following this lot. But this is what it’s all about - us - being together, Sunderland. You can never give in with Sunderland. You can never give up on them”.
Despite the general demeanour of the club and that sense of apathy we all seem to feel right now, perhaps, as my Granddad said, all we have is us - the fans - and ultimately this club is nothing without them. We’ll never leave this club, no matter how much they try to kick us when we’re down, but if we are to go down - let’s go down swinging.