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Why I love Sunderland AFC #5: Tom Walsh - "They bring my family together"

In the fifth edition of our 'Why I love Sunderland AFC' series, Tom Walsh tells his story of how a lad born and raised in Greater Manchester fell head over heels in love with a football team over 140 miles away.

Kevin Ball

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You shouldn’t love something that hurts you. You shouldn’t love something that embarrasses you with uncanny regularity. You certainly shouldn’t love something that does both of those things but also drains every penny out of your bank account at the same time.

But we do, I do, you do. Sunderland AFC is the partner that you know isn’t good for you but deep down you simply can’t let them go. Without them in your life, you’d feel empty, like you’ve lost part of you, and it’s all because you know that they can give you moments of happiness unlike anything you can care to mention.

This is the love affair I’ve had with Sunderland for the past 22 years.

I was born in Greater Manchester into a family split between Sunderland and Manchester United. Like everyone brought up in this part of the world I had the United shirt at a young age but Sunderland would always fill me with the excitement the Red Devils never could - my mum has told me many times of how I’d cry all the way back home after spending a weekend by the seaside in the North East.

We didn’t have a beach where I was from, we didn’t have seaside amusements, we didn’t have that wonderful coastal air and we didn’t a football ground like Roker Park across the road from our house. As a young child, Sunderland was everything to me. Days there were always sunny, the beach was always busy and I somehow always won on that Royal Derby horse racing game in Roker Amusements.

Going to the football was always a massive treat and when I stepped into Roker Park for the first time sat by my Dad’s side, I was transfixed. The noise, the smell, the banging of your feet on the floorboards of the Main Stand when Sunderland scored, the hordes of red and white spilling out after the match. I was in love with it all.

Sunder v Chelsea

My friends at school would talk about Manchester United at length but had never stepped foot in Old Trafford while for me the Stadium of Light became my second home. I’d watch in awe at players like Niall Quinn, Kevin Phillips and Kevin Ball, and saw Peter Reid craft a side that would take on all comers and usually win.

I would be elated when they won and devastated when they lost with my Dad, in his wisdom, reminding me that we’d “get them next week”. That is the beauty of this football team - they bring my family together. We celebrate, we commiserate, we rage, we sigh and we drink heavily together depending what the Lads have done that weekend.

Despite what many pundits would have you believe, Sunderland is not just another football team. There is a camaraderie among supporters that simply can not be matched elsewhere. We’re the team that is backed by thousands in Barnsley on a Tuesday night, at Southampton two weeks before Christmas. We’re the ones coming down to takeover Bury, to outnumber home supporters at Wigan and losing our minds when we beat Manchester United at Old Trafford.

There is no fanbase like ours. There is no other place in the country that is so intrinsically linked to its football team and there is nowhere else where everyone lives and breathes football and Sunderland AFC. And as someone who isn’t from the region, it makes me feel even more proud to stand with these people on those cold winter nights, those desolate home games and those days where it all goes right.

Sunderland is more than just a football team to me. It is something that has binded a family together for as long as I’ve been alive. My Dad, my brother and myself share the elation, the despair, the downright anger and the pain of watching the travails of this club that we hold so dear.

For every high and every low I have been through with this football team I’ve stood next to them every step of the way. Clambering over seats after Phil Bardsley scored in the League Cup semi-final, straining to see Kevin Phillips bang in his fourth against Bury, running up and down the back rows of Selhurst Park when Jermain Defoe put us 4-0 up at half time, picking ourselves up after a last-minute defeat or staring in disbelief as we conspire to concede eight at Southampton. It is all part of the magic.

After unsuccessfully attempting to getting a ticket for the 2014 League Cup final, I was offered one a handful of days before the game. I turned it down in favour of watching it at home with my Dad and brother. The day out at Wembley would’ve been nice but nothing compared to seeing a 56-year-old man spring off a settee and wildly hug his two sons when Fabio Borini scored our opener.

Moments like that do not happen in any other walk of life. That level of sheer, unrelenting joy. You wait through the pain and the heartache for moments like that. That is what this game can give you. That is why I love Sunderland.

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