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My two favourite Sunderland games are games that we lost. Let me explain. One of these games, unsurprisingly, was that League Cup Final against Man City. The other was this season’s horror-show at home to Palace. But they have something in common: I watched them with my Dad, to whom I am grateful for this red and white birth-right, and both games reaffirmed my love for this crackpot club.
It’s not hard to see why when it comes to the infamous Man City game - from commandeering Covent Garden to giant cardboard cut-outs of Marcos Alonso’s face, and from pictures on Wembley Way to the moment that Borini’s goal allowed us all to dream. It was a day I will never forget and one I will always remember fondly. But of all my memories from this game, one stands out above all the rest. As I stood next to my Dad and the players walked out on to the pitch and in to the Wembley sunshine, a chorus of Wise Men Say swept across the thirty odd thousand Sunderland fans fortunate enough to get their hands on a ticket.
I have only ever felt the same amount of pride for my football club on one other occasion. Perhaps perversely, this was when the final whistle sounded and brought with it confirmation of our defeat at home to Palace in September.
For those who have banished this game from their memory, let me remind you of the nightmarish sequence of events that led to our collapse. We went two nil up through that man Jermain Defoe on 60 minutes. Within a minute, we had given away a soft goal and allowed Palace into a game that should have been dead and buried. Within fifteen minutes we had thrown away a crucial lead to an even softer goal. With the last kick of the game, we conceded the softest goal you are ever likely to witness and vomited up the cherry on the cake.
Let’s ignore the implosion on the pitch for just one moment. It was the fans that made this game a defining moment for me.
Our fans have and always will be the most important part of Sunderland. I realise this is a line that gets bandied about frequently, even by clubs for whom the sentiment doesn’t apply (here’s looking at you Man United). But this has never been clearer to me than when I walked down the steps from the North East Corner when the final whistle went against Palace. It was then that I decided, with no bias at all, that we had the best fans in the world.
This game should have been our lowest ebb. The moment our players let us down even more than usual. We had been beaten, in horrific circumstances, by a team no better than our own - and that’s saying something. But the gallows humour kicked in as thousands walked out of the stadium. We’d seen it all before. And there’s every chance we’ll see worse later this season.
So when I met up with the rest of my family in the pub after the game, we shared a joke or two, a beer or two, and we moved on. It is the fans who decide the identity of our club, not the players. After all, going to watch the Lads home and away is about those looks you share with the fans around you. Looks that say “why do we even bother” - but you know you will see the same faces again next week. And the week after. And the week after that. Because that is what it’s all about, loving the club unconditionally and getting very little in return. But doing it shoulder-to-shoulder with someone doing exactly the same thing next to you. That's true love.
For a long time, I have gone to games expecting the worst but having that flicker of hope that today might just be different. I know I’m not the only one. For instance, as is custom, the pitch-side announcer away at Bournemouth this season asked the two young mascots what they thought the score would be ahead of the match.
The Bournemouth mascot confidently predicted a 4-0 home win. The five year-old Sunderland mascot said she hoped for a 1-1 draw. Either intentionally or unintentionally, this is one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard at a Sunderland game. A five year-old – who should be full of blind optimism – couldn’t muster enough belief to predict an away win for the Lads against our relegation rivals. We ended up winning the game, led by an inspirational performance by Victor Anichebe, and I can only imagine the delight on that kid's face as the final whistle sounded. Just when you think all hope is gone, the club pull at your heart-strings and drag you back for more.
For me, supporting Sunderland is about naïve optimism. It is about frequent disappoint, infrequently punctuated by moments of sheer ecstasy. Most importantly, it is about sharing all of those feelings with forty thousand people on the terraces, and hundreds of thousands more around the world. It is about collectively daring to dream despite all the evidence pointing to the contrary. That is what makes me fall in love with the club, every single time I walk over the bridge towards the Stadium of Light.
So thank you, Dad. Thank you for bestowing this bittersweet curse on me. Thank you for making sure it was Sunderland that I supported. Thank you for all the last-minute heartbreaks. Thank you for all the fourteen-hour round-trips. Thank you for Wembley. Thank you for all those moments that I looked up to the rain-drenched sky in disbelief and horror. Thank you for letting me be a part of something greater than myself. From the bottom of my heart, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m Sunderland ‘til I die.
This article was originally written for ALS issue 242 under the title 'Why I can’t help falling in love with you'. Re-published with permission from A Love Supreme.