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On the 31st of March 2007 I was at Ninian Park to see Ross Wallace score the late winner against Cardiff and claim all three points to continue our climb up the league. But that’s not why this date stands out in the memory. Later that evening some of the travelling faithful were sitting on an Easyjet flight at Bristol Airport waiting to fly back to the north-east, when Niall Quinn got on the plane.
The spontaneous eruption of ‘Niall Quinns’ Disco Pants’ was too much for the flight crew who promptly cancelled the flight, stranding the passengers in Bristol late on the Saturday night. What happened next sums up why I love this Club. Niall – clearly in Moses-mode, uttered the unforgettable ‘but these are my people’ then organised, and paid for, taxis back to Sunderland for everyone who needed it.
Firstly, what other Chairman would even think of jumping on an Easyjet plane with the fans, and secondly, name another club official anywhere who would take on such a problem as their own without thinking?
I was at Southampton the week after Cardiff when Niall sent the players coach to pick up fans again stranded after their bus was damaged by stone throwing home fans, and in Cork for the Cobh Rovers friendly when he was in the pub next to the ground buying everyone a drink as if he’d known them all his life. Why we haven’t built a statue to this man yet I really don’t know.
But it wasn’t just during Niall’s tenure that we’ve stood out on the national stage. The reaction to the MH17 disaster – £21,000, blew me away, I couldn’t stop telling anyone who would listen about it for days afterwards. And, the current support and publicity for Bradley Lowery continues the long tradition of showing the outside world who we really are as a club.
And it’s not just the serious stuff, I remember ‘Cheer up Peter Reid’ being on the news, the £2000 raised to buy Dick Advocaat’s wife a bunch of flowers and the national coverage of the scenes in Covent Garden on the eve of the Cup Final in 2014.
Because for as long as successive governments and the country at large choose at best to ignore us, at worst, to discriminate against us, for as long as we’re seen as living in the shadow of a bigger, grander, more glamorous Newcastle, for as long as we’re held up as the embodiment of an unattractive, second-class north of England and made fun of by the more prosperous South, we keep making the news for all the right reasons. We keep reminding people we’re still here, and we won’t be ignored. And the Club has done this far more successfully than the town itself in all the time I’ve been a supporter. It’s invaluable, it’s so important, and I swell with pride every time it happens.
OK – that was the eulogy from Braveheart, or close enough. So, secondly - the team. My earliest memory of Sunderland was being told that Alan Brown was coming back for a second stab at being manager and that it wasn’t going to end well. I was a bit young back then but I gather that this was in fact the case.
At the time my brother started taking me to Roker Park and would make me go in the Roker End on my own whilst he went in the Fulwell. He lost interest soon afterwards but there must be something about staring up at the back of a huge blokes coat on a freezing cold dark afternoon because I’ve been going ever since.
And it was the Cup run in ’73 that literally changed everything. Against a backdrop of closing pits and shipyards, job losses, the three day week, bang, out of nowhere, Sunderland won the Cup.
Now I have no idea nor interest who’s won the FA cup recently, but in those days it was international news of the highest order and for Sunderland to win it was literally life-changing. The mood and momentum in the town was like nothing experienced before - or since, and made you realize just how good life could be.
Afterwards of course, there was the inevitable anticlimax, but the support goes on. Life gets fitted in around it, marriage, family, kids, travelling but it’s a constant part of your life. Sometimes the games were more accessible than others – I spent part of the Peter Reid era living abroad so was reduced to trawling obscure TV channels trying to watch the action. I was back in the UK and the kids were of a suitable age so that I could travel to many of the Quinn/Keane games and that must go down as the most enjoyable season I’ve seen up close.
On the trip up north for the Wigan game around that time, we bumped into the team at The Ramside before the game, spoke to Roy and the players and then watched as Andy Reid, two minutes into his debut, hit a sublime cross field ball for Daryl Murphy to pick up and slam home the winner.
However nothing will better the memory of Carlos Edwards’ blockbuster against Burnley. It was a Friday night so I couldn’t get there and couldn’t find a pub showing the game. I ended up watching it in the local tennis club, in the corner, on my own with the white clad locals down the other end of the bar wondering what the hell the shrieks and groans were all about. And when Carlos hit that shot I just sank to my knees and will never forget the feeling. My kids are under clear instructions to play the clip of that goal at my funeral because it doesn’t get any better than that.
And there were not so good times – like the time I drove seven hours to watch a nil-nil against a Tony Pulis Palace side and was so angry that I clicked up nine points on my licence driving home again. But generally it is what it is – you don’t choose it, it’s part of you. I don’t understand people who support a team at random or because it’s successful. Where’s the meaning in that? Where’s the connection – where’s the love?
So finally. I left Sunderland at 18 and have now lived away for more years than I lived there. If it wasn’t for matches I’d probably struggle to find a reason to visit based on where I live now. But even if I never went back again it would still be home. I’ve never felt the same about anywhere as I do when I’m there.
It’s where I grew up, it’s a million memories of family and friends and an incredibly happy childhood. It’s where I came from and who I am. It’s part of my DNA and I love Sunderland AFC because it keeps all that alive, and that’s priceless.