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Why I love Sunderland AFC #13: Connor O'Neill - "It should be seen as an honour to represent us!"

In today's edition of our 'Why I love Sunderland AFC' series, Roker Report reader Connor O'Neill tells his story of how, despite living hundreds of miles from the North East, he manages to follow the club in his own way.

Bolton Wanderers v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Chris Brunskill/Getty Images

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One of the best feelings that you can experience in going to a football match - in particular, at an away game - is scoring a last minute winner. Some of the best moments of my life have been when witnessing late goals in an away end, hugging strangers, jumping around like a lunatic until you inevitably find yourself five rows away from where you started.

I moved away from Sunderland to the North West when I was ten and so, sadly, have not been to as many home games as I’d have liked - all of them – but I am in the fortunate position of being much closer to practically every away game we play.

My first was away at Bolton - when Steve Bruce was our manager - and I went with two school mates, neither of whom are Sunderland fans. We ventured to the stadium with a group of other fans who stumbled upon us about to walk the wrong way, before eventually picking out random seats in the quieter second tier. My mates missed the first goal queuing for an overpriced pie, so I cheered Bolo Zenden opening the scoring on my own, quite a few seats away from anyone else which I imagined looked rather sad to anyone that happened to be glancing at me. The game looked set to end as a drab 1-1 draw after Bolton forward Ivan Klasnic equalised, which wouldn’t have necessarily dampened my spirits, but I may not be as hooked as I am today if Sulley Muntari hadn't have charged down the left wing to score in the last minute. Compared to how I would celebrate the same goal now after a few pints it was rather tame, but I could still barely breathe in the aftermath.

An elderly fan walked across the row in front after the final whistle and was beaming ear to ear. He looked at me and said “they left it bloody late there son, unbelievable!” and shook my hand. Someone who had probably been going to watch Sunderland for forty-plus years was still just as ecstatic as I was because of winning a fairly standard league game. It shows that once this club has a hold on you, it has you forever, just as it first did on that day for me.

The connection that we both had in that moment and with the rest of those who were there that day is something I dearly treasure. The sense of belonging in amongst thousands of Sunderland fans in an away end is something I have never felt anywhere else. It doesn’t matter where I am in the country following the team, I always feel like I never really ever left Sunderland.

I spend an irresponsible proportion of my spare money on match and train tickets to go to away games, and more often than not it’s to see us lose, but I wouldn’t change any of it for the world. Significant alcohol intake makes me not care so much about the result and subsequently helps me to forget that the game even took place but we all do what we can to get through the pain. In truth, I more than likely care too much. I take everything personally when it comes to Sunderland; every limp performance, every shirked tackle, every flippant pundit remark hurts because this club is my life.

I’m immensely proud to call myself a Sunderland supporter - as Niall Quinn once famously remarked, the club truly does get under your skin. He is one of the few outsiders that gets what this club means to the people, who understands what it’s like to support this club. Not everyone who has been involved with Sunderland over the years does and they’re the ones who miss out the most because this is a special club to be a part of - in my eyes, it should be seen as an honour to represent us.

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