The spring air is filled with a sense of anticipation. The sun glistens off the nearby river, the hum of excitable conversations emanates from every pub, shop and cafe en route, and the streets are filled with smiling faces decked out in red and white. There should be the accompanying distant cry of seagulls in the background, but this is not Sunderland.
This is Sheffield, and the Blades are going up. Their long exile in League One is finally over and the red half of this South Yorkshire city is in celebration mode, looking forward to life back in the second tier and the prospect of clinching 100 points in the process. There is nothing but positivity oozing from every sinew around Bramall Lane as United supporters eagerly discuss the prospect of this being the start of their renaissance.
They have one of their own in charge in manager Chris Wilder and one of their own leading the line up front in Billy Sharp. This grand old stadium is packed to the rafters as the Kop belts out their iconic ‘Greasy Chip Butty’ anthem. Balloons are released, flares are sparked, the beer flows and they swat aside an already relegated Chesterfield.
As I gaze upon the pitch and look around at all these smiling faces feeling a real connection to their football club, staff and players there is only one overriding emotion - intense jealousy.
South Yorkshire and the north east share many similarities with a declining industry on which they were built and a strong work ethic but the atmosphere of Sheffield and Sunderland could not be further apart. Anticipation, excitement and even mild intrigue is in alarmingly short supply on Wearside but apathy, exasperation and anger are in abundance.
It’s almost been a year since the last time I can remember properly enjoying a game of football (February’s fluke 4-0 away win at Crystal Palace aside). That was the day we stunned Chelsea and put ourselves in the driving seat to stay in the Premier League and relegate Newcastle in the process. Since that day and the subsequent victory over Everton, slowly but surely every Sunderland supporter has had the life sucked out of them by an utterly depressing campaign.
Relegation can take many forms. It can be a gallant effort where the side simply isn’t good enough, it can be a sense of complete shock that a few negative results have conspired against you, it can also be one of those moments where there is a genuine sense of daylight robbery but the worst, the very worst is the limping to the finish line.
We’ve seen it before in 2003 and in 2006, we even watched and chuckled as Aston Villa were consigned to a pathetic relegation last campaign. However, this has been something else. We’ve known deep down that we were finished in October with a totally inept manager, a bunch of disinterested players and a rotten atmosphere surrounding the club.
It has festered into this overwhelming sense of apathy that has made the matchday experience a complete misery for everyone involved. There is no enjoyment anymore, no looking forward to a Saturday afternoon, no catching Match of the Day half cut with a bag of chips, just a sense of dread for nine months solid.
There are four games of this miserable season left and we have to face two teams that are buoyant with the sense of survival, one that will be lifting the Premier League trophy after our match finishes and another that wants to oust their most successful manager ever.
I want to be able to enjoy these experiences, I want to have that anticipation of what the next 90 minutes will bring, I want to be proud of this team once again. In its current guise that won’t be happening anytime soon.
Whatever it takes to fix this club needs to happen so that there are smiles returning to supporters’ faces once again.