The moment the final whistle went at Stamford Bridge in May, I was free. Free to reclaim the weekends, free of David Moyes, free of watching Fabio Borini’s stupid face and free, free of Sunderland AFC.
The close season offered sweet mercy; I could switch off, pretend they didn’t exist for a while and genuinely recharge the batteries of what had been an utterly draining past twelve months. I relish an awayday as much as the next man but the 2016/17 campaign was one I was happy to finally see the back of.
However, like the junkie going back for that one last score there is always the itch of doing it all over again. So when the thought arose of playing Bury away on a Friday and trekking up to Edinburgh to see the lads play Hibernian the following Sunday, you know I was ready to answer the call.
Bury is my hometown and thus I am well versed in the cult status that comes with this corner of Greater Manchester’s Friday nights. They are special, the so wrong it’s right kind of situation. Combine that with Sunderland rocking up at Gigg Lane and you have what we’d refer to as “the perfect storm” or, as my brother, quipped “the holy grail”.
A dawning of a new campaign brings positivity and rolling into Gigg Lane a casual ten minutes late (the game doesn’t matter does it? And the beers in the Staff of Life weren’t going to drink themselves) everyone seemed in high spirits. What is Simon Grayson going to bring to this side? Who’s he going to buy? Will it help make a promotion push? Will we... oh Bury have scored.
There it is, I’ve missed this. Now the important thing to remember is that pre-season should be taken with a pinch of salt. So when Bury went 2-0 up, there was the inevitable air of restraint from sections of the Sunderland support. Only joking - loads of people went mental and a fight nearly ensued. The apathy and anger threatened to rear its head but then Jack Rodwell scored and no-one could remember what was real anymore.
As the second half continued at a pace there was a sense (a weird sense), that Sunderland would pull through - and so it proved. Josh Maja bagged two to seal the comeback and we congaed our way out of Gigg Lane and into the Bury night to dance to nu-metal tunes in Blind Tiger until the early hours.
The weekend was not complete - far from it. We had an appointment north of the border in the frankly wonderful city of Edinburgh. The festivities of Bury on Friday still lingered but we had come prepared with three bags of Transform-a-Snacks, leftover cans of Stella Artois and a Highland treat - Buckfast.
As a fine connoisseur of most things alcoholic and drinkable on public transport, the concept of how Buckfast came to be has always fascinated me. Of course, there is probably a real explanation of how it was created but I have this image of monks sitting around a table in Buckfast Abbey in the 1800s contemplating how they could provide a drink that is both smooth as silk but with one hell of a kick.
And also how the good people of Scotland looked upon this drink and thought “we shall make this our national beverage”, and why it has to say it's not a medicine on the label, and who thought it was a good idea to combine red wine and git loads of caffei…. hang on I think it’s kicking in.
Lubricated with said Buckfast and filled up on crisps and terrible Co-op wraps we admired the beautiful countryside of South Lanarkshire as we snaked up to Edinburgh. We were greeted, naturally, by freezing cold temperatures and drizzle. Never change Scotland, never change.
Hibernian were the meat on Sunderland’s plate this afternoon and after eventually persuading a taxi driver to take us we found Easter Road (again, ten minutes late). My first visit to a Scottish ground started with being confronted with the prospect of a dry bar so it was time to fully embrace our surroundings - Bovril and a Scotch pie, my good sir.
Despite it being a testimonial and the Lads being 2-0 up - from Wahbi Khazri and everyone’s favourite sexy Dutchman, Jerry Lens - that wasn’t stopping Lee Barry Cattermole throwing around a few reducers. A mass brawl in the centre circle caused by a late lunge almost brought a tear to the eye and had his shot clipped in off the post rather than just rattling it, I think I would’ve been on the pitch.
Hibs rallied and whacked in two goals to level the score (you never win testimonials when you’re the away team, anyway) and the game finished with the Hibees supporters belting out Sunshine on Leith which, we can all agree, is an absolute banger of a club anthem. So as the apocalyptic amount of seagulls descended onto Easter Road we departed to revel in the delights of Edinburgh.
This just resulted in far too many pints of Tennent’s, chicken wings, a four-hour train home and a two-day hangover. That’s what pre-season is all about, right?
Anyway, it’s back everyone. The beautiful game is back - so strap in for ten months of unadulterated Sunderland-y goodness.
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