I remember the first time it happened. The first time that I can recall Sunderland football club playing me like a fiddle and leaving my emotions so interweaved and knotted that it would have taken Sigmund Freud himself to untangle the angst and disorientation. It was 1985. I was 9.
Charles and Diana were still love birds and McDonalds shook the world by introducing ready-to-eat salads. The Goonies were searching for One Eyed Willy and Marty Mcfly had realised how important it was to drive up to 88 miles an hour. For the most part it was a hell of a year. More significantly for me, the year marked the dawn of a crucial evolution.
Up until that point football, like the majority of my early life, had been all happiness and rainbows. It was a game like many others that I enjoyed from the most innocent and naïve of standpoints. It was an activity born from jolly larks with my friends in the park and hearty laughs with my dad, chasing a 50p floater around Hendon beach as if we were Pele and George Best. No hint of darkness had ever come close to cracking the shell of pure, unblemished joy that football’s medicine had had injected into my childish veins.
Then came the Milk Cup Final. We gathered in a friend’s house over at Penshaw and there was about 25 of us crammed into a 3 bed terrace around what was then the biggest television we could find. For the first time that I can at least recall, I was involved in a football match that meant something. Really meant something. Unknown to my wide eyed heart then, the slow, but very toxic venom of life long support was stealthily creeping its claws around my fragile purity.
I didn’t know it, I wasn’t aware of it, but I’d been corrupted. David Corner had a mare and showed he had the turning circle speed of the world’s fattest, three-legged elephant which led to a deflected goal that had us 1-0 down. Clive Walker missed a penalty and when the whistle blew in defeat, this little lad who had viewed football as nothing but undiluted joyfulness, cried like a baby. I was heartbroken. Sunderland AFC stopped the innocence of my childhood in its tracks.
I remember telling my sympathetic father, “I’ll never stop being sad about this..” Then the roller coaster nature of supporting this club really coiled its slithery body around my infantile emotions.
Only a couple months later Lawrie Mcmenemy rolled into town. I remember it well, as my mate Nigel’s older brother Mark and his pal Dean were on the news. They were proper lads - like 16, and I was a little in awe of them. They hung around with my older sister and went to the match by themselves and everything. To me they were Green Street while I was still very much Ryhope Road.
There they were as bold as brass on Tyne-Tees News as big Lawrie stepped out of his Merc. He was mobbed by dozens of Sunderland fans, all patting him on the back and embracing his expensive overcoat. And in the middle of this throng were Mark with his fluffy, barely noticeable but nonetheless impressive (to me) moustache and Dean with a scandalous perm that made him look like Kevin Keegan’s demented brother that he locked in a loft for his own safety. But at the time he looked very cool to this 9 year old. So there it was, far from being sad about the League Cup final, I was now elated by this God like figure arriving at the club ready to save us from a depressing downturn and transform us into footballing legends. In his autobiography, McMenemy entitled the chapter about his time in Sunderland as ‘Roker Hell.’ That tells you he was not exactly the Saviour we hoped for, and back to depression we sank.
And this is supporting Sunderland. From turmoil to hedonistic pleasure in no time at all - marked speedily by a very hasty return back to annoyance and irritation, until we finally reach destination desperation. But it’s not long before the buds of passionate joy reinvigorate the pleasure.
It reminded me of my days studying English literature at university and the crafty words of one of our greatest writers.
“The miserable have no other medicine, but only hope.”
I met up with some friends before the Derby game for dinner. We were as miserable as Melania Trump when she realised Donald didn’t suffer from erectile dysfunction after all. We were pessimistic about the crowd size, about the signings, about the long term costs of the Moyes era and relegation. My daughter Ava ate all of the chicken wings and I didn’t even notice. We walked across the bridge to towards the ground and the tension was tangible. Everyone was muted in nervous anticipation. I turned to my mate Bubba and asked, ‘Why do we all do this?’
Of course an hour and a half later the crowd were singing:
“…we’re by far the greatest team the world has ever seen..”
... and we’d only equalised! Not won! After the match I spoke to my friends again about the madness of football support and what makes us suffer the pain and endure to the happiness of success - or in our case, mild success. It reminded me of some of my work with young people and how they are led onto a path of addiction, even when they know the substances they consume are unhealthy and dangerous - off they sometimes march ready to risk it anyway. I wondered if the same psychology was relevant to Sunderland fans who have faced such a catalogue of ups and downs, and yet remain.
And, since our victories over Bury and Norwich, the intoxicating liquor of triumph has infected our hearts and imaginations even further.
The great Bill Shankly famously said:
Football isn’t a matter of life or death, it’s much more important than that.
Some may think this often-repeated phrase is over exaggerated, and they’d be right. To the sane mind it is. However, for football addicts, Shankly’s words are something so poetic and truthful that it makes Winston Churchill’s ‘We’ll fight them on the beaches…..’ speech sound bland.
Logically speaking, professional football is nothing more than 22 overpaid players running around a field for 90 minutes chasing a ball.
Logic plays no part in supporting Sunderland. More often than not it’s the irrational and illogical that rule our supporter’s roosts and despite our protestations, we love it. I’m all for reigning in expectations until football waves hello at my hypocrisy and invites it out to play. Sunderland fans don’t do middle of the road, we are usually all in, but why, when in our case when there are so many disappointments?
This is where we need to know the difference between our BIRGing and our CORFing.
Psychologists have explained the reasons behind our insatiable desire for such strong emotions. Scientifically, the emotions of a football fan has been essentially classified into two categories – BIRGing (Basking in Reflected Glory) and CORFing (Cut Off Reflected Failure).
BIRGing is effectively believing our team’s victory is our own personal victory and so we bask in the glory that comes with it. Or in our unique, unpredictable situation - we even bask in our teams battling draws and then we claim it as a victory. Twisted genius or what?
CORFing, on the other hand, is the feeling of deep shame at the loss of the team we love. Usually people want to steer clear of failure but in this circumstance the confusion and distortion of a loss is as addictive as the pleasure of victory.
So yes, good people. There are scientific metrics that help analayse and describe why Sunderland fans do what we do. But what researchers have yet to discover is why Sunderland supporters are so special. Almost the immeasurable. That despite every single disaster that befalls us, or every single ill equipped manager that leads us, regardless of every single mercenary player that abuses our loyalty or every single owner who takes advantage of our adoration, we remain most undeniably and unquestionably the best supporters in the land.
So despite our endorphin releasing highs and our devastating ‘never lifting the bed cover again’ lows, we are the best around. Bar none. There are no finer people I would rather BIRF or CORF with, and at the beginning of this week that is not a sentence I ever imagined I would say. Whether win lose, or draw there is no compensation more satisfying than doing it together. We are not the twelfth man - we are the very oxygen and life blood of this - the most frustrating and yet wonderful of clubs.