Tuesday 28th April 1998. Portman Road. A date, and a ground, that remain firmly rooted in my mind like a bad nightmare that I can never seem to shake free from.
I’m reaching that period in my Sunderland supporting life that we all do at some point. That period where each ground, or team, comes with a memory of a game or a moment that scarred you more than you were perhaps comfortable with.
You know the sort; whenever Charlton Athletic come to the SOL, memories of Michael Proctor come to mind; away days at Southampton will always bring the 8-0 defeat crashing into your frontal lobe. Those days that give you character, yet still make you shudder with dread.
Let me rewind you back almost two decades; my first campaign as a season ticket holder, and our maiden season at our new forty-two thousand seater stadium. It was a glorious time and enough to make any young child - or indeed adult - fall in love with this marvellous, yet completely mental football club.
A fresh faced Kevin Phillips and Niall Quinn - enjoying the beginning of his Indian summer - were in fine form, with Summerbee and Johnston providing the ammunition. Dear God, it was glorious. Just think back to it - we were unstoppable. Despite the poor start to our campaign, from October onward we seem to demolish everything in front of us. Hot on the trail of league leaders Nottingham Forest (who we had thrashed 3-0 away from home by the way) we sat in second place, just ahead of that ‘Boro lot from down Yorkshire way.
In the same way we expect defeat in almost any game nowadays, we expected the opposite back in 1998. As a naive 11-year-old, I thought Sunderland were the best team in the world. Although I’d seen us lose 4-0 at Elm Park in that very same season, it meant very little to me; a thirteen game unbeaten run meant it wasn’t just my childhood wonder that gave me the positive outlook - in fact most of Wearside felt we were playing the best football seen on the banks of the River Wear in some time.
Just two wins would do it, and a away win against Ipswich at Portman Road would surely see us on our way to automatic promotion. My Dad, the ultimate pessimist, watched the game from the smokey delights of the once glorious Grange pub on Newcastle Road and told me we’d get beat before he left the house, but he always said that - still does. I didn’t listen to him then; at least not like I do now.
Although we started the better side - with Kevin Phillips forcing Richard Wright to tip the ball over the bar - the Tractor Boys became more and more dangerous as the first half wore on. Minutes into the second half a looping Matt Holland header evaded the outstretched Lionel Perez and suddenly our collective hearts sank. Could my Dad actually be right?
Alex Mathie managed to put Ipswich two goals up moments later (even managing to miss a penalty too) and before I knew it - for the first time in my life Sunderland had gone and “done a Sunderland” to me. It was crushing.
The thought of defeat had never crossed my mind - it was an odd emotion for me at the time, football had never given me worry, anxiety or upset. It had always been relatively plain sailing.
However, looking back, the funniest part of the evening was when my very inebriated Dad came back to the house at about one in the morning, steaming drunk, silent and with the same look of utter despair on his face as I did - or perhaps that was the fifteen pints of Stones; one or the other.
He walked in the door with a chippy, grabbed the bread from the kitchen and proceeded to watch the highlights on Channel three. As the Alex Mathie goal went in, he stood up - still silent - and proceeded to volley half a loaf of Warburton’s straight into our brand new TV. He sliced it - no pun intended - it clipped the top and went down the back of the unit before my Dad screamed “why couldn’t that Mag b***ard of hit it like that!?” We still laugh about it till this day, but back then I sat in silence, replaying the let down I had witnessed over and over in my head.
Despite living through a promotion and a relegation in my early years, the Lads were always relative underdogs - I sort of knew we were pretty average. But the likes of Phillips and Quinn had given me hope - a real pride in the team I supported. Suddenly, it felt like it was all crashing around me. Stupid now considering how good we were, but back then it felt like Sunderland had broken me and I could never look at it the same way again. I hated Ipswich Town.
Truth be told, I was lucky. What I experienced in the coming years after that were special. Seasons and memories most of us probably took for granted. An era we would probably give our right bollock for. And despite the relegations, David Moyes and everything in between, it’s a Tuesday night at Portman Road that always reminds me of the day I knew choosing to support Sunderland would never be a wise choice if I wanted to remain mentally stable - but I wouldn’t have them any other way.