I think when I’m old and wrinkly, and looking back at my life, I’ll probably consider watching Sunderland win a cup semi final at Old Trafford as the greatest night I’ve ever had as a football supporter.
The game itself had absolutely everything, and the range of emotions I experienced - having gone from the brink of being knocked out in extra time, to going ahead with a minute to go, only for us to concede in added time - is something that you rarely experience as a Sunderland fan.
It was sobering. Literally. We’d had a good drink on the way down and although I know I was there I have absolutely zero recollection of being in Phil Bardsley’s dad’s club in Salford, nor do I remember watching any of the first hour or so of the game. I kind of regret getting as hammered as I did (as does my mate who was so pissed he was refused entry and missed the entire experience), but once the reality of the situation set in, as the game approached the end of normal time, I can remember everything as clear as day.
Anyone that was there that night can probably relate to what I’m trying to explain.
Once it became apparent that (despite losing the game 1-0 going into the extra time period) we had an unbelievable opportunity to get to a cup final, adrenaline coursed through my body and brought about a feeling that I think I’ve only experienced on a handful of occasions supporting our club. I remember it as clear as day.
I recall feeling exactly the same during half time of the cup final that proceeded that unbelievable night at Old Trafford - completely drained mentally by the notion that we were forty-five minutes from lifting a trophy for the first time in my life.
I was sat, sunk in my chair, trying to process the fact we were winning in a cup final. I was thinking about the open top bus going down the sea front, and thinking about the unbelievable party that would almost certainly have happened at Covent Garden. I remember feeling the same when we lifted the curse against Newcastle in 2008, when Kieran Richardson’s rocket in front of the North Stand saw us win the first Wear-Tyne derby game in twenty-eight years. I remember feeling just like that when I watched on from the away end at Luton in 2007, as Charlie Hurley and Niall Quinn joined in the celebrations on the pitch having secured the league title.
Those euphoric moments don’t come around often supporting Sunderland.
There I was, stood amongst eight thousand, nine-hundred and ninety-nine friends as we nervously awaited something - anything. It was about as intense as I can ever remember a Sunderland match being. I’ve watched the game back plenty times since and Manchester United were hopeless throughout extra time, but being stood watching from the stands I can remember chewing my nails down to the bone, clinging to the hope that we’d hang on and get a goal.
Looking back - and despite us being bottom of the league at the time - it was about as good a time as any to be playing Manchester United. They were headed towards the end of David Moyes’ tenure - not that we knew it at the time - and were suffering having lost the sparkle that Alex Ferguson took with him when he had stepped down at the end of the previous season.
The pressure was firmly on the home side to win after losing the first leg on Wearside, and we set up to defend from the off. Although Jonny Evans scored half an hour into the game it didn’t faze our players and we found ourselves going ahead in the most spectacular fashion, gifted a goal by one of the world’s best goalkeepers in David De Gea with a minute left to play. Sunderland being Sunderland managed to concede a goal only a minute later to dampen the spirits of the fans and send the game to penalties, and I recall the confidence just dripping out of me, remembering all the shootouts before this one that we had lost over the years. The playoff final of 1998; the Jeff Whitley miss in 2004 that ended our season there and then. Losing to Aston Villa in the 2009 Carling Cup forth round - quite often, with Sunderland, these things rarely end well.
First up was Craig Gardner, so often dependable from the spot. Missed. Over the bar. Danny Welbeck was next - if he’d scored it would have given our opponents a massive advantage - but he missed. Like Gardner, his effort ballooned over the frame of the goal.
Next, Steven Fletcher. His strike was tame, and De Gea saved it comfortably. At this point I remember feeling like we had already lost - that feeling was compounded when Darren Fletcher stepped up next to calmly stroke the ball past Vito Mannone.
Then, hope. Marcos Alonso’s penalty crept in just past David De Gea’s left arm. Game on. Passing him on his way back up the pitch was Adnan Januzaj - and, much like Steven Fletcher’s effort, his was weak and Vito Mannone gathered it with ease. One-all.
Perhaps the coolest head in our squad, Ki Sung Yeung, was next. Mr Dependable. He stroked it home with a calmness no other Sunderland player was capable of, and for the first time in the shootout we were ahead. The noise levels from the away end rose slowly, and as Phil Jones made his way to the penalty spot the nervous away contingent sang the name of Vito Mannone - Jones shaped up to the ball horribly, and his penalty curled over the bar.
With the next kick we had an opportunity to win it, but in true Sunderland fashion the opportunity was missed and Adam Johnson’s strike was saved.
Still, it all came down to the final penalty - Brazilian right back Rafael was the last kick taker for Manchester United, and needed to score. At this moment I was a nervous wreck, barely able to peer through my fingers at what was going on in front of me. I’m not a religious person but I was stood with my hands together, praying to God to help us out.
One kick from a cup final. One - and Vito Mannone went the right way and saved.
What happened at that point is nothing more than a blur. I fell at least three rows of stairs and people were flying everywhere, all around me. The noise was deafening, and finding myself under a heap of bodies, clasping for breath, I struggled back to the surface. I can remember seeing the brightness of the floodlights, and the reality of what had occurred began to set in. I looked to my right and there’s a bloke, at least twenty clem and well over six foot tall, stood, bawling his eyes out. I looked left and there’s another lad, who I’ve never seen before in my life, doing just the same - crying, staring right at me.
The three of us had never met, yet we shared a moment that I’ll never forget, hugging the pair of them close with tears streaming down my face. The one thing we all have in common, our love for Sunderland, brought us together. When people who don’t watch football tell me ‘it’s only a game’, I proudly regale that story, because to me it’s proof enough that football is much, much more than that.
As I climbed up the three rows of stairs that I’d collapsed over, trying to collect myself as I made my way back to my seat, I had a second to take it all in. I surveyed all around me, looking left, then right, the left again. Everywhere you looked there where grown men and women, crying.
It had been an incredibly difficult season up until that point. Having suffered from a raft of below-par players coming to the club that summer, the departure of Paolo Di Canio, and the seemingly impossible task of lifting ourselves from the bottom of the league table, we finally had something to look forward to. The pressure and angst of underachievement, just for that moment in time, was lifted.
That, people, is why we love this club.
The occasional moments of euphoria are worth every second of the shit we seem to put up with on a weekly basis.
All the hard yards, travelling the country and watching them lose, are all worth it because nobody - not one person - can take that feeling, those memories, away from any of us stood in the away end at Old Trafford that night.