Some might imagine being a Mackem in exile equates to feeling far removed from your team; however, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
It might seem rather surprising, but being thousands of miles away from home has actually helped me to be more involved with Sunderland AFC than I ever was when I resided on Wearside.
Every day I’m scouring the web for news, discussing the club’s current situation via social media and Whatsapp, and writing articles to express my thoughts and opinions - much like many other fans.
I can honestly say with hand on heart that I’m more in tune with the club now than I ever have been before; it’s a link back to my hometown that I cherish because it helps me to feel like part of the community I love, even if I’m removed from the city.
That being said, no matter how many iFollow passes I buy, no matter how many games I listen to, or follow ardently via Twitter, you simply can’t replicate that energetic, pulsating atmosphere found inside the Stadium of Light... or so I thought.
I came of age during the Peter Reid years; every game a glimmering mirage on the horizon filled with a tangible sense of hope and excitement - something I yearned for week after week.
I don’t want to be totally absorbed by the mists of nostalgia, but I distinctly remember the journey that I used to make to the game back then: the old pubs, familiar faces, and a general buzz about the club. Even in the face of relegation and financial turmoil there was a sense of solidarity and fight. The stadium was still loud, brash and exciting, even if our position as a Premier League club wasn’t particularly permanent.
Walking along Millennium Way on Monday, going to my first home game in over two years, those embers of animation flickered back into life. I didn’t have to wake up early in the morning and watch the match over a bowl of cereal. Instead, I’d had a couple of beers, and I was trundling through the bitter air on the way to the match with my mates - it was just like old times. My stomach flipped, and not because of the festive season’s boozy exploits, but because I felt at home again.
This was everything I missed: the smell of burger vans, the flowing masses of people making their repeat pilgrimage, the familiar accents set against a backdrop of darkening skies and plummeting temperatures. This was it - everything I longed for. And there framing the scene was the promised land, the beating heart of the Mackem nation, a vault of childhood memories: the Stadium of Light.
Yet after a short while, my excitement began to wane - something didn’t feel quite right. The perceptible buzz of anticipation felt subdued, and the stadium simply felt less imposing, as bizarre as that might sound.
We walked passed the closed Fan Zone - a stark reminder of but one failed initiative - and as I headed to pay at the turnstile it was clear to see that numbers were down. But it wasn’t just that the numbers had lessened, it also felt like the pre-match buzz had diminished. There was no chanting, no hustle and bustle, no energy - it all felt incredibly stale.
Going into the stadium there was no rush of noise or excitement as I entered through the turnstile, £30 poorer. Instead I found shuttered bars and small gaggles of fans huddled in clusters, sparse and wilted.
After a few moments heading toward my seat it was clear to see that there was a surprising lack of younger spectators; it soon dawned on me that the club have lost a generation of fans that simply have other, better things to do on a matchday.
I shook off the negative thoughts and grabbed a pint, again somewhat taken aback at how quickly I was served. Where was the humdrum, and the energy? Looking around, the innards of the stadium felt forgotten and run-down. This wasn’t the stadium I remembered. This wasn’t home. This was a shell of our old selves.
We made our way to our seats, vast swathes of red-tinged plastic exposed like great wounds from some vicious battle as the Barnsley fans provided much of the noise. I sat with this bewildered sense of disbelief; where was the chanting and the tribalism?
Looking around, people sat chatting away surrounded by emptiness. I had a season ticket in the North stand once upon a time, and it rivalled the South-West corner at times in terms of voice and spirit. Today there was nothing.
I felt myself starting to get angry because no matter how involved I’ve been as an exile - despite hearing it from friends and family - I couldn’t believe that the stadium’s soul had been crushed. The word apathy had been bandied around by multiple critics, yet here it was, and I couldn’t believe it.
My wife (an adopted Sunderland fan) asked me why so few people were here, and why they weren’t being as feisty as she remembered from her last visit? I launched into my familiar tirade re-explaining the familiar tale of relegation, financial woe and this year following the same abject pattern as those before it.
And that’s when it hit me.
No the wonder those around me had lost their fight. These men and women have been subject to years of woe, and simply put they couldn’t summon the energy to do anything to battle it any more. They have been beaten by years of disappointment and despondency. Nothing has changed for the better, and in turn they have little to cheer for.
I sat watching the turgid football, and understood the frustrations. What can the fans do to rectify this awful situation?
Put into mounds of debt by careless management across the board, unable to revitalise a stale, wasteful squad whilst offering everything they have to a club that has failed them - why should these people care? It was a minor miracle that so many turned up in the first place. I felt the pain, and the careless showing on the pitch acted as the perfect motif for the mood that surrounded me: detachment.
The bleak scene painted before my eyes with the sounds, sights and sterility surrounding me reminded me of a poem by Robert William Service called, Home and Love - part of which reads:
Home without Love is bitterness;
Love without Home is often pain.
No! each alone will seldom do;
Somehow they travel hand and glove:
If you win one you must have two,
Both Home and Love.
There is no love at the Stadium of Light because this place doesn’t feel like home any more. Instead it feels like some dilapidated shell we inhabit, merely waiting for the next suffering.
I’d heard the talk of a disillusioned fan base and a lack of atmosphere, yet unable to witness it first-hand I chose not to believe in it. Unfortunately, after my discouraging return, the Stadium of Light no longer felt like home. Even though deep down I still love the stadium, the club and the people - I feel it’s clear to see that our club is badly broken.
Something has to change, but right now it feels like some maddening cycle has a firm grip on this club as we amble from error to error unable to rekindle the very thing needed to pull us from this malaise: love from the supporters.
One minuscule spark of hope that remains is the charismatic figure of Chris Coleman, who I feel truly understands the issue at hand. But will Ellis Short and Martin Bain support the new boss in his attempts at revitalising our club? January will tell.
I on the other hand will travel back to my new home, more dejected than whence I came.