Every Sunderland supporter has their own reasons for why they ended up falling in love with the club, and each of them are likely to have very different stories - particularly the more far and wide we are spread right across the globe.
Mackem exiles find themselves all over the globe, and there’s a particularly impressive following across the pond in North America - a group made up not only of exiled mackems, but also folk from the USA that, for whatever reason, fell in love with the club despite not necessarily having a genetic connection to the area.
We got in touch with Justin Warner - a lads fan from Whitley Bay who now resides in Toronto - for a chat about all things red and white... but not in terms of national flags.
RR: Hi! How did you come to start the NASA Sunderland Supporters Branch, and how long has the branch been going?
JW: NASA was officially started in 2013, and became an official Supporters Association branch in 2014. As the name implies, NASA was set-up to bring together all of the supporters in North America - USA, Canada and even Mexico (Hello, Ivan!)
Before then there had been a bunch of different (and often unofficial) groups, like the #1 Toronto Branch, that became the Black Cats of North America (with flag on the North Stand), the NYC branch, SAFC-USA, etc and while each of those did great work in bringing together their own small groups, we felt that there was an opportunity to be better organised and to give all of the fans across the continent a voice.
RR: How many members do you have, and were you surprised by the amount of mackems in North America?
JW: At our peak, we had over 350 members and were the largest overseas supporters branch... unfortunately, with the double relegation, we struggled to maintain membership and are currently at about half of that number.
Obviously, we’re hoping that those who left are just taking a break and will renew when Jack Ross leads us back to better times.
It’s not so much the amount of mackems in North America that’s the surprise - wherever there are expats, you’re bound to find some mackems... but it’s the way that so many of our non-expat members have little or no link to SAFC, but with some encouragement from friendly mackems and cajoling from the NASA reps have become some of our most loyal and supportive members.
To paraphrase Lord Discopants, Sunderland has got under their skin!
RR: It’s never been more exciting to be a Sunderland supporter. With the club becoming far more inclusive, how important is it to you to feel a part of what is going on?
JW: It’s crucial for us as an overseas branch to feel involved and maintain close contact with the club. The new SAFSee service has really, really helped - having the certainty that games will be streamed allows us to plan events and get people together to watch the games. And knowing that the funds to get the stream are going to the club, rather than to our opponents just feels so much better.
Generally speaking, the club has done a decent job of keeping in touch and helping us out - big shout out to Chris Waters for everything that he’s done for us. We’ve tried our best to stay engaged with the Supporters Association and other groups, so that we know what’s going on and to ensure that we are involved in anything that might impact overseas supporters.
RR: How did you become a Sunderland supporter/end up in America?
JW: I was living in Whitley Bay and was a season ticket holder, and through work had an opportunity to move to Toronto in ‘04. With our family situation at the time we decided to test the water, with the intention of coming back if it wasn’t for us.
Several work permits, permanent residence and citizenship later, I have a feeling that we probably won’t move back to the UK permanently.
RR: Do you get to many of the games?
JW: In the flesh, no - last one would have been the pre-season game against Toronto FC... we’re long over due a trip back home, but if it does happen next year, it will be in pre-season so we’ll have to see how that works out. Generally speaking though, NASA probably averages out at having members at at least one game per month.
Thankfully, our regional rep (Rebecca, Region 1A) keeps us pretty active, with at least a couple of meet-ups per month, so as long as there’s internet access and a screen, we can watch the games. Overall, there’s usually a NASA event on somewhere for most of the weekend games - mid-week fixtures tend to be a bit more problematic due to the time difference, so it’s more often a case of following SAFC.com or listening surreptitiously to the commentary while in the office.
The NASA AGMs are always good value too and give us a chance to catch up with old faces and meet some new ones.
RR: What game do you regard higher than all the others when it comes to your favourite Sunderland match you attended, and why?
JW: Being the age I am, the bad times have probably outweighed the good, so it’s hard to look beyond the Reidy years for the better memories... the record points season, the two 7th place finishes, Quinn and SKP, little boys in the park, jumpers for goalposts.
I would probably go for the 4-1 win over Chelsea - they’d ripped us a new one on the opening day of the season, and we returned the favour in this game. It felt like the whole club, players, staff and supporters believed that on our day we could give anyone a game. What we’d give for those performances at that level again!
RR: What are your hopes for the future with Sunderland?
JW: Like pretty much any other supporter of the club, I think that we need to be getting out of League One sooner rather than later, and thanks to the leadership of Messrs, Donald, Methven and Ross, it looks like we’re definitely in with a shout. After that, I’d take a year or two of consolidation in the Championship before aiming for the Premiership. I think we’ve all had enough of just surviving at that level, but unless Juan Sartori knows some oil sheikhs, it’s going to take a bit of a steady rebuild to get to that level again.
RR: Speaking of the future, what are your hopes for the NASA Supporters branch?
JW: Similar to the club, we’d take a season of steadily increasing numbers and ultimately we’d like to get back to where we were as the #1 overseas branch.
On a personal note, I’m really looking forward to our AGM (and hopefully promotion party) in Toronto in May, when we’ll be hosting Lee Howey. We’ve been really lucky with our association with the Former Players Association - Richie Pitt is our Honorary Life President - and in addition to Richie, we’ve been fortunate enough to have had Stan Cummins, Tony Norman and Darren Williams at previous AGMs, as well as having Reuben Agboola do a talk-in via the Interweb. Get yersels there!
RR: How can Sunderland fans in North America get involved with your branch?
JW: Other than just joining NASA, we’re always on the look out for Regional Reps to help keep the membership updated and engaged on all things SAFC, and to arrange at least a few meet-ups each season.