On February 17th, 2018 I celebrated a half-century of life with members of Ellington & District Branch S.A.F.C.S.A. at the Stadium of Light, and by the time the second half started I had aged another ten years.
My trip to the U.K. from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was a pilgrimage of sorts. I had been to the SOL before, and I had been to a friendly at Darlington in 2014. I hoped this trip would be about more than football. This time I wanted to see Sunderland football with true north east fans.
It was also an opportunity to see my eldest daughter, not a football fan, who studies at Durham. Secretly, I hoped she would watch a match and fall in love with the club also.
Malcom Fail of the Ellington & District Branch was the consummate host. He ensured that I had the essentials – tickets, directions, and the like. He also invited us – my daughter, her two friends and me - to the Wearside Cricket club for pre-match pints. As I sat around the table I almost felt at home, like I belonged there, like I had been there before. There wasn’t a stranger to be had as we sat at a long table. A warm welcome, good conversation and spicy pheasant provided by one of the Ellington supporters made the pre-match something special.
As we made our way to the SOL, I couldn’t help but notice the fans. There wasn’t a particular energy, so much as a steadfast devotion to the club. Another six pointer, another must win wasn’t on the lips of a soul. It was a group of dedicated men and women who made their way as if it were on a long journey. The days of rallying cries for a six pointer must have disappeared in December.
The match was horrible. We sat and watched as Coleman’s side were outplayed from beginning to end. We cheered, we complained, yet somehow we left with a smile. Katie Flynn, a wonderful woman, offered to drive us back to where we were staying in Durham. We chatted about the match and each other. We lamented the squad but somehow the conversation kept going to brighter topics. As she dropped us off, she said she would see me Tuesday at Bolton.
When I arrived at Bolton, I couldn’t help but admire the stadium and grounds. I had a little time so I went over to the fan store to see if I could pick up a souvenir for one of my younger children. I knew Bolton had a purple kit and I thought maybe I could find one for her as purple is her favourite colour. I recalled getting an email earlier in the day that the SAFC kits were 75% off, so maybe I could get a good deal on the purple kit. Unlike SAFC, though, Bolton had no 75% off, no desperate sales to sell tops like my adopted and beloved Sunderland. It seemed fitting in a way, I suppose.
Inside the Macron stadium, I was amongst 1,000 or more fans. The diehards, the chanters, the people who would not only send Dick Advocaat’s wife flowers, but would have personally delivered them to her in the Netherlands. I was able to “sit” next to 82 year-old Bruce Mather. Bruce told me of his love for the club. He first attended a match at 12 years old. 70 years later he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with his American guest as we watched the lads put up a fight. Bruce never sat… not once. His voice, probably a little more frail than in 1948, still urged the lads to fight. I admired him, and thought to myself, ‘this is why I love Sunderland.’
Being around the Ellington & District Branch was the experience, not the match. I will always look back on the trip fondly. I hope someday to see the team that has shaken off the dark energy, and transformed into the team the fans deserve; however, until then, I can find comfort in knowing I support a club with the best fans in the world.