It’s 15:05 on a Saturday afternoon. I find myself standing on the third level of a small and claustrophobic metal stand, can in one hand and a tab in the other, watching South Shields play in the eighth tier of English football. It’s a whole world away from the glamour, sanitation and rules of the Football League, never mind the Premier League.
Carl Finnigan (pictured above), Shields’ star striker and Wembley goalscorer walks idly by on the touchline with fans, as a few other long-term injury victims enjoy a pint while overlooking their teammates' victory.
This is football. Pure football. But something isn’t quite right. I’ve always sensed an unease, an eerie and ominous sense of foreboding. Nothing was amiss. Shields won. However, something was missing.
South Shields is my home town and I often go to games at Mariners Park. I enjoy going, and have an affinity with the side borne from years of the club struggling to merely survive intermingled with hometown pride.
It’s more than that, however. The urge to move away from the massive egos, bigger stadia and gargantuan pay packets of the Premier League is undeniable to many. It is beyond a breath of fresh air to attend the games, and I’m utterly delighted the club are once again on an upward curve for the first time in almost a century, playing some excellent football in the process. I’ve been going for years, and have many happy memories there. I will continue to go a handful of times per season - just as long as the Lads aren’t playing.
Even more so, South Shields’ captain is none other than the continually effervescent and effective Julio Arca - my childhood hero. Even at the grand age of 37 he covers every blade of grass and fights for the claret and blue of Shields just as much as he did the red and white of Sunderland. Shields games are quaint, enjoyable and impressive.
Look how much it meant to him! Julio Arca was in tears as he left the field after Saturday's semi-final win! pic.twitter.com/U0PPWIJ7H5— South Shields FC (@SouthShieldsFC) March 20, 2017
However, it’s not the same. It’s not Sunderland.
There is no hypo-manic ecstasy of when the ball ripples the back of a net down below and nor is there the equally as gut-wrenching pain. Each 90 minutes of football presents both an emotional nadir and zenith, and if you don’t feel that - something is up.
Passion. A word emanating from the Latin Passimo, to suffer and endure in equilibrium. For the vast majority of football fans, following your beloved team week-in, week-out will lead to enduring an inevitable suffering. For fans of struggling clubs, the odd win will be cherished deeply and held onto for years, but will ultimately lead from renewed hope to once again suffering once these hopes are dashed; it truly is the hope that kills you.
Sunderland will forever be my club, from the first day I walked out of the concourse at the Stadium of Light, only to be met by a barrage of lights, cacophony of noise and scenes of wonder from all around me. The sense of home, smell of Bovril, feel of the sharp corners of the programme and smile on my father’s face will stay with me forever. I can only imagine what the experience was like in his shoes, as a fully functioning human aware to his surroundings and seeing the look of awe plastered across my own.
Subsequent zenith and nadir have made this great club mine even more; consecutive seventh place finishes, FA Cup semi-final heartbreak at the hands of Millwall, record relegations in consecutive Premier League seasons, euphoric last-day Championship titles, tenth-placed finishes, great escapes, every single away game, and more than any other, seeing my beloved team in a Cup Final at Wembley.
Both the heartbreak and euphoria of these subsequent twenty years merely deepened my love for this team. Passion is not a construct, but deeply developed throughout years of success and, crucially, pain.
Even during the ugly repeated scandals, firing manager after manager, hiring a Fascist, the club CEO allegedly protecting a sex offender, constant financial turmoil, repeated mismanagement and a club making redundant over forty staff on the same day it is announced the aforementioned CEO received a six-figure bonus all aided to widen a small gulf between the fans and club into an almost unassailable disconnect, and pushed me to breaking point.
Managerial charlatan David Moyes almost broke my bond with this club. He had an egotistical chip on his shoulder, feeling omniscient and omnipotent over the “sorry Sunderland fans” who did not deserve the managerial master. But no, I still came back. I will next year. I will every year.
I still brave the majority of games with a resilient, us against them (modern football, the Premier League, money makers and opposition) mentality and shout myself hoarse in memory of a once great football club.
Why? Because this stinking core of a club is mine. This debt-ridden, broken shell is yours. Sunderland AFC is ours.
Some fans go to both. Fair enough, go. Shields games are a breath of fresh air even if it’s enjoying a match with a few pint with your mates. But don’t mistake fandom with support or pride with passion.
To those who have abandoned Sunderland for “success”: fair enough, go. I don’t blame you and I hope Shields continue to push-on from success to success. However, when we turn this around, don’t you dare come idly back with your red and white in tow.
You only get one football team, it’s under your skin, in your heart and part of your soul. You’ve broken that once - don’t you dare do it again.
You can change your wife, your politics, your religion, but never, never can you change your favourite football team.
- Eric Cantona