For far too long, having to lend my support to England has felt like a chore. And I actually feel embarrassed admitting it, but it’s true - how often have you switched on to watch them play in recent years, only to mentally switch off no sooner than a ball is kicked?
How stupid does it sound to say that? It’s my country - my allegiance and commitment to supporting them should be unwavering, much the same way as it has been to follow Sunderland over recent years. Even despite the years of disappointment, and the lack of a connection between the fans and the players, they’re still part of the fibre of who I am - in many ways supporting England is more similar to following Sunderland than most of us will care to admit.
It really is - and it’s not until you sit back and think about it that you can truly recognise this as a fact. Much in the same way we continue to celebrate Sunderland’s FA Cup win in 1973, we still romanticise over England’s success in 1966 and at Italia 90 - and deep down we all know that it’s about time that we had some new memories to fawn over.
But this summer we enter into a new era, both for club and country. No matter how the rest of this tournament pans out for Gareth Southgate and his team, they’ll return back to the homeland recognised in the way that they, for many years, have not been - as a patriotic, down to Earth bunch of lads that just want to do their country proud. We can be under no illusions that these boys are trying their best - and if that’s not good enough, then so be it.
There are no real egos, there are no larger-than-life personalities - just a carefully-cultivated group of players that have bought fully into the ideas implemented upon them by Gareth Southgate, who too has been a complete breath of fresh air in his role as the head coach of our national side.
Sunderland need to do much the same by their supporters - loyal, expectant men and women that just want to see eleven players play much in the same style that they would if they had the talent or the luck to become a representative of this football club on the pitch.
Whether we were playing in the Northern League, the Conference or League One wouldn’t particularly matter - all that the majority of our supporters crave is the excitement and buzz that comes with attending a game of football on a Saturday. For Jack Ross he must manufacture a side capable of greatness, albeit on a much smaller scale. Sunderland need to build upon the good faith shown in them by their fans, and whilst nobody will utter it publicly from within the club, we all know that promotion back to the Championship has to be the primary aim this season.
Followers of England are experiencing something similar with the current national side.
For the first time in what feels like forever there seems to be a real want amongst the public to fully get behind and support our side at the World Cup - even despite the best attempts of our media to derail the good feeling, whether that be through smear campaigns against the likes of Raheem Sterling, or revealing team news for no reason other than to sell a few more papers and earn a few more clicks.
And, like the Sunderland supporters who might not want to admit that finding silverware soon is a real possibility, the England players know that with the right mentality and with a boat-load of hard work, winning the World Cup isn’t the impossible task that it has appeared to be in the past.
Having a positive mentality is what, at all levels of football, separates the winners from the losers. Two of the biggest leaders in the England dressing room are Jordan Henderson and Jordan Pickford - men that were crafted in the image of Kevin Ball, one of the greatest captains that Sunderland AFC has ever had.
Whilst Bally was never considered good enough to make an imprint on the England scene, it’s fantastic to see his most-celebrated characteristics come to the fore from within his greatest proteges for the national side. Watching Jordan Henderson roar as he gathered his teammates to celebrate John Stones’ opener against Panama brought me right back to watching Big Kev do just the same in the days when he led Sunderland’s charge up and down the Football League during the 90s.
But harking back to a better version of Sunderland - and England - from our past won’t do us any favours now if we’re truly going to truly progress. Now it’s time for a new crop of heroes to step up to the plate and wear the badge with honour.
There’s something that feels very different with regards to following the two teams that I hold closest to my heart this summer, and that’s refreshing. Sunderland and England may not reach their pinnacle soon, but provided the supporters have found a way to fall back in love with them, that is all that truly matters to any of us.
Football is coming home, and I’m loving every single minute of it.