Seconds flickered away as Marcus Rashford’s floated free-kick was mercilessly thumped clear by the Croatian defence. The stalwarts Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida roared at their compatriots to charge forward before falling to their knees as the final whistle blew. The Balkan nation was going to the World Cup final and England were out.
The country had joked, then began to believe, that football was coming home but as the sun set on a warm July evening the dream died. The skies began to cloud over on what had been a seemingly never ending summer and the first droplets of rain in weeks began to fall. It was back to reality.
Letting out a quiet sigh I drank the last of an increasingly warm lager and headed home with a lingering sense of dread in the back of my mind. I had to get back to supporting Sunderland Association Football Club. I had to get back learning the names of the raft of players we have signed and start sinking money back into instantly regrettable trips to places I previously had no intention of ever visiting.
England’s progression in Russia had been an extremely welcome distraction from the calamitous failings Sunderland had dished up over the past two years. Despite the perceived positivity regarding the takeover, the replacement of pink seats and the transparent nature of the club, it has been hard to detract from the position we are in.
Having been preoccupied watching France and Belgium duke it out in a World Cup semi-final, I had completely missed that Sunderland had kicked off their pre-season campaign with a defeat at Darlington (the mighty, part-time Darlington). After subsequently reading that we were off the pace against a bunch of builders and our new signing was forced off after half an hour, it did not crank up the hype machine for a Saturday afternoon in Hartlepool.
Alas, this is the bed I made for myself so I guess I better lie in it, board this Megabus to Middlesbrough and stop moaning.
A layover in Teesside allowed for a walk through this most wonderful of towns surveying the routine of our North Yorkshire neighbours. It allowed me to indulge in a little nostalgia as I passed the Last Orders pub next to Middlesbrough station which charged me £3 for two beers in 2008, and shed a tear.
Hartlepool was always somewhere that everyone in university would talk to me at length about. “Ah man, you’d love it there”, “the punk scene is class there”, “it’s really cheap”, “the marina is lush”, they would drone on and on about. I can only assume they spent most their time bouncing around venues such as Hartlepool’s indie bar with “fre [sic] Wi-Fi” and an endless playlist of every song from 2007.
As the sun beat down to blister the skin of many of the uncovered torsos of the Sunderland contingent we crammed onto the terraces of Victoria Park. While it had been two months since I had the privilege of watching the red and white wizards in the flesh, the hallmarks of the past two/three/four/50 seasons were on show.
This was my 300th Sunderland game. The 300th time I stood on and watched passes be misplaced, stodgy and limp attacks, absolutely no end product, defenders looking at each other like they’d met in the car park half an hour before kick off - it was a perfect microcosm of over 20 years of watching this red and white shower.
The game had the ingredients for a typical Sunderland pre-season game with fans abusing players - Lee Cattermole and George Honeyman bearing the brunt of much of the stick - and the Lads managing to dig themselves out of a hole thanks to a teenager. Benji Kimpioka leathered one in from the edge of the area and thus helped to avoid a full-on mutiny.
Sipping an ice cold, post-match Stella Artois costing £2.90 (I seriously love your pricing structure, Middlesbrough) I mused on the season to come. For all the positivity the owners have brought (NEW SEATS EVERYBODY), the day highlighted that one bad turn this season and we will be plunged back into the toxic environment that has engulfed this club for what has seemed like forever.
We are not a patient fanbase, the goodwill will evaporate at the first sign of real trouble. I just hope the ownership is prepared for this and will know how to handle it when it inevitably comes to pass.
I already miss the World Cup.