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TALES FROM THE STANDS: Free hugs! A travelling Sunderland fan’s quest for companionship

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Just what is it about a ball hitting the back of a net that can unite total strangers into a show of pure, unadulterated joy? Football is a force of its own.

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As a Sunderland fan based in Cardiff I don’t get to go to home games. If I’m lucky and the away allocation hasn’t sold out, I can get to away games in the south and the Midlands.

The other thing is that I usually end up going on my own - no mates around me to lose my sh*t with when (if) we score. I have to rely on the kindness of strangers, and strangers (the clue’s in the name) can be pretty bloody strange.

I was at Palace a few years back for the inexplicable game where we were 4-0 up at half time - the falsest of many false dawns in the last couple of years. There was another solo fan sat next to me, and we hadn’t spoken, but for the fourth goal we’d lost it and had a textbook football fans bouncing hug.

The euphoria among the away fans was immense. Everyone was grinning and shaking their heads in disbelief in the queues on the concourse. Old men who’d been at every game for forty years were saying they’d never seen the like. We were ecstatic.

Crystal Palace v Sunderland - Premier League
“WE ARE DEFINITELY NOT GOING TO BE RELEGATED”
Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images

I came back a few minutes late for the second half and asked my new hug buddy (I didn’t call him that) if I’d missed anything.

He looked at me blankly for a second, didn’t say a word, and went back to watching the match. I felt like a one night stand who’d just asked for a cooked breakfast the morning after.

At Bristol City last season (the famous ‘Bristanbul’ comeback – you guessed it, another false dawn) there was a young guy stood next to me who’d been making me laugh throughout the game.

“HANDBALL!” he’d scream at the top of his lungs, before leaning in to me and saying “that was never handball. Feels good to say it though. Therapeutic.”

I do love a self-aware fan. When McGeady scored the second, we went nuts and hugged it up. Then he vanished and I was left to celebrate the equaliser alone.

Bristanbul : Me looking optimistic before the comeback

Maybe it’s a British thing or just a man thing. If we express our emotions, especially in front of strangers, we have to run away or pretend it didn’t happen. Still, it could be worse.

I was on my lonesome at the Liberty Stadium, Swansea in 2012, sat on the right hand edge of the away fans, directly next to the home fans. No trouble there, they’re a friendly bunch in Swansea.

To my left was a little old gadgie, at least 150 years old. The sort of old gadgie you think doesn’t exist any more. I’d love to have chatted to him about the old days (maybe he was at the ‘37 Cup Final?) but he didn’t seem to have the energy to move his lips and talk.

It’s a miracle he’d travelled the 250 miles to be there. I hunkered down for a lonely match, occasionally glancing over to make sure he was still alive.

About 15 minutes in, Craig Gardner went in for a 50/50 ball with Neil Taylor and the Swansea player stayed down. It looked really bad. The physio made the crossed arms signal to the bench that it was a break.

Taylor was stretchered off on oxygen and the whole ground rose to applaud him. The whole ground apart from the guy two seats to my left, who was screaming “Get off you dirty c**t! F**k off!”

I somehow hadn’t noticed him until now. He was a 7 foot tall and 7 foot wide skinhead who looked like he’d been kicked out of the National Front for being too lairy, and I was the only one stupid enough to have made eye contact with him.

“He could’ve injured our lad the dirty b*stard!” he screamed at me, veins bulging out of his forehead. “He’s only a young lad, he’s broken his leg!” I replied, immediately wishing I hadn’t.

He stared at me like he’d just found me in bed with his wife.

‘Oh great’, I thought, ‘so this is how I die.’

Swansea City v Sunderland - Premier League
Yeah mate, he looks fine.
Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images

The match carried on, and I was not enjoying it. Now I’m not a manly man at the best of times, but staring into the eyes of my killer had put me right off my football.

Just before half-time Stephen Fletcher, who was making his debut, scored a beautiful curler into the bottom corner. The away end erupted and before I knew it I was swept up in the arms of my tormentor, jumping up and down, all our differences forgotten.

Then I realised... that guy was two seats away from me. Where was the old gadgie? The old gadgie was squashed between us like a toddler who’d accidentally wandered into a sumo ring.

I fully expected that when I was released from the death grip that he would fall away, a shattered husk, and I’d be a material witness in a manslaughter trial - that is if I was still alive by the end of the match.

But no, he was fine. He came out smiling (the most he’d moved all game) and took his seat. He is invincible and will outlive us all.

I’m pretty sure it was this guy.

In first-half injury time Swansea equalised and Fletcher put us back in front, and I went to get my half-time cuppa a bit shaken up by a mad ten minutes.

Thankfully my new giant friend ignored me in the second half, and decided instead to focus his attention on the Swansea fan directly to my right. “Oi, you bald b*stard!” shouted the bald b*stard.

I spent most of the second half stuck between two hairless men have the world’s angriest bald-off. They wouldn’t leave each other alone all half.

Swansea equalised, and it ended in a draw, the only other incident being Chico Flores’ red card for trying to kick Louis Saha’s head into row Z. When the whistle went I was getting up to leave, and so was the Swansea fan, but Mr Radgy Skinhead 2012 wasn’t done.

Swansea City v Sunderland - Premier League
Head still on
Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images

“Oi mate! Come here!” he beckoned to the Swansea fan. I exchanged nervous glances with a nearby steward, who was sitting between home and away fans to keep the peace. The Swansea fan came back, and the giant leaned right over me towards him.

Oh sh*t, I thought, it’s all gonna kick off. They sized each other up, smiled, exchanged a friendly handshake and wandered off into the sunshine. I was left bewildered, wishing I had a psychologist to consult about what the f**k just happened and why.

I’ve since stopped questioning the mad stuff people do at football. I’ve decided you have to learn to embrace your fears and, if you’re a solo football fan, embrace anyone that’ll have you. Just don’t expect breakfast.