Ah, the first away trip of the season. It’s the time of year when train stations are filled in the early hours of the morning with balding men, acne-riddled teenagers with gravity defying hair and people who looked as if they have been kicked through a club shop gawping at electronic timetables.
They are dressed in their finest Adidas Gazelles, Stone Island windbreaker and have an enormous bag of cans clasped firmly in one hand for a 45-minute journey.
It is what they have been waiting for all summer. The World Cup was fun but it simply does not compare to rolling up to a rival town ready to goad its inhabitants and return home completely inebriated, mumbling about how much of a shithole that place was.
Yes, beautiful association football in England is back and, baby, we have got ourselves an away day on our hands.
Such was my enthusiasm for Sunderland’s trip to Luton I practically leaped out of bed at 4.30am to spend the ensuing five hours on a bus to the Big Smoke... the Big Smoke that will deliver me to the Lesser Smoke (but just as grey) confines of Luton.
I had never been to Luton before but the illuminating review of the Bedfordshire town in 2004’s literary opus ‘Crap Towns’ had whetted my appetite to no end.
The fevered anticipation of the inaugural away fixture of the campaign had certainly not been lost on certain sections of London’s population. Just a couple of hours after day break, one of King Cross’ most popular watering holes had been comanderied by the ‘Blades On Tour’ - a fine collection of gentlemen that had all seemingly invested in the same polo t-shirt.
However, the bourgeois surroundings of London were not on the agenda and it was time to board the train and travel back to 1989 and to Luton.
The time-old British joke is that southerners consider us northerners to be simply a bunch of unwashed proles that live in terraced houses, work down mines and race whippets. They drink their Pimms and lemonade and quip how it’s “grim up north” despite having never ventured any further than Watford Gap. We are good at that class divide between the north and south but if it is, indeed, “grim up north”, then what does that make Luton?
There could not be a more perfect town to ram home that Sunderland were now in League One. An utterly soulless concrete metropolis with a depressing shopping centre seemingly dropped in the middle like a Red Cross parcel.
It is the kind of place where you expect the gramophone needle to scratch and an entire pub to stop dead in its tracks the moment you walk in - except you can’t because EVERYWHERE had a welcome of “no away fans”.
Hey, don’t worry as business picked up when we arrived at Kenilworth Road.
Following back-to-back relegations, this is the setting I wanted. I want football grounds crammed into terraced estates, I want social clubs with half-time meat raffles, I want teams sponsored by local funeral homes and you better believe I want to see someone’s washing hanging up in their backyard as I enter an away end.
Kenilworth Road is simply magnificent.
From the friendly “welcome to Luton, boys” from the bouncer-like stewards to the toilets in what looked to be someone’s shed to gazing out over rows and rows of back gardens to obstructing pillars and a low roof - the Oak Road Stand duly delivered.
What an arena for a game of third tier football.
This was a place I had no intention of losing in either. Fortunately, neither did Sunderland. A more settled centre back partnership of the gloriously handsome Glenn Loovens and not-quite-as-handsome Jack Baldwin quelled the football nerds’ favourites Luton Town.
The hosts looked fairly toothless and prone to hoofing balls over the executive boxes/conservatories on the left hand side.
Whether Luton are a poor side or this is simply the standard in League One that we have simply not become accustomed to as supporters is yet to be seen. However, once Josh Maja rolled in a delightful finish to put The Lads a goal up, it felt deserved and the celebrations that followed made those hours on the road feel just that tiny bit worthwhile.
Naturally, this wouldn’t be a Sunderland away fixture without a tinge of disappointment and as Luton clawed themselves back into it there was the usual inquiry took place among the away contingent. It was decided that the goal, and literally everything in the game and in life, was Lee Cattermole’s fault.
Luckily, for the naysayers old Lee Barry Cattermole will be jetting off to the exotic climbs of French wine country while they had to navigate their own way out of Luton. And the one thing you really, really want after a day out in Bedfordshire’s finest hamlet is to be stuck on Megabus for seven (SEVEN) hours with only a fellow passenger’s snuff* and Rammstein’s back catalogue for company.
The League One adventure has begun. One jobber town down, 22 more to go.
Farewell Luton, I hope to never, ever see you again.
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*it’s sniffing tobacco not cocaine before you start grassing