It’s been easy to get lost in cynicism when it comes to supporting Sunderland, especially over the past two years. Back to back relegations, absent owners and a revolving door of managers has left the club without an identity.
Saturday was a fresh start though, which is why everyone was so excited and - for the first time in a while - hopeful. Excitement and hope often make us feel like children again as we put our worries of the adult world to one side. It’s what’s what makes football great, and it’s the reason why over thirty thousand people clicked the turnstiles at the Stadium of Light for a third division game.
Among England’s highest attendance on Saturday were kids taking in their first ever game - a common occurrence for the first match of a new campaign. As I got off the Metro at Stadium of Light, two young lads walked ahead of me with an older relative. They can’t have been any older than six. “Look, there is it! Can you see it?!” shouted one of the young‘uns with infectious enthusiasm to his mate, as he pointed to the spires of the stadium.
My suspicions of this being their first trip to the Stadium of Light were confirmed when the same boy asked the bloke they were with “will Charlton play in red and white today as well?”
Seeing and hearing that beautiful naivety made me even more sure that the recent past doesn’t matter any more. Do you think those kids, armed with a bottle of pop and a bag of kets each, cared that we hadn’t won on the opening day since 2009? They probably aren’t even aware that we don’t usually win at home until November. For those kids, the long list of Sunderland mistakes isn’t something they’re bothered about.
At half time it didn’t feel like the rebirth of a proud club, however. All those who were watching Sunderland in the flesh for the first time were being shown just how painful it can be. The men and women who had stayed away but came back in the hope that things had changed, were being reminded why they stopped bothering. Those of us who kept turning up were just numb to it by now and trundled off to try and squeeze in a half time pint.
The difference we had been promised and the new beginning we had pined for was there in the second half though. The manager was bold enough to change things early and it paid off. Jack Ross cut a cool figure on the touchline, looking like he owned the place just as much as Stewart Donald does. After showing such nous to snatch the result and pumping his fists in the centre circle at full time, it felt like Stadium of Light did indeed belong to him.
Ross’ players could also claim that ownership of the land after they ran themselves into the ground. The lads in red and white believed they could win the day because this fresh squad, like the children watching their team for the first time, aren’t burdened by the past.
Whether it was the tenacity of Chris Maguire, the fearlessness of Bali Mumba or the trickery of Lynden Gooch, the crowd poured encouragement onto them and willed the ball into the net of the North Stand.
When Gooch met Bryan Oviedo’s cross the Wearside faithful celebrated like only those who have been deprived of jubilation can. The noise, the energy, the bodies flying all over - it was great, and the way each corner of ground proclaimed that ‘we’re by far the greatest team the world has ever seen’ was so emotional that you felt it may be true.
Football is all about moments and for Sunderland, that was a special one. If that’s the first time you saw Sunderland score a winner or the hundredth time, there won’t be too many as memorable or as significant as that.
There’s work to do, of course - the performance itself didn’t match the defining moment in terms of perfection, but that doesn’t matter right now. Allow your cynicism to wash away because, for once, your excitement and your hope was justified.
You didn’t leave the stadium at full time grumbling about “same old Sunderland” and how nothing will ever change - you left with the same level of enthusiasm as those children attending their first games.
Sunderland reminded you that going to support your team can actually be fun.
Whatever happens throughout this season, don’t forget that. We might not be back yet but we’ve taken a huge first step on this new journey, and we have every right to be excited about it.