Stage 1 - Stickers & Strips
Collecting and swapping football stickers was great wasn’t it? They were those real stickers too. You know, the ones that you licked the back of and stuck in an album. Topps cards with complementary bubblegum purchase if only to sort and analyse and memorise the statistics stationed on the back.
Your first visit to Roker Park. The Fulwell, the Clock Stand, the Roker End - no seats aside from your Dad sitting you on his knee as you surveyed your area of choice and picked your stand. There were no replica strips in those days - and no tickets either, to be fair - just your first ever red and white scarf.
Stage 2 - Recognition & wonder
Recognition of your surroundings, of your Roker Park, the building of memories, the wonder of football. Memorising the players: Gary Rowell, Shaun Elliott and Stan Cummins. Were they any good? Who would be your favourite? Then rocking up to school ready to battle out the argument of “Ally’s better than Keegan”.
That barrier you’d started to station yourself on in the Roker End. That barrier that still meant you were still not being quite tall enough to see, yet still not old enough to know, and still too young to care.
Stage 3 – Always winning even when getting beat
Going to the match with your mates. That graduation to the Fulwell End - the supporter’s transition from boy to man. Beginning as kids - and daft ones at that - Colin West, Clive Walker, losing at Wembley, and a relegation.
Into your teens and believing everything Sunderland was good because even when you lost most weeks, you had such a time following the lads that you were never really defeated - no matter how often it happened.
The excess alcohol and those first few away games; feeling ten foot tall in cities and towns you never thought you’d frequent - your world opening up and Peter Reid arriving to cheer us all up.
Stage 4 – Maturity
The beginning of adulthood, a brand new, state-of-the-art, stadium and the attempts at being a grown up before back to sitting with your family.
It was a new way to enjoy watching the Lads, back to the beginning, sitting in a seat - my own seat this time. Free-flowing attacking football that gave us reason to celebrate three points most weeks.
A match-day that had changed almost beyond recognition, but with the same old ups and downs you had become accustomed to - the same joy and the same misery that comes with supporting Sunderland.
Stage 5 - A habit borne out of obsession
As time moves, life evolves and progresses. Travelling to support the Lads had moved into a fun bus, sharing beers with old friends - but also many new ones too.
Laughs, memories, misery; the football almost an afterthought.
With over one thousand matches in the tank, each player starts to blend into one. Memories from yesteryear are as clear as day; whereas last week’s defeat to Watford is a bit of a blur.
Welcome to life as a middle-aged football fanatic. Our hope and certainty of future success having fallen way back on our list of motivations - our visits more borne out of habit, friendship and pure, unadulterated, loyalty.
Stage 6 – Leaving the future to the unknown
There’s still a while to go in stage six. There’s still a tartan blanket and hip flask to come. The possibility of a seat change, the guarantee of becoming more aggrieved at the referee week after week, and the mispronouncing of our new signing’s name.
Will I evolve into the bloke that tells people to sit down? When do I begin to discuss the old days before enthusiastically arguing that the old days were better. Still turning up, still feeling that passion for the club, still hurting at each defeat and vigorously celebrating each win.
One day this will be all of us... one day.