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Sunderland, Luke O’Nien & Wembley: Connecting the dots for a father & son after a difficult year

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All Sunderland-supporting parents dream of one day taking their kids to watch the Lads play - and, after a tough year, attending Wembley for season card holders Ross & Alexander Johnston means more than anyone else could possibly imagine.

Ross Johnston

For the men and women that follow their hometown clubs there’s an extra special feeling you get when becoming a parent as you begin dreaming about one day taking your child to their first football match.

When Alexander was born I was already planning ahead, ensuring he would have the Sunderland kits of that season to not only wear but keep to one side in his memory box. My Sunday League playing days are long gone, but wearing the number 2 when I played right-back throughout school and beyond always stuck with me. With the shirts being tiny at his age, I could only fit ‘Lex – 2’ on the back. It didn’t matter, like me he was Sunderland born and bred and I’ve always been prepared to ensure that his connection with the club would stay this way, through thick and thin.

When I put the question to family and friends about when would be the right time to take him to his first game I was told of other people’s experiences - both good and bad -of trying to keep their children entertained throughout the day. Loading up with sweets, iPads and whatever else I could think of in case a distraction from the football was needed seemed to be the common theme from those that I’d chatted to, with an overarching impression given that taking your kids to the football when they’re still quite young isn’t always as glamorous as it seems in your dreams.

When the Stadium of Light opened me and my Dad cemented our names within panel 23 of the South Stand. Being somewhat superstitious we would always give both names a lucky rub in the hope of walking out at the end of full time with three points.

The memories of the three of us going to our first game together, three generations of highs and lows building to this point, was something I’ll never forget.

Alexander - SAFC from birth
Ross Johnston

Alexander’s first game was a 2-0 win vs Peterborough United on 24th September 2013 when he was just three years old. An Emanuele Giaccherini goal from nowhere sparked the loud roar which took the boy by complete surprise - the shock being that overwhelming that tears streamed down his face because he was so frightened by the sudden outburst of energy occurring around him. A Valentin Roberge second sealed the win but this time he was all smiles, blissfully celebrating our progression into the 4th round of the League Cup.

Flash forward to the end of 2018 - it’d been a difficult year for the family, not only having to deal with Alexander’s ongoing health issues but also, on top of that, coming to terms with my relationship with his mam coming to an end. Despite all of this, the pressures of his home life and health - on the surface, at least - never seemed to phase him one bit.

Ever since I’ve gone on to try and ensure that the football would be a big part of both of our lives. After all, this was a season of new beginnings for Sunderland AFC - an ownership takeover, academy hopefuls progressing through the ranks to become first-team mainstays and a new manager, all geared with the ambition to get our club back to where it should be.

For that Christmas I surprised him with his first season card, allowing us to take in the rest of the current season together as the Lads mounted a serious promotion charge. When he opened it, his eyes filled up as it wasn’t a present that he had asked for - an overwhelming and welcome surprise. To then tell him we’d be going to a sold out record breaking boxing day game against Bradford City the next day, with another (against Shrewsbury) just days later, he couldn’t wait and was already practicing what songs he would sing on the day.

Alex with his photographs
Ross Johnston

After the full time whistle blew against Bradford City we stayed til right after the game and were the last supporters inside the stadium before we were asked to leave. Alexander spotted Luke O’Nien - a firm fan favourite by this point - kicking about on the pitch playing football with another young kid.

As we all know, seeing a footballer at his age is somewhat freakish, and more than anything you feel in awe of their presence near you. He was starstruck and wasn’t expecting me to ask him if he wanted to get a photo with an actual real life Sunderland player.

Being the absolute gentleman that he is, Luke was more than happy to make the boy’s first game as a season card holder just that bit more special by posing for a picture behind the South Stand goal. Alexander’s day was made, and we continued to attend both league and the Checkatrade games thereafter in hope of a potential weekend away at Wembley.

And, as luck would have it, Sunderland gained the right to play on the grandest stage of them all when they dispatched of Bristol Rovers with ease to book their place in the final of the EFL Trophy against Portsmouth, a game we watched together from the sold-out beam-back event held in Quinns bar at the Stadium of Light.

“Dad, can I go to Wembley with you?!” he asked as soon as the full time whistle was blown. As a parent, being able to do this with my boy has been years in the making, an opportunity that I’ve long dreamt of. I didn’t perhaps expect that this would happen as soon as it did, but no matter what I knew that I’d be taking my son to Wembley - his first ‘away’ game.

The idea of a takeover of both Covent Garden and Trafalgar Square by the hordes of Sunderland supporters that plan on invading the capital on the night before the game has got us all excited.

It’s going to be a special weekend whatever the result, for me and him. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend the weekend, surrounded by friends and family in the hope of the Lads bringing back a trophy to the North East.

Say all you want about this cup competition but, for me, it’s meant everything and more for the both of us. Here’s hoping we’re celebrating a promotion too come the end of the season. Haway the lads.

Alex with his favourite player, Luke O’Nien
Ross Johnston