“I remember sitting in a capacity crowd in Barcelona, the wild excitement of a cup-tie at St.James’s Park and over 60,000 Manchester United fanatics packing the ground at Old Trafford this season. These and many more scenes of wild thrills I remember. But, nothing I have ever heard equalled the intensity of that wild roar at Roker Park… I began to realise what the man meant when he coined the phrase ‘an ear-splitting roar’.”
As much as I agree with the sentiment of the legendary Spurs captain’s description of Roker Park in the 1960’s, I’m not sure he truly appreciated the happy life cycle of the ‘Roker roar’ and have the foresight to describe it as eternal. Few outside our mythical little region can ever genuinely understand the gut wrenching love that lies behind the roar they so often hear.
It truly is a flame that can never be extinguished.
After a wild few days and a match itself that threw logic out of the window to produce the kind of nerve shredding, heart pounding drama that is synonymous with our timeless love affair with this team, Sunderland supporters are finding ourselves with little time to realign our frantic emotions back to the baseline of normality.
But, before we charge like the proverbial Light Brigade into the next bruising encounter and lose our minds to the emotional vortex of a promotion push, I just want to reflect on the moments of last weekend that, regardless of result, were just glorious.
They are worthy of remembrance in every sense and to shelve them quickly into the dusty cupboard of Wembley pasts only to be brought out for special occasions would be a disservice to the scenes that unfolded in one dazzling weekend in our country’s capital.
This is not an article about results, tactical formations, substitutions or trophies won or lost. I’m not about to give players marks out of 10 or judge Cattermole’s penalty.
I wanted to write about the very best component of our fair club. The absolute rock upon which everything else is built and the most beautiful, moving, insane, committed, compassionate and unifying part of this association. The elemental part of the club that puts mere details such as trophies and results into genuine perspective.
I want to write about us - the men, women and children who provide the spine of a wobbly sporting outfit always on cusp of something truly outstanding or devastatingly hideous.
Last weekend we saw the best of football. We saw the best of football supporters. We saw a joyous, raucous and jubilant celebration of everything special about this region, this city and our people. We saw connection, reconnection and a sense of familial unity that is symbolised by a warm sense of brother and sisterhood.
Firstly, London. Covent Garden and Trafalgar Square.
What a day. What a night.
It began in Sunderland, Durham, Newcastle and York as thousands of red and white striped disciples queued for a litany of trains to deliver them to the land of milk and honey. The long and winding rows of people smiling, hugging, drinking and chatting snaked around railway stations like a happy, inebriated python tightening its grip - not to harm, but simply to embrace all within its grasp.
Covent Garden soon filled to the brim with mackem generosity and northern soul.
Rounds were ordered, friends we united and the innocent tourists from around the globe that had come to see the market piazza or the Opera Quarter were likely given the unique treat of the best sight in all of London on that day. Sunderland supporters swarmed the visitor hotspot, smothering the area in a blanket of bounteous warmth and English hospitality. What overseas tourist could not be left totally satisfied with an authentic sense of exulted Englishness after that?
Trafalgar Square then became an emblem of Black Cat jubilation. Semi-naked lads with dad-bods and man boobs swam in the fountain like Olympic athletes on display to the world. Flares were released, burning energetic red smoke into the starry night sky. Cheery melodies and anthems that provide the cultural backdrop to our insane love story were sang loudly into the night.
Family, friends and fellow followers united in song and celebration.
Stewart Donald, Charlie Methven and Juan Sartori roamed around like proud parents at a rather larger and much more excitable school nativity play. Our Uruguayan investor, like a tall and handsome deer in the brightest set of lights he’d ever come across smiled for selfies and posed for pictures with the happiness of a man who thinks we’d all vote for him if we could in the Uruguayan elections, while also maintaining a sense of shock and wonderment at how much his investment means and to how many.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” was a sentence rolled out time and again on the night. For those who’ve been to Wembley before, this may have been just a regular night in London, but for the many who had not tasted that sweet fruit before, this long and satisfying drink was something to behold.
For the thousands who woke up at the crack of dawn on Sunday morning for the long drive to London, the M1 has never seemed so uplifting. Coach after coach filled to the edges with red and white shirts and smiling punters slowly trundled their way to Wembley amidst laughter and song.
They were joined by a sea of cars all with Sunderland scarves flapping in the breeze like medieval banners stabbed into a muddy field just before battle commences. Mundane toilet breaks at bland motorway service stations became a bright, colourful circus of anticipation and expectation. Watford Gap became Sunderland Gap, with two market stalls outside selling Sunderland merchandise to an ocean of willing customers. Fathers, mother, sons, daughters. It seemed every creed, colour, gender and sexuality were bonded in one voice. Our differences didn’t seem to exist and the result was exquisite.
It was a beautiful family experience in every way - one enormous family who can sing Wise Men Say in perfect harmony.
Inside the stadium, this was highlighted perfectly in the microcosm of simply where I sat. Directly in front of me were a lovely mature couple, with silvery hair and sturdy shoes. Both in their late 70’s, they’ve witnessed it all and every line on their bright faces is an emblem of a sight they’d seen or a feat they’d accomplished.
On my left, a young couple in their early 20’s, with everything yet to do, holding hands feverishly and embracing excitedly at every opportunity. To my right a couple of well-worn fellas in their 50’s, full of footballing wisdom, having been to Wembley and lost on several occasions. Behind me, two young families, who’s small children wept in innocent sadness as Pompey players ran to celebrate the last successful penalty in front of their own.
This is us. This is Sunderland.
We laugh together, we stand together, we scream, yell and pour it all out together. We celebrate together and we weep together.
What I witnessed last weekend was a jubilant reminder of what makes this club authentically colossal. Players come and go, managers come and go, owners come and go. Even Stadiums come and go. Yet the club lives on.
Only if we go will this club die.
Because it’s not the club that sustains the people who love it. It’s the people who sustain the club they love. Without us, there would be no Sunderland AFC.
We are the heart that entwines our loving veins around a sporting institution that could not breathe without the vast amounts air we pump through its sometimes weak and ailing chest.
The hardy and honest north-eastern souls who inhabit the stands at the Stadium of Light, who drink in its local taverns and scream from our boot straps to our gobs for the team of our hearts, our city and our people - we are the true glory of this club.
London, last weekend, was the best public relations coup the club has had in years. The dinner ladies, the postmen, the call centre workers, the engineers, the teachers, the nurses, the fabricators, the carpet fitters and all who live under the umbrella of northern grit and hopeful optimism were the real stars on display - the real heroes of the day. A throwback to the teachers, Dockers and pitmen who formed the first number of squads after our 1879 inception.
Real people, for a real club.
No player, manager or owner or even result can come close. What Sunderland fans showed in our recent two-day party did more to highlight the magnitude of our passion and footballing idolatry then ten Netflix documentaries could ever do. It was magical.
It was a reminder of what is possible. A reminder of love. A reminder of potential.
Can we get promoted? If success was measured by the strength and humour of its people, we’d have won the Champions League by now. With us by their side, the players should fear nothing and nobody. They should run out in every game willing to smash down mountains for the cause, for the people who holler their names, would do it for them.
Let’s use last weekend as the biggest motivator for success we can. Defeat doesn’t meant the end. Just another beginning. Sing it proud. Sunderland ‘Til I Die.