For our first edition of ‘Why I Love Sunderland’ we were kindly reminded of some of Sunderland’s finer times from a local lads perspective - and, thanks to you, we had an influx of emails in response. One, however, caught the eager eye of the Roker Report editors - after all, its not all too often you get a Swiss-based, Greek-born Mackem email in, is it?
Meet Sotirios Soulakiotis!
RR: Hi Sotirios, we loved your email, so, you have to start off by telling us a bit about your journey to being a lads fan - it’s definitely a path few have trodden on…
SS: It was the mid-90’s and I was a young, impressionable Greek student, it meant I experienced Sunderland at its most raw.
Sunderland had everything - it was still scarred by its old industrial past, the rough estates of Pennywell, but it also had a desire to be something more. Those silky nights out at Annabelles still live long in the memory, so does the racket and buzz of the airshow along the Seaburn coast.
I started my journey as a football fan as a childhood support of Panathinaikos - football always interested me.
RR: So, you’ve came to Sunderland, experienced the city, the people and the culture, so what drew you to Sunderland the football team?
SS: That was when a classmate, an ex-foreman from one of the shipyards, offered to take me to Roker Park.
I was aware it was the last season we would play there, so naturally I jumped at the chance not knowing if it would be my only chance to experience the place.
RR: Coming from a Greek football background to find yourself at Roker Park must have been some culture shock - how was your first Roker experience?
SS: It was certainly different, almost not what I was expecting.
What I experienced was a somewhat subdued version of the Roker Roar, so it wasn’t the atmosphere that got me hooked, but what came after it.
Because I was a student, I found myself working in Ringo’s on an evening, Fino’s on a night time and it was when I saw that even the most strict of dress codes were cast aside at the vaguest hint of a Vaux-branded jersey, I knew there was something more there.
RR: So it’s safe to suggest at this point you were hopelessly addicted like the rest of us - what came next?
SS: What followed was what any Sunderland fan who was around in the late 90’s will always fondly remember.
The crushing disappointments all the way to the jubilation of promotions between ’96 and ‘01 will always live well in any Sunderland fans memory. Reidy’s kings, Super Kev, Niall Quinn and all the rest - it just made for the most epic of sagas.
I suppose once you’ve been through that, you cant really go anywhere else - there aren’t many - if any - football clubs that can take you through what Sunderland can in such a short space of time.
It almost bonded the city and the team, and you could feel that on the pitch - everyone was the same, the people and the players were hard working, passionate and driven to succeed.
The team became the perfect reflection of the city.
RR: It seems Sunderland managed to get under your skin - you sound like a bit of a hopeless romantic there!
SS: Maybe I am... but what I found was, for all Panathinaikos were a successful team with their regular Champions League football where they had some impressive runs deep into the competition, when your team is situated in a city of 5 million people it ends up being nobody’s team in particular.
And that’s where Sunderland were different - they felt like they belonged to you, to the person who stood beside you, the bloke behind and the woman in front and it still does - it feels like belonging.
What I do want to say is I’m both incredibly fortunate and grateful to have lived in Sunderland and afforded not only the opportunities and friendships I had - so much so I look back with pride at both the City and the team.
RR: It has been some adventure for you. I think it’s quite stirring to hear how the club, which essentially meant nothing to you, became very much a part of you. Lastly - what is your relationship like with Sunderland now? Do you still manage to follow and attend games?
SS: Setting out in the world of work and starting a family lead to a lull of attendance in the late 00’s for me, but I still attended the best I could, when I could, but sadly I haven’t been a regular attender of Sunderland games since around 2013.
In that time I’ve seen some struggles and plenty or resurgences and false dawns, but this is part and parcel of being a red and whiter! Nowadays I’m limited to very fleeting visits to Sunderland - one or two days at a time - so catching games has been difficult to say the least.
Right now it’s a case catching what I can where I can - watching on TV, highlights, on the radio and even written accounts. I get the best I can with what I can but nothing compares to the actual match day experience and that sense of really being at home.
Hopefully this season things will change and I can attend a game or two, hopefully cleaning up the club shop in the process so we can fly our colours with pride back home in Zurich!