Last Thursday - a longer-than-usual journey home, via Metro and bus - took me past the Stadium of Light. It was the first time I’d seen our home stadium in the flesh since the gut-wrenching 2-2 draw with Gillingham in March, a result that was ultimately terminal to our promotion hopes.
In the early evening sun last week the stadium looked majestic, and 20,000 fans could easily have been gathering for an autumn game under the floodlights. It was close to this time last year that Phil Parkinson oversaw a 5-0 demolition of Tranmere, easily one of the best results of his tenure. Back then, nobody knew what was coming. We’d attend games, go home, and dissect it on Twitter, often forcefully. Nothing was going to change it.
That was in the pre-coronavirus days, however, and the reality since March has been stark. With the pandemic still at the forefront of everyone’s mind and the restrictions, for better or worse, set to stay, it’s going to be at least a year since any of us have been able to attend a game.
The next time we set foot inside the stadium, the club might well be on course for promotion, or things might have turned sour, and we will be under new management as spring arrives. Until then, it’s all on the club’s much-improved streaming service to keep us abreast of the team’s fortunes.
Your armchair or sofa might be more comfortable than a seat in the stadium, and other matchday expenses might be reduced, but it’s never going to beat the rush of seeing the team live, either at home or away.
Lockdown has altered almost every aspect of society, and its impact on football has also been profound.
Worries about clubs folding, debates about the prices for streaming passes, and whether the current model of football is sustainable are all continuing to rage - and given Sunderland’s current position in the backwaters of the football league, we find ourselves right in the eye of the hurricane. Were we still dining at the top-flight table, the financial worries would certainly be less. With any luck, we should be able to ride out this storm and emerge from it, but the fear is that many local and ‘smaller’ clubs won’t be so lucky.
For me, this goes beyond whether player X is better than player Y in a certain position, or whether Phil Parkinson is the right man for the job.
This is about the joy of seeing a football match live, the excitement you get before the game and the smorgasbord of emotions you experience during it. At all Sunderland matches I’ve attended over the years, the feeling that comes with each matchday has always been the same, regardless of league position, who the manager is, or the opposition.
Am I alone in that, or is it something that most of us still feel? I’d like to think the latter, even taking into account the well-documented problems of the past three years.
Regardless of club allegiances, football fans the length and breadth of the country have found themselves united in recent times, albeit by the loss of something that we all hold dear. Leeds fans were unable to share in the joy of their Championship-winning campaign and their impressive return to the top-flight, Aston Villa supporters missed out on the chance to see them turn Liverpool over, and it goes without saying that there will be many significant results, and superb individual performances that, sadly, won’t get the mass audience they deserve.
Up to now, I think our players have handled the empty stadium situation well, and they’ll need to continue to do so, as winter draws nearer and the fixtures pile up.
With that in mind, how will we feel when we emerge from this crisis and are able to get back to the camaraderie and the sense of unity cheering on the Lads always brings?
I have no doubt that the first game with a full crowd in attendance will be a fantastic occasion, particularly if we are in the promotion picture at the time. The sense of anticipation will be great, and I’m sure there will be a targeted social media campaign launched by the club beforehand. Of course, it’ll likely be only a matter of time before the debates start to rage again, but surely for that first game, the overwhelming feeling will be one of gratitude, that we’ve finally picked up where we left off all those months ago.
If any of us took attending football matches for granted, I don’t think we ever will again. And when we do finally make the trek across the Wearmouth Bridge again, the turnstiles start clicking, perhaps we’ll have a new appreciation for the game that we all love, whether we win, lose, or draw.
If absence does make the heart grow fonder, it’ll be a hell of a reunion come next March.