Living near Birmingham, I got to a lot of away games in the West Midlands over this period.
Two seasons before we drew 2-2 with Birmingham City at St Andrews I had seen us lose there 1-0. Emile Heskey had scored. It was ‘that’ terrible season.
In the away end, the atmosphere was not so much toxic as defeatist, from the starting whistle. Mick McCarthy’s team finished the 2005-2006 season with 15 points.
Fast forward almost exactly a year to February 2007, and a lot had changed.
Both Roy Keane’s Sunderland and Steve Bruce’s Birmingham City were pushing for promotion. There was no apathy this time, only expectation.
We played Blues off the park in the first half of this midweek night game. Some of our passing was sensational and to go in only 1-0 up at half-time was not a true reflection of our domination. We weren’t as good in the second and they scored late on.
I remember watching Steve Bruce on the local news give an account of the game that did not reflect my own experience.
He thought they deserved a draw. I thought they deserved to lose 5-0.
Three months later we had been crowned champions. Promotion to the Premier League had resulted in an opening fixture against Spurs at home. Whatever the facts, I am pre-disposed to think we will always lose all opening fixtures.
And this one: the first in a Premier League season, up against one of the league’s better sides, and televised – there was only one way this could go.
But it didn’t.
A Spurs team, which consisted of half a future Sunderland team, (Kaboul, Malbranque, Defoe etc.) looked on, forlorn, as Michael Chopra grabbed a late winner for us.
So, the 15th August 2007 found us in a hopeful mood before this away fixture. Birmingham had been automatically promoted with us, two points behind, in second place. They had come close in their first game away to Chelsea, scoring two but conceding three. This was their first home game of the season. Both sides fancied they could take the points from the other.
My taller little brother, Phil, came with me to this game. As did a new-found family friend from Madagascar called Michel. Michel was a Maths PhD student at Birmingham University. That must be really mentally challenging, I said. Not really, he replied.
In the ground, before the game, my brother offered to buy Michel a burger. Michel accepted. Many Malagasy people are naturally quiet and conservative and not very big on effusive remonstrance.
When my little brother gave the burger to Michel, he took it without speaking, ate it, and said nothing.
This burger-gate incident has never been forgotten and is as seared into our memory of this game as the exploits of debutant Roy O’Donovan. However, Michel is a good lad, probably the foremost Sunderland supporting person from Madagascar to currently walk the planet. It was just something got lost in translation.
Something was also possibly lost in translation regarding Greg Halford. Roy Keane had been very determined to sign him and so, we surmised, he was going to be good. Perhaps he was, but he never played his best football for us. He made his debut in this game.
Dickson Etuhu also starred. Etuhu never played a great deal for us but he did feature significantly over a short period. He was a big, strong, athletic type who battled his way through the first part of that season. I always quite liked him. He was important in this game as both sides competed fiercely, conscious it was winnable, and not weighed down psychologically by the thought of playing an established Premier League side.
After twenty-eight minutes of frenetic play Birmingham got a free kick which Seb Larsson floated into the area. It went in off Paul McShane’s chest. He didn’t know much about it and he also didn’t have a bad game. I know this sort of half compliment runs contrary to how many fans see him.
Nobody scored in the next 50 minutes or so of play, but neither team was shy of looking for a goal. The deadlock was finally broken when Michael Chopra, chasing scraps, ran in and half-volleyed a fine shot into their net.
It looked like it would be 1-1, as it had been last year, except that Garry O’Connor scored for them late on. He took it well, hitting the ball across Craig Gordon from a narrow angle.
This was disappointing for all in the away end but Roy Keane had made a big thing of players not tailing off in effort as games drew to a close. We had seen rewards for this the previous season and as the game drew to a close we pressed for the equaliser.
Awarded a free-kick with ninety minutes on the clock, Ross Wallace (I think) stepped up. His effort was deflected off the wall and their keeper made an excellent save. This was straight in front of the away end which gave us all an excellent view of the ensuing scramble.
Nyron Nosworthy beat one of their defenders to the rebound. He headed to the back post where Stern John was waiting to nod the ball in, unchallenged. Everybody went mental, including Michel.
We celebrated the goal and we celebrated Roy O’Donovan, who had somehow managed to follow up from the initial free-kick and after the keeper’s save had fallen on top of him. At the moment Stern John headed the ball across the line I think Roy O’Donovan was sitting on their keeper. Everything was better before VAR.
It ended 2-2 and, unlike the previous seasons where we had been promoted, it felt like we had a chance this time.
I asked Michel if he enjoyed the game. Definitely, he said, let’s go to another. And thus the unofficial, and rather small, Madagascar supporters branch was born.