Those who were at Doncaster last year, between Christmas and New Year will understand why being among the 4,000 loyal Mackems who made their way down the A1 that day stands out as one of the high-points of the last three years supporting Sunderland in League 1. We took up a third of the ground, and made one hell of a noise.
It was special because it was so unexpected. Doncaster were a notoriously inconsistent and yet dangerous side, always capable of scoring, and our confidence was rock bottom. Two days earlier, the Red & White Army and several fan media groups, including Roker Report, had issued a statement calling for Stewart Donald to sell the club.
This came after months without a decent result, or even an encouraging performance on the pitch under Phil Parkinson, and a breakdown in relations between the club and the fans off it. The FPP takeover, or investment, had turned out to be a loan and both trust and morale were at a low point.
When we arrived at the ground, nobody was really in a talkative mood. Doom and gloom pervaded as we approached the turnstiles. We had endured the frustrations of Bolton at home on Boxing Day, and my 10-year-old son’s enthusiasm for long trips to matches had begun to wane a little for the first time. I think the football wasn’t fun and exciting for him any more, it had become the source of division and argument among the people around him and the realities of supporting Sunderland were beginning to hit home.
Yet for some reason, as soon as the players stepped onto the pitch, the misery of the preceding 16 games dissipated. The travelling support was in full voice throughout, and were further fired up by Lyndon Gooch’s early goal. Luke O’Nien bought a free kick in the Rovers’ half, the opposition defenders filed back towards their penalty area expecting a cross but, instead, Chris Maguire played it short for the American, who ran towards goal and curled home a beauty from 20 yards.
And even after the home side equalised, the team and the travelling supporters seemed to know it was going to be our day. Something had finally clicked into place. We looked dangerous going forward. Sunderland piled the pressure on Doncaster for 15 minutes after the break, Charlie Wyke contrived to miss from 2 yards out, but we weren’t to be denied. The away crowd seemed to be to suck the ball towards the Donny goal, then on 61 minutes, Maguire fired in from the edge of the box from a cut back from Denver Hume on the left.
It was pandemonium in the stand behind the goal. A few Lads fans poured onto the pitch. My lad was thrown forward by the crowd around us, hurting his ankle in the process. Flairs went off, and the noise was immense. Much pent-up frustration was released.
The remaining 30 minutes seemed like a day, but Doncaster never seriously threatened to equalise. I recall Alim Ozturk almost caught a through ball towards the end of the game, and somehow escaped with only a yellow card, and the joyous relief on the final whistle was palpable.
On leaving the ground, I spoke to a number of fellow fans to gauge their reaction to the performance. Given what had just occurred I expected enthusiasm, but one of the key themes that came through was that this performance was “papering over the cracks”, a view that - with hindsight - was entirely justified.
However, it did feel at the time that a little bit of hope had been restored. It was the start of a seven game unbeaten run for Sunderland that lasted throughout January of this year. Parkinson later spoke to the Northern Echo about the importance of the result for the players and the fans:
The Doncaster game was a great occasion to be part of, you don’t normally get the opportunity to take that many away fans at any level of football. I think there were a lot of elements in that Doncaster game, where we scored early, conceded, but the supporters stuck with us for playing well, I could sense they could sense they knew what we were doing out on the pitch, they stayed with the team and they almost sucked the ball in the net.
It was good to get that win and to see what positive impact our supporters could have on the team. You have to embrace the supporters. Every player we have will have wanted to come to Sunderland to come and play in front of the fans and for the big club with the level of support we have. As a manager I was the same. We have to use that to our advantage.
Alas, the form couldn't be sustained into February and March and, when the coronavirus pandemic caused the EFL to end the season early and decide positions on average points per game, the winter upturn in results didn’t prove enough to compensate for poor form in autumn and early spring. The return of poor form this autumn proved too much, a new regime was taking over and Parky was gone.
Still, it’s one of the best away days that we’ve had in a long while, and oh what we’d give to be back there amongst our fellow fans cheering on the Lads today.