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From Denmark to Wearside: Thoughts on the Sunderland AFC International Fans Weekend!

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Massive Lads Fan Lars Knutsen made the trip across from Denmark to take part in Sunderland’s recent International Fans Weekend - something he hopes can be bigger and better when it happens again next season.

Lars Knutsen

We had a sensational time at the International Fans’ Day on the weekend of February 7th to 9th. The whole period was a true celebration of what it means to be involved with others as part of something bigger than oneself, namely the cause of Sunderland Association Football Club.

A brief personal word about how I qualify. My unusual Norwegian name was not the reason, as I was actually born in Sunderland, grew up in Boldon and my first match was against West Brom in May 1968. Two long periods working overseas in the Pharmaceutical/ Biotech industry were what provided the rite of passage; first in Denmark from 1986 until 1997 and in Pennsylvania, USA from 2006 until 2016.

While working in America I was the ESPN Premiership blogger for the Black Cats over a three year period, and while living there I got to know the true Pennsylvanian John Ellington and became aware of the terrific network of Sunderland fans in NASA, the North American Supporters’ Association; there is so much going on over the pond to unite supporters, as anyone who has friended John on social media will know.

So on arriving back in my home city again on the Friday afternoon and reading the well laid out programme for the weekend delivered so efficiently by Chris Waters and his team, I took a walk to the SAFC Fans’ Museum in the former buildings of Monkwearmouth Station. I was simply blown away by whole event; thanks to all who made it possible. Several factors made the atmosphere very special.

First it was the presence of many International Fans whom I recognised from social media but met in person for the first time. Secondly was the attendance of former players such as Mickey Horswill, as well as one of my true sporting heroes, Bobby Kerr. Thirdly was the stunning collection of Sunderland AFC memorabilia; this all combined with great football conversation over local beers such as Double Maxim made for an unforgettable start to the weekend.

Our youngest son, Christopher, was born in Denmark so is a true International Fan. He also joined the other 170 of us for the weekend, arriving by train that evening. His main line of conversation with the many new faces he met was “how the heck did you become a Sunderland fan?” – highly relevant and topical of course, with some fascinating responses, especially when one was born in Italy, Bulgaria or The Netherlands.

This same discussion topic continued from Saturday lunchtime at the excellent event in the Business Lounge ahead of the game. Monty and the highly articulate Lee Howey were interviewed along with Darren Williams, who coincidentally appeared as a substitute in son Chris’s first game, a memorable 1-1 draw against Arsenal at the SSOL in October 2001.

As ever, the game was the main event. Sunderland are on a very good run at the moment, despite the reverse at Fratton Park. Ipswich were the better team in the first half, looking compact and pushing the ball around well. Our defence held firm, but one could see why the Tractor Boys are among the teams challenging for a return to the championship; they were the longest residents in that division before dropping down to League One in 2019.

Sunderland looked completely revitalised after the interval and dominated from then on. We hit the woodwork twice before Maguire netted late on to send most of the near 33,000 crowd into a frenzy of celebration. Aside from a few recent games when we have been 3-0 after around 30 minutes, fans have learned to be patient in these tight contests. If I was managing The Lads I would also set them up not to concede first, or not to concede at all, which has been the pattern recently. This all combined to make the goal sweeter when it did finally come.

Access to the SSOL lounges provided a truly memorable post-match experience. Phil Parkinson joined us and took to the microphone to acknowledge the presence of so many amazing fans who had travelled thousands of miles to follow the weekend’s events, and in some cases to stay on for the wins over Rochdale and Oxford United.

Stewart Donald was there also, and it was great to finally meet him.

Sunday lunchtime’s sessions at the Foundation of Light outlined what remarkable work is done by that remarkable organisation in terms of getting alongside those who struggle; giving new confidence to those on the edge of society, following unemployment, bereavement or other life crises. We also had a chance to hear the legendary Nick Barnes interview Mr. Sunderland himself, Kevin Ball.

My personal highlights were as follows:

  • Three points for Sunderland
  • Meeting 1973 F.A. Cup hero Bobby Kerr
  • Having a chance to thank our owner for saving the club, which could perhaps have gone the way of Bolton or even Bury in other circumstances
  • A long conversation with Nick Barnes, and the chance to read his amazing book of facts on each game last season. A true work of art.
  • And importantly, meeting all those terrific International Fans and hearing their stories of why they love this amazing football club.

My question is: Would the weekend have happened if Sunderland had not been in League One and we had had less receptive owners? I somehow doubt it, but the goal must now be to make this an annual event, and go for 250 attendees next year, which I sincerely hope will be in the Championship...