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Way Back When: Which Sunderland game would you take a newbie to for the first time?

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If you could take someone who had never watched Sunderland before back to watch a game, which game would you choose, and why?

Sunderland FC Photo by NCJ Archive/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

Damian Brown says...

Mine wasn’t a competitive fixture; it’s one of the first memories I have of attending a Sunderland match, the final game at Roker Park. It was a friendly arranged with Liverpool post-season, presumably to draw a bumper crowd. “Farewell to Roker Park”.

I took my wife to the match against Leeds at the Stadium of Light a few years back, and I couldn’t have felt more sorry for her. Bemusement overcast her face at an empty stadium, sparsely populated by depressed, beaten down supporters. I remember sitting there, hearing pins drop, and wishing I could have taken her to a friendly against Liverpool some fifteen years previous. Everything I had built the atmosphere up to be, it wasn’t, because times have been tough for some time now. But as a result, the memory of that day at Roker is so much sweeter.

I wasn’t a Sunderland fan at the time - I supported Arsenal, having moved up North from London recently. My old man wanted me to fit in in my new environs though, and so he encouraged a healthy love of the Lads in a bid to help me blend in. What a bastard.

That day took my breath away and changed my perspective on the game. Even though there was nothing to play for, and I remember precious little of the game itself, the atmosphere was pregnant with pride. A sense of community I wanted to be part overtook me at the sight of grown men weeping at the memories they had of the place, a home to mackems for a century. If I could take someone to any game it would be that one, so that they could see with their own eyes what football does to people and just how much it means.

It’s difficult for non-fans to comprehend the emotional weight of the game, but something that goes equally disregarded is the human connection that can only be garnered from existing within a mass that is greater than yourself. Shouting and singing are simple things which, alone, mean very little. But lending your voice to an army of like-minded fellows is a trip, man. I would take someone to a game where the noise of the crowd vibrates through your chest, because that’s what is truly special about football.

Roker Park Getty Images

Rich Speight says...

The game to which I would take the uninitiated in my virtual time would be the FA Cup Quarter Final Replay against Chelsea at Roker Park on 18 March, 1992 - perhaps the most memorable game during a cup run that took us all the way to Wembley.

The game was played as a result of a 1-1 draw in the first leg at Stamford Bridge which was shown live on the TV. I remember the sense of injustice that I felt as a ten-year-old kid at the fact that Clive Allen had scored First Division Chelsea’s goal following a corner that clearly should never have been given; Kerry Dixon’s shot having bobbled up in front of him and cleared the crossbar without touching a Sunderland player on the way. Second Division Sunderland equalised with a headed goal from John Byrne from a punt upfield by Paul Bracewell, but at the final whistle it felt like we had been robbed of a victory in a game we had unexpectedly dominated.

The replay to decide who would go through to the Semi Final was an evening kick-off on a school night. The ground was buzzing, over 26,000 attended, and there was a sense of hope and optimism that we could overturn opposition that included players of the calibre of Dennis Wise, Paul Elliot, Andy Townsend, Graham Le Saux and Tony Cascarino.

I stood with my dad in the Main Stand corner of the Fulwell End amongst cardboard-cut-out FA Cups covered in silver foil, the singing of “Que Sera, Sera”, and the air thick with a mix of cigarette smoke, Bovril and beer. The roar from the crowd at kick off was immense even amongst the howl of the wind. And the game had everything.

Gordon Armstrong had a first half goal ruled out for a marginal offside before, with 20 minutes played, John Byrne’s shot following a mazy run was parried by Dave Beasant into the path of Peter Davenport who poked home from seven yards out, sending the home crowd into raptures. The feeling of being there, witnessing first hand the club being so close to a cup Semi Final, was almost overwhelming, and was followed by over an hour of tension as the pressure on the Sunderland defence built and built.

Then, on 85 minutes, that sinking feeling all football fans know and fear. The crushing of dreams. The moment where you’re hoping for a flag, a whistle, an indication that the goal your side has just conceded won’t count. But no, Dennis Wise - a player even then we all loved to hate, the epitome of the horrible little cockney wide-boy - is wheeling away towards you in celebration having scored the equaliser. Dad says “that’ll be extra time” and you console yourself that you will have another half an hour to regain the lead.

The game is set to restart and the crowd gathers itself for one last push. Again the roar. Almost deafening. A cross-field ball into the Chelsea box is knocked behind for a corner. 88 minutes on the clock. Atkinson delivers. Armstrong rises, 16 yards out. Time stands still. And the ball is in the bottom corner of the net.

Delirium.

The Fulwell End surges forward. The crowd burst over the barrier and onto the pitch. I want to be there too. A hand grabs my hood and holds me back. We jump, we hug, we dance. The rest of the game and the evening is a blur.

I went into school the next morning walking on air; “were you there?”

Yes I was. That game still means everything to me almost 30 years later.


Chris Wynn says...

My choice would be to take them back to take them back to the 11th May 1991. To a time Sunderland turned Maine Road red and white.

Denis Smith’s Sunderland side had been heroic in battling against relegation that year which has become synonymous with the club since.

We went into the game level on points with Luton Town who were at home to Derby County who finished 10 points adrift at the bottom of the pile and who were already relegated. This meant that it was likely that the only route to stay up was to win and beat Derby County’s result by at least three to match their goal difference.

This almost impossible task was made all the more difficult by the fact Peter Reid’s Manchester City were a good side and were on course to finish 5th in the First Division.

Despite the odds. around 12,000 Sunderland fans travelled to Manchester and thousands more went to soak up the atmosphere on a day that would likely end in relegation after one season in the top flight.

Denis Smith had put together a talented young side with zero backing from Bob Murray and the fans were firmly behind the manager and his young team.

As the game kicked off the Sunderland fans packed the away end, scattered I the home end, climbed on the roof, holes in the brick work... we were everywhere.

Even when Niall Quinn opened the scoring for City after ten minutes it was the Sunderland fans singing the loudest... then, in traditional Sunderland fashion, they gave us hope. One goal from Marco Gabbiadini and another from Gary Bennett in the final five minutes of the half put Sunderland ahead with a minute to till half-time and we nearly took the roof off... it was on.

As the Sunderland fans chanted that we were the greatest team in the world, Gary Owers would slice a ball in his own box that fell to Niall Quinn and he levelled the game. Nightmare.

Sunderland fans chanted through half-time and right through the second half and there was always hope... until David White scored the winning goal with a minute of the game left.

It was clear to anyone else we were going down, but Sunderland fans still had hope, until that David White goal - why you may ask? I don’t know is my answer, it’s been said before but it’s the hope I cant stand.

After the game the Sunderland fans cried and cheered and applauded the heroic efforts of a young side and manager who was let down by his chairman.

Manchester City players - including Peter Reid and Niall Quinn - would remember the scene for years to come and jump at the chance to represent us when the offer came. City fans applauded and swapped scarves, and it was even likely that muggings in Moss Side were scarce that day through feeling sorry for us.

Years later I’d be involved in a heated argument between friends of mine and a City fan and when he heard my accent asked where I was from, when the answer came he mentioned this game, and we spent the next hour talking about it over a beer.

It’s the hope. I don’t know why we have it sometimes but we do. It’s a beautiful thing. But I can't stand it.