I’d say of all the atmospheres I’ve experienced as a Sunderland fan, despite earlier memories being wonderful, I was still too young to fully comprehend the passion of this club until I bore witness to the match against Newcastle in the 1990 play-off first leg at Roker Park.
It’s difficult to put into words such an occasion really... as it was my first derby against the evil neighbours I’d been conditioned to despise by my peers, I just remember the noise and the ridiculous levels of excitement. I remember feeling as though I was vibrating, as I’d got so excited I think I was visibly trembling.
The walk to Roker was like a jovial yet insane march to war. I remember a few nervous faces from those around me, but the drinks they had been consuming since early morning seemed to improve their mood. I remember seeing a bit of trouble around the ground, but I was ushered away hurriedly and with plenty ruffling of the hair and apparently hilarious jokes I pretended to understand, I advanced along with everyone else.
It was unlike anything I’d experienced before and sadly very few times since. Perhaps my age and diminutive stature made it all that more of a shock to the system and that bit more magical. I’ve heard the game described as dull by older members of the fan base, yet I don’t remember it being so myself.
I’d heard Roker roar before, but this made the ears ring. A manic sense of expectation and the absolute squeeze and just... heat of that crowd was incredible. I can’t remember many details about the game itself despite watching with a ruggedly determined childish intensity I’m sure my family and their friends found amusing. It just pounded away at every part of my being.
I felt part of something so intensely powerful in those moments. I remember a penalty claim near the end (I didn’t even know it was nearing the end until years later) but I got so caught up in the pure and unbridled outpouring of simultaneous love, adoration, frustration, anger and hatred that goes hand in hand with any battle against the scum, I just screamed with the rest at decisions I couldn’t even see, at challenges my eyes couldn’t focus on, at cards given I couldn’t understand.
I used every curse my young mind could think of (encouraged by strangers in the crowd of course) and by the time I was carried away into the relative safety and suddenly deafening silence of the city, I was in tears.
I couldn’t explain it then and it’s difficult to explain now as I’ve said, but if I had the ability to bottle moments in space and time for a stranger to the game and to our club to imbibe, it would be all those moments in that particular space at that particular time.
I’d wager it’d be a more popular drug than most.