There are moments you remember in football because you admire the skill or spirit of an individual player - the goals, the saves, the tackles. Then there are the off-pitch moments - the signings, the sackings, the supporters.
Clubs rise and fall, players come and go, and through promotion or relegation, your club rides a current that as a supporter you can never control. It’s often hard to reconcile that wider landscape with the actions of 22 men facing each other across a football pitch on a Saturday afternoon.
It often feels like the two are disconnected; you win in style but your closest league rival does the same and you don’t move in the table. You know that anything less than victory means relegation and disaster, but you don’t see that desperation in the men on the pitch.
Then there are moments when the two intersect. Like a planetary alignment, it doesn’t happen often but when it does there is a significance to it. Suddenly you see those connections, how the game you are watching is one piece of a larger game, one that will impact millions of people. The game has, for a brief moment, swung its gaze onto your team. But it isn’t just a team. It’s a city. It’s a community. It is us. And we have something to say.
The last day of the 2011/12 season is now enshrined in Premier League history. Every football supporter remembers the events of that day. History squints down on The Etihad Stadium and echoes to Martin Tyler’s euphoric “Agueroooooooo!!!”
It was a day with the heights of joy and depths of despair that football provides at its best, and Sunderland were a part of it. Everyone remembers how close the league was. United and City on equal points, City ahead on goal difference, and both teams kicking off at 3pm. City just had to match United’s result to win the title.
Martin O’Neill and his team put up a spirited defence against a United side who had largely dominated the league all season, but against the venerable Ferguson and his band of multi-millionaire signings, our performance had the feel of a desperate rear-guard action from kick-off.
We’d had a poor season by our standards back then, even though today any Sunderland fan would give their right arm for 13th place in the Premier League. Nobody expected us to beat Man United, but if we could hold them off… Likewise, nobody expected QPR to batter City (though Joey Barton would go on to try his inimitable best).
In the end we caved – a 20th minute Rooney goal was all that they needed, and despite being the self-styled “best player in the world” it was all Nicholas Bendtner could do to stay awake, much less threaten a strong United defence.
And then it was over. Full time came, the referee blew the whistle and Sunderland’s campaign was over with a loss. But nobody left. Nobody moved. Because down in Manchester, City were losing to QPR in added time.
It was one of the most surreal moments I’ve ever witnessed at the Stadium of Light. Sir Alex and his team milled around on the pitch waiting for news. The United fans were all chewing their nails, heads bowed over their phones. Those of us home supporters with decent signals passed down minute-by-minute updates to anxious crowds, like priests dispensing blessings.
Suddenly, Dzeko equalised. Then came the defining moment. Aguero’s shirt came off, Martin Tyler burst a blood vessel, and the Stadium of Light erupted. People were hugging, cheering, jumping about. Beside me, my 78-year-old Granda was on his feet waving a pork pie about, trying to start a “Who are ya?” chant at Sir Alex.
Then in one of those weird “hive-mind” moments the terraces sometimes produce, we all turned our back on United and delivered a Poznan celebration that City would have been proud of
Wayne Rooney was standing on the pitch with his hands on his hips, head tilted back as the season’s failure sank into him.
He came out to the media and expressed his disappointment with the Sunderland fans afterwards, vowing to never forget our reaction. “After the season they’ve had,” he said, “it’s sad, really.” Cry me a river, Wayne.
He’d missed the point, of course. Everyone dancing in the stands at the Stadium of Light was not a closeted City fan. We were all keenly aware that we hadn’t won anything that day. But neither had they, and their loss was far greater than ours.
Two seasons later his United squad would go on to win the League, and that was fine. But they wouldn’t be doing it on our doorstep, and that was all that mattered to us that day.