It’s that time of year again; we’re starting to gear-up for the beginning of a new football season. The EFL fixture lists come out soon, but this year, sadly, Sunderland’s loyal away fans won’t be sat plotting what games they’ll be travelling to across the country to roar the Lads on in the upcoming campaign.
The ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and the misery and heartbreak that it continues to bring for families here and many other countries across the planet, makes the prospect of allowing away fans to attend EFL football matches a distant one. Transporting large numbers of people across the country, shouting and singing as they go, seems to the layman to be simply too big a risk to take until a vaccine is available to all.
Thankfully, it currently it looks like some home fans may possibly be allowed back into the Stadium of Light in the Autumn, where effective and well-organised social distancing is probably achievable and where people are, generally speaking, staying within their local community. The club have, quite sensibly, limited the number of season tickets available to around 12,000 and it seems feasible that, with the right measures in a 49,000 capacity stadium, those and perhaps a few more could be accommodated. Denmark has brought fans back, albeit on a smaller scale than would be the case in EFL League One.
But even this move will rely upon test events working, and that the first ones planned were cancelled last week in the face of rising infection rates in some areas, even the return of home fans before is still in doubt.
It is also just about conceivable that arrangements could be made for small groups of away fans to be transported directly to and from grounds in “bubbles”, but you would expect that it would be quite expensive at this level and, perhaps rightly, only available to that amazing band of supporters who’ve not missed a game, home or away, in decades.
Whether or not the majority will choose to boycott away grounds in protest at the other League One clubs voting to do what suits them not what suits Sunderland, it matters little. There’s effectively no chance of us standing defiantly en masse and drowning out paltry home support any time soon.
For exiled away fans like me and my young lad, who’ve gone to as many games as we could over the last couple of years, it’s going to be a wrench. There’s little chance of even a home ticket. We’ve mainly been to matches in the north west and midlands of England, and Wembley, from our home in north Wales - on top of the handful of home games I’ve always gone to each season with my Dad (who would buy my ticket) and my mates during visits up to Sunderland over the last 20 years or so.
We’re going to miss the rituals. Whinging about the small allocations and waiting nervously to see if there will be any left for our loyalty point categories, before grabbing a ticket the first moment they go on sale. Putting out our kits out the night before the game, making sure that we’ve got plenty of podcasts and albums downloaded for the journey, getting up at 6am and driving along the north Wales coast as the sun rises before branching off to whatever part of England we’re going to this time.
Large carvery and a pint for me - small carvery and lemonade for him - then to the ground and the 90 minutes of standing, singing, cheering and occasionally exploding with joy at the final whistle. And McDonald’s chicken nuggets on the way back, win or loose.
Tranmere, Accrington, Bolton, Bury, Wycombe, Coventry in Birmingham, Shrewsbury (twice), Doncaster - all these have been great clubs to visit down here in League One, and I would have loved to pop over the border to Crewe and Wigan on the train, and and revisit my old stomping ground in Hull in the year ahead.
But it’s highly unlikely to be possible, and it’s a really small sacrifice to make when so many others are sacrificing so much more right now.
I’m sure Nick Barnes and Gary Bennett will do a sterling job as always in bringing us the action to us through BBC Newcastle and the club’s live streaming audio, but it would also be great if the club, working with streaming service iFollow and the EFL, would be able to offer UK Members (exiled fans around the country who pay £50 a year to get a better chance of a ticket to away games and discounts in the club store) the ability to also watch all games through live streaming, as is going to be available to Season Card holders.
It won’t be the same for any of us, and I’ll miss the drama of following Sunderland on the road with a 10 year old in tow, but it will be something to keep supporters engaged with the club where ever they may be until we can rid ourselves of this bloody virus.