Just before Christmas, my Grandad, Bill Bendelow, passed away. He was 93, so his was a long life, and a life he lived well. Of course there is sadness but there is a huge degree of pride for a man who lived and breathed the city of Sunderland his entire life.
I’ll remember him for two things first and foremost: Sunderland AFC and Doxfords. He was a big Sunderland supporter, his passion for the club passing on to my Dad, brother and me. Shipbuilding was also in his blood, starting at Doxfords as an apprentice in 1942 aged 15, and worked his way up to production manager, staying until the yard closed in 1986.
So of course at this time there has inevitably a degree of reflection and recollection. It is a good indication of what was important to you by what you’re remembered for, and Sunderland AFC really was a big part of his life.
However, it got me thinking: This was a man born in 1927. Someone who has lived through decades of history at the club which I will never have an appreciation of. His Sunderland, is not my Sunderland.
To him, being a supporter meant a top flight win, two FA Cups, playing in Europe, memories of Raich Carter and Bobby Gurney as well as the time we were known as the Bank of England club. He told me not long before he died that he could remember the crowds in Fawcett Street when the FA Cup was brought home for the first time in 1937. It’s incredible to think when he was born, Bob Kyle was the manager and had been at the helm since 1905; he remains Sunderland’s longest serving manager.
It was quite sad thinking as he got older, the chance he would see us play in the Premier League again became increasingly unlikely. In fact, sod the Premier League, the chances of him seeing us do anything of note ever again had evaporated (no offence intended to the current squad). When I told him we were playing Burton at home a few seasons back, he said “Burton? Is it a cup match?” Mind you, given what he’d seen over the years, Burton Albion (again, really no offence) is probably unlikely to pique his interest.
So it got me thinking, as you approach the departure lounge of life, do your hopes for what you might see the club achieve get narrower?
The answer is obviously yes, but do you accept it?
Although I am in my 30s, I have reconciled myself with the fact that I will not see all of my Sunderland ambitions realised, which are, in no particular order: getting out of League One, getting out of the Championship, playing in Europe, watching us in Europe, winning the Premier League, seeing us win anything - anything! - at Wembley, to see someone I idolised as much as SupaKev put on a Lads shirt again, seeing a Sunderland player represent England at a major tournament, and beating the Mags. Some of those things I want to see only once, some I want to see happen again, and again, and again.
The chances of Sunderland, for example, winning the league are pretty slim. Say I live another 50 years, well in the previous half a century there have only been 12 separate winners of the top flight. Unlikely therefore just through basic numbers that this will happen, let alone ability.
One of my initial hopes - that of playing for Sunderland - died about 25 years ago, but I’m okay with that. I actually at one point thought there was no question, not an iota of doubt in my mind, that I would become a professional footballer; alas the dream did not become a reality, although Lee Johnson should know my boots are always clean, and I’ve got my phone on loud.
I dare not ask my Dad, who is in his 60s, what he’s reconciled himself to seeing - or not - before his days are up. He should be bullish about his chances of witnessing us reach the giddy heights of the Championship, but any further? Not so sure about that one. Probably, but it’s not a dead cert.
Does it really matter though? Because Sunderland were in League One when my Grandad died, will he consider his Sunderland supporting life a failure? No. Because as in life, supporting Sunderland is a journey - however bizarre at times - and his final glamorous destination was the 1-1 draw against Wimbledon.
You might not like where you eventually hop off, but the ride was good fun; I’ve no doubt he would have absolutely no regrets. I don’t think there’s one Sunderland fan who has ever rocked up at the pearly gates and thought “Christ, what a waste of time”.
People say football isn’t important but really, when you look back on your life it actually is; that’s very true right now when so much of what makes life interesting has been stripped away. It’s also worth noting that one of the last things that made my Grandad smile was the news that we had beaten Lincoln 4-0.
I have him to thank for supporting Sunderland. Do I wish, perhaps, that he had chosen to support a side which would have achieved more success? Not a chance.