On this day 12 months ago, Sunderland supporters went through the turnstiles of a game for the last time as the lads took on Bristol Rovers away from home.
News of the global pandemic was building, and it seemed everyone was just clicking on to the magnitude of the situation.
Regardless of what was building up around the world, in terms of our standing in League One the game felt pivotal.
After enduring a terrible run of form after Phil Parkinson’s appointment, we had strung a decent sequence of results together.
After Christmas, we’d deployed a formation that was anchored by three central defenders, and swept away the likes of Wycombe and Lincoln in style, and gained admirable results against MK Dons and Doncaster.
We followed that up with an impressive run of consecutive wins against Ipswich, Oxford, Rochdale and Bristol Rovers, which had pushed us up to fourth place. The top two places were in our sights, but there was little room for error.
Of course, in typical Sunderland fashion, we stuffed it up. Only a last minute Max Power goal gave us a share of the spoils against Fleetwood, and we went down 2-0 to a Coventry side that would soon be promoted.
On 7 March we lined up against Gillingham and threw away a two goal lead to Mika Mandron, before heading to Bristol Rovers – who we’d comfortably beaten at home a few weeks earlier – the following midweek.
We lined up like this, with January signings Semenyo and Scowen given their full debuts:
J. McLaughlin, Willis, Ozturk, Flanagan, O’Nien, Scowen, Power, Hume, Maguire, Lafferty, Semenyo. Subs: Burge, C. McLaughlin, Lynch, Dobson, Gooch, Grigg, Wyke.
It was shit.
It was one of those games that we just never looked up for. Never looked at the races.
Fresh from scoring his first two goals for the club in his first start the previous Saturday, Lafferty produced a performance that suggested he was itching for an early bath from the off.
He was constantly involved with the Bristol Rovers defenders, earned a booking just before half time, and was fortunate to remain on the field for Parkinson to sub him at half time.
The fact Parkinson subbed him before 70 minutes shows just how bad it was.
Jonson Clarke-Harris bagged a goal in each half. For the first, he turned Luke O’Nien before firing high past McLaughlin; the second he dispatched from the spot after Power handballed.
2-0 it ended, and in truth it’s what we deserved.
While it felt a pivotal game prior to kick off, we couldn’t have known just how important the defeat would turn out to be.
On the eve of our next fixture, away at Blackpool, League One was suspended, and the Football League decided – in its infinite wisdom – to end the season on a points per game basis.
If we’d managed to beat Bristol Rovers we’d have ended up on 1.72ppg – and finished in fourth place, with a play-off semi against Oxford to look forward to. Instead we finished seventh, and faced six months without football.
In hindsight, of course, it’s probably better we didn’t go up. The price tag of a Championship club may have been outside of Mr Louis-Dreyfus’s budget, and we could be scrapping at the bottom of the Championship this season under the previous ownership.
One thing for certain is that the game brought to a premature end the Sunderland careers of Jon McLaughlin, Alim Ozturk, Kyle Lafferty and Antoine Semenyo, as well as Joel Lynch who was an unused sub.
Another thing for certain is we bloody miss it. Yes, we miss the emphatic Saturday home wins, but we miss the 2-0 midweek defeats on a cold night at the other end of the country, too.
It’s one thing watching football on the TV, but that’s only a fraction of what it’s about.
It’s the journey to the game. The endless crack and piss-taking with your mates. It’s the pints before the game, the roar when the team emerges from the tunnel. It’s buying a half time pie. It’s hugging complete strangers when we score. It’s celebrating with the players when we’ve won and that feeling of adulation when we all walk out of the ground. It’s the feeling of despair when we trudge out after a defeat. It’s dissecting the game, whatever the result, with your mates in the pub afterward.
And by god we miss it.