I can’t particularly recall my first time in the Stadium of Light. Much the same way I can’t remember my first day of school or my first beer. What I do remember is that we played Newcastle. We lost one nil to a Nicos Dabizas header. Sixty fourth minute. I was educated early on that this was football and more aptly, this was Sunderland. Sometimes they win, but mostly they lose.
I love Sunderland. I am not from Sunderland but I feel like I am. It feels as if the place has always been part of who I am. Life begins and ends with Sunderland and their fortunes.
I often wonder: why does it mean so much to me? Why do I let a football team in the North East of England dictate my life? It is deeper than logic. The butterflies that overcome me as I reach the stadium on match day are the same now as it was 20 years ago. It is like a sight akin to your spiritual life. It has your heart and your soul.
The wins are great. The defeats are devastating.
The lack of live football over the past year enticed me into buying a season ticket for the first time in over ten years. No regrets.
I, like so many, do not support Sunderland for the trophies or success. Nor do we expect that. For so many, it is a sense of duty and family tradition that are passed from one generation to the next. Staying true to your values. A community effort. Maybe a little tribal.
Losing is part of the journey. It is almost a given. We expect to be disappointed, we expect to be pissed off. Sometimes we may even enjoy a good moan after a manager has made a tactical error or if our centre half makes a mistake.
It is what connects us as fans and what keeps us going through the toughest of times.
Yesterday’s news about the potential breakaway European competition with teams dubbed the ‘dirty dozen’ sent shockwaves across the football world. The football community joined as one in their anger and disgust at what they saw as the greed of a few turning their backs on the real people of football. The fans.
Not only is the audacity of these football club owners to think they have the power to create their own league shuddering, but the sheer ignorance to do it in the midst of a global pandemic reinforces the point that these people are so removed from the everyday standard football fan.
Furthermore, the absence of the promotion/relegation in their plans stinks of such self-absorbed ideals that are so foreign to basic principles of sport. The joys of winning. The despair of defeat. Knowing that each result matters and means something.
What really is sport without it?
The sheer idea that these Premier League owners, amongst others, believe it is a good idea to commence a league where there is an elimination of relegation confirms where their head is at. Any football fan worth their salt wants relegation. They want that fear of failure. They want that emotion of defeat. This is what makes the wins so enjoyable. The good days so memorable.
The Premier League as an entity is not football anymore. It has become a show business run by billionaire owners who are living lavishly on a yacht in a foreign land.
Sky, BT and whoever else are involved are not clear of blame either. While their prominence and promotion has brought quality exposure of the game to many, it is important to point out that this monster was born from the 1992 deal that brought the Premier League into existence.
It is now a monster that is too big for them. It is also too big for the Premier League. The power is with these owners and they are not going to give it back. Football, at the top level will never be the same again.
Sunderland’s demise in recent seasons has probably coincided with some of my more enjoyable times as a fan, While at times, the football itself has been mind-numbingly appalling and tough to watch, I feel a part of the club again.
The benefit of dropping down a couple of levels ensured that the majority of players tend to be more level-headed. They are more genuine and accessible. They will have a conversation with you without a nagging feeling of obligation or forced smiles. I have been lucky enough on a couple of occasions to speak to some of the players that we have had in our squad since we were relegated to League One and they all are genuine men.
This is what a football club should be. The fans should feel part of it. The club should be central to a community and one where everyone is involved and feels they have a role. It is evident that the new ownership are trying to implement this. In fairness to the previous ownership, they also acknowledged this and did some good stuff in this regard with reconnecting the fanbase.
I have enjoyed the away trips. The trains to Rochdale, the taxis to Shrewsbury. The missed flights after matches. Missing trains and talking to opposition fans in a fun and friendly manner. The begrudging acceptance of mediocrity and the joy of actually winning matches on a semi-regular basis.
There is many that will say that the novelty of the new grounds has worn off for many and they would suggest that they want to be back in the higher echelons of English football.
I disagree. Football is not fun up there. It is not even football anymore.
For me, after recent events, give me League One every day of the week.