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View From The Press Box: What it’s like watching Sunderland without fans in the ground

Phil Spencer has been fortunate enough to watch Sunderland from the press box this season - and he tells all about what it’s like taking in games without a vociferous crowd of mackem supporters filling the Stadium of Light.

Football is nothing without its supporters. That’s been the message that has been hammered home over the last 12 months, but is it actually the case?

Honestly, you have no idea.

It’s been 13 and a half months since Sunderland supporters have been able to attend a match at the Stadium Of Light. That match was the bitterly disappointing 2-2 draw with Gillingham in which Mikael Mandron (remember him?) scored in the 96th minute to deem Kyle Lafferty’s brace irrelevant. I was sat in the press box that day and like the almost 30,000 fans in attendance that day, it just felt like another match in which Phil Parkinson’s side had bottled it.

Ah well, there’s always next week... though, as it turned out, it would be the last time that I’d see more than 100-odd people in a football stadium.

Sunderland v Gillingham - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Depending on how you see it, I’m one of the fortunate people who has been allowed to attend Sunderland matches over the course of this season, but in truth, there have been times when you wonder if it’s even worth it.

Having grown up watching the game, I fell in love with the whole matchday experience.

Squeezing into a car with my family, sitting in endless lanes of traffic, walking in packed crowds of beer-breathed supporters, and squeezing through the turnstiles to see fans with a pint in one hand and a betting slip in another - it’s what football is all about.

Attending matches now is nothing like it used to be.

Living in North Tyneside, my journey to the Stadium Of Light had to be timed to perfection.

Unless arriving at the match painfully early, I risked getting held up at the Tyne Tunnel, facing slow traffic on the A19, and then being stuck in endless streams of traffic on Wessington Way through Castletown and Southwick.

That journey could take up to an hour on a bad day - now, you’re talking 25 minutes maximum.

Obviously the traffic advantages are a good thing, but what’s not pleasant is the flat, deserted feel at the Stadium Of Light when you arrive.

Sunderland v Charlton Athletic - Sky Bet League One - Stadium of Light Photo by Richard Sellers/PA Images via Getty Images

If you’ve ever had the need to head for the stadium on a Monday morning you’d know the feeling. No singing, no overpriced burger vans, and no children queueing at the main entrance to see their heroes arrive in their heavily-modified Range Rovers.

It all just feels a little bit odd.

Members of the press are perhaps a little bit spoilt with lovely lunches, cakes and all of the free tea and coffee you can drink, but instead, I’m stuck with my thermos that I rather depressingly asked my wife to get me for Christmas.

Hold your tears, I’m not worth it.

Making my way up to the press box before a match, I’ve been guilty of taking the simmering excitement of supporters for granted as they wait in anticipation of the big kick-off.

We’re all familiar with the thrill of walking up the steps and seeing that endless green carpet beneath us, but the truth is that it’s not the stadium and the pitch that make it such a memorable moment.

It’s the feeling of being part of something. A collection of people of all ages, all genders, all sexual orientations, all income levels, vegans/non-vegans, and even those who may have backed that preposterous European Super League proposal.

Gillingham v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Whatever your walk of life, we’re all football fans and we’re all present and focused on the same thing at 3pm on a Saturday.

Football is a great sport to watch – particularly when you’re able to watch a club such as Sunderland as they battle to secure promotion.

This stage of the season is all about fine margins and squeezing every last drop out of the remaining matches in a season. Sunderland’s obvious advantage over their rivals is the unrivalled quantity and quality of their support.

I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to a lot of football stadiums around the country, and very few can match the Roker Roar.

Sunderland have some big-game players this season in the shape of Jordan Jones, Aiden McGeady and even Charlie Wyke, who has dug out his goalscoring boots.

They’ve found levels that we’ve never seen before, but can you imagine how they’d be doing with 30,000+ behind them?

The prospect is a little bit frightening when you consider that these lads have the self-confidence to embrace the challenge of entertaining an expectant crowd.#Finding the back of the net hasn’t been much of a problem this term, but it’s been far from a moment to savour. A goal that would have been a massive moment last term has barely been met with a shrug of the shoulders as the most notable sound is a smattering of applause from the home dugout.

What we’d give to have supporters cheering on the lads, slagging off the referee, and calling the opposition manager a prized plum (or much worse).

Even with a valuable three points in the bank, it all just feels a bit like a training ground match - there’s no collective exhale after a nervy few minutes hanging on, and no huge cheer when the matchday announcers inevitably claims that Newcastle have slipped up again.

Hull City v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ed Sykes - CameraSport via Getty Images

Leaving the stadium after the press conferences is also a very weird feeling.

Slipping out of the side door, I’m used to feeling like an anxious car pulling onto the M1 as crowds of supporters make their way back into town for their post-match pint.

Instead there’s no noise other than the revving engine of the away team bus which is waiting on the visitors getting ready – with no security around it – ready to take them home.

Football is like a religion on Wearside. For supporters not to be able to go to church on a Saturday afternoon must be incredibly difficult and I sympathise with everyone who is missing that matchday pint with their friend or simply just a few hours away from the wife and kids.

Supporters miss Sunderland, but if it’s any consolation at all it’s painfully clear that the club are missing you more than you know, and will be ready to welcome you back with open arms in time for the new season.

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