RR: First of all – please tell us a bit about yourself...
Gavin: So, I was born in Easington and grew up in Roker and Fencehouses. I left the area when I was 22, and the rest as they say is history. Went to my first game in early 1979 (Leicester City, a 2-1 win although I remember little other than the noise and the team in blue we played). So thats nearly 42 years man and boy.
I ended up in the US shortly after the 9/11 attacks, was living in London and engaged to an American lass. I quit my job on the 12th and moved to the US two weeks later. FYI Virginia is on the east coast, halfway down (and very hot).
RR: So how did you end up being a Sunderland fan - family influences, a love for the lads from afar?
Gavin: It’s all my Dad’s fault, growing up as the oldest kid in a family of four, Dad used to put my pyjamas over my clothes and smuggle me to Roker Park for reserve games. We always stopped at my nana and grandads shop on Roker Avenue for sweets before the game.
For this game, I am returning a past favour and taking my dad and brother. Last time we all got to a game together was 2010 for the 3-1 win over Spurs (hopefully some of that good luck will rub off this weekend). In terms of other fans over there with me, of the American’s in my life, my son tries his best to follow the Lads… he certainly knows when we have lost! Other than that father son support, I think I married into the least sporting family in America (but one of geek royalty).
RR: How big is football in your present part of the world? Do you follow any North American footy teams or anyone other than Sunderland?
Gavin : I’ll be honest, I just moved to Virginia from New Jersey in the last month, so I haven’t really seen much of the area. As far as NJ is concerned, football is every bit as popular as any of the other sports, maybe not in terms of TV viewership, but participation, and attendance. I had New York Red Bull season tickets to keep my fix of the game, but after a few years and the big names leave I realised it’s more Sunderland I love and less the game itself.
The biggest difference between sporting events here in the US and the UK is the atmosphere…in the USA you can have a ‘road trip’ that is 3500 miles each way on a Sunday afternoon and with the best will in the world, nobody is jumping on an ALS Coach for that road trip and getting back to work on Monday morning! So what you get are small pockets of away fans (if any) interspersed with the home crowd.
With the MLS it’s a very forced environment with crowd conductors running through their pre-set chant list regardless of what is happening on the pitch. The biggest difference really is the banter between home and away fans, in all but a few games it just doesn’t exist.
RR: We know from initial conversations it is a while since you saw a match live - what was the last live SAFC game you saw in person?
Gavin : So my last in-person game before I moved back to the USA full-time was the Derby match in January of 2011, that late, late Asamoah Gyan goal felt every bit the winner. The crowd was electric that day, if I remember right we had the red and white cards before kick off and the atmosphere was as good as I have seen at the SoL.
Now I know playing Accrington won’t have the same electric atmosphere as the Mags match, but I love the “oohs and aah’s” of the crowd as chances come and go, and of course the one thing I want more than anything on Saturday is a win.
Watching on TV for the past few years with the International Fan Pass, and before it through the Premier League streaming rights on NBCSN, I felt the crowd was too quick to get on the back of the team, so I hope we don’t see that this week.
The thing I miss most though is the noise for sure. I mean, we get together in bars around the USA and Canada and its fun to have a few drinks and sing, but the noise of 48,000 fans in unison, that’s different gravy mate.
RR: As discussed with other international fans, since SAFC’s drop from the Premier League, coverage of SAFC internationally will have reduced drastically. Have you managed to watch many SAFC matches across the past few years? Any highlights you would share?
Gavin : We’ve all been fortunate that technology has allowed us to obtain live streaming of all games in the League, so unless I am at work I rarely have the excuse to miss a game at least on television.
Favourite moments are many across those times, especially during the 6 in a row run we had against the Mags. I remember we had a Derby day game (the one we drew after the 6) and it just so happened that students from Sunderland Uni/College were in New York on a trip that weekend. There must have been close to 150 fans watching the Derby game, beers flooded the Mags when we went 1-0, only for them to return the favour when the equalised.
If I had to pick a favourite goal, Defoe against the unwashed… we were in Legends Bar by the Empire State Building for that one as well. You could see the life physically leave the Mags fans that afternoon when that went in.
RR: How do you stay in touch with all things Sunderland AFC from so far away? Is there a fan club in the vicinity?
Gavin : So, I have certainly played my part in keeping fans here in the USA and Canada up to date with all things SAFC. Me and another lad (Adam Robson) got the ball rolling with the first US Supporters Association back in 2003, and I have been the Secretary for NASA on two occasions to date.
Normally though, you’ll see me trying to convince fans to join me at a couple of others at Legends as often as possible (those tend to be expensive hazy days, by the time we crawl home though). At the moment though, as far as I know... I am the only Sunderland fan in Virginia Beach. I think my nearest fan is about a 90 minute drive away....
RR: What changes are you expecting to see, both in the stadium and around the town, since your last visit?
Gavin : I am happy to have missed the Methven/Donald era in person, so I have little in the way of expectation coming into the Accrington game. Long gone are the match days that start at the Ivy House and work their way to the stadium past Idols (obviously visited for the beer, and not the strippers).
Long gone too are the pre-match rituals of wearing my black polo neck sweater under my home top and making sure to get the same sandwich from the same shop every match. For this one, I think there will be one or two beers in the Colliery Tavern (I am staying at the Hilton on this visit) before one or two in the Stadium.
In terms of inside the stadium, since I left Dad got all gentrified and prefers the more sedate confines of the Upper West Stand, whereas I am more a South West Corner kind of lad. Obviously, if I want the old man with me, I have to take the sedate route.
RR: How do you feel about the way we are performing, both on and off the pitch this season so far? What do you think has made the most difference to enable this great start we have had?
Gavin : I am impressed with the way KLD has gone about things to be honest. He hasn’t trying to win the fans over with gimmicks and promises he can’t keep, he has just got his head down and appointed professionals to do the jobs a football club needs. I am particularly impressed with the capture of Speakman, and the club having a footballing philosophy (something we lacked for far too long).
I think the fact that we did the behind the scenes stuff before we started throwing money at players (as some fans wanted) shows we are heading in the right direction, and is directly attributable to the good start we have had so far (where even our one defeat was unlucky).
RR: What are the logistics involved in coming to a game from your present home town? What made you pick this game for your first one in so long ? May you return for others?
Gavin : Logistics... First I had to wait for quarantine restrictions to be relaxed by the UK Govt for vaccinated US residents. I had a Covid test before I left, and had a tracking form to be completed for my time in the UK, AND a day 2 test to show I didn’t pick anything up on my travels.
Once the trip started the fun began. A three and a half hour drive from Virginia Beach to Washington DC (Dulles Airport) for my flight to Heathrow. Three hours layover in Heathrow to Ponteland Airport, before the drive here to the Hilton by the stadium. Total time traveling 19 hours.
I picked this game because it was the first one available with the lifting of restrictions and my schedule. As for how often I get back, not as often as I would like, this time its been three and a bit years since my last trip, but I try to do at least every other year.
Other than the milk commercials as a kid, I have no ties to Accrington at all that attract me to this match, but I am actually surprised by how well they have played this season and I am hoping for a good game. As for other game to see, either of the Plymouth Argyle games may be possible, as one of my clients works for the Plymouth owner, and has promised to call in a favour…
RR: Game prediction - how do you think we will go about the game, and what score do you think will play out in front of you live this Saturday against Accrington Stanley?
Gavin : Match prediction. I always hate doing these, but I do fancy us for the win. I’ll go for an unspectacular 2-0 win, Stewart and Gooch with the goals. It won’t be an easy game with Accrington having started strongly, but the lads are confident and rested.