RR: First of all – please tell us a bit about yourself...
Mohammad: Hi. I’m Mohammad Barkat Cheema. I’m 20 yrs old, and from Sargodha Punjab, Pakistan. I’ve been a Sunderland AFC fan since about 2012/13.
That interest was actually started after the 2010 World Cup, when I was first introduced to football. Then I started watching the clubs in the Premier League, and it was 2013 when I fell in love with Sunderland.
RR: So how did you end up being a Sunderland fan, in a country that seems crazier about Hockey and Cricket than 3rd division English Football?
Mohammad: As I said earlier I was just a general league watcher at first. I didn’t know a lot about teams, but used to read about them, mainly to learn about them. Then our local TV channel here started broadcasting the Premier League in 2012 (before, we used to watch it on Indian channels).
So, my love for Sunderland grew because as you know, we used to fight for survival and that sense of them being an underdog, fighting against the other clubs, I really loved. 2012 was a tough year for us as we ended up near relegation, but survived.
Every week of the season I was eager to watch Sunderland play, and I really don’t know why. Maybe it was that I liked the jersey, or the players, or the Stadium?
I remember a Boxing day win against Man City which really made this a big deal, and then I found out that we have a huge rivalry with Newcastle, much like the India v Pakistan one. We beat them in their home ground, which was brilliant.
The League Cup run we had was a factor too, I loved it. I later read about the clubs history, the accolades we have won, the players, I have even read about the town of Sunderland itself. And yeah, I loved that documentary too, but I had become a fan before that was aired.
Being a Pakistani and a Sunderland fan is also quite strange over here, because we Pakistani’s are usually “glory hunters”. We tend to support the bigger clubs like Liverpool, Man United, Chelsea, Barcelona or Real Madrid.
RR: How big is football in Pakistan? I see it is classed by many as the 3rd most popular sport, so how much exposure does football get over there?
Mohammad: Football has a huge fan following in Pakistan. Our global rankings won’t suggest that, as we were ranked over 200th before we were actually banned by FIFA because of some political turmoil in our Federation.
I do believe there is an enormous amount of talent in the country, both playing wise and in our understanding of the game, and speaking about it. Football fans here in Pakistan are crazy about the game, mostly as I said earlier through following the “bigger clubs”. There is a league in the country, the Pakistan Premier League which has started this season after quite sometime, if I’m not wrong.
RR: I don’t believe Sunderland have had any first-team players from Pakistan in the past - are there any players from your home country you think people in England would recognise or would have heard of?
Mohammad: In terms of notable Pakistani players, the current lot I don’t think play for clubs in Europe at all, they mostly play in Leagues in Arab Countries. I remember one player of Pakistani origin, think he played For Fulham... Zesh Rehman.
RR: 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?
Mohammad: Yeah it is very difficult to watch Sunderland games in Pakistan. It was even back when they were in the Premier League, because the broadcasters favour cricket more than football, but still we would get to see quite few games. As we have gone down the divisions it’s now very difficult to watch games. I watched most of the games from 2012/13 onwards to the point we got relegated.
My favourite games have to be the derby day wins, be it the first one I watched or the two in 2015, I loved them. I’ve had quite a few favourite players, but I really liked Defoe and Cattermole.
RR: How do you stay in touch with all things Sunderland AFC from so far away? Does the club streaming service work okay for fans in your region?
Mohammad: Currently, as I said it’s tough to actually stream the games, but I do like to read everything about games on Roker Report. There are also good people on Twitter help me out with what is happening in the games currently and stuff. I have seen a few games on SAFsee last season and the play-offs and it’s fine.
RR: Do you have any plans to try to get to a Sunderland match in the future? How do you think you would feel experiencing a live game at the Stadium of Light, or even at Wembley Stadium?
Mohammad: Actually I was thinking about trying to study broadcast journalism in Sunderland University at one point! But yeah, I would love to come and see the games, and hopefully will one day at the SOL.
I actually love the atmosphere even from all this distance away, and even on the phone.
Then imagining how’s it gonna be if I were there, I love that too.
RR: How many Sunderland fans do you know of in your country? If you have been bitten by the bug, surely others will have - would you consider starting a supporters branch if numbers are there?
Mohammad: I don’t know, but honestly I haven’t came across one! There is an Arsenal supporter who I know has some feelings for our club, but I’d love to know some others.
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?
Mohammad: This season has just started but it’s been a good one. I really think Lee Johnson is the guy, and things started to look good last season when KLD came in. I think we were and are a big club, and I do believe that things were not going well backstage with the ownership before, but with KLD in I’m really really optimistic about things.
The transfer window we have had has also been brilliant. Signings like Cirkin, Pritchard and Doyle have been brilliant, and hopefully the forward and the goalie from Bayern Munich are the same.
RR: League prediction - where do you honestly think we will end up in the league table at the end of this season, and why?
Mohammad: I do want us to win the league, and I believe we have the squad and the manager/coach to do so. It’s my assumption some may disagree, but I’m very hopeful this time. I do believe we need a good goalkeeper, which we actually might get towards the end of the window, also from Bayern Munich.
So, all in all I think we can challenge for the automatics for sure.