As a young Sunderland fan I, like thousands of others, felt a connection with the club that was incredibly deep and meaningful.
To support the red and white wizards at the time was to feel you were part of a movement that brought everyone together, regardless of where you were from or what your background was.
In the late 1990s the team was riding high, there was a buzz around the place, and the players of the era - Quinn, Phillips, Summerbee, Johnston, et al - were the kind of footballers you looked up to and aspired to be like. On the pitch they attained almost God-like status, but off it as has been written about countless times on Roker Report, they were always willing to spend time with the fans and give a little back.
One of my most treasured possessions at the time was a photograph signed by none other than Thomas Sorensen.
The Dane was a real hero of mine at the time - I owned that stunning 1998/1999 goalkeeper’s away jersey, and my dad had written to the club asking if Sorensen could send a picture, a request he was seemingly happy to fulfil, much to my giddy excitement when the photograph arrived in the post.
Over twenty years later it’s encouraging to see the club taking steps to build an even stronger rapport with the fanbase, in the shape of an open training and autograph session that took place at the Stadium of Light on Tuesday.
Judging by the photographs and the discussion on social media it was a roaring success, with young fans given the chance to meet their heroes and to share a moment and a selfie with them. It’s the kind of thing that can make a young fan’s day, and there’ll doubtless be some wonderful stories being shared in the coming days!
For young fans, the likes of Jack Clarke and Patrick Roberts are admired just as much as the late 1990s heroes were by my generation, and that’s something you can’t put a price on.
The wider point here is that finally, Sunderland AFC is starting to position itself as a community-based football club once again.
For years the connection with the fans, built up over such a long time and the very lifeblood of any football club, was damaged - not terminally but severely as we dropped out of the top flight and began a slow and painful journey into the third tier.
From greedy, disinterested players to uninspiring managers, the years between 2017 and 2022 were challenging, and during our slog through League One apathy reigned where once there had been optimism. Fortunately that glorious day at Wembley changed our trajectory, and now the aim must be to build on it.
It is to the credit of someone like Luke O’Nien, a player who has experienced the darkest days of the last four years, that he has remained on Wearside and become someone who embodies those values: a willingness to give back, humility, and pride in the club he represents.
There is no doubt that this group of players is likeable.
They are skilful, committed and eager to improve. In addition, there are no signs of rampant egos or selfish mindsets, and with a North East native, Tony Mowbray, in charge, that isn’t likely to change anytime soon.
Regardless of who wears the jersey, stands in the technical area or sits in the boardroom, Sunderland AFC must always keep traditional values at its very heart.
There must be a concerted effort from those in charge to ensure the fans are respected and valued, from young supporters to those who’ve followed the club for years.
As we saw with the well-documented customer service issues earlier in the year, the fans can never be taken for granted, and with our oil-rich neighbours starting to flex their muscles, the need to continue to engage with the new generation of supporters is greater than ever.
Tuesday was a great initiative, and hopefully open training sessions become par for the course wherever possible, but there should be no limit on what could be done to engage with supporters.
If the club is willing to reach out to the community and position themselves at the centre of the city and the region, that is an incredibly powerful combination and can only bring benefits in the long term.