The 1988 ‘mud sliders’ showed Sunderland’s travelling support at its best – loud, proud and just a little bit crazy. We were back in Wigan this weekend and once again the numbers in attendance were phenomenal; despite a collapse in form Sunderland supporters snapped up nearly 5,000 tickets well before they went onto general sale, but just when you thought we were mad for sticking with them the Lads turned in the type of performance that makes it all worthwhile.
The novelty of being in League One has undoubtedly worn off, and whilst most grounds have been ‘ticked off’ the demand for away game tickets remains high. Our form on the road has been patchy this season too, and yet pretty much every trip has still sold out with social media messages from people desperate for spares becoming the norm and stadiums with limited space continuing to get pockets of Sunderland fans in the home sections.
The high level of expats and exiles in some parts of the country probably counts towards this, but the number of coaches and train passengers at full time proves there is still an enormous appetite for travelling from the north east to back the team.
Given the cost of living increases and general job uncertainty following the pandemic, it would make sense that luxuries like away games would be the first to be binned off, yet there appears to be no sign of it so far and it would now be a massive surprise if there wasn’t another packed out stand at Charlton Athletic on Saturday.
Getting to London on a weekend is not too difficult, but it does take time. No matter what the location is though, or the competition for that matter, Sunderland fans continue to find a way to get there. There have been big away crowds at obvious attractions like Arsenal, Bolton Wanderers, Doncaster Rovers and Sheffield Wednesday to name a few, but even the first trip to Wigan in the Carabao Cup earlier in the season brought plenty down whilst so did the Papa John’s Trophy match at Lincoln City.
Bigger allocations and lower prices as a result of being outside the Premier League perhaps contribute to all of this. Having a few more clubs based within easy reaching distance is another big factor but at the heart of it all is the simple fact that away games can be fun.
Lockdown has meant that some people just want to get out there and do as much stuff as they can, and if you are busy during the week a couple of hours in a car with friends or family might be the best chance you get to properly talk to and be with the ones you love.
Three points at the end of it then are just a bonus.
A desire to actually watch the football, and a sense of sheer loyalty drives most of us on as well but not everything about the travelling support is wonderful. Flares being thrown dangerously (even towards the players following Ross Stewart’s first penalty at the DW Stadium), extreme intoxication and several unsavoury comments and chants do all put a blemish on the afternoon out. Being openly mocked as the team loses to an out of form or poor quality side is not much cop either, but when it does go to plan like it did at Wigan you can understand why people come back for more.
Speaking of Wigan, the most compact, assured performance of the year so far gives hope for the remaining fixtures and as somebody suggested to me on Saturday night, could prove to be a phycological advantage if we end up meeting again in the Play-Offs.
We’ve now beaten them twice in the league, and in the League Cup where both clubs fielded squad players, and Sunderland’s depth overpowered them. I did think that could be an advantage for us in the final reckoning, particularly as the fixtures piled up for the Latics, but things have not panned out that way so far.
Hopefully, being turned over so convincingly bursts Wigan’s bubble and they now encounter a slide as bad as ours. Whether we can capitalise is another matter, but one thing we do know is that there will be plenty of Sunderland fans travelling near and far to watch it unfold. It has been a bruising few weeks for the club and we still have some problems on our hands, but encouragingly, the away support is yet to waver.