I don’t have early childhood memories of Sunderland, because my affinity with Sunderland began fittingly with heartbreak - a theme that has largely continued over the ensuing years!
Growing up in a city where rugby was king, and with the nearest football league club being nearly an hour away, there were no obvious contenders to focus my love for football on. I really liked Ryan Giggs as a fellow left-footer and winger so like many of my friends, gravitated to Manchester United.
Then, on leaving for secondary school (and despite their infinite success) I decided that I was no longer going to be a sheep, and would distance myself from the “glory supporter” tag that all other United fans in my class were branded.
Being a tall, lanky 13-year-old (now striker) with a bit of a dark-brown haircut, I’d often get called “Niall” or “Quinny” by my dad’s teammates when I would go to watch him play or when I was allowed to join in at training. This was completely lost on me until (in an attempt to be niché) I expanded my search to Division One. Looking through results and squads, I spotted that there was someone at Sunderland who just couldn’t stop scoring and I was intrigued to learn more.
That man was Super Kevin Phillips, who had scored in 6 of his last 7 appearances and was on course to finish as the league’s top scorer. On further inspection I picked up that Sunderland also had another super striker and finally the penny dropped - Niall Quinn!
With the sound of the penny dropping still resonating in my ears, I delved further - a brand new, state-of-the-art stadium… a team pushing for promotion into the (newish) Premier League and a manager (Peter Reid) who talked a bit funny, said exactly what he thought and was inspiring these players to potential victory.
Following results intently but unable to watch any of the games, it turns out there couldn’t have been a more dramatic introduction to what it was to be a Black Cat. Fate would dictate that the first-ever Sunderland game I would watch live (albeit on the telly) would be a little-known game against Charlton on May 25th 1998.
There’s no need to go into what happened in that game, because if you don’t know then chances are you aren’t a Sunderland fan... but what I do remember is feeling that I’ve never been so thrilled or been on such an emotional rollercoaster at the hands of a football match. Up to then, it was the single most dramatic and thrilling game of football I’ve ever watched - and 20-odd years later it is still up there.
By the time Sasa Ilic had saved down low to his left from Micky Gray, I was hooked. I had no real reason to be at that time but I felt absolutely devastated. I found myself in mourning with Reidy and the lads as the heads dropped and Ilic sprinted off to join his Premier League-bound teammates.
France ‘98 offered a distraction for a while, until David Beckham and Batty provided me with the exact same feeling only five weeks later. With England eliminated, and my own pre-season starting in two weeks I turned my attention back to domestic football.
I felt after taking me on such a whirlwind adventure in May, even if only for 2.5 hours, I had unfinished business with Sunderland.
In that one game, and to paraphrase Quinny, the team had “Gotten under my skin”. I felt a connection to the club, a sense that the team also believed there to be unfinished business and that those players back in May, had felt exactly what I felt. I was hooked and as my investment grew, so did the number of points that the team accumulated.
My first full season as a Sunderland fan, and we get promoted with the record number of points, with Quinny and SKP both scoring over 20 each, and a League Cup Semi-Final - I remember feeling like I had won the lottery.
Forget Giggs and Old Trafford, I was going to be the only one in my school able to bathe in the glory of being a Sunderland supporter. Their tears would nourish me as I’d been brave enough to rise above the boring mates who cheered on Liverpool and Manchester United and support a real team.
I didn’t know it back then, but the memories of those two heartaches in 1998 provided the foundations to deal with the next 20 years of heartache that the football club has provided since.
Do I regret it?
Not one bit!