Last Saturday’s comprehensive rout of Cambridge, with the team on top form and 32,000 fans turning a sun-drenched Stadium of Light into a very, very happy place by 4:50pm, was an occasion I enjoyed very much.
Not only was I able to celebrate a victory that puts us into a promising position in the League One playoff picture, it was also the first time I’d attended a match with my dad, a Sunderland supporter of over fifty years, since our 2019 league encounter with MK Dons.
That day we won 2-1, and it was a pleasant surprise that two and a half years later his first match back ended with an equally satisfying outcome.
My dad isn’t in the best of health nowadays, and so attending matches is a very rare occasion for him. Indeed, his celebrations for our five goals were much more restrained than they might have been twenty-odd years ago, but he still went through the full range of emotions, from elation at Elliot Embleton’s audacious goal, to sheer frustration when Cambridge goalkeeper Dimitar Mitov pulled off two superb saves to prevent us from increasing our lead.
Last week, my Roker Report colleague Andrew Smithson wrote an article in which he discussed the importance of the club reaching out to fans with creative ticket offers, and therefore ensuring that future generations of fans are engaged with, and connected to the club at an early age.
His piece really struck a chord with me, because family ties are something that have coloured my love for this club for the past twenty five years. With that in mind, please forgive me if the tone of this article errs towards the sentimental, because this is a topic that is very close to my heart, and Saturday really brought it home.
Like many fans, my love of Sunderland was instilled in me by the old man, who, as a kid, was raised on the sight of heroes like Charlie Hurley and Jimmy Montgomery gracing the Roker Park turf.
Even now, he never tires of sharing his memories of the 1973 FA Cup final, he still compares every Sunderland skipper to Bobby Kerr, and he still owns a vinyl copy of Bobby Knoxall’s ‘Sunderland All The Way’, although it’s probably easier to simply look it up on YouTube nowadays.
To this day, I’ve never forgotten the first league game we attended at the Stadium of Light, on a cold evening in late 1997, under the floodlights against Swindon Town. Despite the fact that it was a school night and I probably should’ve been doing homework or tucked up in bed by 8:30pm, my dad had secured a couple of tickets, and off we went on the 220 bus for a night at the football.
The rush of walking through the access tunnel and out onto the concourse was a feeling that I can still recall today, and even though the game finished 0-0, that didn’t seem to matter. That night, I experienced the same thrill that he would’ve got when he walked through the Roker Park turnstiles all those years ago. It was something magical and unforgettable.
The ties that bind us together as Sunderland fans, as well as our love for the club, go much deeper than league status, wins and losses, the form of individual players, or whoever happens to be in the dugout. After all, the story of any club is one of light and shade, of highs and lows, and we understand that as well as any fanbase.
Since we’ve been in League One, fans of rival clubs, not to mention a smattering of pundits, have gleefully and bitterly accused us of being burdened by entitlement, and clinging onto the belief that we are somehow ‘above’ this division. From the outside, it is easy to make such observations, but only those of us who’ve been at the heart of it for many years will truly understand.
On Saturday, I got the same buzz from sharing the victory with a family member as I did in April 2008, when we beat Middlesbrough 3-2 to preserve our top-flight status. It was a different game with different permutations, but the thrill remained the same.
As the years have gone by, much has changed at the club, but the raw passion, that feeling of belonging and of having a personal investment in the fortunes of the club never fades. When you combine that passion with the perpetual optimism that, one day, we will make a return to English football’s top table, it makes for a very powerful emotion.
It might be one of the most well-worn truisms in the book, but ours truly is a special club, and as long as the love of Sunderland is passed down from generation to generation, that really will be the factor that ensures the club continues to find a place in the hearts of the supporters of tomorrow.
Despite our current status, the hope is that young fans attending their first games, and seeing their favourite players in the flesh, will doubtless get the same feeling of excitement that I and many others did years ago, and that is something that you simply cannot put a price on. Once you’re in, you’re hooked for life, and I wouldn’t swap that feeling for anything.