Emerging from Charing Cross tube the night before the last playoff final in May 2019 was a surreal experience. A place I know well having previously worked in Westminster had been transformed into a home from home for Sunderland supporters from around the world.
It felt like someone had transplanted the north east of England into the centre of the capital, injected it with a sense of nervous expectation, and then hooked it to an intravenous drip of pure alcohol.
The boy and I had come down earlier that day, bags dropped off at the Premier Inn next to Wembley, then we’d grabbed some food and a quick stop at a Tesco Metro for a carrier bag of liquid refreshments (San Miguel and San Pellegrino). Then we played keepy-uppy down Wembley Way before heading into the centre of town for the party we knew would already be in full swing.
I’d seen the pictures from the March, we had travelled to the Trophy final on the day of the game itself rather than staying over, but nothing could quite prepare me for the atmosphere - a unique mix of protest, carnival, football match, Brits abroad, and sunny picnic in the park - that was utterly unforgettable and I wouldn't have missed for the world.
Good-natured and fun, the boy was in his element. Kicking his ball around with other kids in an impromptu mass game of panna, cooling off in the fountains, climbing the lions... all good fun - he’s been in more away ends than most his age and always had that mini-ultra lurking inside, loves the chanting and showing off his colours.
The locals seem to have mixed opinions about our now regular invasions and occupations of their public space; we’re generally a pretty friendly bunch and, even when we’ve had a few, the accent and easy humour of the Mackem goes a long way to defusing any potentially hostile situation.
There’s also that sense of decency and of civic pride - of representing your city, club and indeed your family, that goes hand in hand with being a Sunderland supporter travelling anywhere. Being able to have a crack on with the locals and sharing a laugh with strangers is one of the things we’re famed for.
But then after a long afternoon of merriment, as the sun begins to set and chemical enhancements are required to keep energy levels up, there comes that the edge... that tinge of menace that can suddenly take over a crowd as a day on the pop merges into a night on the gak.
It doesn’t take much for good-natured banter to turn into hostility and a bit of nastiness, one where anything other than going at it full throttle is seen as an affront to the honour of your club.
For us, three years ago, we got a little taste of this when my then nine-year-old having his football suddenly commandeered by a group of bare-chested, slightly merry youngsters as one of the many missiles to be launched across the crowd. We eventually rescued the ball, but only under protest, from another group of revellers on the other side of the square for whom it had become common property.
It took a bit of the edge off what right up until that point had been a wonderful experience, suddenly our comrades became not so comradely. I decided to cut our evening a little shorter than I had originally planned, though it was probably for the best as it had been a long old day and we needed to save ourselves for the big one to follow.
And we still have the photos and the brilliant memories of what was, given the result of the game, undoubtedly the highlight of the weekend. The images and videos others took throughout both those evenings in 2019 and posted on the socials are all evocative of amazing times and great trips ruined by football matches.
The aftermath hasn’t always been something we can be collectively proud of. I don’t wish to be a special constable in the fun police, but the combination of empty cans, broken bottles and urine was not pleasent to be wading through at 9pm, so what it was like at 2am, I can only imagine.
Westminster Council is very well prepared to come in and sweep up after the various mass protests, gatherings, and revelries that take place at the centre-point of England’s capital on an almost weekly basis (until they are banned, which will happen soon enough).
Yes, public safety and counterterrorism precautions mean that there are actually no bins around the square for people to use, but it’s not impossible to put your bottles and cans back in whatever receptacle was used to transport them to the square in the first place and to use the public conveniences with respect.
We also want to make sure everyone gets home okay. Too many people have been injured or ill as a result of things getting a bit out of hand, and some have found themselves embarrassed (or worse) by footage taken late into the evening that spreads virally online.
There’s also that lingering suspicion that, even for those who make it safely back to their hotels and onto the tube up to the ground, the after-effects of five or ten too many the night before - sometimes topped up with similar amounts the next morning facilitated by Colombia’s finest - has left some pretty spent come 3pm on matchday itself. The voices are hoarse, the legs are heavy, and the minds not able to keep track of the action on the pitch.
The strangely subdued atmosphere in the national stadium against Charlton, one that on reflection had the air of desperation rather than expectation let alone celebration, wasn’t helped by an own goal that took many of us completely by surprise and an uninspiring performance overall.
This time, I think it might be slightly different. A bit like Alex Neil’s team - it’s time we put our big boy and girl pants on (rather than taking our pants down) and take this one as seriously as we took the playoff semi-final at the Stadium of Light. There’s little doubt that the wall of noise - the confident sense of expectation - the collective effort put into the occasion - was a huge factor in the Lads putting in one of the best overall performances of the season when it mattered most.
I passionately feel that if we’re all on top form, all in full voice, and the boys on the pitch are in full flow, these anti-football merchants from Buckinghamshire won’t know what’s hit them. We’ll outnumber them at least three to one in the ground, and we can truly help the team to bring home that playoff trophy.
I won’t be going to Trafalgar Square this Friday - the game falls the day after my better half’s birthday - so we’ll be getting the fast train down on Saturday morning and reviewing the pictures and videos all the way.
But, as we’re staying near Covent Garden that night, I plan to head back into town to celebrate our investiture back in the second tier in style. And what a party that will be!!!
Of course, there’s nothing stopping fans from doing both, but let’s make sure we’ve got the energy to keep it up all weekend and we do our city and club proud!