I have to say, post that dramatic night at Hillsborough last week, it was a very pleasant experience to watch discussions on social media and chat groups swiftly move from the 95th minute aggregate winner, altering course to discuss how those of us lucky enough to get tickets are going to make the most of another trip to the capital.
Our lads had done it, enabling yet another trip to Wembley Stadium - hopefully this time to bring us a win and the promotion we so sorely desire. Joy was in abundance.
All over Twitter, messages started to pop up proclaiming that travel and hotels were booked within minutes of the final whistle. Some had even saved a good few quid by backing the lads ahead of the second leg, securing the cheapest of decent hotel rooms, and the best discounts on train travel.
The instant joy was very much appropriate too in my view, as this time we were not talking about a plastic Pizza Cup success. Our appearance at the home of football will also not be shrouded by the shadow of a global pandemic, preventing any fans from being there to rejoice and celebrate with the players.
I felt so hollow and gutted for those lads in red and white watching from home, as they broke the long-standing Sunderland Wembley curse without fans there. Gooch should have heard the loudest longest extended pronunciation of his name he will ever hear as he fired that great through ball over the keeper.
Instead, he celebrated with his teammates, but without supporters.
No, this could finally be a real victory at our national stadium and one that can be witnessed by a large crowd of passionate fans rather than the empty cauldron surrounding our first success for SAFC in just under fifty years, that weekend in March just over a year ago.
Maybe May 21st could even be the win that can kick start our journey back up to the top level of the UK football ladder? A Wembley win really worth something, ideally with the vocal support of tens of thousands of screaming northern souls - is that what this is to be?
Reviewing the organisational chatter and messages, I started thinking about my own plans, first to hopefully secure a ticket, and then to contemplate what the weekend will comprise of. As I scrolled through though, I noticed a very mixed set of messages about the prospect of a night in London the night before, especially from non-Sunderland fans across League One, and other divisions.
For many years it has become standard procedure for a large section of our fanbase, our red and white hordes, to descend on London’s landmarks to gather and celebrate ready for the battle to come the following day. A chance to see old friends you may only see at the footy, but in the concrete theatres of Trafalgar Square and Covent Garden. A night full of optimism, several ales and eternal hope that after this big night out, we will head to the stadium the following day and claim our victory and its spoils.
The socials chat earlier this week was different in places though. It started to vary in tone and angle, especially so from other fan bases. Comments challenged the idea that we should do what we have done so many times - travel to London in great numbers, and have a bloody good night before a very important date in our football diaries.
Smart arse theorists of various sources started to question whether a club like Sunderland, with all those historic successes and years in the very best leagues that exist, should their fans really celebrate coming fifth in the third tier? Should we be gushing over the chance to take on the might of Wycombe Wanderers for the right to step one level back up the pyramid? Their logic suggested that Mackems should just see this as what they should have achieved several years ago, questioning why this didn’t happen at the first attempt. Why are these fans going to London and celebrating?
Should those very expensive beers flow so freely due to Sunderland being slightly less mediocre in the third tier than the last couple of seasons? Why are we over the moon about scraping success from the jaws of another failure which we expected, especially post our huge slump of January 2022?
We are Sunderland, surely we should turn our noses up at such a slightly above average performance. Why should a club of our historic calibre and settle for anything other than automatic elevation up the football tree?
If second place was all they managed, they should be ashamed they weren’t crowned champions. Simply not good enough for a club with our resources. Et cetera, et cetera.
I then looked at my own situation and what I want after experiencing what we all have this season and those before, and I couldn’t help wanting to stick two fingers up to every one of those negative, dour and miserable souls, no matter which club they support, at whatever level.
We are a team who certainly belong in the leagues above the one where we presently reside, but we deserve to be where we are right now based on how we played football on the field for a couple of seasons a little while ago, and how we have failed to correct that since.
Despite having the facilities, history and fans of a club literally way out of this league, the football team are where they deserve to be playing. And turning that around, just like any other team who have done well after times of real adversity in their present league table, we have every right to be happy and to celebrate the 50/50 chance to get the hell out of this division.
Like many other fortunate souls, I have now secured tickets for the match and also a room in a hotel for Friday night, and a train to the city on Friday afternoon. Me and my grown-up son will be heading into London and having a bloody good time on Friday night.
We will drink to the potential promotion that we could secure, despite it being through a playoff process against a comparative minnow. I am nothing short of over the moon that we still have a hope of going up after what we have had to go through, both this season and in those before it. We will be in the red smoke and the sea of flags and scarves in Trafalgar Square in our red and white colours, and we will be both proud and pleased to be there.
On Saturday, we will make our way (probably with thumping heads) to roar the Black Cats on and sing ourselves hoarse, to aid their best possible chance of victory. Two fans in what looks likely to be a 50,000 strong football chorus, ready and willing to literally sing their hearts out for the lads.
I’m not proud at all of the fact that my team are at this level, and I am certainly not happy about the situation that what looks like our best chance of leaving this level behind is this long after we entered the league.
I am immensely proud of the lads and the gaffer though, and the way they have grafted their arses off (since February especially) to give the team and their supporters a chance of something to smile about.
If clubs and their fans can throw beer around and shower themselves in fake £50 notes simply to recognise a take over by a wealthy billionaire new owner (ignoring the obligatory very dodgy past, or the significant questions around how they themselves conduct their business, or even run their home nations), why can we not celebrate some actual football-related success we have earned on the field through 46 (sorry no, 48) games of hard graft?
This squad and its coaching team have been charged with one of the highest pressure jobs in the EFL; to help a recently fallen respectable and established footballing presence to ascend to somewhere more representative of their stadium, history and following.
That isn’t an easy burden to carry, as we have seen since our positional demise a few seasons ago. The facts are that this set of players have made a chance at promotion happen for us all, when only three or four months ago we had all but given up hope of that occurring.
This feels like it really could be our time, and I want and need to be part of it. All of it.
I can’t wait to hop on that train with a few cold beers and start the journey and the celebrations with friends old and new. Yes, I will pay way too much for a pint and a burger. That’s a small sacrifice to be with my people and to be there for my team. I will also celebrate our promotion, should we secure it on the day, as if we have won a major cup or trounced a long-established rival, because deep down I hope this is the start of something positive for the medium to long term. That has to start now, and it has to begin where we are, playing whoever ends up in front of us.
Who gives a sh*t what other teams or their fans think.
Let’s do this, and let’s bloody well enjoy it too.