I was working from home the day that the Play-Off Final tickets went on sale. Due to family commitments, I don’t get to attend as many games as I would like these days, so I don’t hold a season card and just assumed I would struggle to get tickets. While sitting at my kitchen table on the laptop, I got a text from my 16-year-old son. “Dad, can you transfer me £60? I’ve got some friends at school who have season cards but aren’t going to Wembley and they said I can use their numbers to get tickets”.
I was sceptical, but transferred him the money and he soon replied saying he had successfully bought three tickets. I didn’t believe him, and the fact the email with the tickets was not immediately forthcoming just added to my suspicion that this might not happen.
We made tentative plans anyway, I had existing commitments on the Friday and Sunday, so we (me, my 16-year-old son, and 13-year-old daughter) would have to drive there and back in a day. I got on JustPark and pre-booked a parking space at ASDA Wembley. It still didn’t feel real.
Eventually, the email arrived with the tickets - I checked the PDF files to make sure they looked genuine, then I started to get more excited than a 41-year-old father with a respectable job should admit to.
The few days from the tickets arriving ‘til the Saturday were a blur, I couldn’t focus on much else, satisfying my thirst for anything Sunderland by devouring every bit of the fantastic content put out by RR and other fan media in the build-up.
When the day finally arrived I was up early, dragging the kids who were coming with me out of bed. We set off down the motorway, red and white scarf flapping from the rear window of the car. It seemed like every single vehicle on the road at that point was full of massive lads fans making their way South.
In the excitement I had neglected to put fuel in the car, so fairly early into the trip we stopped at Wetherby services to fill up. Every other person in the service station was wearing Sunderland gear. The kids wanted some breakfast so we stood in a long line outside Greggs, 100% of the others in the queue were also travelling Mackems.
Back on the road, we passed many more red & whites in cars and coaches on the way. My mam rang to see how we were feeling, I confidently predicted a 2-0 win. We arrived at the designated parking space at noon and headed straight for Wembley way.
My daughter asked what we were going to do for 3 hours before the game, I told her we were just going to soak it in. We walked up and down Olympic Way and round the stadium, taking photos and videos and chatting to familiar and unfamiliar faces we bumped into. We grabbed a pic with Grant Leadbitter, using the fact that my kids attend the same school he did in Chester le Street to interrupt him for what must have been the 10,000th time that day.
As Wembley way filled up, the atmosphere ramped up - but it was not how I expected it. I have not been to Wembley with the lads before - but I expected the excitement to be twinged with that sick feeling in the pit of the stomach - the nerves and worry about blowing it again at the final hurdle and the unimaginable prospect of yet another season in footballing outer darkness.
That feeling was noticeably absent, not only from my body, but from the air, and the body of people who had followed the lads to this place of destiny. I felt calm and confident, almost sure that this was our time and I could feel that most of those around us felt the same. This is what Alex Neil has managed to do - I had complete trust in him to make the right calls - something I can’t ever remember feeling about a manager since the first half of Peter Reid’s tenure.
The time came to go into the ground - we found our seats high above the pitch and marveled at the swarms of red and white filling up what felt like the whole ground. The pre-match video montage and Rory Fallow’s encouragement of the crowd started to build into a crescendo of noise. I was privileged to attend the Liverpool vs Spurs Champions League Final in Madrid a few years ago and the reds fans singing “You’ll never walk alone” was something to behold - but not like this - these were my people, my songs.
As we stood, arms aloft, belting out “And it’s Sunderland, Sunderland AFC” I was transported back to my first game in the clock stand at Roker Park almost 30 years ago, singing the same song as a teenager - now standing with my own teenagers singing next to me in the home of football.
As the match kicked off I waited for the nerves to kick in, but they failed to show themselves. I jumped around like a madman when Pritchard’s free-kick hit the side netting until my son had to point out that it hadn’t gone in. I didn’t have to wait long before we knew it, Embo shot straight through their goalkeeper and it was on.
At 1-0, I always felt we were in control - although an uncomfortable scoreline, knowing it could just take a freak incident to turn the tide - and it almost did as Wright misjudged the bounce and let Vokes in but the young Patto was in the right place at the right time, as he was throughout the afternoon.
When Stewart classily passed the ball into the corner of the hapless Stockdale’s net - the joy turned to ecstasy! I looked at the faces of my kids and saw that they got it, despite their tender ages and limited exposure to the Roker Rollercoaster.
More photos, more videos trying to capture the noise and atmosphere so that we could relive it later, we stayed, as it seemed did everyone until the players finally left the pitch and headed to the dressing rooms.
The chants of “Sunderland Take Over” reverberated around the concrete stairwells like nothing I have heard before and we moved as one back down Wembley Way, and back to real life. The drive home was spent listening to any Sunderland content I could find trying to lengthen out the experience, but eventually, the day had to end.
The days since have often found me wistfully scrolling through social media looking at photos, videos, reading articles, and of course re-watching the match highlights over and over, scrambling to retain the feeling of that day.
It was a day I never expected, and one I will never forget. Thank you Alex, thank you Sunderland. Can’t wait for next season!