The last few weeks have been somewhat of a whirlwind - the dramatic run-in that saw Sunderland grab a spot in the playoffs, combined with sitting my final university exams, has made the past month or so particularly hectic.
Before our playoff campaign began against Sheffield Wednesday, I’ll admit that I wasn’t feeling that optimistic. The constant reminders of our dismal record in the playoffs did nothing to help.
So, I was equal parts shocked and ecstatic when Roberts’ late goal secured us a spot at Wembley. I was still nervous about our chances, but I knew I just had to be there for the final.
I was lucky enough to pick up two tickets; one for myself, and one as a surprise for my Sunderland-obsessed father.
As is the case for many fans, supporting Sunderland is an affliction that has been passed down the generations. My late grandad started the trend.
A North East native, he spent his younger years following Newcastle, before coming to his senses later in life and switching his allegiances to Sunderland (in reality he just couldn’t afford a Newcastle season ticket anymore, leaving Sunderland as the unfortunate alternative). He passed his love of the club down to my dad, who has always passionately supported the lads from afar. So by the time I came around, supporting Sunderland felt like less of a choice and more of an obligation.
There are plenty of photos of me growing up, decked out in various red and white kits, hats and scarves. It’s clear to me now that all of this was an attempt at indoctrination. Well, it worked, and even though I’ve never actually lived in England, Sunderland has been a part of my life ever since.
The trip to Wembley is always a memorable experience for fans, but we had a particularly unique way of getting there. We were staying with relatives, who were incredibly kind to accommodate our visit on such short notice. The only slight problem was that we would have to get the train into Wembley from, of all places, Wycombe.
As we drove up to the station there was a sea of Wycombe fans.
We were behind enemy lines, so I zipped up my jacket, hid my Sunderland kit and went undercover for the trip into Wembley.
In all seriousness, the atmosphere on the train was fantastic. There were lots of families travelling together, looking forward to their big day out. Two young kids were sat beside us, and they could barely contain their excitement. “THERE’S THE ARCH!” yelled one of them as Wembley’s iconic silhouette came into view. There was a really cheerful mood, although I was secretly hoping that their spirits would be dampened on the return trip.
It’s at this point that I should mention my somewhat chequered history of attending Sunderland matches. My first experience of seeing the lads live was in 2007, when I saw us take on Wolves in the Championship.
Daryl Murphy scored the opener early on in the game. The sudden roar from the Sunderland faithful was so overwhelming that I immediately burst into tears and asked if we could go home.
My grandad wasn’t too impressed, and I was told to toughen up. That turned out to be useful advice, both for when Ross Wallace gave us a two goal lead, and for the repeated disappointment I would go on to endure throughout my time supporting Sunderland.
That game finished 2-1, and it was the first and only time I would attend a match that we won. I saw plenty of draws during our time in the Premier League, including some riveting goalless stalemates against Arsenal and Swansea. I was also there when we lost the Capital One Cup final to Man City (I still cannot understand how Yaya Toure scored that goal without a run up). Even though the results weren’t great, I still enjoyed all of these trips.
A personal highlight of mine came from a match at home against West Brom in our final season in the top flight. We were a goal down, and it had been a typically dismal Moyes era performance. With ten minutes to go, a guy behind me decided he’d had enough and stood up to leave. “I’m sick of it” he announced to no one in particular, “the same shite every bloody time”. The woman sat next to him said “Ah well, see you next week then?” He angrily nodded and stormed off, and I couldn’t help but laugh.
We equalised two minutes later.
I think that sentiment sort of encapsulates the life of a Sunderland fan, especially in these past few years. We’ve been let down time and time again, but we continue to support the team, hoping that somehow, by some miracle, things will improve.
That turned out to be the last time I would see the lads play live. A combination of personal commitments and a global pandemic prevented me from making the trip over for the past few years, which I suppose has been a blessing in disguise. That made me all the more nervous as we walked down Wembley Way. The team hadn’t won a game with me in attendance since 2007.
Maybe I was bad luck?
It’s the sort of utterly irrational nonsense that can only exist in the mind of a football fan.
As we took our seats, the nerves started to hit my dad as well. His typically loud, extraverted nature had given way, and he now appeared to be far more subdued and anxious. I think all of the excitement of the trip over had worn off, and now the significance of the match was starting to sink in. He, like many others in attendance, had already experienced his fair share of Wembley heartache. He’d seen them lose there four times already, and I did not like the thought of being responsible for him seeing a fifth.
Unsurprisingly, I was nervous throughout the match.
Watching back the highlights I can see that Sunderland were mostly in control of proceedings, and barring a handful of chances, Wycombe rarely posed much of a threat to Patterson in goal. But at the time I was convinced that we’d concede a daft penalty or an own goal and it would all go wrong, because it always does.
But this time it didn’t. Embleton’s goal was the realisation of every Sunderland fan’s childhood dream (albeit with a helping hand from Stockdale). Pritchard, Roberts and Stewart were a constant threat going forward, and defensively Sunderland were well-organised and difficult to break down. The atmosphere was electric all game, and then Stewart’s goal took it to another level. Strangers hugged one another as if they were old friends.
I couldn’t believe it.
We were actually going to do it.
I was surprised to find myself becoming somewhat emotional as the final whistle drew near. The last few years have been incredibly difficult, with the pandemic making life even more challenging and complicated than it was already.
But for those couple of hours in Wembley, it all seemed so simple.
Just myself, my dad and 49,000 people, dressed in red and white, basking in the London sunshine, celebrating a victory that felt long overdue.