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Following Sunderland, the old school way

You don’t have to be at the match to know the score these days, but is following footy through a screen all that?

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Having spent most of Saturday out of the house, it was only when I got back indoors that I found out that the worst had happened – our patchy WiFi had finally given up the ghost altogether and we’d be without internet until an engineer was available on Monday.

I say the ‘worst’ when of course it was nothing of the sort; admittedly, being connected has become a major part of everyday life but the sad fact is that there are thousands, if not millions in this country for whom such an inconvenience would be a walk in the park compared to the actual difficulties they face.

Still, being without WiFi did feel strange, not least for the kids who had already decamped to my parents’ house to make use of their download facilities by the time I’d got in, and it certainly scuppered my plans for following the match against Stoke City.

I get to as many away games as I can, but family commitments mean I can only really manage a handful each season and so will regularly find myself supporting from the sofa instead of the stands.

That was the case this weekend, where I had specially timed my jobs so that I could be back in time to follow the Lads, but with only a limited data plan on my smartphone, I found I was now consigned to radio commentary and nothing else.

To be honest, it wasn’t too far from what I had planned – I don’t do VPNs so regularly tune into Nick Barnes and Gary Bennett anyway, but I’d normally back that up with scrolling social media and message boards at the same time for video clips and second opinions.

Crowd of people listen to final cup on radio, Sunderland F.C, UK, 1990s. Photo by: PYMCA/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Not having those options at my fingertips was the big difference, therefore, and the experience took me back to a time when supporting Sunderland seemed so much simpler and when, for the most part, keeping up with away matches was done solely via radio.

This was during the early to mid-1990s when watching games on TV was rare and travelling long distances to get to them was even rarer, meaning I’d listen from start to finish as people like Guy Mowbray, Simon Crabtree or John Cairns took listeners through the build-up, live commentary, and then post-match reaction.

I loved it at the time, but once the broadcast was finished that was it, and you were left to celebrate or stew over the result by yourself.

Bar a couple of minutes outside the paper shop whilst you all waited for the Football Echo, or meeting up with your mates for a night out, you wouldn’t get to interact with any other fans at full time, and you had to wait until late in the evening before you had any chance of catching the highlights on the television. It was all a far cry from how it is now, where you have watched the talking points within seconds and then seen them being analysed not only by your mates via WhatsApp, but by scores of strangers in the chat rooms too.

Whether that is a good thing or not I am a little unsure. I’ve grown used to being able to let off steam after a match and enjoy being able to absorb all the fallout, but it can be tiring sometimes to read the overreactions and bickering that come regardless of whether Sunderland have won, lost or drawn.

I was able to really enjoy a couple of beers post-Stoke then, basking in the glow of three points and oblivious to anything that could temper my mood like news of an injury or possible transfer.

Soccer - Carling Premier League - Wimbledon v Sunderland Photo by Mike Egerton/EMPICS via Getty Images

Whilst that side of things helped keep the blood pressure down, listening to the game itself proved much more stressful than it has in more recent years. I am a nervous fan whether there in person or not, and even more so when I cannot see things for myself – no matter how good a picture Barnesy and Benno paint.

Normally I much prefer radio to TV commentary if I am a neutral, but with Sunderland, I need more - and getting to see an incident helps form my own opinion. That said, looking forward and having to stop up to catch Ross Stewart’s goal proved a nice novelty, and meant that I got to take it in via a proper big screen.

Going back to terrestrial to take in proceedings at the bet365 Stadium wasn’t just a reminder of how it used to be, it also led to me thinking about exiled supporters or people without the means to physically attend fixtures.

Those fans must surely appreciate any format with which they can keep in touch with SAFC, particularly those that don’t have anybody else with whom to talk face to face about the club, or in the past had to make do with snippets in the nationals or the arrival of the Echo through the post days later.

The advancements in technology and the ability to stream the action make things far better for those unable to go, people for whom regularly being without WiFi on a matchday would be a real issue.

My own internet access is now back, thanks to what was apparently an ‘easy fix’, but ultimately it was something I could cope with – having a home season card, and the ability to do a few away trips each year however, now they are things I will never take for granted.

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