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Opinion: “Sunderland AFC and international breaks have a strange relationship!”

The ‘club versus country’ issue is deep-seated and often complex. Mark Roberts looks back at his time supporting Sunderland and also rooting for England to succeed, too

The Bridge Chester-le-Street, Brian Smith

I didn’t grow up in Sunderland.

Washington doesn’t count (I was pretty young, and it still has a high percentage of Newcastle fans, despite its location) and most of my formative years were spent in Great Lumley.

The upshot was that Sunderland fan friends were scarce, although there were a couple that I knew.

One of them, Darren Bradley, was a good lad but not really in my circle. We both went to school in Chester-le-Street and we had met at a handful of matches, but he was a Clock Stand dweller and I belonged in the Fulwell or Roker End, so our mutual Sunderland journey petered out.

Sunderland FC Photo by NCJ Archive/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

The other lad was not very nice. I’m not bitter, but his dad ran a football team who played at a decent level, and I had a trial with them. I didn’t hear anything until five years later when the lad told me that his Dad wanted me to join the team but he didn’t, so he said I didn’t want to play. The outcome was that, for many years, it was a solo pilgrimage to watch my team.

Believe it or not, I have some friends but due to circumstances outside of my control, be it family ties, general ignorance, or woefully informed decisions, they have selected different teams to follow.

This is where England came in, for nearly every friendly game, qualifier, and major tournament.

Italia 1990 had finished and it was brilliant, and I even bought a ‘Fillet O’ Fish’ on the back of it. The Bridge became the pub of choice- it was opposite the marketplace and presumably named as it has a view of the viaduct. It was one of those special pubs that looked beautiful on the outside but was pretty much a s**thole on the inside.

Later, the pub was changed with brass fittings, some cast-offs from Beamish and was renamed ‘Ye Olde Miner’s Lamp’. (I think it was renamed as ‘The Bridge’ a few years later before closing in 2016).

The pub suited us perfectly as we were guaranteed a seat in front of the screen, with the choice of Carling, Fosters or a bottle of Holsten Pils. We watched England together, with ‘El Tel’s’ Euro 1996 the highlight of the era, even after suppressing all ill feeling towards a certain hat-wearing Geordie.

For the majority of the time, the matches were poor, but we got pissed and a group of lads who supported different club teams supported one international team together.

Watching England was special for me, and in a way, it still is.

We don’t get together that often except for the tournaments, which we watch with WhatApp and chat about afterward. The merits of Gareth Southgate are being hotly debated, but I am not too invested. I want England to win, but it is relative; I want it better at the back, playing four instead of five.

England v Germany: UEFA Nations League - League Path Group 3 Photo by Michael Regan - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

I would like to see our best- Phil Foden, Bukayo Saka, Jude Bellingham, Harry Kane, and Jordan Pickford- performing. I would like to see a fit Jordan Henderson shouting at everyone, and I would like supporters to get behind Southgate as he is arguably one of the most successful tournament managers we’ve had (second to Alf Ramsey).

However, would I rather see Sunderland get promoted or England win the World Cup? The answer is easy: promotion for the Lads.

The bigger question is would I rather we beat Preston on Saturday or see England win the World Cup? I have struggled with this one, but after some thought, I would take the win and for England to get to the semi-finals.

When your team is playing well, the international interruption creates a void, but it has at least given us time for, among other things, injuries to be addressed, and hopefully it has been used wisely by Tony Mowbray.

Sunderland have looked good this season, especially for sixty fantastic minutes against Reading, but not exclusively. There have been many positives on the pitch, even with key players including Ross Stewart, Dan Ballard and Dennis Cirkin unavailable. I’ve even read that Niall Huggins is near full training (or he may have been spotted on a full train?).

With your hand on your heart, when did we last have this kind of hope and expectation, and the feeling that something good was genuinely building?

What I love and have sorely missed is going to the match, and I have still not been there this season. The last time I wrote, the Queen died the next day, so I hope that Charles makes it until at least 5:00pm on Saturday.

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