A decade ago, Tony Mowbray managed his hometown club Middlesbrough against the Black Cats three times in a calendar year.
Our new dugout supremo oversaw an FA Cup draw at the Stadium of Light in the winter of 2011-12, the consequent replay defeat of his beloved Teessiders at the Riverside, and finally a redemptive 1-0 victory back on our patch in the League Cup in October.
I’m sure Mowbray will have plenty of memories of all three matches going into Monday’s Championship clash, but this fixture has also prompted my own reflection on the experience of watching these games as a spectator rather than as a professional.
Ten years ago, I was just coming to the age where the significance of football was dawning on me. I’d been going to the odd match throughout my early years, but as a ten or eleven-year-old things started to become clearer.
Football wasn’t just about playground bragging rights, and there weren’t many Boro fans in my school anyway. It was about the pride of a whole region that invests so much capital, monetary and emotional, in its football teams.
As a result of this nascent realisation, these three games provoke strong feelings in me to this day. From the elation I felt at Frazier Campbell rescuing a replay in the first of the three, to the frisson of guilty pleasure as I saw Stephane Sessegnon’s winner in the replay from the home end (my dad hadn’t managed to get us away tickets), these games were my introduction to the heights of passion that local rivalries bring to us in football.
But, on the flip side, the League Cup defeat represented the beginnings of my realisation that supporting Sunderland should come with the warning that our performances and results are often liable to ruin your day or week.
I’ve never been one to miss the end of Sunderland’s games, and have taken a perverse sense of pride from witnessing the full extent of some of our bigger embarrassments down the years. That night, though, it was all too much.
I waited out the end of added time from the concourse before traipsing home in a fashion that will be familiar to every reader.
Most of all, what these games leave me with are snapshot memories which I think sum up the joy of following the club all over the country.
Hours of travel, singing, spectating (and, yes, sometimes drinking) are distilled into drops of emotionally charged memory. The sight of disgruntled opposition fans streaming out of their home stadium while you partied; the unrelenting glare of the floodlights on pitch and concourse as you see your chances of cup glory slip away for another season.
For better or worse, these things, especially when witnessed at a young age, stay with you.
It may not be a “real” derby, but for me Sunderland versus Middlesbrough is a fixture that brings up more than its fair share of these reminders.
Tony Mowbray will certainly have his fair share as a fan, player, and manager.
Here’s hoping his Sunderland side can give us some more happy ones on Monday night.