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‘Twenty years a Mackem’: two decades of memorable highs and gut-wrenching lows

 In October 2003, my Dad took me to my first ever Sunderland game and barring a slight hesitation, I was hooked from then on in.

Photo by Phil Cole/Getty Images

Supporting a football club other than Sunderland was never really an option for me.

Like many of us, my Dad was a fan and that was basically it, but in hindsight I don’t think I would’ve wanted it any other way, and on October 18 2003, he took me to my first ever Sunderland match.

Through a ticket scheme that my primary school (Our Lady of the Rosary in Peterlee) was a part of, we went along and saw the Lads beat the footballing behemoth that is Walsall 1-0, with Marcus Stewart scoring the only goal for a Sunderland side featuring the likes of Mart Poom, Gary Breen and Kevin Kyle.

As my dad has often told me over the years, I wasn't instantly hooked; in fact, I asked to leave the game at half time, despite the Lads leading at the break.

However, after this initial hesitation, I got to the point where I wanted to go to the Stadium of Light as often as possible.

Sunderland v Everton Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

Many of the years that have passed since my first game haven’t been great for Sunderland.

2003/2004 was the final stand for the remains of the brilliant squad that Peter Reid had assembled, with Kevin Phillips, Claudio Reyna and Gavin McCann among the players to leave Wearside the previous summer.

On the other hand, it was certainly a new era, and a campaign sandwiched between a nineteen-point Premier League campaign, a title-winning Championship season and then in 2005/2006, a fifteen-point debacle in the Premier League.

It was chaos personified, but it was also a season which saw my love for the club eventually start to flourish, even if the subsequent twenty years have been a pretty one-sided tale of a football team often stumbling along.

I had a season ticket for the 2007/2008 and 2008/2009 seasons, and despite the standard of football not being great, I did witness a few wins.

As a kid, I seemed to cry with joy whenever we scored a last-minute goal, which was something that seemed to happen regularly during the 2007/2008 Premier League season under Roy Keane.

West Bromwich Albion v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

My family moved to Northampton during 2008/2009, and therefore opportunities to watch the Lads have perhaps been fewer and farther between than I would’ve liked.

Five years on from my first home match came my first Sunderland away trip, as Ricky Sbragia’s red and white army made the trip to The Hawthorns to face rock bottom West Bromwich Albion.

From Northampton, it was a pretty short trip on the train to Birmingham and it was on the journey that we started talking to two West Brom fans, who told us about the wonderfully named ‘Baggie Barge’, a canal boat which ferried fans to the ground.

Things were brilliant up until kick off, when it turned out that Sunderland were rubbish and lost 3-0. The theme of ‘the away day was great until kick off’ is something I got used to very quickly.

My Dad then took me on our second away game together in December 2009, a bizarre 4-3 loss to Manchester City in which John Mensah scored with a towering header and Michael Turner was sent off.

The journey home was almost cut short due to snow and a dodgy satellite navigation system that saw us end up in a Derbyshire farm. It was after midnight by the time we got back and the snow was falling, making it a weird end to a weird day!

Manchester City v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

On three occasions, I’ve watched Sunderland play on the road from the home end, the first of which was as a thirteen-year-old at Arsenal.

In the next corner over from the away end, I had to pretend to be excited at seeing Robin Van Persie open the scoring, and I then had to hide my joy deep down when Seb Larsson curled in a stunning free kick.

Luckily, it was another eight years before I sat in the home end for a Sunderland away day, and it was about a million miles away from the Emirates, for this was Oxford United’s Kassam Stadium, with its three stunning stands and an adjacent car park.

I was limited to a calm fist pump for Jimmy Dunne’s opening goal, and when Oxford snatched a point late on, I smiled through gritted teeth.

My third and final mission behind enemy lines was also to Oxford, as with some friends from university, I watched Corry Evans give us the lead before we were pegged back.

At that stage, I thought the 1-1 was on again, until Elliot Embleton popped up with a late winner to take all three points back to Wearside.

Leaving the stadium, a group of the local ‘firm’ came and asked, ‘Where’s the Sunderland, then?’, in a tone of voice that suggested they wanted a scrap.

‘They’re right here,’ I thought to myself. ‘And they’re f**king buzzing’.

Oxford United v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

In Northampton, I went to a school that was surrounded by supporters of top six clubs.

The regular beatings were hard to swallow, but I did have a lot of fun on the day after the League Cup semi-final win at Old Trafford, and the noise my Dad and I made when that shootout was won is something that the sleepy suburb of the town might never hear again.

Walking around the sixth form building with a Sunderland scarf on and finally being able to have a bit of pride in my club was brilliant, and it only took six years of living down there for it to happen!

In more recent years, I’ve continued to live away from the North East and as a result, I’ve been to more away games than home matches.

Unpleasant visits to Shrewsbury and Walsall have recently been replaced by wonderful days out at Bristol City, Fulham and QPR, and experiencing new grounds and meeting new fans is one of the best things about following this club.

Being a Sunderland supporter has often been an unpredictable roller coaster, despite the majority of the years being difficult.

I’ve seen three trips to Wembley, with two of them ending in defeat and one in a comfortable win and promotion to the Championship.

I’ve had the good fortune to get to lots of Sunderland games, home and away, with my Dad. I’ve travelled the length of the UK with a good mate and watched the best and the worst of the Lads in some of the nicest (and not so nice) towns and cities our country has to offer.

Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One - Play Off - Final - Wembley Stadium Photo by Steven Paston/PA Images via Getty Images

I’ve had twenty years of watching Sunderland and two decades of anxiety as we were beaten mercilessly by teams who are now dominating the league, as well as struggling to beat clubs who are now in League Two or even lower.

Most of the time I’ve been the butt of the joke, although ironically from fans of clubs who have rarely seen their team play in the flesh. I’ve always ‘got’ that, as I've told myself over the years.

In two decades of supporting my hometown club, I’ve created some of the best memories anyone could wish for with my Dad.

It was his fault that I became a Sunderland fan and when times are tough, I take pleasure in reminding him of this, but the crap this club puts us through simply makes the good times feel like great times.

I’ll be making the short trip north to Stoke on Saturday, and I can’t wait.


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