After last week’s irritating home defeat to Cardiff, we couldn’t have asked for a better chance to bounce back than a trip to face the beleaguered Owls.
Of course, Hillsborough was also the scene of one of my favourite ever Sunderland moments (Paddy Roberts’ last-minute equaliser in the Play-Off semi, as if that needed clarifying). The ecstatic mix of relief and euphoria following that goal will live with those in attendance forever; finally, it felt like we had an escape route from the League One nightmare. Rather than comparing it to a lottery win, it was more like how I imagine it would feel to be unexpectedly released early from a long prison sentence.
The match being shifted to Friday for Sky had scuppered plans for many, but every ticket was snapped up regardless, showing how much optimism there is around the club at the minute.
Friday night games are a mixed blessing; far superior to the dreaded Sunday noon/Monday evening slot, and if you win it’s quite nice being able to relax for the rest of the weekend, but they’re still quite inconvenient. Another half day of annual leave had to be sacrificed for the away day cause, because I refuse to let the dual threat of rail strikes and Sky Sports dictate my plans. Arguably a foolish policy, but I’m sticking to it.
My train pulled into an unseasonably sunny Sheffield just after five, and we headed down to the beer garden at the Rutland Arms. As always on the weekend, there was a vibrant atmosphere around the Steel City, which has always been one of my favourite destinations.
One of the lads pointed out that it was the end of Freshers Week, which caused a brief moment of sad reflection on how long ago our own uni days were. We jumped on the tram headed to Hillsborough and traded a few chants with the home fans (an admirable show of defiance from them given their current plight).
Many observers commentated in the build-up to the game that an early goal for Sunderland could set the tone for the evening, and it certainly felt that way when Ballard powered a header home in the fourth minute. Once Clarke drilled the second into the corner it became a question of just how many we’d rack up.
A number of home fans made for the exits after our penalty. I can’t say I blame them. This match reminded me of our pathetic home defeat against Brentford back in the Grayson/Coleman season. The hosts ravaged by toxic ownership, short-termism and mismanagement, the visitors on a clear upward trajectory, reaping the benefits of a sensible, forward-thinking recruitment model. That game felt more like a training exercise for the Bees. It was so good being on the other side of such a mismatch this time around.
We saw out the second half with consummate ease, and while it would have been nice to push for the kind of thrashing our moneyed neighbours gave the other side of Sheffield last week, I could see the logic in taking the cautious approach.
After the final whistle we headed to a pub round the corner from the ground. I’m pretty sure that place was technically a Home Fans Only gaff, but everyone was understandably too downbeat to be bothered by us.
While trying to avoid coming across as patronising, we reminded the Wednesday fans that we’d been in a very similarly bleak situation ourselves just a few seasons ago.
Football is cyclical; things can and do get better eventually. It’s just sometimes hard to remember what the peaks feel like when you’re hurtling into the trough.