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First Time: Home is where the heart is, and I couldn’t help falling in love!

A lifetime of support started with a cold and wet February afternoon in 1990, and the memories of that day still live on …

The streets of my youth...

Inspired by Kelvin Beattie’s beautiful and impassioned story about his first time at Roker Park seen on the website last week, Andrew Smithson has been inspired to write his own first game experiences and look back on a day that changed his life forever.

It was inevitable perhaps that I would start following Sunderland AFC at some point. I didn’t grow up in a football loving household at all, but that house did happen to be located moments away from Roker Park so it was going to be impossible to ignore for too long the lure of this intriguing club and the thousands of supporters that already followed it.

Ironically, my first memories of matchdays were of them being an inconvenience more than anything else. Overhearing disgruntled neighbours quarreling over parking and me having to stay indoors to avoid the throngs every couple of weeks was hardly the best introduction to the magic of the sport, but there was this fascinating building I would pass every day virtually and I guess there was something inside me that was keen to find out what went inside.

Moving school was the eventual catalyst to me taking the plunge – I was suddenly surrounded by a load of football mad kids and wanted to fit in quickly – but if it hadn’t been that situation then something as seemingly innocuous would have no doubt seen it fall into place anyway; I saw the anticipation and then joy or disappointment and heard the accompanying noise all from my doorstep, and somehow I already knew I wanted in.

My first game was to be a Division Two fixture against Brighton & Hove Albion, although why it was that particular fixture, I have no idea. It was just a couple of weeks after my birthday so that may have been a factor, but I imagine that the main reason was because it happened to fall on a free Saturday for my Dad, who worked hard Mondays to Fridays and usually had better things to do with his spare time than taking me places on a whim.

A Thomas Hauser brace helped set me on my way...

I certainly had no idea about Sunderland’s past standing or current form going into it, and I don’t think I’d even heard of Brighton & Hove until I knew I would be watching them. I do remember listening to something on a radio station on the morning about tides in the area and being interested by how they also had a beach, but other that that I was oblivious – the feature had nothing to do with football and I was none the wiser, not that it mattered really. It would be years before I properly understood the game, but that afternoon was about to have a profound effect on me regardless.

I have no memory of walking to the stadium but that in itself was nothing new as I had been past countless times already; it was once I stepped foot in there that things came to life. Again, I’m not sure why we went into the Clock Stand as relatively speaking that was the further part of the ground from where we lived, but I could sense that I had never been anywhere quite like this before and was instantly intoxicated. The concourse area was dark and cramped, but the buzz of activity and atmosphere were potent. My upbringing up to that point had been extremely charmed but maybe a little sheltered, and now I was around a different environment that was somehow edgy and yet warm. Give me that character and vibe over some more modern venues and crowds any day of the week.

On the pitch, I can recall little first-hand detail. I could tell that we’d scored twice but that was about it – a Paul Hardyman penalty miss passed me by entirely and most of my knowledge has been picked up since. I have watched the footage back scores of times so could take you through both of Thomas Hauser’s goals in a 2-1 win, but only through the lens of the TV camera and not my own vantage point below where my eyes were directly at pitch level such was the terrace configuration.

That is the part of it I recall best, close to the action and with an amazing view. We were part of a below average attendance for the season anyway, and a heavy rain spell meant most people were huddled under the roof, whereas my parents had had the foresight to put me in my best cagoule which allowed me a plumb spot nearer the front. The conditions seemed to be a source of merriment though, and the crack was enthralling. A defeat may have put a different spin on things possibly, but I was genuinely hooked. This was a light-bulb moment and my life wouldn’t be the same again.

I am unbelievably fortunate to have been given the childhood I was, but I doubt my parents ever envisaged Sunderland AFC becoming my main love, family aside of course. From a starting place of virtually nothing, I quickly got into it big time, my every spare moment seeing me either reading about, watching or playing football (whilst pretending I was either Tony Norman or Marco Gabbiadini obviously). The Echo had up to that point been something that arrived on the mat and was passed straight over, but was now a vital daily source of information on my new passion, and those previously blank weekends were now filled up with further trips to the new centre of my universe.

Hauser celebrates, whilst behind him a love affair was taking off.

Both my parents, plus all my grandparents, were amazing at supporting what was started as a bizarre and abrupt infatuation but became so much more. My granddad, the only member of the family to have ever had any previous interest in football but had long since stopped going to games in favour of his pigeons and beekeeping, knew people at the club and that allowed me an ‘in’. It also meant I got my hands on one or two precious bits of memorabilia, but the whole family had to make sacrifices so that I could keep the interest up, not least by dealing with the mood swings it brought.

Being so close to Roker Park was clearly a major element in all of this. It became an ever bigger part of my existence and even when I wasn’t able to attend fully for whatever reason, I was close enough to nip over and buy a programme pre match, soaking up all the excitement as I did. Its proximity meant going to games was a lot less hassle that it would have been for other as well, and without being all ‘jumpers for goalposts’ about it, pocket money (in the form of cash paid at the door, another simpler method from a young fan’s point of view) would be more than enough to cover the full lot. By the time I was going into secondary education and another new school, SAFC had become and still remains the link that brought me together with my closest friends, and whilst I didn’t know it at the time, an idea of self was forming – my values and feelings around community and belonging all being impacted by it.

This is a tale, or a version of it at least, that many readers will have gone through themselves and will hopefully recognise. The most common difference will be for those that started going through the influence of loved ones that already supported the Lads, and with any luck that will be how my own children will come to tell their story in future years.

The same house that I grew up in remains our overarching family home – all the grandchildren live within walking distance and it is from there that we will often set off together for the Stadium of Light, particularly for night games.

None of the kids had that sudden conversion I did, a game or a day when Sunderland took over, they instead had the twin forces of me rabbiting on about it and them being around this thing that we love taking over the area by osmosis not just once a fortnight, but daily, and, like the hustle and bustle I’d endured myself when young, has become impossible to ignore.

My history started with a routine win in the second tier but it doesn’t really matter just how this club gets you, as once it does you will most likely get a home from home for evermore.

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