Pre-season is a strange time. In the throes of the season, we tend to view it as welcome respite on the horizon from the stresses of supporting Sunderland. In reality, it simply means anxieties like how winnable Coventry’s fixtures look are replaced with anxieties like whether Burnley will eventually fork out a semi-respectable offer for Jack Clarke.
I remember saying to my flatmate in mid-June that I was actually quite enjoying the break from the emotional, financial, and almost physical strain that supporting Sunderland AFC entails. He then pointed out that I was spending well over two grand to attend the team’s meaningless pre-season friendlies in America, showing that I can’t have been loving the break that much.
So we jetted out to America on the 12th of July, and after a quick sojourn in New York we joined the team in Texas. Incredibly, we even ran into a couple of Lads fans in Manhattan who were making the same pitstop as us. We really do take over everywhere we go.
We were based in Austin during our stay in Texas and got the early coach down to San Antonio on the day of the first game. It was full of red and white clad fans surreptitiously supping cans of lager; you could have been forgiven for thinking that we were en route to Hull away, rather than traversing the scorching Lone Star state.
Word soon reached us that the traditional pre-match boozing was taking place in the Mad Dogs English Pub (a fitting venue as any, I suppose). We headed there expecting to see a fair few SAFC fans, but were blown away by the sheer numbers in red and white.
The brilliantly named NASA branch (North American Supporters Association) did a great job in organising both the US-based fans and those who’d travelled from the UK to come together and build up to the game in true Sunderland style.
The locals we met were faultlessly hospitable, though hilariously a good few of them asked us if we were playing in the team’s matches or just watching, seemingly unaware that professional footballers tend not to take on six pints and a burrito in their pre-match routine.
The match was quite a surreal affair, with the crowd being made up of a mixture of San Antonio fans, SAFC fans, and a lot of general “soccer” fans wearing shirts from various teams from around the UK. Inevitably, this included a few ill-advised locals decked out in Newcastle tops, who were taken aback by the ferocity of the abuse hurled their way.
Someone should have warned them that the rivalry is a bit more intense than the Yankees v the Mets.
Anyway, the team scored some decent goals, and I got the pleasure of meeting Pierre Ekwah, who is just as affable and likeable in person as he is imposing and confident on the pitch.
The next destination was Albuquerque, New Mexico; setting for the best two TV series of all time in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. Thankfully unlike Walter White we managed to avoid any encounters with psychotic drug lords, and found the people to be just as warm and welcoming as in Texas.
With a few other fans we took the Sandia Tramway cable car to the top of a nearby mountain, which gave breathtaking views over the city and the desert tundra beyond. It was again surreal to hear so many Mackem accents 10,000 feet above sea level and 5000 miles from home.
The atmosphere in the win against New Mexico United was the same relaxed fare as the San Antonio game, with the exception that every set-piece was sponsored.
It would be great to see this in England; imagine being denied a play-off place by a Millwall header from a Selhurst Timber Supplies corner.
Unfortunately, our budget didn’t quite stretch far enough to take in the North Carolina game. But we returned to London with memories of the incredible people and places we’d seen, which will last a lifetime, and hopefully bring a smile next time we’re travelling home from a 2-1 reverse to Rotherham.
Maybe one day the current upward trajectory of the club will see us following Sunderland abroad for competitive fixtures (hopefully without needing a theocratic dictatorship’s blood money to get there). But for now, we’ll have to make do with these pre-season trips.
And if future pre-seasons are anywhere near as memorable as this one, that’ll do me for now.