There’s something special about the walk to a football ground. The whiff of fried onions and cheap burgers on the wind combined with traders of half and half scarves, old school sweets and the occasional street preacher that marks out a match day.
I realised walking through Sunderland from the bus interchange, over the Wear and towards the Colliery Tavern that it was also my first England game. It felt poignant that it was the Lionesses instead of the Men’s team that had motivated me to purchase the ticket. This is a side of the game that I’ve watched for years but finally got to see the pinnacle of.
The traditions are the same. That cheap burger, the pre-match pints, chants and a roving eye over the line-ups. Listening to those around you quote verbatim the opinions of pundits and journalists and claim their words as their own. You used to hear more from the Guardian, it’s mostly the Athletic these days.
But where normally a sense of tension and competition encompasses fans in preparation for the game, with the Lionesses, it’s a more relaxed crowd. Scotland fans had set up camp in the Colliery Tavern opposite the ground and with more than two hours till kick off, I was being handed change at the bar in Scottish notes. Chants of “We’re sh-te, and we know we are…” interspersed with Baccara’s Yes Sir, I Can Boogie filled the room. Credit where it’s due, they were louder than the half arsed Sweet Caroline renditions that were attempted by England fans.
Lots of chats with merry strangers and rounds, a couple, many, then too many Guinness later and everyone spilled out to the stands.
Sunderland’s sound system gave way to a minute’s silence before the start of the game. The ground held quiet in memory of Maddy Cusack. It was a touching moment.
A first half of robust football from both teams energised a young and excited crowd. Mexican waves did laps around the stands. Phones were held aloft with torches lit so at moments it felt as much of a gig as it did a football match. The crowd roared and cheered every England player’s attempted attack as though they would score. I was distinctly reminded of when I was small and thought West Ham might do the same with every shot and concluded that many of the fans present haven’t had their hopes fade yet. They will, this is football after all. Those of us who keep coming back are the cynically deluded but we were all those enthusiastic bairns once.
Finally, as half time neared, Lucy Bronze, former Sunderland Lasses player, now a Barcelona success story, scored the opener. The entire stadium erupted. This was our local legend, our former player who has succeeded wherever she’s gone, scoring for our nation in our city. More than anything else, as we roared and cheered, it was a special moment to witness.
Lauren Hemp quickly doubled the lead over a Scotland side that more than demonstrated their own mettle. An even faster return by the Scots in the form of Kirsty Hanson capitalising on a defensive error to get tap in a goal that kept them in the game.
Amusingly, in the England highlights for the match immediately after the Hanson goal it cuts to the Scottish fans’ reaction and it’s the same women who were singing Scotland chants in the pub earlier. Legends. They may have lost but I reckon they had a good night.
The second half pressed on with more of the same though no further goals. Mary Earps was kept busier than she should have, but demonstrated as ever, why she’s the greatest at what she does, and why Nike need to hurry up and get her shirt on sale.
The final whistle blew and with hoarse voices and tired feet, the forty-one thousand and something fans who made the journey began the return home. What a game and an experience. All that was good and familiar with football at the Stadium of Light, coupled with new experiences of watching England win in the city I have adopted as my home.
Whether it’s the beer or post-match emotions, I couldn’t help but look back at the ground and all those around and feel deeply touched that I was there and belonged.
The Lionesses are all that is right with football and watching them play at the Stadium of Light made me feel a part of something more. And that’s what football really is at the end of the day, being a part of something more.
Ha’way the Lionesses. Ha’way Lucy Bronze.