Before I begin, I feel it’s important for me to provide you with some context. I’m a Sunderland AFC supporter, I have been for my entire life (I’m 34 years old). Over this time the football club themselves have changed a fair bit, we’ve had ups and downs, but my life has also changed over those years, with ups and downs, yet there has been one constant, my love for this football club.
I live in the South East of England, Sunderland is in the North East, there is a distance of 283.3 miles between us, a 5 hour drive so you may be reading this and wondering why I support them. To understand this, I have to tell you a little bit about my family. Firstly, you have to hear about my mum, she’s from Sunderland, her mum (my Nan) lived up there, and as a child this was great. We’d go up to Sunderland on holiday at least 3 times a year to see our Nan. During this time, we’d obviously go and watch the local football team (Sunderland AFC) play. I took my first game in when I was 5 years old, it was a home game against Middlesbrough, a bit of a derby, according to this we won 2–1, not that I can remember much of it.
Probably, my earliest memory, is that of Gary Bennett scoring against Manchester United in the 1991 season, it was a great goal, and available on YouTube should you wish to view it for yourselves! During these early years, Sunderland played at Roker Park, whilst not a nice and modern stadium, it was most definitely an intimidating and exciting place to go to.
I also remember being crammed into the Fulwell End, which was standing, and being crushed against the front when we scored a goal against Chester City in (what was then called) the Coca Cola Cup. It’s funny how you remember somewhat innocuous moments like that. During these times I’d go to football with my dad and my brother, we were all Sunderland mad, and growing up down south was difficult, but I managed to hold on to the love and the passion for the team, despite my friends mostly being Tottenham or West Ham fans.
Fast forward 33 years or so, I now have a 7 year old son. My wife, who being from a family of West Ham fans, and I before my son was born agreed whoever finished higher in the league would be who he would support. Lucky for me, he’s now Sunderland mad, so you can tell who won that bet (2010–2011 season, I think that’s one of the rare occasions that Sunderland have finished above West Ham — they finished 20th 😂)!
He’s now going through similar challenges as I did at that age, watching a team that maybe aren’t particularly good, but he does have the advantage of having been to Wembley twice this season 🏆. He is still building up the confidence to wear his Sunderland shirt/kit to parties when I’m not with him, but I’m 100% certain that will come!
His first game was an extremely emotional affair for me, I can remember holding back the tears as we walked into Carrow Road (it was against Norwich in the 2017/2018 season). I knew then just how important it was to me on an emotional and family level that he has a love and a place in his heart for Sunderland AFC. This meant that a small piece of my Nan and Grandad (who I unfortunately didn’t get to know as he died just after I was born) would live on through him. I had never thought about it that way before, but that day definitely hammered that aspect home.
For me, it’s more than supporting a football team, it’s the fact that he supports Sunderland because I support them, and I support them because of my Mum, Nan and Granddad.
Luckily, that day was a day of rare success that season, we beat Norwich 3–1, and he absolutely loved the day. We took photos, I will never, ever forget the hug he gave me when Sunderland scored the first goal, it is something that will live with me until the day I die, even if the goal was scored by Lewis Grabban.
We had our first trip to the Stadium of Light to see a football game, surprise surprise, we lost 2–1 against Cardiff, but it was a good game, he enjoyed the game. His favourite memory of that game is Lee Cattermole waving at him. At this time, Lee was his favourite player, he styles his football on his, and loves going in for a tackle and winning the ball.
Something that epitomises this is the journey to Bristol…. We travelled across the country to watch us play Bristol City, we were 3–0 down at half time. I remember sitting there at half time, thinking to myself “Why have I done this!?” Lo and behold, somehow, we managed to score 3 goals in the second half, including a last minute equaliser. This led to him singing “3–0 and you bucked it up!” I didn’t have the heart to correct him, plus I much prefer his version to the other (replace the “b” with an “f” and you have it)!
It was at this game that I feel, he truly became a Sunderland fan. He was joining in with the songs, chanting and watching the game as closely as I was. Of course this came with a load of questions, most notably “Dad, why are they saying that they’re not fit to wear the shirt?”
We travelled to Loftus Road for a game against QPR, we lost 1–0, but on the way out, he was on my shoulders singing “I’m Sunderland Til I Die” and believe me, he means it when he says Sunderland Til I Die. After we had been to the Norwich game, he mentioned to my wife that he has to support Sunderland forever now as he’s sang “I’m Sunderland Til I Die”.
We also took in a trip to Reading, Madejski Stadium. A game in which we drew 2–2, we did get to see Lee Cattermole score though, but alas, a draw really wasn’t enough at this stage of the season, and relegation was all but confirmed.
That season wasn’t a great season, we lost far more than we won (I think we saw possibly one of the only highlights of the season away at Norwich!) but I wouldn’t have changed it for the world. It was a season that my son fell in love with football, but more importantly fell in love with Sunderland AFC.
Once the season was over, despite relegation, me, my dad and my son decided to get season tickets. We’d been taken over by a businessman called Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven, we were debt free thanks to Ellis Short (who despite things not working out for him at Sunderland AFC, decided that he’d allow the new owners a fresh slate almost). The main drivers for purchasing our first ever season tickets were that we wanted to be a part of this new ownership and support it, it would enable us to accumulate points for away games (the way tickets for away games get allocated is based on points that you get by going to previous away games etc. the only way to actually collect points though is to have a season ticket), but also it meant that if we get to Wembley, then we would be pretty much guaranteed a ticket! Finley’s season ticket was free as he was under 8 at the time, and I rationalised it that if I went to 5 home games that season, it would be money well spent.
So the season rolled around, we decided to make a family holiday for the first game of the season, meaning my wife, daughter, my mum, my dad and of course Finley, travelled up to Sunderland and stayed in a hotel for a few days. We’d visit some sights, but most importantly, me, my dad and Finley would go to the Stadium of Light for our first game of the season in League 1.
Finley got his new favourite player on the back of his shirt (Gooch), and lo and behold, Gooch pops up with a last minute winner as Sunderland rolled out 2–1 victors against Charlton! It felt like we were back, the feelgood factor was there. Despite going 1–0 down, there wasn’t a groan like in previous seasons, but a roar to cheer the team on. One memory of this game however, is with Finley singing “The referee’s a Woggle” as he had misheard a more common chant for the second time! It does get a few looks sometimes, but again, I much prefer his version than the original…. He managed to meet a few players before the game and the atmosphere around the club was really refreshing and in stark contrast to the season before.
We actually managed to get a few games in at the start of the season, we had Gillingham away at Priestfield Stadium, we were lucky in that it fell during a school holiday, this meant it would be Finley’s first night game, and a game in which Granddad got told off for swearing 😂. It was also a game in which Sunderland came out on top as 4–1 winners, leading to Finley exclaiming that it was the best game he’s ever been to. So a great experience for his first night game!
Then, and perhaps, the highlight of the season for me personally, Sunderland were having an away game to AFC Wimbledon at Kingsmeadow, their ground means we could only have 800 Sunderland fans, but luckily for Finley and myself, my dad had spoken to Sunderland and he was selected as a mascot for the game!
This meant that he got to walk out with his favourite player Lynden Gooch, and he featured quite heavily in the Away Day video that the Sunderland media team (who were absolutely amazing that day) put out. There is a particular still from the video that I love, and that’s the one above, I love how Gooch is looking at Finley and how focused Finley is on the game ahead!!
Anyway, we won that 2–1, again going a goal behind, and with his second favourite player Lee Cattermole scoring both goals, and he got autographs and signatures galore from it! He still talks about being mascot at the Stadium of Light, so I’m hoping he gets the opportunity next season for that.
Coventry away was another game that we managed to get tickets too (along with 4,000 other Sunderland fans)… It was a bit of a journey, but in what would become a depressingly common theme, we took the lead only to draw 1–1. With 4,000 other Sunderland fans there, it’s an amazing away following, and one of the things that I feel make this club special.
As we live near Southend, we chose to travel up to the Sunderland vs. Southend game in October. We decided to do the travelling, up and down, in one day, which meant an early start, but it was worth it as Sunderland came out 3–0 winners! We weren’t ripping the league up by any stretch of the imagination, as we were still drawing too many games, but I was enjoying going to watch Sunderland again, and not just because of the memories, but because we were competing! Which following 2 straight relegation's, was great to see.
We also took in a trip to Fratton Park, Portsmouth over the Christmas period, this would become the first of many games over the course of the season against Portsmouth, and one in which we lost 3–1. It was a game that left Finley feeling rather upset, but more about the foul language that he’d heard over the course of the game. It’s a difficult one, as sitting with the away fans, there is no “family enclosure” so foul language is going to be heard, for me, it becomes more about being able to build coping mechanisms for when you do hear it as a 7 year old.
We also decided to have another trip up to the Stadium of Light, this time to watch them play against Shrewsbury, and again, the 1–1 curse! It was a long way to travel for a draw, but again, Finley was loving watching the football and he loved having a season ticket, so who am I to complain…
Into the new year we went, we were still hovering around the automatic promotion places, quietly going about our business, and having only lost once so far in the league, we were becoming hard to beat (which was such a great thing to see following the previous season(s)). The next game we went to was a “local” game against Charlton, and again, we took the lead early, but got held back to a 1–1 draw. This was the first time that Nanny had come with us to football, I think she enjoyed seeing Finley singing and chanting songs just like I used to when I was his age!
In March, we had our first trip with Sunderland to Wembley, albeit in the EFL/CheckATrade final, but it was a great experience, a great day out for me, Finley, Granddad, Nan and aunt (who decided to come as well). I’d always wanted to watch Sunderland at Wembley (and remember it!), I tried hard to get tickets for the League Cup final in 2014, but couldn’t justify the money that was being spent on them. I still maintain that although we lost that 3–1, the feeling of being 1–0 up at half time against Manchester City, would have been incredible.
We arrived and walking down Wembley Way as such a proud moment, I had Finley on my shoulders and we were both taking it all in. There were flags, scarves and all sorts. Unfortunately the flags had Mackems spelt wrong, so I couldn’t justify spending money on a “The Makems” flag!
This final went slightly better than Sunderland’s previous visit to Wembley, but ended in the same result. Ultimately, we lost, 5–4 on penalties to Portsmouth, but it was such an amazing experience, a great day out, and Finley loved every second of it. It had everything you could wish for from a football match, a last minute equaliser, penalties, extra time….
There was a spine tingling moment before the game where the Sunderland fans sang “I can’t help falling in love with you” by Elvis Presley, and even watching that today gives me the chills. Whilst it was disappointing that we lost, it was great to be at Wembley, watching Sunderland, and had given me some vindication for purchasing those season tickets!
After the trip to Wembley, our next trip to watch Sunderland play wasn’t for a few weeks, where we travelled up to watch Sunderland play Doncaster, in a game that was live on Sky, and over the Easter holidays. We made a family trip of it again, and did some sight seeing, made use of our Beamish tickets from the summer and then took in the game as Sunderland ran out 2–0 winners, at a time when automatic promotion was still on the cards, it was an important win. During this time it was great seeing Finley make friends at parks with Sunderland fans, and proclaiming that he wants to marry a girl from Sunderland (just like Granddad) so he can live up there 😂 😍
Unfortunately the rest of the games didn’t go Sunderland’s way, as they lost their way a little, and ended up drawing to Portsmouth, losing to Coventry (5–4), Fleetwood Town (2–1), which meant that automatic promotion was no longer possible. Unfortunately, we would have to go through the playoffs.
Our season ended with an away trip to Roots Hall, Southend(only a 15 minute drive for us), but again, another defeat, saw us lose 2–1 to Southend in a game that meant far more for them (they needed to win to stay up) than it did for us (our playoff spot was already guaranteed). My dad (also a season ticket holder for Southend) had pre-emptively purchased tickets for us in the Southend stands, but luckily, we managed to get 3 tickets together in the away end for some fans who couldn’t make it to the game anymore. Finley learnt some new songs, and it always makes me smile when I see him playing FIFA whilst chanting away!
One thing that being in League 1 has brought home is that there is definitely something about the older grounds that I enjoy going to watch football at. The highlights of the regular season for me were going to grounds like AFC Wimbledon, Gillingham and Southend. Where the atmosphere is more real and authentic. You can hear the players on the pitch, you feel more of a raw connection with the team and the rest of the fans, and you’re standing and singing for most of the game.
So it came to be that if Sunderland were to get promoted, playoffs would have to be the route! We were up against our old foes Portsmouth, a team in which we hadn’t yet beaten this season (3–1 loss, 2–2 draw/5–4 pens, 2–2 draw), so nerves were high as we (Finley, me and my dad) took on the 5 hr trip to Sunderland to watch the game. We’d managed to find a hotel down in Stockton, which was a 45 minute drive from the stadium, but there was a half marathon on in the city over that weekend, which meant that last minute hotel bookings in the city were difficult to come by!
It was to be Finley’s second night time game, but his first at the Stadium of Light. There is definitely something special about night games under the floodlights. Yet, I’m not going to lie, I was disappointed by the attendance, with it being just over 26,000, I was expecting it to be much higher than that. With it being such a big game in my eyes. I think the flat end to the season was a contributing factor as well as people having prior plans. Having said that, despite the number in attendance, the atmosphere generated by those who were there was possibly the best I’d experienced that season.
The game itself was a cagey contest, Sunderland took the lead through a well struck Chris Maguire goal, but finished the game with 10 men after Ozturk was adjudged to have fouled a Portsmouth player and got a red card (which would later be rescinded — our 3rd red card that was later rescinded over the course of the season). Despite having 10 men, Sunderland held on, and the game finished 1–0.
We ended up getting back to the hotel, and myself and Finley went to bed, whilst Granddad stayed in the bar and reminisced about the game. Finley was on a high, and perhaps due to this excitement, or the number of sweets he’d consumed, he woke me up at 2AM and was subsequently sick in the toilet, I’m just glad he made it to the toilet! We left the following morning on a high, but still nervous about what might be coming up.
Anyway, this meant that we had a slender lead to protect down at Fratton Park. We’d managed to get tickets for it, but unfortunately, for a number of reasons (it was a night time game,a Thursday night,school the next day,the prospect of extra time and penalties and getting home at 2AM) meant Finley had to stay home to watch it. I can honestly say, I have never felt as nervous ahead of a game for a long time. My heartbeat was at 140BPM. Driving down to the game, I kept looking in the back seat expecting to see Finley, but he was at home, waiting to watch the game on TV.
We arrived near Fratton Park, I had to have a drink to calm my nerves,and was ready to watch the game. It turned out that this was an extremely professional performance from Sunderland. Despite Luke O’Nien getting kicked by a Portsmouth “fan” when he fell into the stands, there wasn’t much to report on. Unfortunately, every club has “fans” like that, and respect to Luke O’Nien for just getting on with the game. The game finished 0–0, and it was such a sense of relief once the game had finished, it also meant we had another trip to Wembley on the cards. Finley enjoyed watching it at home, and luckily it didn’t go to extra time or penalties!
The day after, despite feeling a tad worse for wear, I managed to get 3 tickets for me, Finley and Granddad. I wasn’t going to miss this game for the world, luckily as well, we normally go away for the May half term, but this time around we’re going in August, so the weekend was free!
The playoff day came, I was nervous, Finley was excited and Granddad was asking why do we do it! 😂
Nanny bought Finley a flag and a horn for the game. This time around they managed to spell “The Mackems” right on the flag!
In the build up to the game Granddad was very nervous, he likes routine at the best of times, but on a day like today it became even worse! He just wanted to get to the ground and get in his seat! We got to Wembley early and he calmed down a bit when we arrived at the fanzone, although we couldn’t go in because we had alcohol, so we ended up just being outside on some benches. The plus side of this meant that we didn’t have to pay £6 for a pint! The atmosphere was building, there were people with flares and smoke bombs, Finley was fascinated by it all, and singing and chanting along.
The time came to go into the ground, and we were a bit further up the pitch than the last time at Wembley (Block 103 rather than 104), but the great thing about modern stadium is that any view is a good view.
As kick off time approached, my heart rate increased, again topping off at around 140BPM. I dread to think what Granddads would have been 😂 ❤️ We got to our seats, took our (now customary) selfie, and settled down to watch the game…
I won’t dwell on the game too much, Finley was really into it as always, and just as I felt it was heading to extra time (it was 1–1) ther was a sickening punch as Charlton grabbed the winner with the last kick of the game. I looked round to Finley, and he looked upset, but not as upset as I thought he might be. Perhaps those trips to Bristol City, and QPR etc. have held him in good stead for being a Sunderland fan. Things are never straight forward, in whatever you do, experiencing lows, helps you appreciate and work harder for the highs.
And so we left Wembley, as losers again (Sunderland have now lost 8 in a row at Wembley), but I’m very much a pragmatist, and truly believe that we are in a better place now than 12 months ago. The last time Sunderland lost at Wembley in a playoff final, they went on to win the league the following season. I’m hoping that the players, the team and the fans use this to motivate and spur the club on to that next season.
When we arrived home, he went out into the garden to play football, where he was pretending to be none other than Charlie Wyke. It was at this moment I knew he wasn’t too upset about the result and like me, he just enjoyed going to watch Sunderland play and compete.
He also wanted his Barcelona flag taken down from his bedroom wall to be replaced with the flag he bought at Wembley and some other memorabilia, so I obviously, happily obliged. He now has a fully themed Sunderland AFC bedroom, complete with a signed Lee Cattermole shirt (massive thanks to James Pullen for getting this).
In light of everything over these past two years, regardless of the result, I have come to realise, that the result is (9 times out of 10) secondary to the experience, the shared feeling of emotions and the memories that I am making with my son and my Dad(Granddad).
I originally started this blog post as a way of getting down into words just what it means to me to be a Sunderland fan. It has since turned out to be more of a journey of the past 2 years for myself and Finley in our support for Sunderland. It changed slightly in that I wanted it to capture things I might forget about in the future, that have made me smile or laugh, whilst highlighting just what it means to us. Similar to my memories of Roker Park, I wonder what Finley’s memories will be when he’s older. Which in a roundabout way, isn’t that what being a football fan is all about?
I’d like to leave you with this though, I support Sunderland AFC, whilst it isn’t about life or death, it is something that has shaped me into who I am today. It has given me great memories, both with my son (and my Dad/his Granddad) and from before he was born with my Dad. I have no doubt that, despite living 280+ miles from Sunderland, he will continue to support Sunderland in the same way that I have, after all, we’re Sunderland til We Die. 🔴 ⚪️ ⚫️