My Dad wasn’t around when I was growing up and my Grandad had little to no interest in football. For years and years, I had to make do with second hand information on the playground at Richard Avenue Primary School from the kids lucky enough to visit the Stadium of Light. Sunderland AFC was the stuff of dreams for much of my infancy and I was desperate to be a part of this enigmatic world filled with such wonder.
However, one day in Year Four a gift from the Gods fell into my lap. Sunderland were offering discounted tickets to primary school kids and their choice of adult. I returned home that night and proceeded to beg my Mam to take me. I’m sure in all reality I really didn’t have to, for she’s a wonderful woman and would have taken me anyway; but such was my desperation, I pleaded and begged for her to take me.
With my birthday being on the 4th of October and the game on offer falling on the 18th, Mam happily agreed to take me as treat for turning nine. I was delighted and extremely excited; this was it, my first Sunderland game!
We journeyed over to the Stadium of Light where the Sunderland team facing Walsall that day was: Mart Poom, Darren Williams, George McCartney, Gary Breen, Alan Quinn, Joachim Bojorklund, John Oster, Jeff Whitley, Colin Healy and Marcus Stewart.
I’ll never forget the first time I heard that noise. The mass explosions of raucous laughter, disgust, joy, anger, ecstasy and passion. With 33,000 supporters in attendance that day I remember being completely overwhelmed. A little lad stunned into a silent state of shock at the sheer scale of the stadium and its deafening noise.
Aside from the pure awe of such a momentous occasion, I distinctly remember George McCartney suffering some kind of facial injury during the first half – I think there may have even been blood involved. While McCartney was being treated on the touchline, a rare moment of quiet engulfed the stadium. As the silence enveloped the crowd, I remember a real, typical Sunderland gadgie standing up from his seat full of gusto and intent. He bellowed down to the touchline ‘Oi George, Oi McCartney!’, McCartney glanced up to the stand and Mr. Gadgie shouted, ‘I bet you still have no problem getting the girls though!’ McCartney chuckled and embarrassingly shook his head in disbelief, those fans in earshot of Mr. Gadgie burst out laughing – including my Mam!
It was a real trivial moment but one which I will take with me to the grave. An example of Sunderland wit and general daftness; my first taste of ‘football banter’ in all its glory. We have a good sense of humour up in the isolated North-East and the McCartney incident is the first time I remember this being expressed in footballing terms. It really was a glorious occurrence, one of those ‘you had to be there’ moments.
In truth, as far as I can recall, the match was rather dull, both teams were wary with Walsall playing more slightly more defensively. My nine-year-old mind wandered from the players on the pitch to the crowd and the stadium. I’d never seen that many people in one place. I’d never experienced so much colour, so many adults shouting, screaming and even swearing! The crowd seemed to be its own humongous being, moving and shouting in unison. I was fascinated, hooked from that point forever more.
As half-time approached fans started to leave their seats seeking refreshments from the concourse; my Mam – desperate for a coffee – and I followed the masses heading for the concession stands below. As we walked down I heard from behind me the mightiest of roars; Marcus Stewart had just put Sunderland 1-0 up in the 43rd minute. Bodies flew everywhere, the ground shook, beer flew and strangers hugged. Caught up in the euphoric outburst of joy I found myself totally absorbed, I was swept up in this outpouring or pure, raw emotion… except I hadn’t seen the goal, I had missed it.
I’d spent years dreaming of a Sunderland goal at the Stadium of Light and I’d bloody missed it! At the time, I didn’t realise the gravity of the situation, but nowadays it is a constant source of embarrassment to me and amusement to my friends. After all the dreaming and longing I had missed my first Sunderland goal.
The missed goal still haunts me to this day. I still haven’t seen the strike and it appears I never will because I can’t find it on YouTube or anywhere else on the internet. The game did finish 1-0, however, so at least Sunderland had been victorious in my first game, I suppose.
Another junior Mackem was in attendance that day. Meeting for the first time on a Steels minibus to Villa Park in 2013 I got talking to fellow Roker Report writer, Micky Lough. Walsall was Micky’s second game and we shared a lot of the same memories. Micky managed to witness Stewart’s goal, and I would be lying if I said that this fact doesn’t irk me! This common ground did however forge the basis of a friendship that still exists to this day. The connection between Sunderland fans really is something to behold, there’s a superb sense of togetherness and community – something you just don’t find anywhere else.
The reason I love Sunderland AFC? For me, it’s the connection between fans coupled with the fact that I’m still – and forever will be – chasing that bloody Marcus Stewart goal.