Joel Gradwell, the guy behind the lovely vid above, has joined our writing team to tell us his story, watch out for more from Joel in the future….
A question that is asked of me all the time is “Why do you support Sunderland?” A perfectly reasonable question considering I was born and bred in Blackpool, far from the promised land.
So, as a child growing up in Blackpool I was surrounded by Manchester United and Liverpool fans (And the odd Blackpool fan). My family have always consisted of Manchester United fans for generations and so I was brought up with the Red Devils. I was taken to games, had replica shirts bought for me, but there was something missing. Although Manchester United were undoubtedly one of the greatest sides on the planet at the time, winning Champions Leagues, FA Cups and Premier League titles, I simply didn’t feel a connection with the club. It was a strange feeling, especially being so young and impressionable, you would expect a young child to look at this team in awe. The squad was riddled with superstars. David Beckham, Roy Keane, Paul Scholes, but I simply didn’t care. I loved football but didn’t love the club that was forced on me as a child.
Then one day, a family friend who was originally from Durham and an avid Sunderland fan, approached me with a question. “Would you like me to take you to watch Sunderland play?” Little did I know that my answer to this question would change me for the rest of my life. In all honesty, as an 8-year-old boy I didn’t know who Sunderland were, but I said yes!
Not long after I was taken to the home of Bolton Wanderers for an away game under the lights. I was incredibly anxious for what was to come, but within the first ten minutes of the game being played I was in love. I was surrounded by a sea of red and white. I was hooked. And no, it wasn’t the performance on the pitch that grabbed me. In fact, it was one of the worst games of football I have seen to date. It was the connection between the fans and players that was so powerful, I just couldn’t ignore it. The passion shown from the away support was a completely different beast. It ticked every box for me. NOW I was in awe.
Every pass, shot, corner, throw-in and goal kick was greeted by that famous roar. The Sunderland fans taught me so much during that 90 minutes. The constant encouragement shown towards the players was simply infectious. As a kid, when things go wrong, your natural instinct is to throw the toys out of the pram. So, when I saw a misplaced pass, I would want to moan. But the red and white army just wouldn’t allow it. They would bellow their encouragement towards the players when things weren’t going our way and it taught me an incredible, yet simple lesson. Don’t ever give up.
The game ended 0-0 and I had red and white flowing through my veins. I was singing Sunderland songs all the way home. I was so excited to return to Blackpool as a proud Sunderland fan. Admittedly, I was the brunt of the jokes at school, but I didn’t care. Within a week I had my first kit. I wore the sky blue away kit at every possible opportunity. I studied the history of the club using every resource I had at my disposal.
For my birthday I asked for the video tape of the famous FA Cup victory against Leeds. I got it and watched it religiously. I was obsessed. My mum even used my obsession with Sunderland to her advantage. In the winter months every mother would try and get their children to wear those huge coats that would drown their kids. I would never have worn a coat like that, but my mum bought me one with a Sunderland badge on it. My eyes lit up as I saw the coat and I wore it to school the next day. I would do anything to represent the club I was so in love with. Well played mum.
So, this is the story of how a boy from Blackpool ended up supporting Sunderland. It just goes to show the power of the red and white army. It certainly takes something special to take a boy who was supposed to support a footballing giant such as Manchester United and transform him into a Mackem. And to this day, regardless of the difficult times we’ve faced in recent years, red and white still flows through my veins just as strongly as it did in that 8-year-old boy.