Over the summer, most of us were too busy taking in the details of the takeover, the new owners, the new manager, and joining in the renewal revolution to spend much time thinking about who we’ll be playing. Of course, our descent (or plummet, to be more precise) from the Prem to Division Three means that there will be a few new places to go, and whole load of new and unfamiliar players to see. I’d originally set out to highlight the familiar faces, former players, and old foes that we might come across on our travels, but if I’d kept it to that you’d have finished reading by now. Being brutally honest, there are precious few players we’ve come across before, so we’ll have a look at the other bits and bobs as we go along.
I was going to go through them alphabetically, ‘cos if there’s one thing I learned at school, it’s the alphabet, but it would make more sense to follow the fixture list. Here it is, then - four teams we’ve never encountered before, and six grounds we, as a club, have never visited, making for an interesting season on the road, but what we really want (and need) is a team that is just as interesting and that can take advantage of the enthusiasm that’s already building for the new campaign. The fans seem to be ready for the challenge, now it's up to the new regime to put the correct people on the field to meet their part of that challenge.
Luton Town did have a former player on their books, in Hetton Lad Jordan Cooke. A Sunderland career that lasted a total of 30 minutes over three substitute appearances in the second half of the 2010/11 season ended with a move to Charlton, Yeovil (loan), Walsall, and Luton, for whom he made 45 appearance in the last couple of seasons. We bumped into him (well, Tom Flanagan did) at his new club Grimsby in pre-season, so we’ll not be seeing him again unless a cup game comes along. They used to have Don Hutchison as well, who famously paid out of his own pocket to keep the youth team going. Kenilworth Road, scarily, used to be at the cutting edge of football grounds, but looks a bit of a shambles these days. Apart from Milton Nunez running between a defender’s legs (he was jumping at the time – the defender, not Tyson) in a League Cup tie, our most recent memory is a sunny afternoon with Nyron in a natty titfer after our title-clinching 5-0 win under Keane. There are now 10,356 seats, of which they filled an average of 8.676 getting promoted, and they’ll offer us about 750 tickets in the Oak Road stand, famously accessed via a passage between houses. There’s a great view of their back gardens and bathroom windows after 246 miles, but they do have categories A (£24), B (£20), and C (£18) for tickets, so expect to pay the max. Also expect to see, as last time, a fair few Red n Whites in the home seats.
Gillingham’s Priestfield Stadium had better have had a refit, or I’ll want my money back. The second “G” was missing from the club’s name on the front of the stand, making it look as if Trevor Brookin’ had dictated it to the builder, and the turf lifted in squares when a tackle was made. That the tackle was made by Julio dates this a bit, and perhaps the Kerplunk away stand, complete with thirty foot drop onto the Brian Moore refreshment caravan has been tidied up. Anyhow, it’s 11,582 seats these days, with only 5,305 filled on average last season. They should give us 1,500 seats in the aforementioned Brian Moore stand, a temporary structure (since 2003) shared with home fans, but it’s open seating, which should be illegal in this country, as, despite them giving you a free mac if it rains, your backside is going to get wet. No playing or managerial connections, and a convoluted 300 miles trip. Mind, it’s only £16 a ticket, and you can take a couple of under 12’s free, and pay £6 for any more. I reckon if you’re taking three or more under-12’s to an away game you deserve a free ticket yourself.
AFC Wimbledon provide us with a new ground, a new team, and probably a new town in Kingston upon Thames. London, really, with no playing connections, and only slightly easier to get to than Palace. Swings and roundabouts. Last season, their 4,850 capacity Cherry Red Records Stadium held 4,325 fans on average, with 2,265 seats, so there’s not much to spare. The majority of the 725 lucky Mackems who get tickets for this will share the partially-roofed Rygas Terrace with home fans, at £17 a pop, while the 94 who prefer to sit will be in the John Green Stand for £24. After 295 miles on the road, you might want a bit of comfort.
We should remember Burton Albion, mainly because we won there, James Vaughan scored, and there are terraces. In fact, the Pirelli Stadium only has 2,034 seats in a capacity of 6.912, and with them only selling an average of 4,645 last term, our 1,800 behind the goal and 400 in the seats should drown out their bloody drummer. No playing connections, but some might remember their manager Nigel Clough’s dad was a canny turn for the Lads in his day. At 167 miles, and with a great town centre for beer lovers, this one’s a must if you can get a ticket (£24 sit, £20 stand).
Coventry. Hmm, I’ll admit to feeling a bit bad about wanting them to beat Exeter in the play-off final, just to save us a few miles, especially when they had earlier invoked their own personal “Sunderland rule” which states that, when they’re involved in a vital game, they can turn up late to see what’s going on elsewhere. At least we have another chance to beat them, and for our travelling support to show what travelling support looks like. Back at the 32,609-seater Ricoh Arena after a sojourn at Northampton when they ran out of rent money, they had an average attendance of 11,209 which sort of makes a mockery of their fans’ claims to be the best supported team in the coming season. Anyway, we should get about 3,000 tickets, but remember that there’s a running track and some other nonsense that makes even the front row a fair distance from the touchline…and there’ll be some funny lines on the pitch, as Wasps rugby club also play there. On the playing side, they have Liam O’Brien, but, as he’s a ‘keeper, he’s probably not that mag feller, and they did give Jordan Henderson a chance to build his game. Also, they’ve put a statue of Jimmy Hill outside, should you feel the need to pull faces at something after the 203 mile journey. Apparently you can get up to £2 discount on your £20 ticket if you book online at least three hours before kick-off, but I doubt if this applies to visiting fans.
Bradford’s Valley Parade will doubtless have another sponsor’s name attached to it by the time we visit (remember Pulse FM at Valley Parade?), but for now it’s the Northern Commercials Stadium, where they’ll offer us 1,840 seats in the TS Dallas stand, upstairs and downstairs. It’s to be hoped that they give those seats a wipe, as they were pretty mucky on the occasion of our disastrous FA Cup visit. Their average of 19,786 was League One’s highest last season, with only 5,000-odd empty seats. Of course, Jon Stead, their FA Cup hero that day, has moved on leaving only Matthew Killgallon, proving he’s still very much alive after arriving at Bradford from the Lads via Boro, Donny, and Blackburn, as a former player. They also have the magnificently-monikered Knight-Percival and Vincelot in the squad....and at a mere 110 miles each way, it’s virtually a derby. £20 an adult, and if you’re under two, you not allowed in (please get an adult to read this for you).
Shrewsbury Town were one of the last teams we played before our previous descent to the third tier, and they moved grounds a decade ago to the Montgomery Waters Meadow, so named out of political correctness. Back in the ‘80s, they sold us Ian Atkins, who was a canny turn in midfield with a thunderous shot. It holds 9,875 folks, and last season, that took them to the play-offs, they averaged 6,364 so, in theory at least, they could offer us about 3,000 but the away section in the romantically-named Pro Vision CCTV Stand North Stand only holds 1,786. At £22 or £20 a go last season, depending on your category, it’s not badly priced, but it is 225 miles each way along some windy roads. I do know of a Sunderland fan with a holiday home in the area…..
Doncaster Rovers are still at the Keepmoat Stadium, which I remember visiting a couple of years back in pre-season. We’ll be offered over 3,344 in the Case Construction North Stand of the 15,231 seats initially, and more in the East Stand if needed. I’d suggest they will, as they only averaged 8,212 last season, and it’s a straightforward train journey to Donny or only 108 miles by road, with tickets at £20. We’ve all heard of manager Darren Ferguson, as his dad is a well-known racehorse owner, but there are no player current player connections, although Chris Brown and his dad Alan, the Easington Express, represented both clubs.
Plymouth can provide just over 2,000 places in the Barn Park End, which, if memory serves me correctly, can get a bit cramped - but after 405 miles you’ll be wanting to stand up anyway. The ground is being upgraded at the moment, meaning that the press box is in the away end, so you can give Nick Barnes and Benno a wave. There were typically about 7,000 empty seats at Home Park last season, out of 17,800, so we could sneak in elsewhere if we can put on a Devon accent. No former players, and £20 a ticket.
Walsall might be more famous these days for the RAC tower, and we have only visited once since Karsten Fredgaard scored twice way back when the “Oooh, aah, he’s Eric R’waa yer knaa…” song began, and we gave a debut/trial to mad Brazilian Marcos di Guiseppe. He impressed so much that Walsall signed him, only for him to disappear in a puff of smoke soon after. Sadly, it’s the only West Midlands destination for us this season. The Bescot (now known as the Banks’s Stadium) has 11,300 seats, of which 4,760 were occupied most games last season. We’ll be in the University of Wolverhampton Stand (in recognition of our intellect, obviously), behind the goal opposite the huge Tile Choice Stand, where we’ll pay £21 or £20 depending on whether we’re category A or B, and there should be 2,000 seats. 190 miles each way.
Accrington Stanley, they of the 1980’s milk adverts, provide us with the same set of firsts as Wimbledon, and the same lack of playing connections. The Wham Stadium (I kid you not – it’s the shirt manufacturer) presumably resounds the music of Michael and Ridgeley, and if it doesn’t, they’re missing a trick. We stopped off in the town on the way to Burnley in the 1970’s, we dropped £1 from the bandit, and the car in front of us caught fire at the traffic lights. That’s all I remember of the place. The ground holds 5,057, but their average last term was only 1,875, so plenty of space there. The standing capacity is 3,000, and 1,800 of those are on the open Coppice Terrace behind the goal, where we’ll be. Retro or what? Again, no playing connections, although they do have Mark Hughes, but this one’s a defender formerly of Everton, Stockport, Northampton, Walsall, Queensland Fury (where he almost became a team-mate of Micky Bridges when N#castle Jets offered him a contract), Bury, Morecambe, and Stevenage. Only 118 miles from home, this one should be a blast at £20 a ticket.
Portsmouth might still be familiar, as we were regular visitors until they spent too much and fell down the leagues. (see also Charlton, later in the season) but now they’ve got a new crest, and Danny Rose plays for them. No, not that one, but a midfielder who counts Oxford (so he’ll presumably know of Stewy and Charlie), Fleetwood, Newport, Northampton, and Aldershot as former employers. They also have Chris Oxlade-Chamberlain, whose brother is a tad more famous, and they can accommodate 2,400 visiting fans. With an average of nearly 18,000 in a capacity 20,190 ground, it should be a pretty good atmosphere – and it’s a mere 335 miles from home and £20 a ticket.
Blackpool should really be played in October, to let the bairns see the lights and that. Like us, Charlton, and Portsmouth, they’ve been down the divisions, but their owner is the benchmark by which unpopular owners are measured. Quite how Owen Oyston retains power is beyond me, but he does, and his manager is Gary Bowyer, who played in the same Hereford team as his dad Ian, in 89-90. Bowyer senior (aka Thunderboots. Ask yer dad) scored one goal in his 15-game spell at Roker from January 81 before returning whence he came – Forest. The Seasiders average of 4, 177 leaves over 12,000 spaces at Bloomfield road, as they’re boycotting games, but they’ll probably offer 2,500 in the Stan Mortensen (north) Stand, which we used to inhabit many moons ago when it was a big, horrible, open terrace. If you remember our last visit (January 2011, 2-1, Richardson 2), we were in the East Stand, and it was pretty uncomfortable, so we should have a better view after our 143 miles journey. Also, if you’re under 11 you get in free, providing you’re with an adult (who’s paid £22).
We’re a bit more familiar with Charlton’s Valley, having been regular visitors before they did what we’ve just done and tumbled down the divisions with an unpopular owner at the helm. Their average attendance of 11,954 leaves about 15,000 empty seats (sound familiar?) but they’ll give us 3,000 seats in the Jimmy Seed Stand, which should do nicely. 282 miles each way, and no current player connections, although they did once play Darren Bent (boo, hiss) alongside his namesake Marcus. They also have a novel match categorisation system - no “A” or “B” for them, but a Gold or Silver, at £23 and £20.
Scunthorpe also have no former players or notable former adversaries, and are in a relatively new ground, but a few of us will have visited Glanford Park for friendlies. 1,678 of us will be seated in the AMS stand behind the goal, and they can squeeze another 500 in to the Clugston Stand, which is a bit of a relief but a shame, as they’ve only averaged just over half their 9,088 capacity.130 miles each way, if you’re counting, and with two match ticket categories priced at £23 and £22. Why bother, for a quid? If you like to live dangerously and buy on the day it might be £3 more, but this option might not be available to away fans. Under-12’s are free.
Oxford United. If ever there was a case of divided loyalties, this should be it, but I reckon Charlie and Stewart will be firmly on our side. Owners, chairmen, majority shareholders, and whatever Charlie’s title is – we’ve plenty in common apart from Denis Smith, Andy Melville, Dean Whitehead…..but nothing on the current playing side. Those of us old enough will remember the Manor Ground falling apart under our feet, and the U’s have since moved to the Kassam Stadium – but they only got round to building ¾ of it, so instead of 16,000, the capacity is 12,500, with an average of 7,376 last season. We can have up to 5,000 tickets, at £21 each, but don’t park your car outside the West side after driving 252 miles, as there’s nothing to stop one of our goal kicks taking your window out.
Some of us might remember Bristol Rovers’ Memorial Ground as being where Don Hutchison scored his first SAFC goals in a League Cup tie back in 2000. Most won’t, and for most it will be a first visit. On the playing side, no connections, but their 20-man first –team squad consists of fifteen English, four Welsh, and one Irish: a British Isles make-up that we’ll be seeing fair amount of this season. With an average of 8.993 in a 12,000 capacity ground, 1,100 of us will be located on the ironically-named Dribuild open terrace, with an unknown quantity of seats being available in the South Stand. With the round trip a piffling 582 miles, it’s a long but do-able day-trip. They have two price categories, at £21 and £19 to sit, or £18 and £16 to stand – but if you buy on the day, it’s £2 extra, you impetuous fools.
Wycombe Wanderers is another new ground, another team we’ve never played at any level, and a town few people pass through, so it’s ticks all round. Adams Park, in a leafy part of the home counties, holds about 10,000, with an average attendance of 4,705, and there’s a terrace at the home end. We’ll get 2,000 tickets in the Dreams Stand, and perhaps another 350 in the Main Stand if we want them. Again, there are no playing connections, but they do have The Beast (Adebayo Akinfenwa) who weighs in at 16 clem, 36 years, and 14 clubs. He’ll probably have found another team (is he a Jack Ross type of player? Doubt it)by the time we arrive anyway. We’ll pay £20 a ticket, and it’s 267 miles from home by road, but a bit of a chew on by train.
In theory, we know all about Barnsley, having lost to them twice last season. Nowt special in that, and they did even have an ex-Sunderland player Paul Heckingbottom (five times an unused sub in the mid-90s, but it counts) as manager, but he left in February so that Leeds could sack him. As for current playing connections, George Moncur, who dictated our last game at Oakwell, was taught at secondary school in Essex by Sunderland supporter Geoff Mangan, and that’s it. Oakwell can accommodate up to 4,700 visiting fans, in a ground that seats 23,287 and which saw, on average, 13,703 last term. As it’s only 111 miles away, straight down the A19 and A1/M1, this will be a grand day out, apart from the ticket price. They have a five-category structure, at £36, £30, £28, £25, and £23, so work that out if you can.
Highbury was a favourite away ground for many of us, and Fleetwood give us the chance to visit again. Obviously, not the marbled halls of North London, but a 5,327 capacity ground, with 2,670 seats and an average attendance of 3,137 a few miles north of Blackpool. A new ground, team, and town for most of us, and they typically offer visitors 831 standing and 300 sitting away tickets. Parkside Stand seats are £25, and Percy Ronson terraces are £23, with under- fives free with a paying adult. Apparently, the number of away seats can be increased, so expect it to be as this one will be very popular. Unlike many of the smaller grounds, this one is a thoroughly modern job, showing that terraces and the modern game can survive together. On the playing side, they have Gethin Jones, but apparently, he’s never done Strictly, so it can’t be that one. However, as manager they have someone who most clubs, and fans, can claim as a pantomime villain. Step forward Joey Barton, the gittest of Scouse gits, who’s had sentences for common assault and ABH, and been done three times for violent conduct by the FA, most hilariously when he tried to exact kung-fu revenge on the entire Man City team. Various other misdemeanours, which would keep you reading until Christmas (2019), prove that having ten GCSE’s doesn’t make you a nice person. If he’s still in charge when we visit, which I doubt, he’ll take fearful stick. Oh, and it’s only 138 miles away.
According to local songster Mike Harding, it’s hard to be a cowboy in Rochdale, although it would be a fairly pointless job in that part of Lancashire/Greater Manchester anyway. Incredibly, our paths have crossed on one solitary occasion, in the Football League (Checkatrade) Trophy in September 2016. That means that only a handful of have been to the Crown Oil Stadium, formerly Spotland. Elliot Embleton scored in a 1-1 draw, I got a speeding ticket in Bury afterwards, and Barry Dunn was watching. The ground holds 10,249, with an average attendance of 3,470 last term, and they’ll give us the Willbutts Lane Stand, where up to 3,650 can be accommodated at £22 a go. As it’s only 127 miles away, and a new ground, I reckon we’d take the lot, and make this an awayday to remember.
Peterborough’s 14,399 capacity London Road ground is now called the ABAX stadium, just to make it sound less overtly Southern, and it welcomed on average 5,699 last season. Yet again, there are no current player connections, and even that delightful former magpie Steven Taylor, who famously (in his own head, at least) claimed he’d rather collect stamps than play for us, has buggered off to play in New Zealand. Which makes this piece a lot shorter than it would have been. We should get 1,800 tickets in the Main Stand unless they decide to use the recently re-opened Moy stand (nowt to do with a dour Scot, honest), and we’ll no doubt be category A, priced at £26. £24 if we’re lucky, but it’s straight down the East Coast main line to Peterborough, or 194 miles down the A1, so this will be a popular one.
Remember Southend, the only place (apart from Up West and Manchester) Eastenders characters visit? We’re back to sunny Roots Hall, which was a pretty disastrous attempt at “unallocated seating” on our last visit, when Jon Stead scored for us (in the last minute, when we were already three down). Arnau Riera also managed the final fotty of his fotty-fower minute Sunderland career, with the first fower ended by a red card on his debut at Bury. They can take up to 2,000 of us, and will probably have to, which should bump up the crowd above last season’s average of 7,195 (capacity 12.392), BUT they have former players! Anton Ferdinand is their captain, arriving in Essex after spells at QPR, Bursaspor, Antalyaspor (I believe those last two are in Turkey), Police United (honest, they’re in Thailand, or they were until they merged with another club), and Reading. He’s even managed to score twice in in his 65 games at Southend, where he’s recently been partnered by Michael Turner. Eeh, they’re like buses, these former players, and they’re both number sixes. Our former defender spent his four years between SAFC and Southend at Norwich, with loans at Sheff Wed and Fulham, and has managed four goals in his 25 games in Essex. We’ll have to watch those two at corners. 292 miles each way, and £22 a ticket.