While the sporting world may have been fixated on the Champions League or the day’s events at Cheltenham Festival, down in League One – towards the level of so called ‘proper football’ – over 4,500 Sunderland fans made the trip to South Yorkshire amidst the blustering winds and torrential downpours. But like many around Prestbury Park this week, Sunderland couldn’t quite negotiate their hurdle at Oakwell.
Pessimistic, apprehensive, disillusioned. Optimistic, enthused, excited. They are just some of the feelings and emotions that every football fan encounters on that one summers morning in mid-June. A morning where the book can finally be closed on the previous 10-months. A morning for a new chapter, new beginnings and new adventures with 38 or 46 clean pages eagerly awaiting to be etched onto with new ambitions, new results, new players and new emotions.
For Sunderland fans, the fixture release day in June 2018 held with it a more sobering substance. Aside from interrupting a summer of uninhibited joy supporting England on their World Cup journey in Russia - diverting attention away from two years of complete misery, humiliation and apathy – the 2018-19 fixture release afforded a staunch reminder of just how far Sunderland had fallen. From an opening day trip to the Etihad to be the first side to take on Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City to an opening day visit from Charlton Athletic followed by trips to Luton Town, AFC Wimbledon and Gillingham sandwiched by a home clash with Scunthorpe United. If the reality hadn’t already sunk in, then by the time the fixtures were released it most certainly had for Sunderland fans.
But as any fan does, ambivalently, they search for new found hope and optimism. For Sunderland, with Ellis Short no longer in top seat at the Stadium of Light, replaced by Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven, there was tiny glimmer of light, the faintest of hope that this avalanche of negativity, this tsunami of embarrassment of a football club in the past two years could start anew. Blind faith? Maybe. After all, it’s the hope most can’t stand in football.
However much time Sunderland fans designated to scouring the new fixtures, most would have acknowledged there were still a number of ‘big game’ fixtures on the list: Portsmouth and Charlton both holding relevant claims to such a title along with Barnsley who joined Sunderland in League One following their Championship relegation last term. Clinging to that crumb of hope which was Sunderland taking their first steps on the long road to redemption, there was a certain fixture which always looked, some nine-months in the making, like a big game. Not just in terms of the club names atop of the team sheet, but the potential for a promotion rivals, maybe even a title rivals, clash.
That fixture came at Oakwell on Tuesday.
There was an anticipation surrounding this fixture for weeks. Sunderland sitting in third, desperately trying to catch Barnsley in second and bounce back from double relegations. Sunderland have games in hand but this was the one. This was the fixture on everyone’s mind. Forget Wembley. It was all about Barnsley away. Thousands travelled. Car. Train. Bus. After work. Before work. During work. It didn’t matter, this is a game which has been ringed in the calendar since mid-June and gotten bigger by the week, so why wouldn’t there be?
A nervous tension plagued both sets of supporters before the match. “Ey up…I’d tek a point” was the consensus from most with a Yorkshire twang in town, while the central bar so strategically surrounded by fluorescent coats and riot vans housing Sunderland supporters wasn’t as familiarly vocal and confident as previous excursions down country this season. From a red and white perspective it was one of those mythical “must win” fixtures. For Barnsley it was the opposite “must-not-lose” mantra. Something would have to give.
Favourites fell at Cheltenham as bets were lost and distractions from the looming game subsided. Drinks were drunk. Kick-off neared. Darkness came. The heavens opened. Somewhere down in the valley, away from the hustle and bustle of the city centre, Oakwell shone brightly. The classic old-fashioned housing estate football ground fully equipped with pylon floodlighting bright enough to acknowledge the horizontal barrage of sleet descending on those marching through the blacked out streets.
“YOU REDS” the chant echoing from door-to-door along each adjacent street.
Hood up. Head down. Just get to the away end. There was no animosity between the two sets of fans. It was just a big game and the fight or flight mode of being outnumbered by the home fans kicks in.
It can’t be far now? The crowds were beginning to bottle-neck. Atmosphere amplified that little further and somewhere, mellow, in the distance “SUNDERLAND SUNDERLAND SUNDERLAND,” the sanctuary of the away end could be heard.
The option of a chip butty was declined, instead there was just enough time for another nerve settling beverage in the concourse before making the pilgrimage to row OO. This was it, no going back now. Ninety minutes separating us from a clearer picture as to where Sunderland’s destiny may lie come May.
The wind whipped into the stand from all four corners of the ground. Scarves were tightened, coats were zipped up to their capacity, woolly hats were yanked that little further down – just a pocket of space enough to keep your eyes transfixed on the game.
‘Brewing Up A Storm’ was not scheduled to run at Cheltenham until Wednesday but there was a preview at Oakwell as conditions dictated the game - Barnsley acquitted themselves the better, dominating the first half with the cross bar saving Sunderland before the interval. Sunderland needed the respite of the half time whistle. To get out of the storm and regroup.
The second half demonstrated how much the weather had played its part as Sunderland were now the side in the ascendency - Max Power spurning a glorious chance in front of the travelling masses. The noise levels increased. “WE ARE SUN’LUN SAY WE ARE SUN’LUN” rained down in support for those in black shirts and black shorts and black socks as the tide of momentum began to shift. A goal was coming. Sunderland always score.
Except this time they never. 0-0. Shit. Now what? A result which does nothing to enhance Sunderland’s prospects of gaining automatic promotion but nor does it kill them off either.
Subdued, shivering and wet the 4,500 away fans evacuated Oakwell and dispersed themselves amongst the most winterish night spring has ever seen. The car and bus journeys home littered with sighs and what might have beens and Googling hotel availability in London for Play-Off final weekend “just in case.”
The League One season is entering its final straight with games beginning to run out. This was a big game for Sunderland but a 16th draw of the season was not the result they needed. Unfortunately there have been too many hurdles they have failed to clear this year as they remain short of being above that desired dotted line. For now, it seems, Sunderland may have to settle for the shootout that is the Play-Offs.