One of the things that makes football ‘the beautiful game’, is its constant ability to evoke emotions, and behaviours that defy all rationality.
The sport is so ridiculous that it is impossible to anticipate how an event will make you feel until it is thrust upon you. If a stranger had told me on the day that David Moyes was appointed manager that a Sunderland side would reach the Checkatrade Trophy final in the forthcoming years, I would have thought, ‘bloody hell, we must have a hell of an under 23’s side coming through.’ Naturally, if the reply had been, ‘oh no, I mean your first team.’ I would have been left with no choice but to ask him what beer he’d been drinking to produce such a ridiculous line of thought.
Yet there I was in Trafalgar Square on Saturday night, booting footballs about, laughing at fellow supporters attempt to achieve their drunken 25 meters certificate by swimming in the fountain and jumping around singing about Alan Shearer’s futile attempt to locate his birth certificate.
Of course, Sunderland are not the only side to embrace situations that would have sounded like a nightmare scenario just a few short years ago. When Sir Alex Ferguson won his final Premier title at Old Trafford if you’d suggested to the United faithful that a Premier League title challenge would be a pipe dream while they watched their arch rivals, Manchester City and Liverpool battle it out for the title, they would have shuddered with horror. But here we are, and their supporters are loving life with ‘Ole at the wheel.’ Why? Because it’s fun. They are enjoying watching their team having a go, winning games, scoring goals. It’s that simple, as much as football is about a club’s future prospect, it is also equally about short-term goals and enjoying the match coming up at the weekend.
Obviously, our fall from grace has been much sharper and more painful and you don’t need you to remind you of the finer details of our demise, but the ashes of our despair were transformed into something beautiful last weekend.
From the second the players walked off the train, they were serenaded by our supporters who were already well oiled in the early afternoon sun. Far from being irritated by this invasion of privacy, the lads took it in their stride, posing for selfies with fans and looking overwhelmed by the sheer volume of Sunderland already in the capital.
Then came the night at Trafalgar Square where, Juan Satori, Charlie Methven and Stewart Donald mingled freely with fans, enjoying cans that had been generously donated by supporters and seeing what the whole occasion meant to the people of Wearside.
It was a truly magnificent evening which again saw Sunderland fans take over one of London’s top attractions and party from the early afternoon until the early hours of the morning. Such was the exuberance on display that the presenter on BBC Breakfast news declared her surprise that the images were not photoshopped. If this season is indeed to see a rebirth of the football club, then the images of that night will represent a symbolic moment. It will be looked back on as another night where the fans reconnected with their club and reminded the country of what Sunderland could be given half the chance.
Even the game itself has the potential to be looked back upon with a great deal of fondness. The Pre-Match speech from Kevin Ball and Frankie and The Heartstrings frontman, Frankie Francis made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. The rendition of Can’t Help Falling in Love with you that followed was awe inspiring and was an outpouring of all the pain we’ve endured in recent seasons and was a statement that we will support this club no matter what.
The weekend again ended in heartbreak, but as I said earlier, football isn’t rational. Some people say it’s only a game and in fairness to them they’re correct. Let’s imagine for a horrible moment that I was raised as a Manchester United fan but grew up in the North East. I may get to the odd game to see a routine 3-0 win over Bournemouth or Crystal Palace. I may get to watch YouTube videos of the treble winning season, but it wouldn’t be part of me. It wouldn’t make up a huge part of my identity. I could watch as many matches on the telly as I wanted, plaster my room with as many flags as I wanted, but to me football would just be a game. Something I enjoyed watching, but it would be a relatively lonely experience other than meeting with the odd like-minded person to watch a game in the pub every now and again.
But for us as Sunderland fans, it’s about shared experience, it’s about the laughs that happen on the way as much as it’s about winning trophies or even matches. When I reflect on this weekend it strikes me that many of the people, I spent the weekend drinking with have little in common other than Sunderland AFC. But that’s the point, the devoted support of the club provides us with life long friendships, it reminds us of where we come from, where our mothers and fathers come from and why we have such a deep-rooted love for all things Sunderland. After the match on Sunday we sat in the pub discussing stories from games past, some tragic, some funny, some with little at all to do with football, but each story reinforces why we do it. The mere possibility of winning a cup has brought together a club that was on its knees less than 12 months ago.
As gooey eyed and sycophantic as this article has been, it goes against all my instincts. I don’t want to reminisce on a cup final defeat in a third-rate competition. I don’t want to be known as that team that parties in the Capital on the Saturday and loses on the Sunday. But that’s the reality of the situation and like I said at the start, football is not about being level headed and viewing things objectively it’s about making memories that last a lifetime. Now our focus must turn towards the promotion push and make sure that the Checkatrade Trophy final was a lovely weekend out with little consequence rather than another ‘nearly moment’ in a season of ultimate disappointment.
Now, let’s get promoted…