Arguably the best part of being a football fan is the sense of belonging it can bring. As society becomes less and less community orientated, football provides a rare opportunity to share communal experience. In an average row of fans at the match you are likely to see a variety of different professions, backgrounds and views on the world but for every other Saturday they are all placed under the simple category of ‘Sunderland supporter.’
However, just as football celebrates individuality despite chiefly being a team sport, football fandom is a largely individual pursuit.
Although we are all supporters of the same team, we all express our fandom in different ways and we all experience going to the match in a different way.
For some, football is an escape from the mundanity of everyday life and match day provides them with an opportunity to get drunk with likeminded people. Others will go to the match alone and not touch a drop of alcohol all day.
Every match also means something different to different people, even the most mundane game could be special to someone. A Checkatrade Trophy group stage victory over Carlisle United might be the spark that ignites a young child’s love for Sunderland as they witness a floodlit Stadium of Light for the first time.
This weekend’s forthcoming clash with Charlton Athletic at Wembley is likely to be one of the most emotionally charged, tense encounters of our recent years. As soon as the Londoners secured their place in the final with victory over Doncaster, I immediately opened twitter and muted the words, Clive Mendonca, penalty shootout and Michael Gray.
It is therefore illogical that, as my third visit to the nation’s home of football approaches, my levels of excitement are exceeding my sense of dread.
Rationally, I am aware my two previous visits against Manchester City and Portsmouth were free hits to a certain degree. Few gave us a chance going into the Capital One Cup Final in 2014 and two months ago the Checkatrade Trophy quite rightly came a distant second on our list of priorities for the season.
This time the day out will not be looked back on with any sense of nostalgia unless we win and gain promotion back to the Championship at the first time of asking. Chuck in the hysteria surrounding the play off final opponents and the tension over the course of this week will have been almost unbearable for some.
The reason for my own excitement is simple. For the first time I am going to get the chance to go to Wembley with my dad. Indeed, it will be the first time he has had the opportunity to see the lads at the iconic stadium due to his work patterns. Although, this weekend I will be travelling to and from the match in the same day on a supporter’s bus rather than sampling a weekend in London, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
At the start of the article I mentioned that seemingly inconsequential fixtures can hold special significance on an individual basis and the first game I attended with my dad certainly falls into this category.
A 1-0 victory over Walsall in October 2003 is unlikely to be the topic of nostalgia in pubs across Wearside. In fact, the BBC match report from the game spends most of its evaluation emphasising how tedious the game was, but that is at odds with how I saw the game through the eyes of my 8 year old self.
My abiding memory of that afternoon is Marcus Stewart’s winner and the reaction that followed it, jumping up and down hugging my dad and seeing the look of sheer joy on his face is something I still recall very clearly.
Since that day much of mine and my dad’s relationship has been typical of many Sunderland supporting households. We’ve been to more matches than I care to count, spent hours either in person or on the phone bemoaning how bad we are and just as much time reliving former games and even the occasional past glories.
Until my 14th birthday we attended around half a dozen games a season, but on that day I opened my card to find a Sunderland AFC season card for the following season. Unfortunately, it wasn’t financially viable for us both to both go to every home game so he took the view that he would rather I went every week with my mates at his own personal sacrifice. At the time I was grateful for this, but it is only now as an adult myself that I appreciate what a selfless act this was, which is why I now cherish every game we manage to attend together.
Come Sunday I will be a complete and utter nervous wreck, but the prospect of standing on Wembley way, having a pint with the man who introduced me to Sunderland is one that makes it feel all worthwhile.
This story will be far from unique, but however you are getting to Wembley, whoever you’re going with make sure you stay safe, enjoy your day and help roar the lads to promotion.