If you’ve ever had a beer with someone who doesn’t like sport, or even worse a fan of rugby union, you will be all too aware of how difficult it can be to articulate your love of football and what it means to you.
‘But it’s just 22 men kicking a bag of air around a field for 90 minutes’, they’ll inevitably quip in a tone that suggests they’ve just discovered the true meaning of life.
‘The trouble with football is that all the players are overpaid and they go down like they’ve been shot and they have no respect for the referee’, the rugby fan will smugly interject as he puts down his pint of Tetleys.
In the current climate, the essential truth behind their statements cannot be questioned. Even though my life has always been shaped by football to a large degree, right now it could not be further from the forefront of my mind.
In a world full of uncertainty and suffering, it’s hard to imagine that little over a month ago, my biggest source of anger and frustration on a Saturday afternoon was whether or not Phil Parkinson should have freshened his team up before a home fixture against Gillingham.
As things stand I couldn’t care less when football will make a return, because some things in life are simply much more important and for the foreseeable future we shouldn’t even be contemplating a return to competitive action.
Even playing behind closed doors opens up so many risks and regardless of salary it is irresponsible to expect young men to place themselves at a greater level of risk to satisfy the powers that be for mainly financial reasons.
That being said, I bloody miss football and nobody should be made to feel guilty or selfish for feeling like that.
For many of us, football is the most important, unimportant aspect of our lives.
It provides fulfilment, structure and enjoyment to our lives in a way that few other things can, and right now we all crave this more than ever.
On a trivial level, the game brings people together and oils the conversation in living rooms, offices, pubs and taxis up and down the country.
From a personal point of view, I see this in action every year when my granddad Ted, an engineer from Southwick and my granddad Ken, a sheep farmer from Wolsingham have their annual Christmas Day Sunderland conversation.
The two men have little in common, but they will sit and talk for ages about players they used to watch as kids, Ted talking about cycling to the match and Ken talking about the often problematic trip to Roker Park from rural County Durham in the 1950s and 60s.
Sadly, due to declining health neither of them have been to a match in over a decade, but each Saturday afternoon you can set your watch by them sitting next to a radio and willing the lads on from afar.
When I go to visit them, you could bet your house on football and Sunderland being the first topic of conversation.
Whether, ‘the lads are doing well’, or ‘I see the useless buggars got beat again’, the topic always ignites a passion still burning strong as they enter their late 80’s.
Now, their Saturday rituals will not be the same for the foreseeable future and for millions like them, something that gives them structure and routine will be absent from their lives.
Given that both men lived their childhoods through the Second World War, I was surprised to hear my Granddad Ted admit that the times we’re living through now is like nothing he’s known in his lifetime.
He made the point that during the war, life carried on as normal, it was possible to be defiant and stick two fingers up to the enemy.
It was possible to keep spirits up everyday, cinemas, theatres and pubs remained open and while professional football was suspended, there were well attended interwar cup matches and he remembers playing football, flying kites and even going to inspect a German plane that had crash landed in a field near his school.
This simple story really hit home and sums up the reason I have sustained my love for football into my adult life.
To put it simply, we are used to turning to football in times of hardship to boost our morale and provide us with a concrete reason to battle through whatever trials and tribulations we are facing.
Indeed, in 1933 during a great economic depression, 75,118 fans packed into Roker Park on a Wednesday afternoon to watch Sunderland take on Derby County.
This came just weeks after a crowd of lower than 10,000 attended a home match, people didn’t have much disposable income, but when the owners of the shipyards and mines came together to give the people of Wearside the afternoon off to go to the match, a record crowd took advantage of this generosity of spirit and attended the FA Cup replay.
In 1973, Sunderland were one of the hardest hit towns in the country during yet another economic downturn, but as evidenced in the excellent documentary, ‘Meanwhile Back in Sunderland’, football gave the entire region a reason to put their daily struggles to one side and celebrate their heroes.
As life changes at almost breakneck speed, it is difficult in modern society to find something that provides the same community spirit and sense of belonging.
I’ve lost count of the number of hours I’ve spent in my local pub on a quiet evening having a chat with the old timers about Sunderland and footballers from their hayday, through sharing experiences they feel more connected with current events despite not going to games anymore and I have an affinity for players I’ve not seen kick a ball for us except on grainy black and white Pathe’ newsreel footage.
On a more serious note, as someone who suffers with social anxiety, going to the match provides me with a social structure which my entire weekend can be scheduled around.
I am very fortunate to have a number of friends I can rely on during tough times, but I struggle to reach out to them or attempt to arrange something socially when I’m in a bad place.
However, the ready-made social setting of the match provides me with an environment that makes me feel comfortable.
In the build up to a match day, I feel able to message friends, including some I’ve not seen for a long time to meet up for a pre-match beer and a bit of a catch up and not feel like I’m bothering them.
Due to not living at home permanently since I was 18 years old, getting to spend a few hours every other Saturday with my dad is also something I’ve taken for granted.
For some reason, when you go to the match with a relative, every goal, win or even tackle can feel even more significant.
Last season, even though we ultimately failed to get promoted, when we beat Portsmouth to get to the play off final, the prospect of getting to experience Wembley with my dad was one of the most exciting feelings I’ve ever had as a Sunderland supporter.
When we took the lead against Charlton in the most bizarre circumstances I wish I could have frozen that moment in time where me and my dad were jumping up and down hugging each other, stupidly believing that we were going to see Sunderland break the Wembley hoodoo.
Contrary to popular belief, we don’t ask for much as Sunderland fans, even during our darkest days I’ve known our victories to end in spontaneous nights out, the day before the Checkatrade Trophy, Sunderland fans serenaded the players as they got off at Kings Cross Station.
This was for a competition that no Sunderland supporter ever wanted to see our first team compete in, but it gave us a weekend to remember.
Ultimately, we all know that football isn’t about 90 minutes of action on the pitch, it’s a pride in where we come from, it’s carrying on traditions of support handed down by our parents and grandparents, it’s forging lifelong friendships and it’s about coming together to unite behind a cause that means so much to us all.
As I said at the top of the article, I don’t necessarily miss football, but I do miss my friends, the excitement of a matchday and the light at the end of the tunnel it has always given me.
One day, this will blow over and once again we will be able to resume our love-hate relationship with our football club, but until then, stay at home, stay safe, support the NHS and always, no matter what... oh and Fuck The Mags.