How to pick your favourite away day? Is it one that sticks in the memory for the positive outcome once the final whistle blew, is it more about a memorable day than the final result or is it a one off ‘I was there’ moment.
As Sunderland fans we’ve had plenty to choose from; beating Luton away 5-0 in Keane’s first season to win the league, Kevin Phillips rout of Bury on a Tuesday night in the rain, semi-finals of both play offs and cup finals and memorable (but ultimately) disappointing Wembley defeats.
Throw in the Southampton 8-0, the Tranmere phantom sub for a sending off and the breaking of the crossbar at Notts County and it’s safe to say the pool is both wide and memorable for all who were there.
As I sit down to write this, I find myself torn. Do I eulogise about a gigantic away performance, full of tactical nous, breath-taking football and displays of genuine quality that gives a taste of what it was like to witness that rare footballing phenomena; a full and complete Sunderland away victory.
Or do I almost avoid the 90 minutes entirely and focus on the actual day itself? The many match days spent travelling the length and breadth of the country, fighting off Friday night hangovers and fuelling the day ahead with more beer. The laughs and the adventures, while hilarious to me and those in attendance, don’t always transfer as well to the page.
As I trawled along memory lane, trying to pick a game that stood out above the rest I realised that I need to take myself right back to the beginning of my journey. Without this away match there may not have been the hundreds that have come afterwards. This day has helped shape my footballing future and guaranteed me a lifetime of emotion, some good, a lot bad and plenty unquantifiable.
I take you all the way back to the 1990/91 season. After losing the play off final in the previous campaign, it was supposed to be another slog for us through the Second Division. Would we keep hold of the core of the team and could we dig in for another promotion push after Wembley heartache? There certainly wasn’t too much optimism around Wearside as we processed the defeat and assessed our options.
However, in the days that followed the game Swindon Town were found guilty of a breach of payments to players and to our surprise, and obvious delight, we were fortuitously promoted in their place.
Cue protests and howls of derision from our friends up the road, they hadn’t quite reached the shop shouting stage in the early 90s, who had finished the season in third and wanted the final promotion spot, despite us smashing them in the play off semis. Luckily for us the powers that be didn’t agree and we took our place amongst the country’s elite for a new top-flight season.
Football was in a post Italia 90 boom and had started to rebuild some the reputation that was so tarnished during the 70s and 80s. The prospect of seeing some of England’s best players, fresh from their first run to a semi-final since 1966 and Sunderland’s first season in the top-flight since 1985 brought the crowds in their droves to Roker.
One of my first memories of football is queuing for hours in the street outside of the Clock Stand when we played Spurs. The prospect of seeing Lineker and Gascoigne, who I’d been mesmerised by on the TV during the summer, still lives fresh in the memory.
The season itself, like so many before and since, failed to deliver the points required and we found ourselves in familiar territory going into the last game of the season needing points to keep us in the league.
So, to May 11, 1991 and the opponents that day were a high-flying Manchester City side with quite a few familiar faces. Instilled as player manager, that trend of the 90s that has disappeared from the game, was Peter Reid. Little did any of us know on that day how much of an impact he would go on to have at our club in the years to come.
The game itself, like so many Sunderland games over the years, attracted huge interest from the fan base and the lads took a staggering 15,000 to Maine Road. An old ground with stands close to the pitch, the terraces were taken over by the Red n White army to help support the team in maintaining their league status.
The mission on paper was simple; get a result and hope that Luton lose or draw and send the hoards back to the north east happy.
As an eight-year-old boy starting his football journey I had watched the World Cup transfixed. I’d been to Roker for the first time the season before (it is my eternal regret that I recall nothing about that day) and had attended a few games here and there but this is the first away game that I remember being at.
On arrival at Maine Road I recall walking up a metal framed stair case with my Dad into the back of the stand and finding our seats. It was a low roofed affair, posts blocking the pitch with wooden seats and in the fashion of original grounds, stands very close to the pitch. Walking to our seats past a selection of fancy dress ranging from Superman and Batman to a couple of nuns it became clear how busy it was.
I take for granted now when I go to an away match that everyone will stand and there will regularly be people stood two or three to a seat so they can enjoy the match with people they may not have tickets with. It’s become a part of football in the modern era, I have no problem with it and it helps inject a bit of atmosphere into what can be sterile and bland away ends.
In the 90s you had seating and standing sections and my early memories are of being in the seats, mainly so I could see what was happening and while there was always an atmosphere it was nothing compared to the standing sections.
With the huge influx of Mackems to Maine Road, all rules were out of the window and we crammed into the row alongside everyone else, all vying for space and waiting for the game to kick off.
I vividly remember the noise building and the atmosphere pulsating around the stand. Everything is magnified and impressive to young eyes and my senses were on full alert as this game got under way.
On the journey to the game in my old man’s Blue Cortina, he had tried to instil in me the importance of victory. I didn’t understand, as a mere 8-year-old I just wanted to get there as I was bored of the car and wanted some sweets. I probably still didn’t understand the magnitude of evets when Quinny popped up after 10 minutes to put us 1 down, a few grumblings, a few swear words, some of which I understood, most of which I didn’t, all not to be repeated in front of my mother by instruction of the old man.
I very much understood that I was involved in something big when Marco (my absolute hero) met a John Kay cross with a bullet header and the entire stand went absolutely mental. The blokes to the left and right of us ended up in the row in front, the blokes behind us ended up in our row. My Dad had lifted me up, I like to think through an instinct to protect me, but more than likely he was elated at the goal and was mid celebration, as the crowds went mental.
I remember staring at this sea of bodies, hit by a wall of noise and being a little bit concerned that something bad had happened. Of course, I’d seen goals scored and celebrated before but nothing like this. It was raw emotion and the first time in my life that I had seen an outpouring of passion like that.
There was no time for calm, no time to revert the bodies back to something like their original positions and with a few strangers planted in different rows, the place absolutely exploded when Gary Bennett put us in front. Two goals in four minutes and we were staying up. The celebrations for the equaliser were special, the ones that put us in front have only been matched for me by the celebrations at Old Trafford in the League Cup semi 23 years later. An absolute wave of electricity spread across the entire away following, as scenes of jubilation and joy swept us all along.
It was short lived however, Quinny popped up after a mistake by Gary Owers and we went in level at the break.
We had moved to the back of the stand during half time to give me some breathing space, my young self had become a bit overawed by the constant pushing and jostling and we found a space in the back row as the second half kicked off.
The second half isn’t as vivid in my memory. I assume that without the distraction and stimulation of the goal celebrations it has been lost over the years and like a lot of young kids I probably got a bit bored as the minutes dragged on. As news filtered through that Luton were still two up, ironically Sunderland born Mick Harford scoring a goal to help send us down, we left with 5 minutes to go. I remember walking back to the car and hearing a loud cheer, Man City had scored in the last minute and our final game in our brief foray back in the big time had ended in defeat.
I got over it pretty quickly, by the time we hit the M6 I probably had other things on my mind as the depression and misery instilled after defeat hadn’t worked its way into my psyche just yet but something definitely happened that day.
This was the beginning of a journey on the away match train. Thirty seasons later I’m still here, still attending, still travelling and still chasing the moments of pure elation that can only be found on a football terrace.