It started around lunchtime, like an eternal rumbling in the stomach hungry for food. The fingers twitched, the eyes swiftly glancing over at the clock on the wall and then at the one on your phone just to make sure it corresponded. There’s anticipation.
And then the text messages are sent out: “You fancy a few pints straight after work?” because why not? It’s Friday. But it’s not just Friday this week, Sunderland are at home too. It doesn’t matter that there’s still half of the day to go, plans must be made. For some, the day is just beginning and won’t end until the early hours of Saturday morning as they stumble out of a Sunderland nightclub.
It encompasses you; even though you try and avoid it you can’t help but allow your mind to drift into the future and what might happen at the match later. While Sunderland versus Doncaster Rovers doesn’t resemble a particularly big game on paper – nor is it a fixture to whet the appetite of the paying Sky Sports subscriber – it is a big game for Sunderland, it’s a big game for us.
Phil Parkinson has managed to steer HMS Sunderland into slightly less choppy waters in January having been firmly encapsulated in a whirlpool of misery and discontent after the Boxing Day stalemate with Bolton Wanderers. But we’re fickle us football lot. Give us a few wins and we’ll get our tails up and our smiles back. Where the match was like going to work, it was now something to consider looking forward to on the back of three straight wins.
It’s half-an-hour since you finished work. You’re already behind schedule as you try and scrub up and get dressed simultaneously. You finally meet your comrades in the local boozer and no sooner has the working week been discussed attention turns to the match. “What d’ya reckon?” the immediate question. An indecisive confidence exudes – as though we’re hesitant to admit we think this evening’s fixture should yield another three points. “You just never know with Sunderland though, do you?”
The fan museum is heavily populated, everyone awash with Friday feelings and cautious optimism. If this recent run of results of four wins and three draws should you extend it back to the Blackpool game in mid-December has done one thing, it has given a glimmer of hope. And in promotion chasing campaigns more so than any it’s the hope you can’t stand. But we’ve all experienced promotion winning seasons before and games like tonight against Doncaster are key.
There is more fat chewed over, accompanied by various tipples, as the queues at the bar continue to lengthen. The team news filters through via twitter and text message: unchanged. A collective nod of the heads and lifting of eyebrows suggests most people are content with the news as another beer is ordered. Quickly, score predictions are offered with yet another unanimous showing of defiance; 3-1 the most popular choice.
In the corner, Bobby Kerr stands with supporters and poses with a replica of the FA cup to remind us all of why we’re actually here tonight and doing this at all, as we live in the hope that one day something as wonderful will happen once more. A scale around the room provides wry smiles and memories of happier times, times not in League One, when we weren’t lumbered in the pits of despair. It’s a pleasant place to be, a happy place.
By now it’s seven thirty and time to make the pilgrimage to the Stadium of Light. I don’t know what it is but there’s something about night games – especially a Friday night where the stresses and strains of the week have been washed away like dirty laundry. The bright white floodlights illuminate the pearly dark Wearside sky as a local man on the street blows into a harmonica on the traipse over the Millennium Way. The dulcet tones of “Only Fools Rush In” dance along the walk as though you were watching a Hollywood movie. There’s the odd whistle along in tune from those of whom the song means so much, for those of whom Sunderland means so much, as the Stadium of Light shines on the horizon. Perfection.
It’s been a while since there has been even a pocket of chanting before pushing through the bold red turnstiles. There was just something about tonight, a renewed sentiment about the place and perhaps a continuation of the recent better times to come.
Traces of the infamous Roker Roar can still find its way into the Stadium of Light and a high energy start encourage those in The Roker End to lap up that Friday feeling and shout their support as the catalogue of Sunderland songs is opened up. Chris Maguire is brought down right in front of the home end but incredibly isn’t awarded a freekick by the linesman a mere yard or two away.
“Linesman, are you f**king blind?” is bellowed down on the official from more than one.
It encourages yet more chanting and clapping – a far cry from the muted, foggy atmosphere of only a month ago. For too long Sunderland have been rooted in misery and embarrassment, but every once in a while we’ll get going again. It doesn’t take much – just commitment, effort and one or two positive results and you’ll feel our roar.
Unfortunately Doncaster hadn’t read the script and began to dictate the play. The recent proactive Sunderland performances were being rebuffed. “They’re a yard ahead of us here, man.” “Ha’way, man Sunderland, wake up,” just some of the cries as another wave of “Ha’way Lads” reverberates around the stands, seemingly everyone singing along verbatim.
And yet still Doncaster held the upper hand. Half time brought frustration and hostility towards a referee who seemed to be enjoying his moment in front of the cameras with a number of perplexing decisions.
The pre-match optimism had been curbed. There was now confusion, not least as to which £4.50 beer was to be purchased before dissecting the first half. There was hustling and bustling, no singing by this point as people were subdued having hoped for more. But as we all stood in the shadows of former greats; Kerr, Charlie Hurley, Kevin Ball, Gary Bennett and Raich Carter all plastered on an evocative mural on the Roker End concourse wall, there was still hope this game would end the right way. “They’ll tire and we’ll nick one.”
The second half began and despite a slight improvement, chances were few and far between. It was head scratching time in the home end. How has it been like this? We were meant to win this one with relative ease.
The hour mark saw Luke O’Nien squander a great opening after Maguire’s delightful reverse pass which reignited the crowd into a combination of ill-timed roars before we all rocked all over League One with O’Nien. But still there was no breakthrough and time was ticking.
Kyle Lafferty and Duncan Watmore were introduced but still, nothing. Passes were beginning to go astray as the frustration and irritation became tangible. “This’ll be a bad result this,” said one fan a number of seats along as Alim Ozturk somehow escaped a red card for a deliberate handball before Jon McLaughlin stroked a perfect pass into Rovers’ Niall Ennis. “What the f**k are you doing, man?”
A generous five minutes were added. Surely we’d get one chance, we’ve barely had one all night? And then it came – twice in fact. First a flashing header from Watmore straight into the clutches of goalkeeper, Seny Dieng before Watmore again had the chance to steal the points with the penultimate kick of the game only to be denied by Dieng at point blank range. “F**k. That was the chance.” It was, and it had been and gone.
Full time was greeted with a mulled disappointment. Two points dropped. Typical Sunderland. There was plenty of disgruntlement as the crowds dispersed into the colder night; some heading for their supporters coaches to be distributed around the different towns of the region while others would hit the motorway and travel some 100 plus miles back to Yorkshire or Lancashire, some would jump on the Metro and head off north bound while others flitted across the Wearmouth Bridge and back into the town as their Friday night was still young.
Synopsis’ were sent to those not there and discussed at length with those who were. Could we not have done this? Could he not have changed it? Should O’Nien have done better? What did you think? League tables and fixtures scanned along with presumptuous permutations made – it’s all part and parcel in a promotion challenging season – with eyes on those around us; Portsmouth, Coventry City, Oxford United and those we missed the chance to climb nearer to.
For some those conversations will still be going. For others, they may not revisit it until Saturday morning. For now they plan on heading to Arizona or Glitterball or 7even to continue that Friday feeling. They may serenade into song in the early hours as the DJ airs Status Quo’s ‘Rocking All Over The World’ before confiding in some cheesy chips of which they will doubtlessly regurgitate and spit all over the bathroom floor in a couple of hours-time.
It was Friday, and Sunderland were at home. But when we all wake up the result will remain the same and be considered a missed opportunity as the Parkinson pendulum swings again. The song from the crowd is often about not worrying, because Sunderland AFC is gonna be alright. But are we? Who even knows anymore.