Supporting Sunderland sometimes feels like you are waiting to wake up from a dream, or perhaps more fittingly, a nightmare. I often find myself wondering if I will abruptly awake from my sleep in a fit of sweats, to be relieved to see Sam Allardyce on the television discussing whether to play Yann M’Vila or Jan Kirchhoff in a free flowing midfield on Saturday in the Premier League.
Instead, I’ve been waking up to a reality where Sunderland have finished 8th in League One and missed out on the play-offs due to a global pandemic causing the league table to be decided by a points per game model in which Wycombe Wanderers got promoted instead of us. I’m still waiting to wake up, because surely this can’t be real. I wasn’t prepared for things to get any worse after we lost the play-off final last year against Charlton. In fact, I was quite optimistic that the next season would see us lift the League One title with Jack Ross at the helm. Yes, he had failed to get us promoted at the first attempt, but now he would be backed financially for his second season and we could storm League One in style. Did someone say 100 points? This was the image in my mind. I was confident, optimistic, perhaps naively so, but I believed in the club despite the play-off disappointment. There was excitement, and I was looking forward to seeing what was to come in the days leading up to that first game against Oxford United.
The next few months for me were a scary, confusing blur of hospital equipment and doctors. Not too long after Sunderland’s first game of the season I fell extremely ill and was taken into intensive care. Sunderland wasn’t exactly the first thing on my mind, but when doctors told me that there was a good chance I would die, I couldn’t help but think in my delirious state that at twenty-one years old I only really have memories of supporting Sunderland as a club in decline.
I’m too young to have any memories of the Peter Reid years, or of Quinn and Phillips. My earliest memories are of Mick McCarthy and 15 points, and then of a short renaissance under Roy Keane, but it’s all been somewhat downhill since then. Like gradually falling down a mountain until we now seem to have plummeted off the edge of a cliff in the last few years. This had been my experience as a Sunderland fan, twenty-one years of disappointment, and it was seemingly coming to an end. But I had loved every minute of it.
Needless to say, I did eventually pull through, against the odds. I was, however, in hospital for months and in my highly medicated state, in and out of consciousness, I did try and keep up with how Sunderland were doing. In this case, the Sunderland that I was sporadically and intermittently waking up to certainly made me question if I was dreaming or not.
The last thing I remembered before becoming practically comatose was lying in a hospital bed, watching Sunderland beat Portsmouth 2-1 on my phone. My health was declining and being in hospital meant that I couldn’t attend any games, but that weekend happened to be one of those rare occasions where a Sunderland game in League One was being shown on the television. I had my Sky Go app, and for the first time I forgot about my current predicament as I watched my team play football. Being at a hospital in Newcastle, the majority of patients and staff around me were Geordies so I don’t think they were too impressed with me mustering up the strength to sing Chris Maguire’s name as he scored the winner. It was all good banter though. My family and friends filled my hospital room with Sunderland shirts and pictures, so I took the inevitable “League One” jibes but I teased back about the messiah Rafa Benitez being recently replaced by Steve Bruce, it was good fun. Football is special to people in the North-East, and it was uplifting to see it provide such joy and release for people in hard times.
That win against Portsmouth left me feeling quite positive about the rest of Sunderland’s season. As my health got worse and I drifted into unconsciousness, I thought that if I do come round then maybe we would be top of the league and on our way back to the Championship. I was in and out of consciousness as doctors treated me and was very confused about everything. I recall my family talking to me and trying to keep me updated with Sunderland’s season, perhaps as a distraction for me. I couldn’t really grasp fully what was going on, but I have two distinct memories of Sunderland updates, and they couldn’t have been more different and confusing for me without any context of the season up to that point. The first, I remember being told that we had just beaten Sheffield United 1-0 away, and not long before that beaten Burnley 3-1. What? How long was I asleep? Why are we playing Premier League teams and how on earth are we beating them?
Of course, I later understood that these were matches in the League Cup. Still impressive, but this news did leave me thinking I must surely have dreaming at that point, or maybe I had finally woken up from the nightmare of Sunderland being in League One. The next main memory I have of a Sunderland update occurred when I came round to more positive news from doctors that my health was improving and I seemed out of danger. At this point me and my family were in much better spirits and I then wanted to know what was going on with Sunderland. This time, I was told that not only were we far from top of the table, but that new manager Phil Parkinson had just lost his first game 1-0 against promotion chasing Wycombe.
Again, my reaction was: What? It wasn’t as shocking as hearing we had just beaten two Premier League teams, but it certainly startled me. What happened to Jack Ross? Why are Wycombe suddenly so good? And Phil Parkinson is our manager? Things can move fast as a football fan, but I was in a bit of shock at how much further things had worsened while I had been unwell. Again, I was unsure if I was still unconscious and in a Sunderland nightmare, waiting to wake up.
Catching up on what I had missed was incredibly strange. I read about and watched the inconsistent and uninspiring start to the season under Jack Ross. I could understand why he was sacked, but it was still a shock to me to see us now being managed by Phil Parkinson with my last full memory of football being a Ross team beating Portsmouth and Parkinson managing a points-deducted, bottom of the table Bolton side. It was an unusual reality for me, considering I had missed all of the in-between. Nevertheless, I thought at one point that I may never see Sunderland play again, so I looked forward to fully recovering and finally getting back to the Stadium of Light, no matter the manager or league position.
In the meantime, I needed to recover and so spent a number of weeks watching and listening to the matches from afar. As we all know, it wasn’t great for a while. Seeing us struggle to win, and lose games to teams such as Gillingham, Shrewsbury and even Scunthorpe was disappointing. Things had gotten a lot worse from what I last experienced. It was difficult to see that we had fallen even further while I was unwell. Seeing a fairly drastic change and supporting Sunderland from a hospital bed was a bizarre experience. And although things had gotten even worse, I was so looking forward to getting back to a match. I finally recovered enough to get to one at the beginning of the new year. Even though there was a part of me still hoping this League One nightmare wasn’t real, I was ecstatic to sit in the Stadium of Light and watch Sunderland again.
Football and Sunderland might not have always been the first thing on my mind when I was ill, but when I was finally there again it was oddly overwhelming. We actually won that first game back for me which was a huge bonus. But truthfully, I was just so glad, after an awful few months, to be back where I love.