About 4 years ago my son turned to me with wisdom beyond his years and asked why I supported Sunderland. I gave a quick response. In hindsight I should have thought about it a lot longer than I did because the answer I gave wasn't strictly true and supporting South Shields would have been far more enjoyable given the past few years.
I answered that it was because it was where I was from. I now have a 7-year-old son who is a season ticket holder at Sunderland but claims Wolves as his first club because that is where he was born. Before anyone says it, he was a Wolves fan before they suddenly became the Champions elect of our division, shunning the bigger clubs for his home town club even after we moved back to the North East. I have a grudging respect for that. However, if I had the chance again I would consider my answer more carefully. It has been hard to convince him that this club has the ability to fill your heart. The question he asked has plagued me, why do I support Sunderland? In the current climate that answer has been eluding me. I still hold a season ticket and I still take him to see the inevitable sorry performance, but why? If I was asked to boycott the club (that's boycoutt for our more northerly readers) would I? No. I would still turn up. I have been trying to figure out the reason why and then it struck me in the strangest of places. I was eating a fairly bland chicken salad at work and suddenly thought about the massive £140m EuroMillions jackpot and flicked my National Lottery app on. Now the odds of winning the EuroMillions jackpot are apparently 139.8m to 1. Things more likely to happen to you include dying while buying a lottery ticket. However, I still believe that the jackpot is heading my way. I will have that dream house and be able to light cigars with £50 notes. And even if I don't how could I possibly miss out? What if?
That is when it hit me. That is exactly why I support Sunderland. I have been there for some odd glimpses of absolute euphoria. When John Byrne netted after 31 minutes against Norwich the world stopped. The following 60 odd minutes were torture. The brief moments following that goal were astounding. This is tempered with some real low points. Ricky Otto ripping us apart on a Tuesday night at Roker when even John Snow would have said “Sod this it's too cold”, Paul Stewart missing a sitter at Wimbledon, 19 points, 15 points... dare I mention the Halloween game at Sid James Park. The point is, what if? What if you miss that turning point, that game? Where the crowd ignite as we know it can, where the stadium is one and the opposition fans look at each other with a look as if to say “Jesus, have you heard this?!”. Well I can answer that question twice over and it is against the same club. In 1992 at the ripe old age of 15 I went on a French exchange. It was shit before you ask. It was wet and miserable, and the highlight was watching a very loud car speed past us once or twice on the practice track at Le Mans. What also happened during that time that I was in France was that Gordon Armstrong headed a goal in against Chelsea. The only home match in that cup run that I missed. My friends remind me regularly of the fact that I missed that game, that's what friends are for. Even 26 years later. Now I forget why I missed the second one against Chelsea which makes it even more painful but the win during the Allardyce great escape goes down as one of those games. I missed the what if.
I don't blame fans for staying away at the moment, I envy them. They have comfortably accepted the fact that there is no what if moment happening any time soon. What if Rodwell suddenly comes good? Is that the best we have? What if Ellis Short says he realises his mistakes and pumps cash in? What if we unearth an academy Messi? All very very unlikely. If outsiders want to criticise our empty seats, let them. I have no truck with that. We still average more than most at the top of the league despite years of disappointment and defeat. The reason our fans are so poisonous as has been claimed is because we have seen what this club is capable of, and we expect more. We are not like those up the road who think that they have a god given right to be the biggest in Europe. We just want a what if moment. We want that moment when Kone floored Yaya Toure and generated what is probably the biggest cheer the world has ever heard for a tackle. We want to see Kaysie rowing his canoe after a leg break. We want Richardson's free kick, Ji's late winner. Give us a moment lads and you will see.
Keep the faith