Oz Gap, Then Back

After a pretty rough few years, things at the Stadium of Light look like they’re on the up again. Stewart Donald and co. are certainly doing an excellent job of instilling some much needed positivity at the club and with my season ticket for our League One (sob) tour all wrapped up, I can’t wait to get back from my Australian gap year and be back watching the lads.

Going from attending every home game and a fair share of away games to following the lads from 10,000 miles away was a strange scenario. At a time when even match-goers felt disconnected to the club, it would have been easy for me to switch off and fall out of love with the club but like Niall Quinn said, the club has a way of getting under your skin and true love never dies.

Plus, a combination of guilt and telepathy meant I could never switch off from the club. I’d often be going to sleep just as the line-up was released but would wake up intermittently throughout the night for kick-off, half-time and full-time. I never set any alarms and it wasn’t intentional, it’s a good job home sickness doesn’t get to me because watching your club concede five goals to Ipswich Town on a partially working iPhone whilst you’re stuck in a hostel at two in the morning a million miles away from home certainly isn’t my idea of fun.

Still, I repped the lad’s in Oz. Hypocritically somewhat as I loathe when adults wear shirts with a player’s name on the back, but this didn’t stop me from donning a Cattermole 6 shirt in Sydney. Cue his chant becoming a bit of hit within my travel group ringing out in Sydney night clubs, in the middle of the bush and that loud in a very cramped hostel room that security decided to chuck us all out. Quite a fitting tribute really as the younger Catts used to be thrown out of nightclubs rather a lot.

As our season went further and further downhill, just like my gap year in Oz, I’d still wake up throughout the night and take a sleep glance (this quickly turned into a frown) at my phone, see we were losing and try to force myself back to sleep, though it seldom worked. If you want a second year working holiday visa for Australia, you’re required to do 88 days of farm work, be it herding cattle or picking fruit or veg. Choosing the fruit and veg option (specifically aubergines, or egg plants as Australians like to call them), I needed to be up pre-five am to head to the farm and start a day of heaving heavy vegetables from the ground in 35-degree heat.

As you can imagine, I wasn’t looking forward to this and not least when I woke to see Boro had got another one over us beating us 1-0 on Bonfire Night. One day, their fans may accept it’s not a derby and while we may be their world, we couldn’t give a hoot about them, but then again, probably not. This lark of Sunderland ruining my day before it had even started got old pretty quick. Oh, and after one day of farm work I decided it wasn’t for me and one year in Oz would be more than enough, just like three months of Simon Grayson was more than enough. Though one perk of my time in Bundaberg for farm work was meeting my first fellow SAFC fan while in Oz. Spotting me donning the pink and purple third kit through my hostel window, he knocked on my door and we had a lovely chant about how dreadful we were.

After Bundaberg came Brisbane. In Brisbane I managed to attend a Brisbane Roar and Newcastle Jets game, with old Sunderland and Hartlepool forward Roy O’Donovan up front for the Jets and it was refreshing to see not one but two teams that were worse than the lads. My time in Brisbane also coincided with our first home win in 363 days and I just happened to be in a nightclub at the time, no better place to celebrate. The ladies reading this will know what I’m talking about how irritating it is when you’re in a nightclub and creepy men repeatedly come up to you and tell you to smile, well imagine this whilst trying to following the lads from across the globe.

At $14 a drink and expecting another defeat, I wasn’t in the best of moods and it certainly didn’t help, even more so when I found myself in a club called Prohibition, the Australian version of Sunderland’s Independent, apparently. But imagine my euphoria (and drinks bill) when Sunderland finally produced and we won a home game and one I was awake for the entirety of!

Another game I got to see the entirety of (come to think of it, maybe I should’ve woke to watch the lad’s more often as we didn’t lose a single game I managed to see) was our demolition of Derby. Awake at 5am for a quick gym session before a flight from Melbourne to Perth, I was far too happy for a person to be stuck in a huge airport queue at an ungodly hour and also found myself surrounded by Aussie Rules (fake football) players. But positivity from the Derby game didn’t last too long.

I’m a big Paddy McNair fan and desperately hope we keep him, so I was buzzing to see him put his injury troubles behind him and stick one in the net against Burton. Before I came to Oz, my best mate made me a travel journal to fill in along the way and McNair just so happened to score as I was filling this in so of course I made a light-hearted note of this and headed for a shower. Only as soon as I stepped out the shower I checked my phone to see that the Judas Bent has scored against us and we’d been relegated to the third tier of English football. Brilliant.

Still, this didn’t stop me from wearing my shirt to football training. I may not have managed to find a team to play for back home but somehow in the middle of the Australian desert, I’ve done it, even if I am the only girl. Of course, wearing the shirt does come with stick, mainly from the Scouser and Man United fans in the group but we’ll be laughing back when Stewie Donald’s revelation is in full flow, right?

As I’m a short arse, I manage to fit into a kid’s shirt which of course means no sponsor and with Adidas bizarrely deciding on those thin stripes last season, someone at training asked me if I was wearing an Atletico Madrid shirt so I explained it was Sunderland. Imagine my shock when in the middle of the Australian desert in a town with a population of less than 15,000 someone hears my accent and asks if I’m from Peterlee (specifically Peterlee). It turns out our keeper, who is at least 70 by the way and definitely better than Lee Camp and Robbin Ruiter, has family from County Durham and we had a lovely conversation about the Stadium of Light and Bob Stokoe statue. He even asked me if I’d seen Montgomery’s double save... I mean, what lad’s fan hasn’t?

My year in Australia is nearly up and as bad as the last year as been for the lad’s, I’m buzzing to get back to the SOL. It’ll also be nice to visit some new grounds in the third division. Our situation isn’t ideal but Short is finally gone and with much dignity, a new era beckons and I’m so happy to be a part of it.