This year’s Boxing Day match will go down in the mythology of great Sunderland matches – not for the quality of football on show but for the incredible devotion of the fans. While I was spending Christmas with my family near Reading, I had long since booked tickets for myself, my son and my mother for this one, lured by the irresistible appeal of the Boxing Day match - always one of the biggest games in the football season calendar when fans come out in their numbers during the festive period.
I thought it may be a bigger turnout than the amazing 30,000 we had been averaging in the third tier when I booked my tickets for the three of us in October, but little did I realise just how big the crowd would be. The realisation dawned on me that this was going to be something special when reports came out from the club in the week before the match that 40,000 tickets had been sold.
On the day of the match, having packed our Christmas goodies, we said our good byes to my wife and her family at 8.30am to make sure we arrived in good time. We drove our way up through Oxfordshire on the M40 to the M1 and then joined the A19 after taking a quick lunch at Wetherby. The A19 took us through the December sunshine of the picturesque North York Moors before we hit the industrial heartland of Middlesbrough. Having arrived in the promised land of County Durham we drove through the legendary mining town, Easington, home of Billy Elliott. We knew we were on the home straight when we got our first glimpse of the North Sea just past Seaham. Seeing a solitary oil tanker sitting motionless on the ink blue sea under a cloudless sky was a magical moment I will never forget.
Hailing from Ashington, Northumberland, this was the first time I had travelled to a game from the south. The journey gave me a whole new perspective on Sunderland. As we drove passed the Raich Carter Leisure Centre and through the tough council estates, I gained a new understanding of the hard working class life that had bred the city’s religious devotion to football. As we arrived in the town centre, we got our first sense of just how big this match would be as scores of red and white shirts streamed over the Wear Bridge towards the ground.
Having parked at the Stadium of Light Metro Station we arrived at the ground at 2.20pm to see the long lines formed at the turnstiles - a sight I could not remember seeing even during the big games of the Premier League era. We took our seats in the East Stand and soaked in the atmosphere as the stadium rapidly filled up. As we approached kick off there was barely a seat left even in the upper tier of the ground which had been opened up to meet demand. The excited buzz of the crowd rose to a crescendo as we neared kick off. Chants of Red and White army soared up behind the deafening din of the new stadium’s new minimalist soundtrack that heralds the arrival of the players. I had a warned my six-year-old son that this would be an atmosphere of the like he had never seen before and he seemed a bit of overawed with the noise and volume of people as he cowered up close next to me.
Far from the goal filled thriller I had hoped for, the match turned out to be a cagey affair with the players looking nervy and inhibited, with many of them playing in front of the biggest crowd of their lives. The rising tension was finally broken by the euphoric release of McGeady’s first half strike which ignited delirium in the ground. I caught up my son in my arms and held him aloft to witness the celebrations. I missed Sunderland University graduate Martin Longstaff’s moving performance of his Sunderland Till I Die theme, Shipyards, at half time, as I was sent by my son and mother to battle through the crowds for a hot chocolate and sweets. When I returned my mother told me the attendance had been announced as 36,000. I knew it was bigger than that so I told her she must have misheard but I doubted myself whether it really could have been 46,000. But indeed it was, smashing Leeds’s previous record of 38,000 and incredibly the third biggest attendance of the day behind only Premier League giants, Liverpool and Manchester United.
As the procession of second half goals failed to arrive, we clung on by our finger nails to a rather fortuitous victory given the goal that never was. We had the perfect view along the touchline as McLaughlin spilled a straight forward shot and then dived desperately to prevent the ball trickling over the line. While it was clear to all in the ground that it had crossed the line, we breathed a collective sigh of relief as the linesman amazingly declined to give the goal to the justifiable fury of the Bradford team and manager. Having then survived the usual agony of a succession of near misses, a Bradford penalty appeal and a fracas which nearly saw Tom Flanagan’s sending off, we celebrated a victory. While debatable whether this had been deserved, given the nervy display, this had been a victory for the history making loyalty of the incredible Sunderland fans.