Sunderland AFC play their first game at the national stadium since the League Cup final in 2014. The lads play Portsmouth in the Checkatrade Trophy final, another club which hasn't been short of off the field instability in recent times. Those that are blessed with having an airport and over 29 city centre Greggs outlets and those that try and stay relevant in North Riding of Yorkshire have been quick to attempt to be funny and try and bring down the achievements of reaching a Wembley final at the new (sort of) for the second time in five years.
But what does this game actually signify?
This time last season we sat rock bottom of the second tier in English football, hundreds of millions of pounds in debt, a loyal fanbase that was becoming increasingly disillusioned with supporting the club, and an owner which wasn’t prepared to invest in the first team squad the way he had done in the past. The whole of last season was depressing for every Sunderland fan, but the last few months of the season were especially bleak for those that continued to support the club they love through thick and thin. During last February and March, we won one out of ten, conceding a dismal 18 goals in the process. The atmosphere at the SOL was bleak and matchdays were grim.
Then, as I travelled home from my dad’s wedding in Cornwall last summer, I came back to the news Coleman had been sacked, and there was a possible takeover happening. Within months we had gone from an owner that didn’t communicate with our fans, to one that replied to tweets and talked about transfers on the radio. The culture at the club was changing. The new owners (pints in hand and all) brought in an exciting new manager by the name of Jack Ross. His St Mirren team steamrolling themselves to winning the Scottish Championship a year after they were on the brink of relegation.
Players that had become a burden on the club financially were sacked and sent on their way (surprisingly for Djilobodji Real Madrid never came Calling).
A team full of young and hungry players emerged. Some signed by Jack Ross. Some already playing at the club. A team which didn’t win at home for over a year (and they were pretty shite away as well) are currently unbeaten at home in the league this year. Yes, it is easy to argue that the standard of football is lower, but that doesn't mean the fantastic job that Ross has done to turn around a football that had forgotten how to win should be disregarded.
Because of the work put in by Stewart Donald, Charlie Methven, Jack Ross and the prospective new President of Uruguay, it has become enjoyable again to go to the match. Who’d have thought that when we couldn’t muster up just even a half decent performance against Walsall, we’d be getting crowds of over forty thousand, and have a higher attendance average than our friends in the North Riding of Yorkshire?
This cup final signifies change. A chance for the fans to once again enjoy themselves. Whether we win or lose, we are forty thousand Sunderland fans will be travelling to the capital city to sing their hearts out. There has been a change in culture. A change in personnel. Players sold and bought. For the first time in a long time, Sunderland fans are optimistic, and long may that continue.