Best Awayday of 18/19

My Favourite Game of 2018/19

Gillingham 1-4 Sunderland

As anyone who is reasonably active on social media will be aware, inspirational quotes have become increasingly part of popular culture.

It is now quite common to see out of context Marilyn Monroe and Winston Churchill quotes being related to people’s daily struggles. It was with this in mind that I took to Facebook after Sunderland had despatched Gillingham in August 2018, to post an inspirational quote of my own. ‘Sunderland, I fucking love you mate!’ I poetically observed.

Oscar Wilde, I am not, but my words rather summed up the mood of the majority of Sunderland fans who made the journey to The Priestfield Stadium on a mild August evening.

For once, the lads’ performance on the pitch did not spoil a great day out and goals from Chris Maguire, George Honeyman, Max Power and Josh Maja secured an emphatic looking 4-1 victory.

The day started in typical mid-week away-day style, with a bottle of lager, an irrational sense of optimism and a smug sense of satisfaction that you were enjoying an afternoon drink while most of your mates were stuck at work.

Many of you are probably wondering why I would describe a feeling of optimism at the prospect of playing Gillingham as ‘irrational’, but my recent experiences with Sunderland AFC would have been sufficient to make even the most patient Buddhist Monk, set fire to his monastery before weeping in despair.

In the past 25 away games I had attended in all competitions, I had witnessed just five victories. One win every five away trips may not sound too disastrous in isolation but three of those successes had been over lower league opposition in cup competitions’. In fact, I did not witness us pick up a single point away from the Stadium of Light throughout the entire 2016/17 season. The 2017/18 season was little better, although I had been spoiled with single goal wins over Bury and Carlisle in the August of 2017, I saw just two more wins between then and the end of another dismal campaign.

Therefore, it was easy to see why I would be reliant on alcohol to artificially boost my confidence levels. Upon arriving in Kent, it was evident to see the change in atmosphere amongst the travelling support. After years of largely faceless ownership, Charlie Methven, Tony Davidson and Stewart Donald posed with fans and the previous Sunday’s 3-0 win against Scunthorpe seemed to have generated a fair amount of enthusiasm.

As we approached the ground there were the usual chants about Alan Shearer’s futile pursuit of a birth certificate and declaring that we are indeed mental, mad and the loyalist football supporters that the world has ever had.

The stadium itself was a world away from The Etihad and The Emirates Stadium’s, but at this stage of the campaign, our relationship of League One was that of misty-eyed innocence. Yes, their ‘temporary’ away end was the same as it had been on our last visit in September 2004, the queues to the turnstile may have stretched along someone’s front street, but these qualities were endearing, rather than merely falling under the category of ‘shithole’. In contrast to the previous League One away trip to Luton, Kent’s premier football stadium was on a par with Wembley Stadium anyway, so we couldn’t complain too much.

When the game kicked off, it looked as though it was going to be in keeping with my usual away day experiences, as Tom Eaves outjumped Jon McLaughlin and nodded the hosts into the lead. However, I had barely finished bemoaning the ‘same old Sunderland’ before Chris Maguire’s header crept into the corner, sending the away end mental and gave us all our first sight of the Scotsman’s shithousery by cupping his ears to the Gillingham supporters in celebration.

What followed was an exhilarating 15 minutes or so as the lads went from being a goal down to leading 3-1. First, George Honeyman’s shot from the edge of the area evaded Thomas Holy and gave the visitors the lead, before Max Power emulated his scouse brethren, Steven Gerrard by further extending our lead from just over 20 yards out.

At this point, this was certainly not the Sunderland I knew and loved and in we went in 3-1 up at the break. Gillingham started the quicker of the two sides in the second half, but the lads rode the storm and Josh Maja took advantage of some hesitant Gills defending to poke home our fourth goal of the night which shook the temporary stand behind the goal to its flimsy foundations.

Despite the 4-1 result, we didn’t have things all our own way, but we had proved that we could be clinical, work hard and play quick, positive, attacking football. Sure, there were teething problems, but for the second game in a row we had blown away the opposition with a sensational spell of around 15-20 minutes.

At full time it was great to see all the players and management celebrate the result with the away end and it looked as though they were drinking in the moment.

On the long journey back to the North East, I excitedly predicted that, if this was the football we were capable of producing after a fragmented pre-season, just four games into the new campaign, then we would be unstoppable when everyone clicked.

Sadly, this turned out to be a pipe dream, but in that moment it was impossible not to think… ’Sunderland, I fucking love you mate!’