We caught up with two very different Sunderland fans to see how their matchday routines and feelings towards the club have changed since the Covid lockout…
NOTHING HAS CHANGED
BY MICHAEL GLANCY
Waking up on Saturday morning was a fairly ordinary experience. Get up, get changed, make a coffee, have a walk, have a shower, make lunch, and then tuck into whatever the football world has to chuck at me. So far, so normal.
Except, it wasn’t that normal. The worldwide pandemic has thrown the definition of normality up in the air and going for a walk, which was the most boring thing in the world, is now my only daily escape.
Many people have discussed, via social media, podcasts and articles, the change of the match day experience for regular attending fans, and how the whole experience is now essentially soulless. In terms being able to spend Saturday in town, having a pint with family and friends, catching up with people at the match who you might not have seen for a while and generally having the sort of social interaction which makes life enjoyable. This, obviously, is not possible and has not been possible for the best part of ten months.
For folk who live in the North East, who are normally able to go to matches, this must be gutting. As much as people might look at this on paper and laugh at the idea of not being able to watch us struggle to draw with Gillingham at home in freezing weather, the social side of the match is simply huge, both for people’s mental health, but for the health of the city as a whole, given the amount of people who visit the city centre on a Saturday who normally wouldn’t, spending money in shops, bars and pubs.
Switching on a laptop ten minutes before kick off and then putting the screen down straight after kick off is fundamentally weird, if you’re used to going regularly. Except for me, it isn’t…
Having lived away from Sunderland for nearly six years, (after having a season ticket for a decade beforehand) I’ve gotten used to watching us on a laptop on a regular basis. Watching SAFC in the Premier League on a link that looked like it was being it was being streamed via a toaster on the moon was bizarre to start with, especially the home matches.
I was able to speak about our matches via a student radio station at Nottingham Trent with fans of other clubs, and with mates on Saturday evenings before nights out. It wasn’t the same as being in Sunderland itself though, with the mood of the fans post-match generally being the mood of the city centre. If you’ve ever watched Sunderland in a pub on holiday and been the only Sunderland fan there then it’s a very similar experience, in that you don’t want to overly celebrate if you win, but you become quietly annoyed at everyone else for not fuming when we lose and going about their day as normal. Having said that, I got used to it and being able to compartmentalise the match on a Saturday meant I would always have a little bit of home to connect with for a couple of hours a week, whether on a dodgy stream or not.
Moving to Cornwall just after University made the match day experience even more bizarre. If the North East is a fertile football hotbed (with laughably bad teams), then Cornwall is a desolate alien landscape, with people debating whether to put jam or cream first on a scone (I’m not lying, this is a genuine thing that people actually care about). Yet again though, I got used to the laptop experience and Saturday afternoons started to gain some sort of normality.
Back to Saturday then, and as I flipped open the laptop to watch us draw with MK Dons, it was so far, so normal. The overall result was obviously poor and our defending, which at the start of the season had been so solid, was all over the place. The performance allowed for slight optimism however, with an abundance of chances created later on, which on a normal day we would have scored. Whilst there was the initial fume at the result, about an hour later I started to feel slightly optimistic.
For lots of people though, the lack of a full experience of either going to the game, or going to the pub, to watch it with mates means that the bad games inevitably feel worse and people take isolated results more to heart. What I can say is that the match day experience does get better, and that whilst it doesn’t compare to going to games, the connection with our home and region is re-ignited in those ninety minutes in a way that is incomparable in this pandemic. If it is possible to build up some sort of routine around the game, then try to do it, whether it being on the phone to a relative before the match, or even walking the dog directly after the final whistle as a form of relaxation after watching League One football. Having a set routine can imitate the match day experience and help create a positive mind set around the game.
I hope that everyone is able to hang on in there and as there appears to be good news in terms of the vaccine rollout, remember that this situation will end, meaning that you WILL be able to have your match days back once more.
EVERYTHING HAS CHANGED
Waking up on Saturday morning was a fairly ordinary experience. Get up, get breakfast, have a walk, have a shower, make dinner, and then see what the football world has to chuck at me. So far, so normal. Except that that it wasn’t normal, it was a football Saturday under pandemic conditions, and that’s still a weird experience for me.
Before I get too self-indulgent, let me just say that I fully appreciate that everybody, and not just football fans, has had their social lives kicked into touch. Anyone who indulges in a group activity, from amateur dramatics, chess clubs, walking groups, and squash clubs, to those watching a band down the pub or meeting up for a coffee or a beer, has had their lives changed. Not to mention those who earn a living running the various venues that host those activities, it’s all social activity, and it’s all stopped. There are those who are happy to spend time in their own company, and I’ll admit to being one of those, but in my case it’s only for part of the time. When it comes to the football, it’s been hugely different because humans are social animals, and the real-life interaction has gone.
It’s surprising how football impinges on the various aspects of your life, especially if you’re one of those folks who “does” all the games. I’ve not been on a train since Portsmouth February last year. My last “proper” coach to an away game was Coventry on a Sunday, which meant none of the usual pre-match social stuff, and my last Sunderland game of any sort was a minibus trip to Bristol Rovers. Since then, I saw Spennymoor beat Hereford last season before spectators were banned, and Bishop Auckland in a September monsoon. That was a gap of over a hundred days for football in general, but for Sunderland it’s now been over three hundred, the longest in over half a century, since World War 2.
As someone who lives twenty-odd miles from the SoL, I’ve missed the visits to Sunderland town. My home game routine has been similar to thousands of other fans. Full English at your local café, meet your mates in the pub, get the bus to Sunderland, have a couple of beers, watch the match, dissect the performance, come home. My away day routine has been much the same, with the replacement of Sunderland with wherever we’re playing via a cocktail stop. The home game experience lasted from about nine hours, away game experiences anything up to twenty four, unless it was a weekender. You got to chat to mates about football, family, social, and work stuff, put the world to rights, and plan trips to interesting places like Rochdale and Lichfield and I’m not being ironic. You now can’t get to meet people in other towns, renew acquaintances with the staff at Tibshelf Services or in that little pub in Bristol. That’s all gone, with me not having laid eyes on those football mates for ten months, although there have been phone-calls and social media interactions, it’s just not the same. The match-day experience isn’t a match-day anymore, it’s a shade over ninety minutes and then the dubious opportunity to become familiar with Saturday evening television.
As for watching the game, flipping up a laptop or firing up the TV was a novelty at first, what with sitting in front of your own telly with a brew of your choice, easy access to snacks, and no chance of getting cold or wet. Arguing with the person next to you over the virtues or otherwise of Tom Flanagan have been replaced with social media chat with whoever will join in, and when the game is over, home or away, you turn it off and get your tea.
...and that’s the biggest difference for me. Watching it on TV makes it a bit unreal, a bit detached, a bit far away, and a lot like I’m not part of it. It’s still Sunderland, but it’s not really my Sunderland, and I just can’t get as emotionally involved in a televised game as I can one that is being played out in real life a few yards away. For me, it’s impersonal. I can’t tell the ref what I think, I can’t scream instructions to the players and think they might respond by scoring, and I can’t get as upset in defeat or as joyous in victory, simply because there’s nobody to get upset or joyous alongside, nobody to share the experience with, nobody to argue with, nobody to say “alreet, marra” to. There’s not been a celebratory round of drinks bought, not a bin kicked down the back lane in anger, and the longer it goes on the more tenuous the connection with the real thing becomes. We’ve now reached a situation where I don’t think I’d feel that bad if I missed a game.
I’m luckier than some in that I have other things that take up my time, but I’ve fitted those things, and the rest of my life, around Sunderland for so long now that it’s difficult to fill the gaps that the lack of Sunderland is currently creating. Add to that that fact that I now effectively have an extra day a week, and that my family now have to deal with having me for that extra day, and life just gets more complicated – and that I constantly worry that football is in very real danger of losing vast swathes of support, from long-term fans who simply won’t return because they’ve found something else to do, to the kids who’ve had the chance to start attending games taken away from them.
The current football situation worries the life out of me, and I don’t like it.