I never thought I’d feel more comfort in a cage than in my home. It’s been weeks since we were told to stay indoors, creeping into months. And what a blur it’s been in here, on my sofa, doing some things or none. Blur like blurring into one, like days spent working while the summer sun beats on the window, reminding you of fun.
And the pleasures we looked forward to have faded, cos we find we’re either deprived or oversaturated, and get frustrated they no longer live up to standards we created. Leisure’s relative to how you’ve laboured, and I hate it.
The people and the things that used to help us dial it in when we were frightened or unhinged are out of stock, shut-up shop, or self-isolating. I’m banging on the wall of a cage and the only comfort is the way the metal rings.
I remember football. I remember when we used to come together in our thousands and think only about the present. I remember swaying in seas of strangers and getting lost in the current. Singing, screaming wide-eyed into the cold air, wild lies about being by far the greatest team, when the things the world has seen would surely make it look elsewhere. I remember Sunderland.
Early mornings doing things I needed to, the afternoon wasted on you, Sunderland. Planning my evening around whether or not I’d be seething ‘cos of you, Sunderland. Time running over ‘cos I’d never arrive sober to see you, Sunderland.
Roker or Monkwearmouth. Or on the road; on the train or on the coach. Grounds I’d never known, all these clubs with each their own history, lower league and Premier. It’s not them I miss, necessarily, it’s the people standing with me, and the Lads we turn up to see.
I remember climbing up the steps at Old Trafford, humbled by the challenge that would proceed. Protect a 2-1 lead in the Theatre of Dreams, go to Wembley. And the scenes that unfolded, like nothing I’d ever seen.
BANG BANG BANG the cage rings
BANG BANG BANG the crowd sings
Gus Poyet’s Red and White Army
I stood three rows from the back, and the noise it made when a bloke would whack the flesh of his fist, like a metronome clicks side-to-side, off the wall in time with the chants, still stands out in my mind. Never heard anything quite like it in my life.
And it willed them on, like the beat of a drum keeps things in place, they kept their heads. Faced the uphill challenge when United scored, away goal from a fortnight before ruling they’d go through. Cruel rules ruin cup ties, fools rue when the game’s through and they lose. Moysey’s Boys tried to make us quit, but The Gus Bus showed grit and refused.
BANG BANG BANG
We kept knocking on the door. Putting pressure on whenever we could get hold of the ball. Even Altidore was getting in on it, however small his contribution, it all added to the cause. Then Bardsley scored.
And the limbs that flailed in Manchester that evening permanently put a dint in my shin that still stings when I catch it on things. Didn’t feel it at the time though, unsurprisingly.
When I got back to my feet, wiped the tears from my eyes, and found my seat, I realised they’d equalised. Penalties.
We stood and watched, in shock and disbelief, wondering how we plucked defeat from victory. But it was clear to me: Sunderland doesn’t win things like these.
And in the awkward silence, filled with fidgeting and signs of unease, they started lining up next to the centre circle, one by one waiting to be judged, scrutinised and teased.
BANG BANG BANG
A delirium of noise; the type where you can’t even hear your voice. The type that swells into a haze you feel inside your ears for days. And everywhere you look is glossy and crazed, manic faces with their teeth bared, spinning between gradients and shapes. It felt like floating away.
BANG BANG BANG
And I left the same way I came in, those humbling stairs. Anyone part of the 9,000 there will tell you, the noise of the cage that surrounded the 5,000 stairs was unbearable, not that anyone cared. We punched and kicked and banged that cage, scraped our knuckles raw, left our welted skin hanging from a grate in Stretford, Greater Manchester.
Yet here I sit now, in my home, on my own, and it feels like the walls are closing in. And I’m banging on them, but they make no sound, nothing like what that cage did.
I’ve never felt more comfort than when locked inside a cage with thousands of men and women, singing, banging on the metal wall like animals. I can still hear the way it rings.