Updated: Jul 13
On Saturday 21st May 2022, I made history by securing promotion to the Championship for my football team, Sunderland AFC. That’s right, you read that correctly: it was me. I did it. I got Sunderland out of League 1, finally, at the fourth time of asking. It was all me. You’re welcome.
Now, public opinion – influenced by the national media and, not to mention, 45,000 watching Sunderland fans in Wembley Stadium – will have you believe that it was Alex Neil’s tactical nous which won the day. You may even have read in the tabloids that Elliot Embleton’s thunderbolt of a shot, and a deft finish late in the game from the Loch Ness Drogba, had something to do with our success. Not true. The contributions of the team and coaching staff are mere incidental details, and pale in significance in comparison to my own pivotal role on that fateful day. It was me, a 54 year-old bloke from Sunderland, way past his prime and long since exiled to the South of England, who dragged the team into the promised land of the second tier of English football. And to think, all I had to do was not wear one of those cursed shirts I keep in the bottom drawer of the wardrobe in my bedroom. Again, my fellow Sunderland supporters: you’re welcome. Let me explain.
Before I get into how I rose to the occasion in the Play-Off Final and did my team and hometown proud, an apology. For every yang there is a yin. For every ray of sunshine in the world, somewhere, on the other side of the globe, you’ll find a raincloud emptying its coffers on to some poor undeserving soul. I own that raincloud. It is mine. Or, at least, I held the leasehold on that cloud from May 1973 to circa March 2021. I didn’t want it, but I couldn’t shift it. Indeed, until I sat down and thought it through, I didn’t even realise that the cloud had my name on it – but it did. Because, as Sunderland stumbled from one Wembley disappointment to another during that 48 year period, leaving a long and tearstained road of broken hearts in their trail, I played an unwitting part in that seemingly never ending sequence of misery – and for this, I will be eternally sorry.
You see, I attended Wembley on each of Sunderland’s seven final day defeats in that timeframe, from 1985’s League Cup Final loss to Norwich, to 2019’s last gasp collapse to Charlton Athletic in the League 1 Play-Off Final, wearing a selection of different (but all equally cursed) replica shirts. As the team laboured and toiled and failed to deliver on those occasions, I sat in that great stadium, head in hands, totally unaware that my very presence was to blame. Blissfully oblivious to the fact that, for example, in 1992’s shattering FA Cup defeat to Liverpool, my swanky white away shirt (with lovely green and blue shoulder embellishments) was sucking the dear life from my team on the pitch. How could I have sat there, hoping that the Lads’ striker John Byrne would add his name to that roll call of elite players who had scored in every round of the cup, whilst single-handedly stopping the team in its tracks by virtue of wearing that unlucky garment? It seems ridiculous (outrageous, OUTRAGEOUS!) to me, now, in the cold light of day, that it never dawned on me way back then that I was the unluckiest man in the Western hemisphere – and that I should probably keep away from Wembley, and let my team throw off their shackles and flourish.
Instead, I kept on going – each time wearing a different shirt, in the hope of finding that “lucky winning combination”, and, each time, returning home with a heavy heart and a bit of grit in my eye (back then, real men hadn’t yet found emotion, and certainly didn’t cry about football – oh no).
And so it continued, this anti-Midas touch syndrome, as, every time I forced myself through Wembley’s turnstiles, I destroyed any chance my team had of winning. Me, me, ME! It had to be me and those shirts. Had to be. 1990, the Play-Off defeat to Swindon – all down to me, I now concede. Yes, in that game, Alan McLoughlin’s hopeful shot for the Wiltshire outfit took a wicked deflection off one of Sunderland’s greatest servants, Gary Bennett, on its way into our net – but it was the sheer scale of my unlucky aura that day which had us done for. I swear that the ball rebounded off Benno, pinged off my aura and changed direction a second time, and gave poor Tony Norman no chance in the Sunderland goal. The aura belonging to me and my lovely red and white home shirt – the one with the fancy chevrons on the shoulders.
1998, Play-Offs again, and Micky Gray’s infamous penalty miss – don’t blame Micky. It was me and the replica home shirt I was wearing who were at fault (the shirt with the uncomfortable white collar, emblazoned with the Lambton’s logo).
2014, League Cup heartbreak defeat to Manchester City – me. 2019, EFL Trophy defeat to Portsmouth in a penalty shoot-out, and a Play-Off misfire against Charlton – a bumper season of bad luck brought on by two differing hexed replica shirts. Can I make a personal apology to Lee Cattermole at this point in proceedings?:
“Sorry, Catts. Your Final spot-kick was fine. You hit the ball hard and true. But just at the point of contact with the ball, the bad luck vibes floated from my seat in the stands to the laces on your boot, and the football flew helplessly into the path of the diving keeper. Sorry, mate.”
So, you’re probably wondering how I came to my senses and realised that the cause of Sunderland’s Wembley woes over a sustained period of time was, in fact, yours truly. Well, quite simply, it was down to eliminating all other suspects. The team changed continuously during those years of woe from 1985 – 2019, as did the management, so I could hardly point the finger at the Lads or the Gaffer(s). The only constant, the common denominator of heartbreak as it were, was me. My suspicions, of course, were then confirmed when, in 2021, Sunderland were victorious in the EFL Trophy Final against Tranmere Rovers, in a pandemic-enforced empty Wembley Stadium. Of course they had won that day, I whispered to myself post-match, because I wasn’t there (in a cursed shirt) to kibosh their success. Ashen-faced when armed with this undeniable truth, I vowed (somewhat quietly to myself) never to attend Wembley again in Sunderland colours. It was the very least I could do for the team I loved.
And so to this season’s fabulous climax. As the Lads made it to the Wembley final, and the tickets went on sale, I was faced with something of a personal dilemma: stay true to my own (secret, quiet) word and keep away from football’s sacred home, or change things around and try to attend without, somehow, bringing my team crashing to its knees. Should I stay or should I go? In a moment of pure selfishness and a leave of senses, I threw caution to the wind and bought a ticket (online). Even as I saw the words “transaction complete” flash on my computer screen, my breath started to quicken and my heart to grow heavier. Oh Lord – what had I just done?
“It’s the shirts, it’s the bleedin’ shirts!” I consoled myself (more in hope, than certain belief). “It’s not me; the bad luck is in the fabric of the shirts!” (At this point, I was even willing to believe that the 1998 Play-Off shirt, in particular, was probably one of Lord Voldemort’s Horcruxes - a little nod to the Harry Potter fans amongst us, there).
And so it came to pass on the day of the recent final, that I resolved to attend Wembley in civilian attire. That was my compromise; I could go, but no colours. No retro shirt, no current shirt, no red, no white, no bunting, no nothing. Just a casual jacket befitting a gentleman of my age, on a normal (happy go LUCKY) day out. As my wife drove me to the railway station at the start of my journey, she asked, “Not wearing one of your football shirts, today?” I shook my head. “I can’t,” I answered. “But it’s a Wembley final,” she added. I looked down at my shoes. “I daren’t, I just daren’t.”
The rest is, as they say, history. Embo, Loch Ness Drogba, the Gaffer, the Lads, the victory, the Play-Off trophy, the red and white ticker tape, the dancing on the pitch. And the shedding of personal tears as the weight of all those shirts (each with its own tale of heartbreak) was lifted from me. Finally, I had given my team a fighting chance by consigning those shirts to the past (well, to the drawer in the wardrobe in my bedroom, to be precise (see above)). In fact, more than a fighting chance. I had come, I had seen, I had purposely left all my Sunderland shirts at home, and I had conquered. I had won the day, and I had given the victory to my beloved Sunderland and its army of fans. Oh yes. You’re very welcome.