Over the last few years, it has been a tough time supporting Sunderland on the road, with wins few and far between and I’ve had the pleasure and pain of attending the vast majority of them. From a surprisingly great day (apart from the football, of course!) at Southampton when we were battered 8-0 to happier times such as when we beat the Mags at St James’ and of course the two infamous victories at Old Trafford in our bright yellow shirts under Gus Poyet in 2014. However, one of my favourite away days has to be Burton Albion away in an astoundingly poor Championship season in 2017; the reason why I loved this match so much was the fact that it gave us a glimmer of hope when it was looking certain we were heading for a double relegation, which of course happened anyway, but back in November it seemed like we had accepted it already after a disastrous run under Simon Grayson.
Chris Coleman had been appointed less than a week earlier but had already suffered at the hands of Aston Villa in a midweek clash, but that Saturday in the pouring rain in the East Midlands signalled what everyone there hoped so desperately to be a turning point. The game fell on the weekend of one of my best mates’ birthday, so we thought we’d stay over in nearby Nottingham at a hotel we used regularly and just make the short 30 minute journey over to the Pirelli Stadium on the day.
Before the game we ventured up to the Beech Inn where most of the travelling fans had gathered, we arrived shortly after most branch buses so there was no chance of getting inside so it was the beer garden and a marquee covering us from the rain. The pub and beer garden were packed out by the time the early kick off started at half twelve, and the atmosphere there was hopeful that the former Wales boss could turn around our misfortunes. We were sat outside in a beer tent watching Barnsley v Leeds, with some Burton fans who we were sharing a table with, all of whom reckoned we would hammer them, although most of our lot were a bit sceptical yet optimistic at the same time.
The Pirelli Stadium is, I must admit, a favourite away ground of mine, even though I’ve only been there twice, I think it’s the small, closed layout of the stadium which just gives it that bit better of an atmosphere, this matched with fact it is one of the few grounds which has a proper standing terrace, despite it being just a decade old at the time. There’s certainly a small fry feel there, and it was very much designed for small away followings and the lower leagues, which the Brewers had been in until back to back promotions under Nigel Clough.
The ground was tiny and crammed, plus the bar was completely out of bounds by the time we’d managed to get through the turnstiles, we took our places near the front of the standing end behind the goal. The first half was uneventful, although Bywater somehow managed to keep Lewis Grabban’s header out with a world class save and Aiden McGeady had tried to do everything himself, as usual! And found little success, however we nearly went one down just before the break when Marvin Sordell (a bit of a blast from the past there!) shaved the post right in front of us. Whatever Coleman said to our lads at half time must’ve worked as we came back out fighting and playing decent football, McGeady did come close early on with a long-driven shot towards the top corner but it sailed over the bar,
The moment when the game really changed was around 15 minutes from time, James Vaughan was brought on for McGeady who had tired by then and then shortly after the youngster and fairly unknown striker/winger Joel Asoro replaced McManaman. It was soon after the substitutions when Bryan Ovideo’s in swinging corner was flicked on by Cattermole and James Vaughan arrived at the back post with a diving header to give us the lead with less than ten minutes left on the clock, bagging him his second and final goal in his poor and short stint on Wearside. Then as we geared up to play out the three points, Asoro weaved in and out of the defence to get to the by-line where he smashed it across the face of Bywater’s goal for academy graduate George Honeyman to smash into the roof of the net right in front of us.
There wasn’t just a feel of ecstasy in the 1700 away supporters but a feeling of relief and a glimmer of hope which we had all hoped for pre match; the Sunderland faithful were at full volume when the referee blew his full time whistle and it was one of the best atmospheres that I’d seen for a long time. Coleman came over to our fans, looking like a drowned rat in the lashing rain but he was what we needed at the time, he cared about the club more than we’d seen from any of our previous two gaffers, it was obvious that the win meant as much to him as it did to us on the terraces. Not only was it a great weekend but it was a much needed win on the road which we had lacked for so long, nearly two years of pain and misery with an appalling start to the Championship campaign on the back of a more than uninspiring spell under David Moyes in the Premier League.
The win had taken us from the foot of the table up to 22nd place, leapfrogging Burton and fellow strugglers Bolton Wanderers, although it left us two points short of safety and Birmingham, who at the time were in a spot of financial difficulty. The long walk in the light drizzle back to the station wasn’t a problem as we were all still celebrating the start of the Coleman era, and what we then hoped to be the first of many points on our travels. There were few pubs in the town centre in Burton, so we headed to Sainsbury’s for some refreshments on the train back to Nottingham as well as a quick pit stop in a local chippy, whose curry sauce was absolutely divine! The weekend was fantastic, ended by a few drinks around Nottingham and my mate’s birthday was topped off with a rare Sunderland win, that season.