It’s been an unusual festive period to say the least. But while family gatherings and traditions may have been scuppered somewhat over the 2020 festive period, one of the biggest differences has been the lack of a football fix for Sunderland fans.
It goes without saying that once you have over-indulged in food, drink and prolonged naps that this time of the year often reverberates around the football with multiple fixtures to take in. But this year has been a little different for Sunderland after the positive Covid-19 outbreak amongst the squad forced four games to be postponed, meaning the club’s final game of the year was played on December 15.
While many pundits and mangers complain about the heavy Christmas scheduling year-upon-year, for fans it is a time to see their team really generate some momentum or afford a quick turnaround to overcome a loss.
The New Year’s Day fixture, in particular, is a notable one for the diary as the resolutions of ‘out with the bad, in with the good’ very much apply in football as you say goodbye to the previous year’s trials and tribulations.
For me, the New Year’s Day fixture throws in an added incentive in the sense that it is also my birthday. But as we all know when it comes to Sunderland, things are rarely sunshine and rainbows over the Christmas and New Year period and that was very much the case on the first day of 2005.
A Boxing Day defeat the week previous at the Stadium of Light against Leeds United was rectified two days later at the City Ground where Marcus Stewart’s last gasp winner at Nottingham Forest moved Mick McCarthy’s men into the automatic promotion places in the Championship incredibly for the first time since being relegated in 2003.
After the embarrassing relegation from the Premier League where just 19 points were amassed and a Play-Off semi-final shootout heartbreak to Crystal Palace the following season, things were finally starting to look up for Sunderland heading into 2005 and their quest to get back into the top flight.
At the stroke of midnight I became a teenager and while the grown-ups continued to do what grown-ups do on New Year’s Eve, I was besotted with excitement for just my second ever away game following the lads – the first a 3-0 defeat at Maine Road where coincidentally I and three others were the only ones in Red and White to score that day as my sweetly struck spot kick ensured we won the half-time penalty shootout… not that I like to boast about it.
A trip to Lancashire and Deepdale was what awaited on New Year’s morning. The weather was probably akin to the hangover my Dad was suffering from but nevertheless we journeyed on along with 4,000 others. Back then I used to get goosebumps seeing other Sunderland fans at away games. It really felt like an army were invading a town I’d never been to before and taking over – there’s still an element of that rings true today. A pub was found, singing was sung and I wore my newly unwrapped birthday present with pride. We met up with some of our Stadium of Light matchday crew and marched on towards the ground – the grown-ups doing grown-up things with hip flasks while I scoured every nook and cranny in between houses in search for Deepdale.
More and more red and white shirts congregated suggesting we were on the right track and after what seemed like an eternal walk I suddenly caught a glimpse of the high stanchioned floodlights peeking over the outhouse of someone’s home and my excitement increased tenfold.
There was hustle and bustle at the turnstile. Stale drink and merriment aplenty as an endless line of Sunderland fans littered the streets adjacent to the ground queuing to get in. Choruses of chanting could be heard emanating from what seemed like corrugated tin foil of a stand: “This is nothing compared to the Stadium of Light,” I thought.
Inside there wasn’t much room to manoeuvre but that didn’t matter, because this was Sunderland away and I was loving it. While my Dad sought out the beer queue I was restless. I wanted to find our seat and catch a glimpse of the grass, the new surroundings and our lads in red and white.
Eventually, we clambered up to our seats high at the back of the Bill Shankly Kop. The music over the tannoy increased as the players disappeared down the tunnel. The empty spaces around us soon were filled as the singing broke out once more. This is what it’s all about I thought.
Yet even then, Sunderland had a habit of raining on your parade heavier than what was falling over Deepdale that New Year’s Day.
After 13 minutes Richard Cresswell gave Preston the lead right in front of us. Inside half an hour he scored again and on the stroke of half time, just as I was wandering down the stairs to grab some food, he completed his hat-trick. Half time, 3-0 down. Happy New Year and happy birthday.
I’d still not seen Sunderland score away from home in my game and a half so far. The noise of a home crowd celebrating intimidated me. I was gutted. I’d been looking forward to today for so long and this was my thanks. Typical. Of course, to those of an older age in the away end that day this was nothing new. Instead, it was a case of ‘welcome to Sunderland away games.’
The rain continued to belt down in the second half where Sean Thornton and his bleached blonde hair had been brought on along with debutant Andy Welsh but it looked like we would just limp to a 3-0 defeat.
Then, out of nothing, Stephen Elliott curled brilliantly past Andy Lonergan with little over 15 minutes to go to at least give me a taste of what scoring away from home felt like. The celebrations may have been somewhat muted by most, but I was delighted. One quickly became two as Thornton added another with nine minutes to go and all of a sudden an unlikely comeback was on. There was a bit more pandemonium this time and from there on every Sunderland tackle and advancement was met with a surging roar as we tried our mightiest to suck the ball in for an equaliser. As stoppage time hit, Thornton raced over to take a corner in front of us. This was it, last chance. In it came and there was Steve Caldwell. He look destined to score as he headed at goal but his effort went the wrong side of the bar to leave 4,000 hands on heads. Bugger.
It wasn’t to be for me and my second away day venture 16 years ago, but the 2004-05 season didn’t turn out quite badly in the end, so I’ll forgive them that day.