It’s like being married, supporting Sunderland. But right now I think I’d just like a wee trial separation. I haven’t fallen out of love with SAFC, it’s not all over bar the divorce hearing – I just want a bit of time to get me head around things and not think about football all that much. Is there a football supporters’ equivalent of marriage guidance or is it just called the close season?
Actually to be honest, when Palace got their decisive penalty in the back of the net on Monday, I initially decided I never wanted to see another football match ever again. Well not until August, at least. Oh alright then, possibly mid-June…..
But I know that feeling won’t last, which is why I think just a trial separation is the way forward (before I batter Jeff Whitley with a rolling pin).
Like your other half, Sunderland do it to us regularly along the years – give you the highest of highs followed by the lowest of lows. Supporting this team is like being on a rollercoaster that makes that git big one at Blackpool look like a toddlers’ merry-go-round. And like being married, sometimes you wonder why the hell you signed up for this grief in the first place.
They make you feel like they can and would do anything to make you happy. Play off finals one sunny day in May and scoring almost for fun (before that gut-wrenching conclusion), promotion on a record high number of points, putting four past Chelsea even before half time…..aaaah happy days.
But they’re just as capable of pushing you to the limits of your patience like an insecure partner who wants to see how much you still love them afterwards. Play off finals one sunny day in May and missing a sudden death penalty, relegation on a record low number of points, having Ipswich putting four past us even before half time……it’s like banging your head against a brick wall: lovely when it stops.
And now a playoff semi final one sunny evening in May. The Palace supporters had gotten a teensy bit ahead of themselves after the first leg and celebrated like it was all over. They arrived at the Stadium of Light on Monday with balloons, obviously ready for a celebration party, assuming it was all over before a ball had even been kicked.
And for half an hour or so, it looked a bit like they might be right. Admittedly the phrase “headless chickens” came to mind: Sunderland got dispossessed far too easily, gave the ball away cheaply, and generally didn’t look like they had a plan. They certainly didn’t look like the first division team who turned Birmingham City over so well in our recent FA Cup run and who looked like they could handle the big occasion. At one point Thornton even got the ball and looked like he simply panicked. Passes went all over the place and you wondered how bad things were going to get.
Then out of nowhere a goal – Kyler. And almost straight away, you could practically see the belief dawn on the Lads that it was still worth going for, they could still do it – and they did it again. From a goal down on aggregate and playing cluelessly, to evens and then a goal up on aggregate and looking good. The home supporters were doing their best too – even while the Lads were in that initial clueless period, the singing was incessant, loud and proud, getting behind the players – once we’d scored it got louder still. Even for a while during half time the singing carried on. I’d defy anyone who was in the Stadium last night to say that they didn’t want half time to arrive when it did.
Second half came, the singing carried on, absolutely top atmosphere. Julian Gray was sent off, and it looked like Palace’s plan was unravelling. Just for a change, it was nice to see the oppo’s plans go out of the window – not ours. I’m sure I must have looked at the scoreboard clock every minute or so for the last half an hour, willing the Lads to just hold on and not do anything daft, singing and urging them on till I was hoarse, and until 91 minutes it looked like our night. It was like being at a brilliant party with 35,000 other people and it was bloody marvellous.
Then confusion, a foul, and a goal to them: all square. From a million miles high, back down to earth with a bump. The push on Poomy was atrocious – how the ref missed it beggars belief. Half an hour of extra time and the Lads couldn’t break down Palace’s ten men. We had more possession than Palace did, and we pushed forward more than they did, we just couldn’t make it count and finish them off – Sunderland looked too tired. Both sets of supporters knew it too – Sunderland supporters seemed too drained and nervous to sing as much as before, Palace supporters chirped up because they knew they had a chance to nick it.
Pennas. Bugger. At least if I was watching this at home I could go and put the kettle on, then watch from through the kitchen hatch, kid myself I wasn’t nervous, kid myself it didn’t matter, and get into a position where I didn’t have to watch. I’ve heard people talk about going weak at the knees in moments of extreme pressure and when the pennas went to the sudden death stage, it happened to me for the first time ever. Breen scores to take it to 4-4 and Poom stops Derry’s shot – we’re still in it….. McAteer’s shot was saved, but Poom stops Routledge’s – still something to play for, come on we can still do it……then Jeff Whitley tried to be clever, Michael Hughes didn’t, and that was that.
Five of us had made the 300 mile journey together from daaaahn saaaaath for the match, all looking forward to it, arriving at the turnstiles literally as Dance of the Knights started playing, Then five of us made the 300 mile journey back down the M1 afterwards, pretty much in silence – although I’m not sure if it was through sheer exhaustion or just not wanting to talk about it. I remembered a song on a Squeeze album I’ve got at home, that seemed appropriate: “Slaughtered, Gutted and Heartbroken”. I wanted to nod off to sleep on the way back so I could stop being depressed about it, and get my head around it in the morning. Then I woke up this morning and still didn’t want to think about it.
I remember how numb and empty I felt after the Lads lost the Milk Cup Final in 85 then the FA Cup final in 92. I was at the playoff final in 1990 and went home devastated. I couldn’t make the 1998 final at Wembley and watched the pennas literally from behind a cushion and was devastated again afterwards – no Swindon-style irregularities to save us. And I felt exactly the same last night – it doesn’t get any easier over time. No 25 second appearances on MoTD to look forward to next season, no games against your Chelseas and Arsenals, no Wear-Tyne derby. Just 25-second appearances on Soccer Sunday, ‘Football League Review’ in the wee small hours, more games against your Crewe Alexandras and Burnleys, and the vague possibility of a Sunderland-Monkey Hangers derby. Oh, and a trip to Elland Road. Ho hum.
I couldn’t divorce Sunderland. Still love them too much even after everything. But I couldn’t be unfaithful and support another team if I tried, I’d be such a rubbish football adulterer. I’d still find meself sneaking a look at the first division results on a Saturday to see how they got on, find myself looking at Sunderland websites, reading the match reports in the papers and more than likely still end up posting on RTG. I’d still think what a bloody fine stadium the SoL is when we drive past it when I’m back up north and still get butterflies whenever I hear Dance of the Knights. That’s what you get with being born in a footy-mad area, you can’t shake off your natural allegiance easily. You can take the girl out of Sunderland…….
I suppose you have to get through a few horrible low points to appreciate the highs when they come, and enjoy those highs when they come because there’ll be just as many low points to balance them out. So eventually I’ll get round to watching the recording of last night’s match, see it all from a different angle. Might even get round to flicking through the match programme and copy of ALS that I bought, and possibly even the London Evening Standard that I bought this afternoon (I’m a masochist, I know).
And the day the fixture list comes out, they’ll all be in my diary, work scheduler and calendar at home within about an hour, and I’ll have my annual leave until next May all worked out around trips back to the north-east and corresponding home matches. I’ll still sit there working out which other games I can get to inbetweentimes and mull over getting that postal subscription to the Football EchoI know there’ll be more low points like yesterday but there’ll always be the hope of high points, better form and hopefully promotion.
So here’s to the lads emulating what happened a few years ago: using the disappointment of losing out in playoffs to help them storm the league next time around and going up automatically. Roll on August, eh?