Plymouth at home last August. Lots of our fans had gone along with Niall Quinn’s desire to make it a day for the Wearing of the Green. By the end of the game, though, we’d lost 3-2 and were bottom. The only happy faces among green-clad spectators belonged to Argyle’s small travelling support.
And on the Metro, one Sunderland fan – an overseas exile like me, back for one game – could hardly contain his fury. “All this f****** Irish sh**e,” he said. “I don’t go along with it. We’re an English club”
Maybe, he was one of the far-right “no surrender” boys. Or maybe it was just the disappointment of defeat talking. But what, I have often wondered since, did he make of the incredible route our season later took as the Irish links became ever stronger?
Come to that, what do the rest of us make of the influx of Irish fans? Why are they with us – is it Sunderland for good, or only for as long as we hang on to Keano? They’re having their own debates about these questions on the other side of the Irish Sea.
An ALS colleague comes back from a visit to Cork with news of every sports shop window displaying red and white tops. Niall starts to talk as if Sunderland are Ireland ‘s official representatives in England . And even at the mundane level of freelance journalist, I quickly find a radio station (BBC Radio Ulster) and a newspaper (Irish Mail on Sunday) to take my thoughts on the Quinn/Keane/Drumaville revolution from a fan’s eve view.
Among the Irish fans themselves, opinion differs sharply. Some admit their support for us is due to Keane’s presence, a number resent Irish money being pumped into English football and others vow to keep the new-found faith come what may.
On the Irish football blog, http://www.eleven-a-side.com/blogs/, I came across one reply saying: “As a Keano worshiper, my allegiance to Sunderland would end swifly enough if he moved on.”
Strangely enough, that didn’t bother me too much. One individual, however inspirational, who isn’t even a player any longer, seems a sad reason for supporting a football club, no matter which one. But I know Ireland well enough to be aware of the culture of having two or more teams to follow.
The response that worried me more was this one, answering points made by a couple of our new friends: “Keep your barstools warm and don’t forget Manchester and Sunderland are in England . I’d love to see either of these “fans” walk about in a Green shirt after dark in those towns where the so called fans are.”
There is an obvious reply, that for every drunken or psychopathic dimwit in Sunderland who would see an Irish top as justification for committing GBH on its wearer, there is probably another in Belfast or Derry, Dublin or Limerick who would want to hammer a Mackem for being too loud or too English. But in either case, we are talking about a tiny if vicious minority.
Most Irish supporters now coming to Sunderland seem to get a great deal from the experience, and from meeting our fans, just as English people are mostly welcomed in their country.
For reassurance that our new corners of support in Ireland are actually just building on what was already there, I need only look back over many years to countless encounters with Irishmen, north and south, with a real fondness for SAFC.
There was the Protestant taxi driver in Belfast who surprised me by listing Sunderland as his third team, after Linfield and Rangers, because he had been such a fan of Charlie Hurley (which seemed odd at the time, since Charlie was a southern Irish Catholic and neither Ibrox nor Windsor Park are great places for bridge-building between Orange and Green).
And I will never forget seeing a small boy kicking a ball around a grim estate in Portadown, wearing not just a Sunderland top, but a brand new away top and right at the stat of a new season.
Thinking back, there are others I have met (pre-Keane) in Cork, in Dublin and beyond. The Irish folk singer Christy Moore, a household name and national institution, told me years ago that he, too, loved Sunderland – though he added that he’d never support us against his first English footballing love, Leeds. Perhaps recent events at Elland Road will inspire him to a new song…
Bandwagon though the present surge in Irish support may represent, we can be sure of one thing. Even among those without the remotest link with Sunderland, or the North East in general, there are some – maybe even among the only-for-Keano brigade – who will become so hooked by the peculiar breed of passion, commitment and loyalty that they will stick with us for good.