No I do not want another relegation battle to make things interesting. No, I do not want us to employ Joey Barton or any other recovering criminal just to annoy Newcastle United. And no, I do not measure the strength of my passion for Sunderland AFC by whether we are likely to challenge for a place in European competition.
For those reasons and more, I found no common ground with Bill Taylor’s article at Salut! Sunderland whose declining enthusiasm for our club means he will revert to looking out for our results, maybe catching us on TV in Canada but not really giving a hoot from one week to the next.
Being an exile affects people in different ways. Some never truly leave their place of origin, at least not in their hearts, while others thank their lucky stars they got away and would no sooner go back permanently than jump out of a 40th floor window.
Bill has been away from the North East a little longer than my own 38 years, and his life has been spent on the other side of the Atlantic. I know of many Sunderland supporters whose commitment to SAFC has, if anything, grown with such an upheaval. But it does not greatly surprise me that Bill, a man with many time-consuming pursuits, should have blown hot and cold with his.
People leave home territory for reasons of work, education, love, adventure and, in rarer cases (imprisonment springs to mind as an example), compulsion. I moved south in, of all years, 1973; my French wife was never going to settle in provincial England and growing up in small-town County Durham had not made me resistant to the idea of change.
Since then, I have lived in London, Bristol (hardly less provincial, I know), London again, Paris, the south of France, Abu Dhabi and – as of now – a combination of London and the south of France. There have been spells of less intense active support but I have never thought of myself as anything other than a passionate fan of Sunderland, even when work, geography or family obligations have made getting to matches tricky.
The ups and numerous downs have not affected this attachment. I developed a highly skilled ability to manipulate work and domestic arrangements to make it possible to get a dose of live action and, when attendance was impossible, went through the familiar hoops to keep in touch on matchday. Days and nights have been made or ruined by the news filtering through to me by whatever means. The occasional sense of great elation makes all those gloomy sulks seem worthwhile, but even without them my support would never have wavered.
For the first time since boyhood, I took a season ticket – actually a share of one in a scheme operated by the SAFC Supporters’ Association branch for London and Southern England – when we first went up under Peter Reid. I had seen games in the season he joined, when a return to the third tier was a serious threat, and during the promotion season but, in the Premier, Roker Park had a reduced capacity and I needed to be sure.
Instant relegation, and a new friendship with someone whose powers of ticket acquisition were legendary (take a bow, Mr Barry Emmerson) meant there was no need in the next season. But I have had my own season ticket, whether living in London, France or the Middle East, from the second season at the Stadium of Light onwards and, despite my inability to use it for more than a fraction of games, will go on renewing it as long as I am financially able to do so. It is where I want to be in the ground, with the people I wish to see football alongside, and it is a sort of insurance policy. I don’t smoke or have an expensive hobby, so feel able to consider the outlay reasonable.
But the point is that even if could not afford it, and the declining earning power of advancing years make that a distinct possibility, it would not change what I am: a devoted Sunderland supporter for whom the club is an essential part of life.
Paul, a colleague from years ago, lived and breathed Villa. Then, out of the blue, he decided enough was enough. He would not allow another weekend to be wrecked by the misery inflicted by a bad result, of which there had been many. He simply stopped caring.
In some ways I envied him. What a relief no longer to have to fret about the next game or the last one. But I envy Tom Lynn (see his comment on Bill’s piece) and Salut! Sunderland’s Pete Sixsmith a lot more; heaven for me would still involve lots of long-distance travel and spending large chunks of my life in France, but only if fitted around attendance at every league and cup game, too.
I’ve done the long midweek treks to hellhole grounds, I’ve stood drenched in the rain or freezing in the cold as we have failed to compete against beatable opposition and I’ve suffered all those relegations and repeated Wembley failures. And I have savoured the ecstasy of promotion, survival and unexpected one-off achievement.
However it got there, which would require another longish posting and has been covered before, it is in the blood and there to stay. In other words I could not begin to understand Paul’s attitude and, though able to understand it because I know the man better, could never adopt Bill’s. Keeping the Faith, through thick and thin and even boring, is not optional but obligatory.