NB: what follows is a light-hearted read on what is otherwise a grim day for football. Salut! Sunderland declares its sympathy for all those killed in or bereaved by the Colombian air crash, whose victims include players and officials of the Brazilian top flight club ACF, or Associação Chapecoense de Futebol. As a Manchester Utd supporter, our guest writer will be well aware of his own club’s association with aviation disaster.
There are train spotters, bird twitchers and philatelists. And then there’s the Club of 72, whose members collect football stadiums, not to dismantle and take home but to visit. As Shaun Best – already familiar with the 72 Football League grounds – prepared to tick Sunderland off his to-do list, he was wondering who would be the manager by the time got there. We were winless and seemingly broken beyond repair. Then a funny thing happened: we won a game. Let Shaun take up the story of his newest collector’s item, the Stadium of Light …
The only way is up. Well, that’s what they say when you hit rock bottom. Sunderland were propping up the Premier League table and David Moyes’s tenure was on borrowed time.
As I booked the train tickets for a trip up to the North East, I summised that the Scot would be dismissed during the international break.
After all, with a 700-mile round trip to AFC Bournemouth, the smart money – including my own – was on a comfortable victory for the home side.
Come 4:45pm, my accumulator may have been ruined, but the 10 men of Sunderland had defied the odds and registered a victory. Taking inspiration from the Black Cats, their next opponents Hull City also turned the form book upside down with victory against Southampton.
By the time I rocked up on Wearside, I’d still be seeing something of a relegation battle at the Stadium of Light, albeit one with a bit more spice.
The Price of Football report has stirred up many differing opinions up and down the country. Sunderland operate a three-tier pricing structure. As an adult, you can expect to pay between £25 and £32 for a generally good seat. Personally, I think that is a fair price for the top tier. My ticket cost £28 and I was five rows up from the side of the corner flag.
Being a non-driver, I was faced with a four-hour train journey from the North West.
There is no punishment severe enough for train passengers who act surprised when you tell them they’re in your seat. Not reserving a seat when booking tickets is a rookie mistake I’ve never made.
Liquid refreshment was sought in Newcastle with a fellow groundhopper who was off to do a spot of non-league groundhopping. There’s certainly no shortage of watering holes in the North East, particularly close to the train and Metro stations.
Once on the Metro, a disgruntled fan yelled out “dirty f****** Mackems” as he alighted at Gateshead. I wasn’t sure whether his gripe was with Sunderland or whether he was acting out because he was going to watch Gateshead.
Being squashed like a sardine meant that I didn’t exactly enjoy the arduous Metro journey. It made me realise that Newcastle and Sunderland weren’t as close as I actually thought.
By comparison, the distance is probably similar from my home in Chester to Tranmere Rovers in Birkenhead.
Joining a long line of walkers, I made the pilgrimage to the Stadium of Light from the nearby city centre. Having everything pretty central ticks a proverbial box for me.
By the time I reached the ground it wasn’t long before kick-off, but the closeness in proximity still gave me ample time to buy a programme, look around the fanzone and get a couple of photos of the ground.
A health kick meant that I bypassed the several hundred food vendors in the vicinity of the stadium, although I haven’t been able to shift the jingle from the mobile sweet shop from my mind. “Bottles of pop £1, sweets £1, everything’s £1,” (including diabetes). I digress.
Despite being almost 20 years old, the Stadium of Light remains in tip top condition and still has that new stadium feel to it. Stickers of support from Rotterdam all the way to Sierra Leone adorned the walls, plus the crowd were in healthy spirits, more so with the addition of the “happy clappers” in honour of former Irish defender Charlie Hurley.
The clappers are a bit of a marmite topic in football, following Leicester City becoming advocates last season. Personally, I don’t mind them and they don’t detract from my enjoyment of the match. I was within perfect earshot of a vociferous away support who’d taken up a good chunk of their top tier overlooking the goal.
It didn’t take them long to air their gripes against the current regime. The “we want Alam out” chants were a regular occurrence throughout the afternoon.
As an outsider, some of the Sunderland lineup looked a bit mishmash, especially the defence. I was surprised to see John O’Shea start on the bench.
On the flip side, I’m a huge advocate of Jordan Pickford, having seen some of his loan performances at Bradford City and Preston North End. His first-minute stop from Dieumerci Mbokani reinforced my belief that the young shotstopper’s future is bright, especially since Moyes has placed his faith in him and is giving him a run in the side.
Aside from the stonewall penalty appeal from Duncan Watmore going over the keeper, Hull certainly looked to be the better team in the early going. They just lacked that killer instinct.
The game needed a moment of magic, which Jermain Defoe provided. I have no doubt that had he kept his England post, Sam Allardyce would have restored Defoe to the national team set-up. Defoe’s goals could well be the difference of whether Sunderland stay up or go down.
It was quite ironic that the lights should go out at the Stadium of Light. Seeing everyone set their phones to flashlight was quite the spectacle. Once the lights came on again, it was the home side who continued to dazzle.
Moyes deserves more credit for finally getting the best out of Victor Anichebe. Before today, I saw the forward as a large unit that unsettled defences, but did little else. I certainly didn’t have him pegged as a natural goalscorer. Anichebe demonstrated the deft touch with his brace. More importantly he seems hungry and chomping at the collective bit.
That said, Hull were unlucky not to score. But they realised it wasn’t their day when there was no way past Pickford nor Patrick van Aanholt – with the Dutchman instinctively clearing the ball off the line twice in quick succession.
The tune of Jackie Wilson’s Sweetest Feeling filled the air at the final whistle.
To hear fans gleefully sing along was a fitting end to my time on Wearside. Two wins from two games have put the Black Cats back on track.
As a Manchester United fan, I stand by the belief that Moyes wasn’t given enough time at Old Trafford. Hopefully, he is afforded that privilege at Sunderland. Ha’way the Lads!
* Shaun Best is the author of Journey to the 72, which chronicles his relentless travels up and down the land in search of new football grounds to visit. Read about him ‘battling a hurricane at Crewe, singing karaoke over the Yorkshire Moors, running the Millwall gauntlet and swerving fight night along Blackpool Pier’. Buy it – £8 paperback, £3 Kindle – from the Salut! Sunderland Amazon link at https://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/1517251230/salusund-21.