The scene has been set. And now, Fatima al Shamsi – click on the photo for a clearer view of her reading preferences – tells her own story…
June 2008, first week of work; the beginning of the end of my good judgement.
It all started with a simple question. “Who do you support?”
Next thing I knew it was the usual partitioning, each side of the conversation marking the appropriate boundaries: scoping out the enemy.
Understanding the allegiances of others helps you understand where the potential relationship stands. Apparently proclaiming my loyalty to the Gunners made me a glory seeker, whereas being a Sunderland fan was honourable.
I was informed that Sunderland was an example of a real football club, not a brand name. Although I strongly disagreed with those comments (and still do), I initially took pity on the misguided Sunderland supporter and thought no more of the matter.
But having become used to being dismissed as a female fan, despite my status as queen of football (with transfer updates and relevant trivia on the tip of my tongue) in my male dominated household, I was surprised at my immediate inclusion into football-related discussion.
After all, the outside world of football fans is a harsh, chauvinistic and forever frustrating realm.
This sly strategy to lure me into the world of Sunderland was pure genius. It started with an article related to Thierry Henry. The humour sucked me in instantly. These Sunderland supporters can’t be all that bad I thought to myself; after all, this stuff’s pretty entertaining.
Next thing I knew, I was handed a small blue book. More 24 Hour SAFC People it announced proudly on the cover. One story into it and this collection of short tales soon became incorporated into my bedtime reading routine.
In 12 years of following Arsenal, I have accumulated an archive of memorable moments. The last match at Highbury against Wigan, 4-2, topped off with a fabulous Henry hat trick is still one of my favorites.
Who could forget Dennis Bergkamp’s wonderful goal at St. James’ Park against Newcastle in early 2002 (not us….ed), or winning the league and cup double in 2001-02 and then being absolutely invincible in 2003-04 when we won the Premier League without losing a single match?
I also remember distinctly all the sorrows we’ve had to endure. There was the Champions League final in 2006, where we held up so well against Barcelona despite being one man short, and then watched our dreams die in the last minutes. I remember all of Lehman’s stupid antics, and the horrific injury sustained by Eduardo da Silva in the match against Birmingham City earlier this year.
Although I’ve always heard/known of Sunderland, I’ve just associated them with poor league performance. I now find myself privy to their ups and downs without having actually lived through any of them.
Just a few weeks ago I’d never heard of Roker Park, Stadium of Light, Mackems, Magpies, Peter Reid, or Niall Quinn. But now, with the anthology serving as my quick-start introductory crash course to SAFC, I seem to have acquired e a whole new slew of events that I never actually experienced.
I blame this alarming phenomenon partly on my thirst for any football-related facts and partly on an addictive personality.
Somehow the 1973 FA Cup shock win over Leeds comes to mind as well as the 1998 play off finals against Charlton; it’s as if I had endured the nerve-wrecking penalties first hand.
There’s also the image of Edwards putting in the third against Burnley in the last home game of 2006-07. Despite it being before my time, there’s the 1987-88 season which saw the team relegated to Third Division, and were saved only by the managerial expertise of Denis Smith and the goals scored by Marco Gabbiadini and striking partner Eric Gates.
Last week the most disturbing urge overtook me as I looked up Sunderland’s pre-season activities. I actually checked the results of their games after figuring out their match schedule.
I now fear that I’m losing my sanity. What’s to come next? Will I sit down and actually watch a Sunderland game? Will I care about their league position this coming season? Will Keane be able to ensure they are no longer haunted by the spectre of relegation? Will Younes Kaboul actually join the Black Cats?
Can I seriously care about them, side by side with my Arsenal pride?
I’ve already got a second favourite team down at the La Liga, and a tendency to check up on AC Milan.
Do I have time to add the red and whites to my collection of teams? After all, I have a reputation to uphold and supporting a club is a full-time job. So perhaps I know that they beat Sporting Lisbon 3-1 last week, despite being one man down and then ended their trip to Portugal with a 1-1 draw against Vitoria de Setubal.
But I’m hoping that’s as far as it goes in terms of my personal investment in SAFC’s fate. Just in case, if you spot me in a red and white Jersey, just keep walking. I’ll never admit I’ve sauntered anywhere north of Emirates stadium.