Monsieur Salut, only an occasional presence at games, offers some thoughts on a satisfying first pilgrimage to the Stadium of Light since, well, we were a Premier League side ….
With apologies to all the people I would also have liked to meet but couldn’t, let it be recorded that even a punishing drive south in rotten conditions failed to dampen the spirits after a weekend back in the north, capped by that heartening first home win for a horrifying period, just one day short of a year.
“I must have aged 10 years in the last five minutes,” someone said in the concourse as people left the Stadium of Light with rare smiles on their faces.
One of the most exuberant of those smiles belonged to nine-year-old Abigail Emmerson, who recently wrote a charming account of her early experiences as a Sunderland supporter.
Her dad Martin and grandfather Barry were there, too. Maybe there really were just under 26,000 present, as the official count has it, but it’s not so hard these days to get a seat where you want it and I was in the very next one to the three Emmersons.
Before the match I had two generations of my own family to deposit at Middlesbrough as my sister lives close to where Ayresome Park stood. But a 7am start from London and a smooth A1/A19 journey left plenty of time to drop the car at the Harbour View, sup a legally acceptable quantity of ale and pay £1 behind the bar to join the football special to the ground.
Upstairs on the bus, young Abigail offered loyally positive thoughts, made her customary video as Martin summoned all his broadcasting skills to pepper her with questions about the chances of narrowly avoiding a full year without winning at home. That clip has disappeared from Martin’s Facebook pages but there is a post-match follow-up which captured Abigail’s joy outside the ground.
At half time, Martin – BBC Radio Newcastle’s voice of cricket; he covers all Durham CCC matches – introduced me to Nick Barnes and Gary Bennett, high up in the West stand and looking as cold as I felt. We agreed there had been some bright, well-organised play from Sunderland in the first half, usually let down by a poor final decision. We couldn’t quite agree on whether their splendid match commentaries and punditry kept me sane or were responsible for driving me deeper into madness.
All came good in the second half, a flurry of chances and then Josh Maja’s excellently taken winner from an equally impressive low pass from Adam Matthews. I thought the maligned Matthews had a good game, especially going forward, and was gladdened by the performances of Browning, Gibson and Honeyman. But it was a decent team display – see Malcolm Dawson’s outstanding, detailed report – and I saw plenty to admire in the efforts of several others; Grabban worked hard and the young subs, Maja (he used to lodge with friends of the Emmersons) and Asoro, were bundles of energy and skill.
We were all accused of acting as if we’d won the Champions League as we celebrated the win at Burton. I have been known to greet great wins by exclaiming: “For days like this, we support Sunderland.” We must not get carried away. But three clean sheets in four for Chris Coleman, and two wins, gives the season an entirely different complexion if only we can keep it up.
Back in Boro, before we headed off to stay over in Darlington, my sister filled in a few more details gleaned from her painstaking family history researches. We used to believe we had Irish blood on our mother’s side; it turns out to be Scottish – a Dundee miner who moved to Sunderland, married a Lanchester lass and became a
kiddie-catcher school attendance officer.
A rare matchday for me and a winning one. Abigail had no doubt that I had brought the essential luck from France via London. Let her go on to see lots more games in which Sunderland’s score is higher than the opposition’s. Not even a disappointing Indian meal in Darlington (no names as the service was superb), or the inability of the service station at Leeming Bar to serve breakfast (“we have an issue with the grill,” we were informed), could mar a smashing reacquaintance with – never mind Tyne and Wear – the Land of the Prince Bishops.
And I hope Abigail and her sisters enjoyed the panto – The Lambton Worm no less – on Saturday night.