So tomorrow, I make my season’s debut for any game home or away. I will will trembling with apprehension along with many of the rest of the 30,000+ Sunderland supporters who, provided there is no mass abstention post-Boro, are likely to be present.
I returned from France for hibernation a little later than usual.
My first game should have been Newcastle at home. I had a ticket but not the prospect of a train that reached Sunderland quite early enough to be sure of seeing kickoff. It would otherwise have taken a 547-mile round trip and I only had the Sunday free. Some other poor sod paid to see the game using my ticket.
Stoke was a possibility but I’d left it late for a ticket. Boro would have worked had I decided to take a week off and cover three games (and not had the small matter of a three line whip on going out in the West End for my wedding anniversary).
These days, of course, living away does not necessarily mean missing out on live action. I pay SAFC £3.99 a month for access to the live radio commentary provided by Nick Barnes and Gary Bennett. I always explore internet streams if our game is not being shown on a TV channel to which I have access but the stop-start nature of what I usually find invariably drives me back to the excellent Barnes/Bennett duo.
During my 18 months in Abu Dhabi, it was a different story. As I may have said before, I saw more live Sunderland action than since I was a spotty kid getting along to Roker Park every other Saturday and to away games when paper round money stretched to it.
Almost every Premier match was shown on one or other of the Star channels. Some wag in programme planning had ensured that Sunderland games were occasionally shunted off to an overspill channel, Star Comedy, but I was willing to see the funny side of that.
See Salut! Sunderland’s sensational buildup to SAFC v Aston Villa: a Villainette from the battered USA in the ‘Who are you?’ hot seat, Guess the Score, snippets from history – and lots more beside. Click anywhere on this paragraph for the home page
One way or the other, I have caught the action of virtually every game so far this season. Painful as this has been, I fully accept it has been worse for those at the ground.
Martin O’Neill gave a long interview to the official club site yesterday (it was billed as nine minutes but, even using Safari as suggested by a helpful tweet from @safcofficial, it was an infuriatingly stuttering clip that took 20 minutes or more to hear in full).
But it was a good chat.
He said, as you would expect, that while fans were entitled to boo after paying hard-earned money to see the “ragged” effort on Tuesday night, he was no more gloomy now than he was cocky after the bright start to his managership last season. A point at Stoke, for example was a good one though – of course – he wished we’d scored a few more goals so far.
As someone pointed out elsewhere, there was nothing surprising about anything O’Neill had to say, however eloquently he expressed himself: “He’s not going to say how awful we’re doing and he hasn’t a clue how to fix it.”
That same someone went on: “He’s not lost the fans yet and I still back him but a defeat on Saturday could be the beginning of end and plunge us into relegation battle.”
I do not – yet – see things quite so gloomily.
MoN has my support and needs time to get things right, no matter how badly it all seems temporarily to go. But then I remember myself saying much the same about Bruce and I certainly accept the pressing need for three points tomorrow. Even more than a win, we need to see a really good, morale-boosting performance with goals not goal.
The last time I saw us beating Villa – in a stadium – was on Sept 8 2002. David Bellion, whose capacity to run at great speed was matched only by his knack of crossing or shooting the ball so wildly that it risked ending up in the North Sea, scored the only goal.
He tore virtually the length of the field, from South stand to North, to do so. I recall little else to distinguish his stay with us and that season was to go horribly wrong in any case, home wins against Spurs and Liverpool and an earlier one at Leeds being the only other victories as we crashed out of the Premier on 19 points.
Tomorrow I’d take the return of Bellion, Flo, Gareth Hall, Shaun Cunnington, Wayne Enthwistle and even Andy Kerr if it meant winning.
I won’t be putting money on a triumph as convincing as the one portrayed by Jake above. But we’ll see.