An entire year has passed since the Stadium of Light welcomed fans through its turnstiles. Michael Lough looks back at a year without football.
In a pre-covid world, if someone described the events of March, 7 2020 and asked me to identify something significant about the way the day panned out, I would have struggled to put my finger on anything in particular.
For the majority of us it was just another matchday, we met up with our friends, we drank cold beer in pubs, we went to the match and if you’re anything like me, you got disproportionately irritated that The Harbour View was showing Rugby Union on the big screen after the game.
Sunderland were comically compliant in adding to the overt normality of the day by twice squandering the lead at home to Gillingham, with former Sunderland under 23 forward Mikael Mandron netting an injury time equalizer for the visitors.
The only thing out of the ordinary was the odd light hearted comment about something called ‘The Coronavirus’, “Eee, are we even allowed to shake hands today like or what?” was a common question uttered across Wearside.
“Wey aye, everyone’s just blown everything out of proportion as usual, aren’t they?” was an equally common reply.
Little did we know that as we jumped up and down hugging strangers when Kyle Lafferty put us 2-1 up, as we embraced our friends and shook hands in the pub, Covid 19 was spreading like wildfire and that would be the last game anyone attended at the Stadium of Light for over a year.
Five months followed without a league game and when football did return on Saturday, September 12, matchday routines which stretched back years, even decades in some cases were broken as we began the season with no fans in attendance.
For the second time in seven days, I felt a strange sensation in the pit of my stomach as I queued for the bus to town at around 2pm.
Usually at that time on a Saturday afternoon, it would be packed with people decked out in their usual matchday attire, there would be loud chatter about the upcoming game and enough fume about the team selection to power the bus.
Instead, there was a quiet that verged on eeriness as we trundled through Grangetown towards the city centre.
The week before had been stranger still as me and my parents made our way over the Wearmouth Bridge around 15 minutes before Sunderland entertained Hull City in the Carabao Cup first round.
Sure, a League Cup game against opponents in the same league would not have attracted a sell out crowd, but under normal circumstances there would have at least been a steady trickle of people descending on the Stadium.
So ingrained was the routine of going to the match, I almost asked my mam why she was indicating right as the car reached the north side of the water.
Although, the experience of the first few games was completely different to a typical matchday there was at least some crumbs of comforting normality.
Going to the pub to watch the match went some way to replicating the experience of the build up to a game and although interaction was at a minimum due to restrictions, there was a great feeling of familiarity seeing the same faces you usually saw at the match, dotted around the bar.
There were the usual, “Areet mate, you seen the team today? Cannit believe he’s getting a game mind” conversations and when we forced a late equalizer against Bristol Rovers, the loud cries of “Get in!” had the vibe of watching an away match that you weren’t able to attend.
Unfortunately, even that semblance of normality was taken away from us as Covid cases spiked and the hospitality sector was completely closed at the end of October.
What followed was a winter of discontent both on and off the field as the ownership saga droned on while the lads continued to stutter on the pitch.
A change in manager didn’t provide the initial upturn in results many had hoped for and even the wins, with the exception of Lincoln City in Lee Johnson’s second game were largely scrappy and did little to brighten the general mood of the fanbase.
During normal times, football is quite often a tool to escape the monotony of everyday life through meeting up with friends and family and having an emotional release every other Saturday.
At first, the novelty of just being able to watch Sunderland again after five months without competitive action was enough to raise spirits.
Every Saturday, my dad would make a special effort to get home from work in good time to watch the match and we’d make sure the fridge was well stocked with beer and the cupboards with various snacks.
Beer, crisps and League One football became our Saturday routine but as the season progressed, the nights got darker, the temperatures plummeted and instead of watching the match being a welcome distraction from what was going on in the world, the football only compounded our misery.
Thankfully, we now have reasons to be cheerful again, the vaccine rates are going up all the time, cases are dropping about as quickly as Newcastle United’s descent down the Premier League table and suddenly it’s easier to envisage a scenario where we are back in the ground next season.
On the pitch Sunderland have booked their place at Wembley, recorded five wins out of their last six league games and new owner, Kyril Louis-Dreyfus has already put in place a series of sensible steps to give us cause for optimism.
From pledging a £500,000 investment on a new playing surface, to an academy restructure and playing a part in revamping the live stream for home games, things are certainly looking up.
Rather than feeling disengaged from the club, in recent weeks fans have posted on social media, wishing they’d been there when Grant Leadbitter stroked home the winning penalty to take us to the pizza cup final, or when Chris Maguire thundered home the equaliser in the dying seconds at Crewe.
I mentioned earlier in the piece that football should be something to give us hope, a sense of belonging and community no matter how testing times are.
Therefore, it is imperative that Sunderland continue their promotion push and finally get out of this league.
Regardless of the division we’re in we will look forward to the first game back at the Stadium of Light, already the prospect of the first pre-match pint, the scenes that will greet the first goal and seeing a throng of people making their way over the Wearmouth Bridge again is tantalising.
But imagine, instead of just looking forward to the social side of a matchday, you were genuinely excited at the playing squad we’d assembled over the summer, ready for our first game back in the Championship and instead of Burton Albion we were playing a team similar in prestige and history to ourselves.
Instead of saying, “ha’way then, we best head over” at 2.45, supporters had a spring in their step on their way to the stadium with hope and expectation.
A lot has changed in a year, whether you’ve watched every minute religiously on your laptop, listened on the radio or simply relied on Twitter updates, nothing is a substitute for being there and when that first game at The SOL in front of fans comes around we need to make sure we’re in prime position for us all to make it one to remember.
Stay safe and Ha’way The Lads.