There’s just something about away days in post-industrial Lancashire towns. Whether it be Bolton, Blackburn, Burnley or Tuesday’s opponents, Wigan, it always feels a bit out of the ordinary.
The first advantage of a day out in Wigan is its relative proximity. As Sunderland fans it can be something of novelty to not find yourself setting a 6am alarm, as well as having the opportunity to be back in the North East with plenty of time to make something of your night. Or, if you fancy staying down there, it’s close enough to Manchester to enjoy a night out. In theory it sounds just great, doesn’t it?
It’s also the type of day out that attracts, for want of a better word, radgies. We all probably have that mate who barely goes to home games but suddenly asks you if you can get spare tickets for him and his mates for this kind of fixture. They are usually drunk by the time you have got to Scotch Corner and, after our inevitable narrow defeat in front of five or six thousand travelling fans, spend the journey home telling you why they “Dinnit bother watching that shite nee more.”
Occasionally though, we do manage to win this type of game, as evidenced by our 1-0 win at The JJB Stadium in April 2005, when we put ourselves in pole position in that season’s promotion race.
Going into the game, the Lads had won seven in a row after an embarrassing defeat at Brighton had threatened to derail our promotion bid. Our most recent success came at Loftus Road against QPR, where the Lads came from behind to win 3-1. Incidentally, this occurred on the same day Lee Bowyer and Kieron Dyer decided to have a scrap and Steven Taylor auditioned for the role of sniper attack victim in an upcoming BBC drama.
Spurred on by our recent successes, 8,000 Massive Lads Fans™ descended on Wigan and made up almost half of the total crowd.
Sunderland made a flying start to the game and took the lead after just three minutes. While most of the Wigan players were still appealing for a throw-in on the halfway line, Liam Lawrence, undoubtedly inspired by Mick McCarthy’s cries of “Fucking get on with it,” delivered an inch-perfect ball into the path of Marcus Stewart, who expertly slotted into the corner of the net.
Naturally, this led to pandemonium among the travelling support. Several layers of skin from people’s shins were lost and strangers hugged each other in a fashion that only really happens at the football.
What followed was almost an hour and a half of total tension. Sunderland were content with their lot and offered little from an attacking perspective for the remainder of the game. Not that the hosts really troubled our goal either, as the formidable duo of Steven Caldwell and Gary Breen comfortably kept Nathan Ellington and Jason Roberts at bay, but we all know how it feels watching Sunderland when the opposition so much as cross the halfway line.
Yet we managed to see it out, and the Lads would go on to wrap up the Championship title before the final day of the season.
By contrast to then, a win tonight would merely prove a massive relief ahead of two blood pressure raising encounters with Blackpool and Hull City. However, we should remember: we are still in a position where we will gain promotion if we win all of our remaining games.
We have very little margin for error. But should we beat Wigan our consecutive total of wins required will at least drop from seven to six – and God knows we all have fond memories of ‘six in a row.’