Once upon a time, in a land far, far away football matches were events that you could actually go to; you were even allowed to travel hundreds of miles to watch your team play and nothing was thought of it.
The beauty of an away day is often the different variants of the genre it throws up. You have the games where seemingly everyone with an SR postcode is in attendance, your long distance slogs, weekends away and eventful train journeys, but in my experience, the best kind of away game is the midweek one.
This isn’t to everyone’s taste, but there’s a very satisfying vibe to putting in your holidays at work in advance of the day in question and either finishing work early or having yourself a decent lie-in before travelling to whatever far flung location we happen to be playing in.
Then there is the general smugness of drinking beer on a mini-bus or train with your mates at midday on a Tuesday while your social media is flooded with people complaining about the monotony of their day.
If we win, that’s great, if we lose…that’s okay too, especially if you’ve had the foresight to book the following day off work as well.
That was my thinking prior to a 2-0 defeat to Bristol Rovers in March 2020 anyway.
The day started in typical fashion, as I made myself a substantial breakfast in preparation of the journey to Bristol and as luck would have it, my free trial Beer 52 box set arrived, so I didn’t even have to endure the look of moderate disapproval from the checkout operator for buying alcohol at 10am, prior to the journey.
The box contained a selection of beers from an 8% Irish Stout to a 3.5% citrus stubby can, an odd start to the day which only went downhill from there.
When I boarded the bus I was taken aback to see that our mode of transport for the day boasted a cassette player, although at least the accompanying CD player upgraded the technology from BC to AD.
The journey didn’t start ideally either as we travelled the scenic route to swap drivers at Tebay services, the window in the centre of the bus roof flew open.
Several attempts later, the window was eventually slammed shut and thankfully the glitch was not repeated, but for the remainder of the journey it juddered uncertainly as we made our slow progress to the west country.
Looking back, it’s hard to think that the journey was just over 48 hours before the League One season was cancelled for around six months.
Some watched The Cheltenham Festival on their phones, some were arguing over which songs to put on a playlist for the journey and much of the chat was about who was going to forthcoming away games.
The journey to Bristol is a long one at the best of times, but given the state of the bus, the number of comfort breaks and hitting every possible traffic jam possible, the journey was seemingly never-ending.
Eventually, we arrived at the Memorial Stadium, complete with a weird collection of stands which was once described on The Wise Men Say podcast as “a stadium made up from a sports ground car boot sale” with around half an hour to go until kick off.
Once inside, I witnessed an average, niggly Bristol Rovers side overpower a directionless, awful Sunderland side to record the hosts’ second win in 19 games.
This was the lads’ second defeat in three and marked their fourth game in a row without a win and there was a feeling that the tide was about to turn against Phil Parkinson yet again.
Kyle Lafferty was subbed at half time after a half where his sole ambition appeared to be scrapping with his opposite number and there were ironic cheers when the lads forced their first shot on target in second half stoppage time.
As the pop classic turned terrace chant goes, things could only get better surely? Well, that’s what I thought anyway.
Once the other buses pulled away from the ground, the news filtered through that one of our number had managed to lock himself inside a toilet cubicle inside the ground.
In the time it took to free him, all the supporters’ buses had left and even some Bristol Rovers players were giving us some strange looks as they made their way back to their cars.
After repeatedly losing radio reception, the driver decided to take advantage of the CD player to keep himself entertained.
Unfortunately, he played the same CD on repeat for the entirety of the journey home to the point where I felt that if I heard any more early 80’s easy listening music, I would suffer an outbreak of PTSD.
Other than that, the journey home was rather uneventful, although the driver was obviously participating in a Guinness World Book of Records attempt to surpass as many English County borders as possible in one drive and we were once again united with Cumbrian fell roads in the early hours of the morning.
As I arrived home, shortly after 5am, I recall thinking that if I didn’t go to another Sunderland away game again, it would be too soon, just over a year later, I would love to be returning to the Memorial Stadium even if it meant having to relive everything about that day all over again, (other than the result, of course.)
Let’s hope the players’ trip is less eventful on Saturday and we get another win in our quest for automatic promotion.