It was once said that whatever we do on the first day of a new year, we will do all the year round. On New Years’ Day in 2019, as I sat on the coach to Blackpool nursing a hangover from hell and still wearing last night’s clothes, the statement seemed to have strong basis in fact.
The night before had started innocently enough as I vowed not to engage in any New Year celebrations and keep myself right for the journey to Lancashire.
But as I sat watching mind-numbing TV and saw countless videos and photos of my fellow Sunderland fans either living it up in Blackpool or enjoying a night on the town, my resolve was tested to its admittedly shallow limits.
The turning point came at around 11pm when a mate who lives in the same block of flats as me knocked on my door and asked if I would at least pop to my local to see in the new year. I caved in and, well, you probably know how the rest of the evening panned out.
I awoke on my sofa with a start at around 8.30am, stinking of stale cigarettes and alcohol, having already missed my taxi to the bus pick-up point. In desperation, I dialled a local firm, who fortunately had a cab available and sent one round immediately. Luckily, I made it just in time and vowed to try and get some rest on the way down and take on some food at the services before having a hair of the dog once we arrived in Blackpool.
Little over an hour later, this had become a pipe dream. One of the lads took a phone call from a pair who had arrived at their stop after the scheduled time of arrival and, conveniently, missed the bus. We temporarily pulled into a layby as arguments over whether to wait for the stranded supporters or carry on our way ensued.
To make matters worse, the duo in question were unhappy about having to pay over £40 for a taxi, but eventually a compromise was reached – everyone, presumably still merry from the night before, chucked a quid or two into a cap at the front of the bus to cover their fare – and we pulled into the nearest services, taking a break earlier than planned.
On the pitch, Sunderland were already starting to demonstrate the sort of form that would ultimately see us miss out on automatic promotion. A defeat at Portsmouth shortly before Christmas was followed by a narrow win over Bradford City in front of a near sell-out crowd at the Stadium of Light, but we could only draw 1-1 with Shrewsbury Town three days later.
Despite this, it was tough not to feel confident. Blackpool had been painted red and white, every bar in the town centre was rammed with Sunderland fans, nursing hangovers, starting on the drink again and belting out the usual songs questioning Alan Shearer’s parentage and proclaiming that we were by far the greatest team the world had ever seen.
At the time, Blackpool fans were still boycotting games in protest of the disgraceful Oyston ownership, so Sunderland fans were given the freedom of Bloomfield Park. 8,000 of us took over the stadium and we were allocated both behind the goal and the entirety of the new stand they built upon promotion to the Premier League nine years earlier.
It wasn’t long before we all had something to shout about. Aiden McGeady crossed for Josh Maja, who was by now deep into a new contract dilemma, to prod home after 23 minutes. The Lads did not have it all their own way though, and were lucky to go in ahead at the break as Blackpool hit the post from close range.
Minutes after half-time we rode our luck again. Just days after we were handed an enormous slice of good fortune against Bradford, when the officials failed to spot the ball crossing the line, the home side were adamant Armand Gnanduillet’s effort had trickled in before Jack Baldwin managed to turn the ball onto the post. Nothing given.
It appeared to spark the Lads into life, and we began to control the game with McGeady, Maja and Lynden Gooch all having opportunities to make the scoreline more convincing.
The atmosphere in the stands was like a lot of games with big allocations: at times the noise was deafening, but at others it was hard to keep up, as five different sections of the crowd all tried to start different songs.
There was no such problem at full time, when players celebrated with supporters and a loud chorus of “We’re on our way” broke out. And who could argue? We were third in the league, just two points behind Luton Town with two games in hand and even if Josh Maja left we, surely, would find a striker of sufficient quality to replace his goals?