Do You Remember The First Time? When Sunderland’s 2003 Charlton Horror Show Was A Baptism Of Fire

Michael Lough recalls his first-ever game at the Stadium of Light, where he witnessed a 3-1 defeat to Charlton featuring three own goals

Whether we won, lost or drew, most people are able to recall the first football match they attended with a great deal of fondness.

Little of the recollection is about the football itself, it is all about the sights, the smells, the anticipation of tens of thousands of fans descending on the stadium, the roar of the crowd…you get the idea.

Fortunately for me, my first visit to the Stadium of Light was a belter on the pitch as well, the lads found the net four times, an academy graduate got on the score sheet twice and I saw my boyhood idol slot home from the spot late on.

Now that my application to be Donald Trump’s chief speech writer and head of PR is successfully complete, let me take you back to February 2003 and tell you all about Sunderland 1-3 Charlton.

It was perhaps fitting that my first match was very much a ‘new low for Sunderland’, because since that day we seem to be diligently attempting to outdo ourselves for that dubious honour.

From record low topflight points totals, to twice going almost an entire year without winning at home, enough off field scandals to make the script writers for Dream Team blush and sinking to the third tier of English football, the past 20 years or so have not been especially kind to Sunderland.

Even before the day in question, Sunderland was a club in crisis; after a poor 2001-2002 campaign, they suffered a slow start to the following season and Peter Reid was relieved of his duties after his big money summer signings failed to make the desired impact.

The shock appointment of Howard Wilkinson only added to the unrest on Wearside, with the Yorkshireman somehow managing to combine dourness with off the wall ideas and media comments.

On the field, things went from bad to worse and going into the home clash with Charlton, we had won just two of his first 16 league games in charge, unluckily for me it was one of those wins that got me hooked on SAFC.

Despite being raised in an Sunderland household, I had no interest in football until a few months after my 7th birthday.

My lack of interest was such that while my mates at school gathered round a TV to watch the England vs Brazil World Cup quarter final in the summer of 2002, I stood at the back arguing with a dinner lady that those who didn’t want to watch the ‘silly football’ should be allowed outside.

I am also ashamed to say, that throughout the day, as many of my classmates were upset at the result, I informed them with the sage like confidence of a middle-aged Rugby Union fan who thinks he has discovered the true meaning of life that, ‘football is just a game and it’s not worth crying over.’ I am disappointed to report that nobody punched me in the face for this.

This all changed as Sunderland took on Liverpool at The SOL, ten days before Christmas. Around two months prior to this I’d started playing football with my friends during dinner times and was vaguely aware that I supported Sunderland and didn’t want Newcastle to do well, but I’d still not watched or been engaged when we played.

But this time we were on Sky Sports and I ended up settling down with my mam and dad to watch it.

During the match, I kicked every ball as Sunderland produced a rare, good performance and produced a shock win and when Michael Proctor found the (right) net, I found myself spontaneously running round the living room table screaming with delight and the rest they say was history.

I became obsessed with all things Sunderland and begged my mam and dad to take me to a game, mam finally relented when my Primary School offered us discounted tickets for the Charlton game.

She agreed to take me but warned that we didn’t play like we did against Liverpool every week and we were rubbish.

She was right of course, since that win on December 15, we had collected just two points from a possible 21.

You don’t need reminding of how the day itself panned out, in the space of seven first half minutes we scored three own goals, Steve Cotterill tried in vain to spell ‘shite’ and the atmosphere in the stadium threatened to turn poisonous.

The second half improved slightly, those who foolishly chose to remain inside the stadium got behind the lads and there was a display of humour as the South West Corner chanted, ‘one lucky bastard, there’s only one lucky bastard’ at a Sunderland fan as he was led away by a steward for throwing his season ticket in the direction of the dugout.

We did get a goal back as Kevin Phillips converted a penalty with nine minutes on the clock, but as first games go it was a baptism of fire and the defeat ensured that we ended the day at the foot of the Premier League table, where we would remain for the rest of the season, as we failed to register a single point between then and the end of the season.

As is typical of my Sunderland supporting life, things started badly and went downhill from there but let’s hope that tomorrow is yet another step in the right direction and come 5pm we will be in the box seat to secure promotion.

Michael Lough