Sunderland AFC Opinion – Sunderland were not to be beaten – The resolve of the red and white army

Stephen Kennedy's trip to Wembley went better than it did last time - here's his account

So there we have it. I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that the weekend still hasn’t fully sunk in just yet. The absolute joy and elation of Saturday keeps washing over in waves, every time you think it’s just about died down, another rush of videos from Trafalgar Square (before and after the game) and of course, from the stands of Wembley do the rounds online and you’re right back there again.

There are already a load of incredible accounts written up on this very fanzine which show you the true scale of emotions the playoff final brought out from Sunderland fans, so I thought I’d offer my own take on the weekend that was, if nothing else, but to provide a bit of closure on the telling of my previous Wembley debacle.

It’s 6:29pm on Friday, and I’ve just sat down on the train to King’s Cross from Newcastle Central, brimming with exciting and nerves for what the next 24 hours will bring, but mainly just chuffed that I’m not on a Megabus this time. I’d treated myself to a few fancy beers from CentrAle, and decided to crack the first one open as the train pulls away. A can of Motorhead Overkill, lovely stuff. The can immediately explodes, soaking me, the seat in front and forcing me to down about a third of the can through my nostrils. A slope off to get napkins and hand sanitiser from the food cart, mop up my Lemmy-related mess, and wonder if that’s going to be a sign of things to come – knacked up before I’ve even reached Durham.

Next stop and I’m suddenly surrounded by families draped in red and white, all with that same look of nervous anticipation across their faces. They too wait until the train pulls away and steadily start opening cans and bottles of fizz – none of theirs erupts, so things are on the up. Steadily, as the train makes its way through Darlington and into Yorkshire, the carriage is filling with more and more red and white, and the occasion chorus of “Wise Men Say” and “Sunderland til I Die” is blurted out as we trundle down to the capital.

Eventually we arrive at Kings Cross, and as soon as you’re off the train, a shout of “LEE HOWEY LEE HOWEY LEE HOWEY” echoes around the station. We have arrived.

A mad dash on the tube across the city gets me to Hammersmith, one bag is dropped, a second one of cans is hoisted and out I go again, headed for the centre. Now, I’m too late for any of the pubs, thanks to London’s weird insistence on an 11pm finish despite MILLIONS of people being there, but it’s time to see what’s left of the Covent Garden and Trafalgar Square revellers.

Off the tube at Covent Garden, I wait for the lift, having a good chuckle at the lads fans who decided to have a race up the fifteen-story staircase up to ground level (didn’t see either of them at the top, presume they live down there now). I emerge at the Nags Head, now almost entirely deserted, open a non-explosive can and make my way through the streets.

It might be closed, but the pub I want to see is The White Swan. On my first trip to Wembley for the League Cup in 2014, I ended up in there with my granda, and was amazed at the noise, the atmosphere and the sheer joy that Sunderland fans were producing. We drank that pub dry by 9pm that night, and one of the bar staff took a pin of the old SAFC badge and stuck it in the wall behind the bar – it was still there 3 years later on my next visit. My granda isn’t here any more, but I can’t not go to that pub any time I’m in the capital, just to raise a glass.

On we go to Trafalgar, winding my way through the narrow streets, accosted by a friendly group of Irish Lads fans who asks to inspect my bag “just in case any alcohol fell in there”. By the time I arrive in front of Nelson’s Column, the crowd has begun to dwindle a little, but there’s still a throng of fans clambering all over the monument, slowly being encroached on by the police, swiping cans. It’s only a brief stop for me, but again it brings back incredible memories of my two visits in 2019, and seeing those scenes again, added to the confidence we’ve had in the team over the last three months, is what I’d argue set the tone for the fans at the match to come.

Back on the tube across to Hammersmith, I settle in for the night via a stop off at Pepe’s Piri Piri, where 10 Sunderland fans and an extremely confused Deliveroo driver picked up their supplies.

Next morning, I’m up, and off to meet my cousin – he lives over in Germany, and due to the world ending amongst many other reasons, hasn’t been able to get to a game since League One Year One. His flight was cancelled whilst in Munich airport the night before but he’s managed to get on one first thing on the morning of the match. He arrives, looking and feeling like death warmed up, full English breakfast demolished and it’s off to Wembley.

On the tube from Kings Cross to Wembley Park, a packed carriage bursts into a “NUMBER ONE….IS GARY ROWELL”, and it cuts through the nervous immediately. The worry that was hanging in the air dissipates and by the time we step off, everyone feels 2ft taller.

Up Wembley Way we go, looping round the stadium as we wait for our friends to arrive (including K, who you may remember from the previous story). A little irked by there being no pubs of any note nearby, Olympic Park being a booze-free zone, and the Sunderland fanzone being just about big enough to hold one bus-load, spirits are lifted when we bump into the rest of our group who have found a bar. Not just any bar, but that big daft warehouse function room at the back of the stadium, who were clever enough to let a load of Sunderland fans in, blasting Sunderland-centric tunes and selling cans for cheaper than most places in the capital. It was like a massive working mens club birthday do; lots of singing, smiling and one incredibly well executed dance routine to Come On Eileen by a man who looked like he’d otherwise not been able to move since his original knees gave out in the 80s.

But now it’s time for the match. Into the ground we go, and that feeling of wonder, awe and dread that you only get from stepping into the bowl of Wembley hits me hard. It blows my mind that the entire capacity of the Stadium of Light is in just over half of this ground. Singing as one. Wise Men Say. Teams are out. National anthem. Kick off.

You can feel something’s coming, starting with Pritchard’s phantom freekick, right until the moment Embleton took that exquisite first touch. When his strike hits the net, there’s an explosion of noise that seems to last for hours. We’ve been here before at Wembley, but somehow that goal, at that point in the game, and in this game feels different. We are not losing this.

Half time and the nerves are flaring again a little, but still the overriding feeling among the fans is that we’re confident, so the first 10 minutes of Wycombe pressure in the second half being batted away does nothing to dissuade us. The noise just keeps building, growing louder. “SUNDERLAND TAKE OVER…” is doing the rounds again as the Lads get to grips with the game again.

When the ball finds its way to Ross Stewart on the edge of the box, directly in front of where we’re standing, time stands still. We can see exactly what’s about to happen, but this time, it’s happening for us, not to us. A calm turn and stroke of the ball, and all the fans as one inhale, as if to bring it safely into the back of the net. Then in an instant, pandemonium.

After shouting, cheering, hugging, singing and getting all tearing eyed for a few minutes, I’m left with an almost out of body experience. I stand, looking around at an endless see of fans crying tears of joy, helping up people who’ve just teleported from 19 rows back, and above all, belting out that “SUNDERLAND AFC ARE BY FAR THE GREATEST TEAM”. From that moment on, I almost feel shellshocked, only this time, for the right reasons in that massive stadium.

The noise that came from the Sunderland end after that goal and after the full time whistle was the release of years’ worth of anguish, embarrassment and being kicked while we were down. We may not be back to where we should be, but it’s a step we needed to take, and one which has been snatched away from us so many times over the last few years, often in the cruellest of manners.

I look to my left and see the two older boys in our group, both have been to Wembley many times before, both were lucky enough to see us win the cup, but neither of them look prepared for this. One sat in his seat, tears streaming, the other stood awestruck, and I feel the same. These things just don’t happen to Sunderland, it is, as many people have quoted before from that lady on Netflix “never us”.

With every lift of the trophy, more emotions are pouring out of every fan – for me, it was seeing McGeady want no part in it, only to be goaded into it by the fans, knowing it’s almost certainly the last we’ll see of him in red and white. They have done it, without them and most definitely without Alex Neil, this would not have happened, they deserve the hero status they’re going to get for this. But it is the fans who sealed that performance; in years gone by, any Wycombe attack would’ve slowly chipped away at our fragile collective resolve, the nerves would’ve eked in and we’d likely have crumbled under the pressure. But not this game. From the second our play off campaign started, the fans have refused to let this slip by.

The noise that followed Patterson’s save, O’Nien’s tackle, even the ball simply being booted out to the safety of a throw in. You could see it from just the leftovers at Trafalgar Square. Sunderland were not losing this match. The fans were not to be beaten this time.

I’d like to say my time after the match was one big party, but the honest truth is, as I had a train to catch, I made my way back to Kings Cross nearly 2 hours after the game finished, sat down, surrounded by other fans with that same look on our faces. We had no idea how to react, but it had happened for us.

Someone switches on a speaker, “WISE MEN SAY”. There are tears. I snap open a can and it doesn’t explode. We’re Sunderland AFC, we’re gonna be alright.