The 2020-21 football season will forever be remembered as one of the most surreal campaigns of all time.
The imitation of football on display was so far removed from our typical experience, that the whole thing didn’t feel real.
Before I wrote this, I watched the highlights of some of our behind closed doors fixtures and it’s scarcely believable that we were ever emotionally invested in this watered-down product.
At the time it was all we had, but it felt like a way to occupy yourself for a few hours on a Saturday afternoon or Tuesday evening, rather than real matches with real consequences.
The sombre nature of the football we witnessed was a perfect illustration of the wider world during lockdown.
In the beginning, just having some football to watch felt like a rare treat and, just like the early stages of Covid-19, felt like a temporary escape from the day to day grind.
In the late spring and early summer of 2020, the glorious weather often meant barbecues and beers most nights and people took up a range of wholesome pursuits to keep themselves occupied.
Before the Premier League resumed, I found myself suddenly interested in Portuguese football, simply because it was shown regularly on FreeSports and in those early Covid days there was the faint hope that things may blow over soon.
Of course, early 2020 was not a time of endless leisure for all and for some there have been some serious long-term implications on both physical and mental health. These feelings only intensified as time went on.
Rather than cracking open a few beers to watch a Premier League game in the July sun, it was dark just after 4pm; It was November, Phil Parkinson was still our manager, and we were losing 2-1 to MK Dons.
For many, this felt like the longest winter on record as all hospitality closed again and the prospect of enjoying life looked a world away from becoming a reality.
I still vividly remember the new, tougher restrictions being announced on the evening of Halloween 2020.
That day, a friend and I went to a pub in the town and watched us beat Gillingham 2-0 in a 1pm kick-off, before quickly jumping on a bus to Ryhope to watch Ryhope CW take on Penrith.
This was followed by a few pints in my local, which is where we were when we heard the announcement.
I still recall the landlord despairing and wondering how his business would survive and the patrons bidding socially-distanced farewells to their friends wondering when they would next see them in a social setting again.
Such an overtly ordinary day would soon feel like a lifetime ago as winter ploughed relentlessly on. Phil Parkinson made way for Lee Johnson, which in many ways was like trading one deadly Covid variant for another.
I paint this very bleak picture not to try and ruin everyone’s Tuesday, but I feel that without this context it is difficult to explain just how much joy us winning the 2021 Papa John’s Trophy brought.
Our winter of discontent began to thaw with an unexpected 4-1 triumph over high-flying Doncaster Rovers in mid-February and, just a few days later, we secured our place at Wembley when we overcame Lincoln City in a penalty shootout.
From then until the final we never looked back, winning all but one of our games in the run up to our appearance at Wembley.
The build up to the game encapsulated the sheer absurdity of that time period, Trafalgar Square parties were replaced with Zoom call cans and the excitement of a Wembley final was interwoven with the mundanity of everyday life.
Back then, everyday felt like such a relentless slog that any opportunity to make an occasion even slightly out of the ordinary was seized by Sunderland fans all over the world.
I still have the matchday programme from the final, which contains a photo of the family dog proudly decked out in her red and white bandana. I still have the souvenir match ticket which arrived the day after the fixture had actually been played and I still remember exactly what I did to try and make the most of the weekend.
It was a strange one from the start, when I would usually be on the train to London the day before a final, I was making a ‘cup final playlist’ which contained songs from a range of local artists to songs synonymous with Sunderland AFC.
At the time, I had moved back in with my parents temporarily to ease the lockdown loneliness and still remember the sigh of mock disapproval as I insisted that we hung a giant SAFC flag in the living room window, just in case the neighbours had forgotten that this was very much a red and white household.
Perhaps the most emotive part of the weekend was the Wise Men Say pre-match Zoom party which really hit home how much I missed going to the matches and seeing everyone who I would usually meet for post-match pints. I then realised that it had been a year since I’d seen some of them.
Naturally, I took things too far and the next morning, the pre-match nerves were complemented with a horrendous hangover.
The natural solution to this was to go to the shop to get more cans, but not before taking the dog for a walk first.
This to me just summed up the bizarre nature of the day itself, here I was, mere hours before we kicked off at Wembley walking the dog around a County Durham mining village before stopping at Nisa for refreshments and snacks.
Once home, the preparations really began in earnest as the Sunderland playlist was blasted and the nerves really kicked in.
What made the day feel special was getting to experience the whole event with my sister who has never been a big football fan but has nevertheless always been a Sunderland supporter.
Despite the home of football being empty, as we sat with cans of Amstel, wearing retro Vaux shirts, it felt so much more real.
It is often forgotten just how depleted the squad was due to injuries and players being cup tied, indeed, the lads actually played over half the game without a natural centre-half when Tom Flanagan was replaced by Connor McLaughlin after 44 minutes.
The lads had the better of the game but didn’t create many clear cut chances, until Aiden McGeady spun on the ball inside his own half and sliced open the Tranmere defence with a perfectly weighted ball to Lynden Gooch, who made no mistake from inside the penalty area.
In our household we all jumped up, each of us running around in different directions, the dog barked at all the commotion and suddenly it looked like we would finally break our Wembley curse.
Fortunately, we did and we hung on until full-time. Immediately my sister ran to the kitchen and brought back a bottle of Prosecco, cracked it open and we all drank to a Sunderland victory.
The tunes came back on and we got far too excited for the next few hours. I called my Grandad who, in a manner typical of his generation, declared that we had ‘done alright’ and ‘it was about bloody time we did something.’
The party carried on for the next few hours until it dawned on us all that it was Sunday, three out of the four people in the household had work the following day and we actually had neighbours who might not appreciate the noise levels.
Looking back, getting so excited over beating League Two Tranmere in The Papa John’s Trophy may seem quite ridiculous, but at the time it was all that we had.
Life was still grim, Covid was still rife, we still missed our loved ones terribly, but for a few hours Sunderland had given us a break from the slog that was life in 2020-21 and it felt great.