No Poyet No Party
In years to come, Sunderland’s 2013/14 season will be remembered as more up and down than the emotions of a teenage girl. At times they have been produced moments of magic, blowing teams away with superb performances and determination. On many other occasions, they have been so bad that they looked as though the entire squad had been replaced by a team of imposters as part of a Channel 4 documentary.
I visited the Stadium of Light earlier in the season for their 2 – 1 victory over Newcastle, a victory which I said at the time may have to be savoured even more than usual, due to the strong possibility of the fixture not being played next season. Indeed, just a few weeks ago the Mackems looked dead and buried. They were bottom of the league and nine points adrift of the precious 17th spot. Worse still, they had to visit Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United. All in all, it appeared as though they had as much chance of success as the 15-year-old boy commenting “stunning babe xx” on the Instagram photo of a glamour model.
Incredibly, they put together a run of sporting miracles that the writers of Rocky Balboa would dismiss as being far-fetched. They ended Jose Mourinho’s unbeaten home record, drew 2 – 2 with champions Manchester City (and should have won), as well as handing out yet another home defeat to Manchester United. It says a lot about the nature of Sunderland’s season that they won in the league at Old Trafford for the first time in a generation, and it will only be the second fondest memory that their supporters have of visiting the ground in 2014.
While I did want Sunderland to survive due to the highly welcoming nature of their supporters whenever I visit (not to mention the welcoming nature of the prices of beer), I had hoped that there would be something on the line by the time this game came around. A 2 – 0 victory over West Brom in midweek meant that this was not to be, but I was still looking forward to the game and seeing the supporters in party mode once again.
I was not the only person to have travelled from the Netherlands to this stadium for a footballing fix. There is a strong connection between the supporters of Sunderland and Feyenoord, and I noticed a number of stickers around the ground which had originated from Rotterdam. My last game of the season at De Kuip had seen the home side celebrate Champions League qualification with a 5 – 1 victory, but it was clear that the similarities between the clubs do not extend to assisting final day parties with a comprehensive victory.
Swansea have been through a dramatic but memorable season, the highlight of which has to be the 0 – 3 victory in Valencia. After briefly flirting with relegation themselves, the appointment of Garry Monk ensured that they picked up more than enough points to have no fears on the final day of the season. My Cardiff City rebrand boycott meant that I have not seen the Swans play since 2010, when a Craig Bellamy goal in the dying moments ensured that I was stood in the away end doing the robot with no shirt on come full time. I believe the people behind me that day are still going through therapy, with improvements slow.
They have changed significantly since that day, with the fancy passing style of Martinez, Rodgers and Laudrup bolstered by the added steel that club legend Monk has added. I was impressed at how they no longer seemed willing to throw themselves to the floor writhing in agony for minutes at a time, and certainly look as if they will have no trouble extending their stay in the English top flight for years to come. Indeed, the graceful Swansea juggernaut effectively ended the game as a contest within the first 15 minutes, scoring two goals through Nathan Dyer and Marvin Emnes. Elsewhere in the Premier League Norwich needed to beat Arsenal 17 – 0 to survive, and it looked as though there was a genuine danger the South Wales side may actually produce this result.
To the credit of the Sunderland fans, they refused to let the fact that they were getting obliterated dampen the party. Indeed, going 2 – 0 behind actually seemed to improve the atmosphere, with departing hero Fabio Borini being singled out in particular for loud and continued support. Sunderland continued to be bossed in every aspect of the game by the visitors, with the home fans caring less and less about what was actually going on on the pitch as time went by. Then half time arrived, and things went to the next level of end-of-season madness.
Much of the South Stand entered the concourse during the break, with beer flying through the air, a conga line weaving in and out of the stand and people sliding on their stomachs through the puddles of lager which had collected in the midst of this survival party. They were having so much fun that many people missed the Sunderland goal on 50 minutes, scored by departing hero Borini. He was rewarded with a prolonged standing ovation from those who were in their seats, performing his hand biting celebration for the last time.
Four minutes later, Wilfried Bony made sure that the partying faithful were not about to miss an unexpected comeback, firing in an impressive goal to make the score 3 – 1. Bony has to go down as one of the most powerful footballers I have ever seen play the game, easily dispatching defenders as if they were a group of children attempting to capture a rhinoceros. The man is an absolute giant, and if Swansea ever decide to sell him, the first enquiry is likely to be from the US military for testing.
The Swans going 3 – 1 up was the signal for the Sunderland supporters to give up all pretence of actually caring about the score, and spent the last 30 minutes of the season having a jubilant rave. The partying fans emerged from the depths of the South Stand, as supporters from all over the place joined them to dance, sing and bounce around in the rain. The more surreal sights included a man deciding to crowd surfing because they had got a throw in, a fancy dress duck giving Wayne Routledge a universally recognised hand gesture and best of all, the first time I have ever witnessed a man in a chicken suit waving a flare. It seemed he had bought his pyro at Poundland as it did not ignite particularly impressively, but he definitely wins style points for his choice of outfit.
Threats of a pitch invasion resulted in hundreds of police officers and stewards being dispatched around the ground to ensure that nobody committed the heinous crime of having fun at a football match, but there were still a few intrepid invaders dancing around the field once the final whistle had gone. Stewards slipping on their arse in pursuit of a pitch invader are a strong contender for the finest sights in the sport, challenged only by a goalkeeper up for a corner or Alan Pardew being unhappy, and one luminous jacketed killjoy in particular took an almighty tumble as he attempted to bring down a celebrating supporters.
With the season now officially over, there was still one memorable moment left to come. I mentioned in my last Sunderland report that their rendition of ‘Wise Men Say’ is one of the finest club anthems in football, and their version as the players did a lap of honour was particularly effective at sending chills down the spine. Red and white scarves were held aloft around the stadium, with the song belted out with more passion and emotion than you would ever see from UB40 on Top of the Pops.
I don’t really care for the Premier League, and think that there are many other competitions around the world which are superior. However, one definite plus point of England’s top flight is the fact it contains Sunderland and their magnificent supporters, who will continue to contest one of the finest and hate-filled derbies around with Newcastle next season. Whether Sunderland survive next season or not is disputable, as is the question of whether or not their fans will ever again get to experience a cup final as they did in 2014. What can be said with a great deal of certainty is the fact that they will continue to provide their team with magnificent and occasionally bizarre support.
There is much to dislike about English football, and the FA’s announcement this week that they intend to allow Premier League sides to field reserve sides in the pyramid further fuelled my belief that football culture in the country took a terminal blow when Sky Sports and the Premier League came along. However, this little corner of the North East continues to prove that the English have not forgotten what being a football supporter is all about, and long may it continue. Sunderland are not the only club in the Premier League that I consider to have excellent support, but they are one of a precious few. As the song ‘things can only get better’ reverberated around the stadium as the supporters made their way out of the ground for the last time in 2013/14, I hoped that this was the case and that Sunderland AFC could continue to stand in defiance of the perils of modern football.