English Soccer Tour: Sunderland’s Big Night at Old Trafford

English Soccer Tour: Sunderland’s Big Night at Old Trafford

In this post from 2014, I describe one of the most dramatic nights I’ve ever had in sport, the second leg of a League Cup semifinal between Sunderland and Manchester United at Old Trafford.

Outside the “Theatre of Dreams”

Writer’s Note: I just want to say a giant thanks to the thousands of Sunderland fans who’ve read this post, the tens of thousands who’ve watched the videos, and most of all the dozens who have emailed me. It’s been such an honor to be part of this, you’ve all been so gracious, and really, this is what the magic is sport and perfect timing is all about. Haway the lads!

-Paul

I often wonder why sports matters to people (like me) so much. I mean, it’s just a game, and which team wins really shouldn’t matter so much. As Jerry Seinfeld allegedly said, we’re really just cheering for laundry.

And then I see something like Sunderland’s victory over Manchester United at Old Trafford, and I remember. It’s basically tribal, and a chance to lose oneself in shared ecstasy. It’s the collective Us defeating Them, even if only symbolically, and claiming a prize: in this case a trip to the almighty Wembley.

A Little Context

For you Americans, let me back up a little, give some context to the game. You know Manchester United; they’re the Yankees of English football: biggest stadium, most money, most championships, probably most arrogant fans. Sunderland I bet you don’t know: a scrappy team from the Northeast of England, trying just to stay in the Premier League.

(The bottom three teams every year have to “go down” a level for the whole next season, the equivalent of a baseball team dropping to AAA. As of 2018, Sunderland are League One, or AA.)

During the season there are also domestic cup tournaments. So you might have a league game on Saturday and a cup game on Wednesday. There are two cups: FA Cup and League Cup, and for reference you can think NCAA Tournament and NIT. The League Cup is second-rate but still a big deal, especially to somebody like Sunderland. All cup finals are played at Wembley Stadium in London, so “playing at Wembley” is shorthand for success and a shot at lasting fame.

Still with me? The semifinals of the League Cup are two games each, one at each stadium, and the total number of goals wins. In the first game at Sunderland, the “Black Cats” shocked Man U, 2-1. What I saw was the return leg at Old Trafford, the 75,000-seat “Theater of Dreams” where they always expect to win, especially in something as mundane as the League Cup against Sunderland.

One more thing: normally the away team gets 3,000 tickets to a league game, but for a cup game it can go up to 9,000. Sunderland was all over that, chartering 150 buses for the three-hour drive to Manchester, and packing their section with 9,000 screaming, chanting, singing fans. It was to be their big night, in the Theater of Dreams, and this is what I came over here for!

A Night at Old Trafford

First some pictures.

A shot of Old Trafford during a tour I took on a different day:

Sir Alex Ferguson Stand at Old Trafford.

Now, if you look at about the bottom of the first “E” in Manchester, that’s where my seats were for the game. I paid £55  for that, which was something like 90 bucks. I was only able to get those because it was “just” the League Cup against Sunderland on a Wednesday in January. Normally, buying Man U tickets is a nightmare.

Here’s a panorama taken that night, from my seat:

Panorama of Old Trafford just before the 2014 League Cup Semifinal vs Sunderland.

Here’s the Stretford End, home to the most passionate United supporters, starting to fill up. From an American perspective, one funny thing about games here is that about 5 minutes before kickoff the stands are half empty, then they suddenly fill up. I have no doubt this is for one simple reason: In England, it is illegal to drink alcohol within view of the field (pitch). So everybody pounds their pints in the corridor, then rushes to the seats.

About 20 minutes before kickoff, this was the Stretford End:

Streford End at Old Trafford

And here’s the Scoreboard End during the game. The upper section, and the corner to the right, is all Sunderland people; more on them in a moment. One thing, to a Yank: Do you notice a lack of color? If that was, say the Alabama section, it would be a sea of red. Over here it’s all about scarves and hats, and that’s about it.

Scoreboard (away) End

And here’s  a shot of them singing a common tune over here; I’ve heard almost every team sing it so far. If you can’t make out the words, it’s:

And it’s Sunderland!

Sunderland FC!

We’re by far the greatest team

the world has ever seen!

So, the game: Honestly, as a “neutral,” it wasn’t the finest match I ever saw. Man U hit the post in the first half, and the Sunderland keeper had a fantastic save, but eventually Man U scored to go up 1-0 on the night and draw level on aggregate, 2-2. This meant that the next goal would win. At the very end of the 90 minutes, Man U had a free kick that would have won it:

Instead, we had another 30 minutes to play, and for the Yanks again, there’s no “sudden death,” or “golden goal” as they say over here. Even if somebody scores, you play on. And, 28 minutes into that extra time, this happened:

This meant Sunderland had won it and was going to Wembley, and the chaos in the stands says all you need to know. Doesn’t matter that a grade-school goalie would have made that save — can you hear the Man U fan say “No!” right as it goes in? Fantastic.

I put it up in a Google+ Community of Sunderland people, and it went semi-viral. Look at the comments! And you should see my email! I may be a minor hero in Sunderland right now — should be interesting when I go to a game there.

And I know the feeling: It was a magical moment, captured in high-def video from the perfect angle, which is really just a coincidence. It just happens there was a neutral (me) in the United section, with an HD camcorder, small kids in front of me (no heads in the way), their fans framed perfectly behind the goal, and more interest in capturing the Sunderland fans than anything on the field. So, enjoy it, everyone. I am so glad I got to capture, and provide this.

BUT. This is Old Trafford. And Man United. And still two minutes to play. And, yes, they scored! Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez put one in during extra time (I didn’t video that), and we had penalties to figure out who’s going to Wembley. Amazing.

So, a quick word on penalties: You take five rounds and go until somebody’s got an unbeatable lead. So if it’s 3-0 after three rounds, you’re done. In this case, what followed was probably the worst penalty shootout anybody can remember. Seriously, they were still talking about it three days afterwards, as I post this. It was comical — and magical if you’re a Sunderland fan.

And, best of all for us, since I was also in the middle of my row, I didn’t have to move to let United people leave, so I was able to keep my camera running for nearly 11 minutes, capturing not only every kick but also all the celebrations afterwards. All I can tell you for setup is that when the fifth Sunderland player (in yellow) went up to kick, he could have finished it with a goal — and he was their star! After he missed, the United guy had to make it, and well, enjoy:

There at the end, they’re singing two different things. One is pure adoration for their goalkeeper: “Ooo, Vito Mannone!” Similar to this from the Arsenal fans, after they also beat Fulham (poor Fulham) with two goals from Santi Cazorla. The other song they’re singing is a classic soccer anthem:

“Que sera sera,

whatever will be will be.

We’re going to Wembley!

Que sera sera.”

They sang it in the ever-emptying Old Trafford, they sang it in the parking lot, they sang it in the streets, they sang it on the tram back to Manchester — along with virtually their entire catalog of songs — and they probably sang it all the way back to Sunderland.

And yes, Sunderland were off to Wembley. They had to play the monstrosity that is Manchester City, averaging something like 4 goals a game and shooting for the “quadruple” of winning the league, both domestic cups, and the European Champions League. But I wasn’t writing off Sunderland for a minute. If nothing else, they will have about 30,000 complete loonies on their side, and I do wish I could get back and see that game.

(Update: City won, 3-1)

Otherwise, if you love sports, and fans, and travel, and culture: Get your arse over to England and watch some footy!

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