My English soccer tour has always been mostly about people. And in this post from…
Back in the Championship: 2022 Game Day at Sunderland
Sunderland are back in the Championship for the 2022-23 season, and I hadn’t been there in ages, so a visit to the Stadium of Light was a proper kickoff for my latest groundhopping adventure.
I hope to see dozens of games on this trip, including ticking off the last of “the 92” in the English leagues. And Sunderland is a dear club to me, as an early encounter with them took my love and appreciation of English football to another level.
That was in 2014, when they made the semifinals of the League Cup (what is the League Cup?) and had a second-leg tie at Manchester United. When I heard Sunderland had sold 9,000 tickets for that game, I thought this was something I needed to see. And since it was the “David Moyes season,” spirits were low and tickets were easy.
In the end, Sunderland’s Big Night at Old Trafford showed me what real passion looks like:
That video introduced me to a bunch of “Mackems” who took me in as their “Marra,” got me into the away end at Stamford Bridge for another big game during their struggle to stay up that year, and finally I saw them play Arsenal at home in the Premier League.
After that, they crashed and burned, suffering relegation (what’s relegation?) in two straight seasons to land in League One (what are all the leagues and cups?) in a story very well documented in the documentary “Sunderland Til I Die.”
Well, at the end of the 2021-22 season, they won the promotion playoffs (what are the promotion playoffs?) so, for the 2022-23 season, they were back in the Championship. And their home game on Opening Day was moved to a Sunday at Noon, so off I went on a Saturday train from London to Wearside.
I got a hotel across the street from the stadium, to keep things simple, so game day was a breeze. The only other thing on the to-do list was try and meet up with John, a follower of my personal Twitter account who had hooked me up with the ticket.
John and I couldn’t quite connect on Twitter, so I had to write off that ambition, so then I just went for a walk around to take in the scene. I bought a pin badge from this gentleman, who seemed genuinely confused I wanted to take his picture:
Then I found the Supporters Association, which I always enjoy for a visit. They sell souvenirs and, among other services, arrange coach trips to away games. It’s fun to drop in, as they always feel old-fashioned and offer some decent viewing and stories, if they aren’t too busy.
I popped into a great pregame pub, the Colliery, always packed for game days.
Next I went over to the Fans Museum (fansmuseum.org) near the River Wear, where I found not just a museum loaded with displays, but a full-on scene of supporters having a drink. It’s a must-stop for pregame at Sunderland!
And then I headed for the game, where among the crowds of people — there were well over 40,000 in attendance on the day — someone walked up and said something to me, which I took to be some kind of request for money or something, so I ignored it. But as I took a few more steps, I replayed it in my head, and I thought, “Did he say my name?” I looked back, and he was stood there typing on his phone, and I realized this was John from Twitter! He recognized my Timbers cap in this big ol’ crowd!
We had a nice little visit, he showed me around a bit and shared some stories, then we took a selfie over by the Bob Stokoe statue:
If you want to follow Sunderland at all, you need to know who Bob Stokoe is, and where he was going in that very famous pose.
Sunderland won the 1973 FA Cup, when they were in the Second Division, now called the Championship. They beat Leeds United, the best team in the country at the time and the Cup holders from the previous season. Final score was 1-0, and you will also want to know the name of the goal scorer, Ian Porterfield.
Towards the end of the game, Sunderland goalkeeper Jimmy Montgomery made one of the great double saves in history to preserve the lead — so amazing the commentator famously assumed it was a goal — so at the final whistle Stokoe took off running across the pitch to celebrate — straight for Montgomery! It’s a famous moment, which you can see along with Porterfield’s goal and Montgomery’s save in this charming little video:
And now for the game, with Coventry City in town to kick things off and John letting me know I should definitely get in early for the pregame display the supporters had planned. It, and the atmosphere generally, did not disappoint.
It was a great game which ended 1-1. Sunderland started out strong and took a lead created by my fellow American Lynden Gooch and put in by their young star Jack Clarke, but then they faded and Coventry’s quality eventually came through. They have a sought-after young goalscorer named Viktor Gyökeres, from Sweden, who scored a banger to level it.
It’s probably a fair projection as to how Sunderland’s season will go: start well, then hang on as your young squad, built in and for League One, tires down the stretch. John told me a portion of their fanbase thinks they belong in the Premier League, but for right now, and especially with everything they have been through of late, staying in the Championship this season would be a great accomplishment.
The highlights from the day:
Paying a Visit to Sunderland’s Old Ground, Roker Park
After the game, I headed over to visit the site of Sunderland’s old ground, Roker Park, as well as a beach of the same name nearby. I managed the walk in about 30 minutes from the stadium, including a recommended swing along the Sunderland Marina to admire the boats. Roker Beach is nice, and you can walk out to a lighthouse there. Also nearby is a pub, the Harbor View, popular with fans on game day.
Roker Park, which was famous for it’s “Roker Roar” sound levels, was converted into housing after its demolition. This is a very common story, but in this case, the names of the streets reflect the history …
And the location of the old center circle is now marked in the street, as well as on Google Maps!
Seeing a game at Sunderland is highly recommended, even if (sorry, Mackems!) staying in nearby Newcastle might be more fun.