When I left home, I vowed I’d never return to Sunderland to live until I had become a success.
It was just something I had in my head. I thought if I did have to come back before I’d earned my fortune, it would be with a sheepish look on my face and my tail tucked firmly between my legs.
Eighteen years on and the kind of success I dreamed of clearly still evading me, I’m still not ready to return permanently.
That said, I wouldn’t be returning to the same place. Not the the Sunderland I knew.
I often get the train back to the North East, jumping off at Newcastle and riding the Metro to Millfield, where my parents live. The very moment I reach the top step and look up and down Hylton Road, nostalgia fills the air. Often, I arrive there late at night, the pavements deserted of people but filled with ghosts of my memories.
It’s the same when I walk around the City Centre. I swear that I still see Vaux’s Brewery as I pass. My brain flashes up an image of the old red brick walls before my eyes realise the truth and the image fades away.
It’s the same with Crowtree Leisure centre. I know it’s not there but even just staring into the void its demolition left behind, I can still hear the heavy spring of the diving board, the whistle of the lifeguards, glaring at anyone bombing, and the sauna hot aroma of the chlorine.
An involuntary shiver runs down my spine as I think of the very moment you walk outside and the first gust of cold air hits the wet of your hair, making you cradle the small plastic cup of hot chocolate, that cost you 20p a little, bit tighter.
Taking my nine-year-old daughter to point out the places I liked to go at her age has become a race against time. Since the last time I wandered down Holmeside, half of it has vanished. Marlowe’s is mere rubble. Seeing as we spend half of our time together looking around the top floor of Fenwick’s, I would have loved to have taken her to Joseph’s toy shop.
That said, I couldn’t tell you what was in there for her as I had tunnel vision for Subbuteo teams and Star Wars figures whenever I walked through the doors and up the stairs.
A few years back, I took her to show her the first house I lived in on Beverley Road in Grangetown. I’d told her stories about this huge garden we had that felt like a jungle at the time. As I pulled down the lane behind the house, I pictured our dog Sooner jumping up at the back gate, barking (you probably think Sooner is a weird name for a dog, but it was my Nana Ena who named him as he would sooner do his business in the house rather than outside).
The last six months have been strange for me. Stepping back from 25 years in football and going freelance has felt like letting the rope to an anchor slipping through one hand whilst holding on to a hot air balloon with another.
After years of living the gypsy life, moving from one contract to another, I needed something to hold on to more than ever. I needed Sunderland to give me security. But it had all gone.
Of course, some parts are the same but just like me, they have fallen into disrepair and are largely unrecognisable from what they once were. Both of us in desperate need of regeneration. Of a revival.
After my lusting after things that were no longer there subsided, comfort came from across the road in Mowbray Park. I looked across at the face of one of the lions that rest upon the walls of the park. There was my anchor to hold on to.
I took my daughter across to look at them and remind her of the times I’d taken her there as a toddler on our rare visits to sit on them, just as I had done dozens and dozens of times at the same age.
I was putting the final links in a chain connecting me and my daughter with the past. Connecting her with my past felt important to me. To know where part of her comes from. And then it dawned on me.
Sunderland isn’t about its buildings or the industries that have become just a memory. It’s about what we have now, what we still have and cherishing it rather than longing for the past.
Our bid to become City of Culture 2021 could not have come at a better time. Not just because of a need for funding or to bring visitors to the region. It’s so we can celebrate the true assets of Sunderland; the people. That is what have to offer to the world. Hard working, creative, resourceful people.
This isn’t a column about football, but it should provide a reminder to everyone at Sunderland AFC that due to the decline of other areas of the city that it plays an ever-increasing important role in the city and the love and passion that is shown to them, needs to be reciprocated.
The club finds itself in limbo right now and with doubts lingering over ownership in the short-term, the long-term future of the club leaves it without an anchor. And with that, the fans are left hanging on the end of their hot air ballon.
At this moment in time, survival or relegation isn’t even the real issue in minds of the fans I speak to.
Apathy is a threat that the club or the city can ill afford, and without the anchor of identity and a clear vision from within the club, the threat is real.
As devoted and loyal as Sunderland people are, we all need our anchor to hold on to, to feel that connection.
Whatever league the club finds itself in, the sooner the long-term future of the club is decided, the better for everyone.
Especially the fans.