Do you remember the first time someone broke your heart?
You were probably in your teens, so besotted you misguidedly thought you were going to spend the rest of your lives together.
You just couldn’t see a world beyond them.
From the moment you met, it was love and the best thing about it all was eventually, over time, they wanted you too.
Desperately wanted you, in fact.
You played it cool at first, occasionally catching their eye, letting them see you were in the line of sight of others, but deep down you knew they were the one.
Before you know it, you’re a couple and life couldn’t be better. It’s hard work at times but you console yourself with the fact that nothing ever worth having came easy.
Then the bomb is dropped. Cliche armageddon.
“It’s not you, it’s me. We’ve just grown apart.” they say.
You saw it coming but just kept your head down and ignored the signs in the hope they’d change their mind.
They didn’t, so you cry, then you cry a bit more and vow you’ll be back stronger, better, and find someone else who you’ll love even more. You do, but it’s not the same.
So what next?
As best as you try, you pretend they don’t exist but there’s no escape from them. Not completely.
From time to time, you allow your thoughts to be dragged back to the past, only remembering the happy times, selectively forgetting the arguments and fights.
Eventually, you get over them. Your new love seems closer, more genuine, more mature. Rather than fall in love, you grow to love, but still it isn’t the same.
To many, that’s how their first experience of romance with a boy or girl ended, but for me it’s exactly how I’d describe my relationship with Sunderland.
The way it worked out, Aberdeen were the club I grew to love and became “married” to, before having affairs with Silkeborg and Barnsley, but Sunderland was, and always will be, my first love.
Yet, they broke my heart years before any woman ever got near it.
It could be said that they’ve broken, and will continue to break the hearts of many fans on a weekly basis.
It just wouldn’t be Sunderland if they didn’t, would it?
In football, they say managers and players who have been successful at a club and then moved on, should never go back.
It’s true in many cases but this last week I showed total disregard to “them” and committed the cardinal sin of allowing myself to fall back in love again with Sunderland.
After my appearance in the last ever game to be played at Roker Park against Liverpool, I walked out those doors for the last time, broken and in tears.
Injury and a loss of confidence thereafter, had robbed me of my dream.
Now I was back again, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel. After all, the only time I’d stepped into the Stadium of Light before last Saturday was to play in a charity game a few months after departing and it just didn’t feel like home.
On my arrival, I wasn’t even sure if anyone would remember me, given almost two decades had passed – the biggest difference being my inability to grow any facial hair back in 1997, never mind a full beard.
As I entered the media room, any nerves or apprehension faded away as I was greeted bu old, familiar face after old, familiar face.
Rob Mason, my drama teacher from Southmoor School and match programme editor was the first to greet me.
Then Michael Proctor, now working within the club’s media department.
It became a flood – Gary Bennett, Marco Gabbiadini, Michael Gray, Graeme Anderson, Andy the doorman. They kept coming.
The two hours prior to the match seemed to fly by in minutes and before I knew it I was up in my seat with the rest of the media, looking down on 45,000 nervously vociferous, fanatically loyal, expectant fans, waiting for fate to run its course.
Then, if I’m brutally honest, the football went and spoiled it.
It’s a world where billion pound TV contracts have made sure the fear of failure supersedes the will to win.
Both sides acting like cagey boxers, keeping their distance wary of a sucker punch.
I looked down in front of me, one fan stood up alone, singing his heart out. Across from him, a row of nail-biters, sporadically screaming “HA’WAY, MAN!” at every possession given up.
Each half chance and effort was met by a stadium rising as one, hoping, praying, believing this was finally it.
The goal never did come, of course but the fans belief never swayed. In every face, I could see how much it all meant to them.
For all the vastness of my “new” surroundings, the irrelevance of the stadium in which I sat dawned on me.
I could have still been sat in the Clockstand at Roker Park for all it mattered.
When all is said and done, it’s the people of the city that make Sunderland great.
Only when I was sat amongst them again, that’s what made me feel like I was home.