Phil Smith: It’s good to be back home but Sunderland memories followed me all over

Craig Gordon during the Old Firm clash
Craig Gordon during the Old Firm clash
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One of the delights of the festive period is catching the football that can otherwise pass you by, to take a closer look at names you’ve heard good things about, from leagues who you don’t have the time to follow as keenly as you’d like.

The Old Firm derby was a prime example, a frenetic encounter featuring a commanding performance in the Celtic goal from Craig Gordon, a player who sadly was never able to fulfil his seemingly bottomless potential on Wearside.

Martyn Waghorn

Martyn Waghorn

Gordon signed for Sunderland on my 16th birthday, the greatest present possible for a young lad who idolised a string of brilliant keepers. Thomas Sorenson, Mart Poom, Kelvin Dav... well, perhaps not him. It makes returning to the North East an even greater thrill, at a time when a young lad from Washington looks set to eclipse them all.

Gordon’s Old Firm win also featured a rather forgettable substitute cameo appearance from Martyn Waghorn, a moment at which the thought occurred that it often seems like you can turn on the TV on any given day and watch a former Sunderland player who will bring thousands of memories flooding back. Good, bad, indifferent, one of the truly remarkable things about following Sunderland is the extraordinarily diverse cast of characters who have played their part in the story.

There has been talk for many a year of the club’s identity, or lack thereof, and certainly there have been times when this tale has strayed too close to tragedy and comedy.

They’ve always been enough to keep me interested, creating a tale that you can’t put down or let go, once it’s become a part of you. That’s a lesson that became clear on the first proper game I watched through neutral eyes, six years ago. The other Scottish derby, Hearts v Hibs.

Kenwyne Jones

Kenwyne Jones

Those who have been will know that going to Tynecastle, home of Hearts, is a very special footballing experience in itself; an old-fashioned ground that doesn’t reveal itself until the very last moment, hidden behind rows of terraced housing, social clubs, newsagents and greasy spoon cafes. From the traditional turnstiles to steep stands ending just centimetres from the pitch, its in this day and age a unique experience.

Yet even in its thrall, you are left thinking of Sunderland.

The teamsheets drop, and up front for Hearts is Stephen Elliott. A name that brings back memories of stunning strikes against Manchester and Newcastle United, but also of a team ill-equipped and unable to survive the top tier. Peter Reid’s brilliant side was my first, but that team gave me a much better idea of what it is to follow Sunderland.

Leading the line for Hibs is Roy O’Donovan, and suddenly your mind races to last-minute bedlam at St Andrew’s. O’Donovan lying on top of Birmingham keeper Colin Doyle and inexplicably getting away with it; Stern John slamming home at the far post for a precious point, Keano and Quinny’s magic carpet ride sailing on for another day. That side made me fall in love all over again.

Perhaps unsuprisingly, that Tynecastle clash was settled by players elsewhere on the pitch.

It’s a pattern, though, that will follow you no matter where you go to watch the professional game on these shores.

Twelve months following Cardiff City – my job before joining the Echo – brought it home. Kenwyne Jones was sold, and fans were lamenting a talented striker’s inability to make the most of his prodigious talent and striking physique. Familiar.

A trip to Rotherham, where Greg Halford was struggling in the Millers midfield. The ironic cheers from his own support that greeted his substitution evoked many a day and night of acrimony at the Stadium of Light. A red card at Fulham sticks in the mind, Roy Keane staring daggers on the touchline. Cruelly, Sunderland did better without him, scrambling a late equaliser.

There have been plenty more, a particular highlight was Danny Graham scoring a goal for Blackburn that deflected off just about everyone on the field before crawling over the line. He always tried.

This current squad is no different, an interesting collection of players who have brought their own completely unique attributes and shortcomings to the latest chapter.

It has been a season of angst, anxiety and so far, disappointment, but the beauty of Sunderland is that there is always something to cheer, to enjoy, to cling onto.

New cult heroes, unlikely but fitting additions to the story.

No more so than Victor Anichebe, whose career in the North East so far has been brilliant and baffling in equal measure. The memory drifts back to the game at St Mary’s earlier in the season, the first after the Nigerian’s embarrassing twitter gaffe.

Many fans would have gone for the throat, but in a dreary game in which Anichebe floundered, the travelling support chanted his name incessentantly.

His next start came a fortnight later at Bournemouth, and the rest is history.

That feelgood tale has admittedly been all too infrequent this season, and with the gap at the bottom opening and the pursestrings tightening, it could be a difficult 2017.

Yet one thing is for sure, it is a story that will always be worth following. There will be moments and tales that will live long in the memory, triggered years later with a smile and often the shake of a head.

It’s an extraordinary honour to have the chance to cover it, and I can’t wait to share it with such a passionate fanbase, the same fans I’ve been shuffling over the bridge and into the light with for 16 years.

Ha’way the lads.