How traffic snarl-up turned into stroll in the park for Sunderland
There was an accident blocking the A19 at the turn off for Ryhope. 'This is the start of it.' I thought to myself. Actually, I said it out loud. I often talk to myself. Sometimes, when no-one else is around, I have to give myself a pep-talk or a word of advice. Perhaps I didn't mean it to sound miserable but it did.
So I came off the A19 early and decided to try my luck through Easington and Seaham to avoid the road closure. Ironic really, because I ended up facing a dead end on a dirt track behind The Pemberton Arms Guest House. I’ve always had the suspicion my sat-nav hated me, this was just more evidence, teaching me the lesson for making plenty of time for my journey by showing me I wasn’t its boss.
This wasn’t going well. You try reversing 150 yards down a dirt track with just six inches of leeway either side and not have beads of sweat appear on your forehead. I found it impossible but that was a good sign, as it turned out.
The sun was shining over Seaham and eventually, I made my way through the harbour. I looked along the coast, the unbroken blue of the sky, the waves crashing in from the sea. Sunderland looked glorious.
It doesn’t take much for me to get dewy eyed and nostalgic when I come home. I only time I ever really miss the place is when I come back. I’ve become a master in the art of detachment but the very second I pull into Ryhope, it all comes flooding back. And I have to come through Ryhope, just so I can come through Grangetown, past my old house, past Southmoor School.
I pass The Hendon Grange pub, a place I’d thought had long since been pulled down. It stood there like a ghost and had as much of an effect too. Suddenly, everything felt right. We were going to be all right.
At the ground, a scene was repeated so many times it almost become comical. The question “What do you think?” was posed a hundred times over, with a anxious intake of breath through the teeth and the answer of “I don’t know.” following as surely as night does day. I felt uneasy whenever I imparted my positivity, convincing myself I’d be to blame if we lost. Killed by confidence.
“Why shouldn’t we be confident? We’ve been playing well.” I said to one member of staff. “Because we’re Sunderland.” they replied. It’s a very fair point. A point that too often has to be made.
Everton began well enough. You could see their players drifting in between the lines of Big Sam’s well structured side, Lukaku and Barkley picking up passes off the shoulders of Cattermole and Kirchhoff 70. Then it did begin.
Baines bodychecked Borini, dropping him to his knees like an extra from Platoon. Funes Mori panicked a clearance out of play as John Stones did his now customary “Cam down!” show of his palms. Younes Kaboul strode out of defence, breaking through challenges like a contestant running the gauntlet of fake doors on Takeshi’s Castle before his luck ran out and he ran into a real one.
The pressure was building and so was the chorus of “We are, Wearside. Say we are Wearside”. Then, what began as optimism in Seaham was realised. Robles gave himself too much of his left-handside to cover, which meant he was always going to take a step there in anticipation of Khazri curling it over the wall. He guessed wrong on both counts as PVA hit the ball to his right as he moved to his left. If the team needed a helping hand, this was it.
Next, a game of head tennis ended up with Lamine Kone bursting the net with the faintest of resistance from the Everton defence. Everton were done. One wasn’t. The body language of the players in blue was telling, yet so was that of the players in red and white who I’d criticised early in the season.
The additions of Kone, Kirchhoff and Khazri energised a side at a low ebb but Younes Kaboul and Patrick van Aanholt have been like new players themselves, showing us the best of themselves.
Robles flapping a Khazri corner to Kone was an irrelevance to this game yet 13 miles away it must have felt cataclysmic. Sunderland’s celebrations putting Newtons Third Law applied to football in its fullest effect.
What was tantamount to the biggest game yet to be played at the Stadium of Light became a procession and one some may look back on as one of the most important nights in the history of the club. But in comparison to the day Sam Allardyce returned to the club, it will always come second best.
The wrongs of last summer can be forgotten, and the absolute justification of his appointment should be celebrated and applauded.
What has been achieved under his guidance shouldn’t be underplayed. Like the shrewdest of poker players, Sam has played every hand perfectly, inching the club to safety and the difference between this year and last is there is a future with more bright days over Seaham to come. We love Sam Allardyce, and Sam seems to love us.
It’s easy to get emotional and allow it to cloud our minds again but this though, this feeling of redemption, this salvation, this relief is becoming like a drug. Love’s not the drug. Football is.