It’s Millwall this Saturday, a club that holds a place of its own along the timeline of my football career.
It was on March 6, 1993, that I was included in the Sunderland first-team squad for the first time due to Tim Carter falling ill the day before.
At that time, teams didn’t usually opt to have keepers on the bench, but, sensibly, the No 2 always traveled in case anything happening to the keeper who was playing, be it illness or an injury in the warm-up.
So there I was, 16 years old, looking more like 12 and so nervous it looked like there was an earthquake going off inside me.
I’m not sure if it would be of the same help these days, but back then I could have done with a handbook to prepare myself for being new into the first-team squad.
It all starts when you get on the coach to travel down the day before and you’re faced with the problem of where to sit.
If you don’t know about this, every first-team regular has their spot, or their table, where they sit at every away trip. That’s just the way it is.
Your choice of place depends on your place in the hierarchy, which clique you’re in and your age.
There were various pick-up points for the players, which included The Board Inn in Herrington and The Tontine on the A19. This was simply done so that, on our return, players could be dropped off nearer their homes and not have to go all the way back to Roker Park and then double back on themselves after a long return journey late at night.
The problem it posed for me was that the bus was half empty as we left Roker Park and it felt like a game of musical chairs as every time I took a seat, I was met with “you can’t sit there...that’s Bally’s seat” or “You can’t sit at that table...hat’s where the lads play cards.”
It got to the point where I seriously considered just asking the driver to stop the bus and let me climb underneath where all the bags were stored. I’d have been safer there anyway.
Eventually I found a spot where nobody else had claimed and settled in for the journey to London. Thirty seconds into my period of relaxation, a figure loomed over me.
It was Bally. “What are you doing sat down there?” he asked me. I’ve since got to know that Kevin Ball is one of the finest men in or out of football, but, as a first-year apprentice, it was impossible for anything he said to me not feel menacing.
I’d watched from the stands as Bally literally ran through people as if they weren’t there so, to me, the fear was justified.
I probably had a stupid look on my face as I was thinking about his question because every answer that I thought about giving sounded wrong.
I was right to think that. There wasn’t a right answer to it.
I became very defensive, as if he was accusing me of something. Which of course he was. I murmured “nothing, Bally. I’m not doing anything” as if I’d been caught doing something I shouldn’t have been by a teacher.
“Exactly my point,” Bally said, expecting the reply I gave hime. He’d done this dance before. “You’re doing nothing and you shouldn’t be. Now, I want you to start from the manager and work your way to the back of the bus and ask everyone if they would like a tea or a coffee.
“And once you’ve made everyone what they want, then you start at the front again.”
It was the equivalent of painting the Forth Bridge.
This was my second lesson after the seat arrangements; the youngest player on the coach always looked after the other players and staff for refreshments.
It’s something that Michael Gray was pleased about as the duties were passed on to the likes of Martin Smith, Michael Bridges, Sam Aiston and myself.
It might seem an insignificant thing, making tea, but was part of the process of of becoming a professional footballer.
It’s about being given a job to do by a leader, for the good of the rest of the team, and doing it to the best of your ability.
It’s about earning your place among the group and knowing you can be relied upon to do these small, menial tasks.
Sometimes you got verbal abuse simply because you were an easy target.
Sometimes, when your work wasn’t up to standard, you were reprimanded. But, in a small way, it was preparing you for what was in store should you make it.
The small jobs you were responsible for were tests to see how diligent you were. And more than that, do you know how good your balance and core strength has to be to carry what is basically lava in a cup down the length of a team bus hurtling 70mph down a motorway whilst being heckled without spilling it on yourself or, more importantly, on others?
The football itself is piece of cake compared to that.