How Sunderland fans are bringing the 'magic' back to the Stadium of Light

“Shut up, you!”

Wednesday, 21st August 2019, 8:00 pm

The suggestions that Sunderland will suffer defeat at the hands of Portsmouth are quickly shot down. The perpetrator branded a ‘defeatist’.

This could be any group of supporters in any pub across Wearside - but this clutch of two dozen loyal fans have ditched their pre-match pint for the time being.

Instead, they head into the bowls of the Stadium of Light two hours before kick-off, armed with nothing but their pride and passion, ready to make a difference.

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The Sunderland fans who are bringing the 'magic' back to the Stadium of Light

For almost an hour they trot up and down the steps of the Roker End, with flags draped over shoulders and held under arms.

It’s this work which contributes to the stunning flag display which welcomes the players onto the hallowed turf before every home game.

There’s a great deal of preparation that goes into each display, and is led by a team of regular volunteers rounded-up by the Red and White Army supporters’ collective.

And even the youngest members of this gaggle of supporters are seasoned veterans, and they quickly teach this reporter the ropes.

Mark Donnelly (3rd from front) with Sunderland fans as they start to up the flags before their game with Portsmouth at The Stadium of Light. Picture by Frank Reid

After helping haul the giant surfer flag - which straddles half the stand when complete - across a few treacherous rows of seats, I stop to speak to some of the willing volunteers.

A relative newbie to the team is Margaret Conroy of Washington, a North Stand season ticket holder whose son and grandson have both been regular assistants with the display.

And my first query is a simple one - why do it? Without hesitation, Margaret answers: “When you’re sitting over in the North Stand and look over at the display, you get a bit of a chill and think ‘I’m part of that’.

“That’s what’s great about this club - it makes you feel part of it.

Mark Donnelly (rear left) with Sunderland fans gather to set up flags before their game with Portsmouth at The Stadium of Light. Picture by Frank Reid

“Sunderland fans have gone through a hell of a lot and for them to turn up in their numbers to do this…the owners and the players can really thank the fans for this.”

Marshalling the flag-laden troops is 21-year-old Bradley Armstrong - who has the operation running like a well-oiled machine.

He has the intricacies of the South Stand down to a tee, memorising the precise location that affords each flag the best visibility, but is keen to share the credit for a sterling effort.

“It can be quite hectic when there’s not a lot of people here,” he admits.

Sunderland fan Dave Readman with flags before the game with Portsmouth at The Stadium of Light. Picture by Frank Reid

“But when you have a good group, like we had today, it’s good for everyone.

“Everyone can bond and it’s great putting on this display for the football club.

“You get goosebumps when you see it and afterwards, when it’s on social media, it’s really worth the effort.

“It’s the passion that drives us - everyone here takes time out of their matchday and deserve a lot of credit.”

Bradley later has me helping to hoist the ‘two poles’ - large flags depicting the Black Cats’ memorable achievements down the years.

It’s a tough task - but one I’m assured will be worthwhile.

“It’s hard work at first,” laughs Margaret.

“But once you get them out and see the atmosphere it creates - it’s magic.

“I didn’t realise how excited I would be when the flags came out.

“Hopefully this helps us show Sunderland off and show what kind of supporters we are.”

And the display has certainly caught the eye of club officials and players - in particular Supporter Liaison Officer Chris Waters, who lends a hand in the build-up to the game.

“I think it’s really added to the atmosphere of the stadium,” he said.

“The fact the flags have a nod to the Roker Park days - I think everyone is really keen on getting involved.

“It just brings a real feelgood factor to the stand and everybody is seeing it as part of the pre-match build-up now.

“Even the players have said how great it is to see.”

After 45 minutes, the work is done. Flags are positioned throughout the Roker End, with the large surfer banner ready to be unfurled when the Black Cats and Pompey enter the fray.

The display makes a fine impression to the watching audience on Sky Sports, but the supporters won’t be resting on their laurels. The plan is to get bigger and better.

“We’ve got a couple of things in the works,” adds Bradley.

The post-match flag collection is made easier by a vital win. The pre-match score prediction is well and truly buried, and the magic is back at the Stadium of Light.