Prior to the 2014 League Cup final, I stood behind a Sunderland supporter that walked out of the Emirates Stadium as Arsenal added a third just before half-time.
“It’s all right, I’m going to Wembley, next week,” he shrugged.
I never went to the League Cup final. I never ate cheesy chips on Wembley. I had attended pretty much every away fixture in Sunderland’s Great Escape (part one) season and had been at Old Trafford on that fateful night but the golden Wembley remained ever elusive.
I don’t live in Sunderland. I have only spent four years of my life in the North East yet being from a Sunderland-supporting family, I have been duty bound to follow The Lads since I was old enough to know better.
Like many exiles, home games for me become akin to away fixtures with early starts and long journeys involved and, unfortunately, I can not make the same commitment as others yet still see 15 to 20 games a season, including those cold nights in Doncaster, Morecambe or wherever else Sunderland find themselves. Yet I can’t prove it.
Sunderland’s return to the national stadium for the first time in five years ignited excitement among supporters. Plans had been mooted for weeks, hotels reserved, trains provisionally booked and work holidays logged waiting for the green light that would be Jack Ross’ men vanquishing Bristol Rovers.
The level of enthusiasm for reaching the final of a relatively minor competition presented the club hierarchy with a problem. From the initial switch over to Ticketmaster to mixed messages and a series of system crashes, the scramble to secure tickets has somewhat taken the shine off Sunderland’s big day at Wembley.
The club’s handling of the most attractive game of the season, and subsequent reaction from a section of supporters, has left a sour taste. The initial announcement that season ticket holders would be guaranteed a ticket was perfectly reasonable but it is judging the next level of loyalty that is hard to gauge. Instead of going off the loyalty scheme which is in place for every away game, the club’s decision to require supporters to purchase tickets for a future game against Walsall was both confusing and infuriating.
Exiles and branch members, like myself, make up a significant contingent of Sunderland’s support but with tickets arranged through friends or the branch, the evidence for our attendance is lost. It felt that supporters in this parameter were being left in the cold or being asked to pay a premium to secure their final ticket because they can’t display their “loyalty”.
As non-season ticket holders scrambled for membership numbers and Walsall tickets, confusion reigned as to what qualified fans for priority two. The club, including owner Stewart Donald, sent out mixed messages while some season ticket holders seemed to revel in the panic.
It quickly became a case of the haves and have nots with some supporters taking to Twitter to openly mock fellow supporters.
The suggestion that supporters could not commit to a season ticket because they didn’t live in the area or seemed a bit put out by being forced to purchase a ticket for a game they couldn’t attend, for the chance of going to Wembley was met with complete derision.
During the dark days of the past few seasons, supporter unity has been key to not tearing the club apart but with a showcase game on the horizon it seems that the “we’re all in this together” sentiment is only extended to those deemed loyal enough.
Should Sunderland be faced with another situation of this ilk, say perhaps at the end of May, it is only hoped that both the club and supporters find a more amicable way of handling it.