Sunderland fan blog: Laughter, hope and joy in equal measure as supporters return to the Stadium of Light
The opening fixture of the season marks a fresh start for football fans each year.
And Saturday’s return to football inspired further symbolism of new beginnings while also signalling the return to Wearside rituals which have been passed down through generations.
Those memories of opening fixtures gone by may have been held by the majority of the 31,549 fans at the Stadium of Light on Saturday but very few August openers will compare to the range of emotions as fans started streaming back into their second home, as Sunderland faced Wigan Athletic.
A summer break between the end of one season and the start of a new campaign feels like an age to fans in a regular year but it had been 518 days since fans were able to attend a Black Cats fixture without restrictions and supporters across Wearside knew this would mean far more than the 2-2 draw with Gillingham they experienced back in March 2020.
This was a return. A rebirth. A chance to welcome new faces, as well as each other, back into a second home.
The old traditions remain.
Pints in the City centre before walking over the Wearmouth Bridge. The laughter, the hope, the fear. It all felt so familiar, yet so adverse to the pain, loneliness and instability of the time fans and the club had spent apart.
The click of the turnstiles was emotional to many, with some fans clearly struggling to comprehend they were returning to another aspect of normality - one which means more than most.
From hope to sheer elation and the South Stand concourse erupts into a party atmosphere.
Bellowing off the concrete, the cheers echo throughout the full end of the ground and out into the seats of the stand. Limbs fly around and the joy on each face is palpable.
Hardened long-term fans, weighed down by the club’s recent history, seemed to be as wide-eyed as the children they guide around the stadium, as nervous anticipation makes way for sheer, unbridled excitement at the return of football.
This year could be the one. The past can be forgotten, new signings, new fixtures, and those ever familiar dreams. It’s the hope that comes from the opening match of each football season.
For one matchday, there is a clean slate. A fresh start. This new season can be different. Refreshing. Illustrious.
And if there’s one thing we all needed after the last 18-months, it is a chance to - even for 90 minutes - look forward with hope.
The past can be forgotten, albeit for a split second.
For a short while, life can be wonderful again, sprinkled with the remarkable hope football can offer once again.