What happened in Trafalgar Square tonight ahead of Wembley final - and why it tells you everything you need to know about Sunderland fans
This was never just about 90 minutes of football.
Ask any Sunderland fan about their last trip to Wembley, and few tales will involve anything that happened once they set foot inside the famous stadium.
Instead tales will be of cramming onto an early morning train with cans in hand, and a few already sunk.
They will be of laughing their way down to London with friends - those familiar, and those whose company you only enjoy when decked in red and white.
They will be of swarming off the train and heading straight to the queue outside the Trafalgar Square Tesco, while frantically texting friends to co-ordinate plans.
They will be of turning the corner into Trafalgar Square to see the sea of red and white, and the lump in the throat that followed.
They will be of chanting. Chanting about disco pants, rockin’ all over League One and wise men in the middle of one of London’s famous landmarks.
And they will be of pride. Pride in the people of Sunderland, showing their passion to the country amid a cloud of red smoke.
But that was 2019, and now we find ourselves amid a completely different world - and walking through Trafalgar Square on the Saturday prior to Sunderland’s latest visit to Wembley was a stark reminder of that.
There were no red and white shirts. There was no chanting, and there were certainly no flares.
The streets were near-empty, and where there should have been 40,000 Wearsiders were a few skateboarders and some security staff.
Indeed, the only similarity between this year and the equivalent weekend in 2019 was the queue outside Tesco.
But this time, those in the queue weren’t joyous and ready to revel in the merriment. They were hunched in their coats, spaced two metres apart and clad with face masks.
While much has changed globally in the two years since Sunderland last reached this final, so too has much changed on Wearside.
The arrivals of Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and Lee Johnson have led to a new sense of optimism - and recent results have only seen that grow further.
This would have been a night to celebrate that. For one evening, Trafalgar Square would have become a beacon of that new-found hope. As the flares burned as bright as supporters’ optimism, the water from the fountains would have washed away the woes of months gone by - even if just for one night.
But on this occasion, Trafalgar Square was just a square. The fountains were just fountains, and a Saturday night was just another day.
Yet Sunderland were still represented in the capital.
Stood on the pavement, a London-based couple decked out in red and white scarves and armed with a can of gin and tonic spent some time looking over the square.
Earlier in the day, many more ex-pats had been and gone. They had to come, even if they knew they wouldn't be joined by their usual hoards.
And in its own way, that says everything you need to know about the commitment and passion of Sunderland fans – even in these dark times.