IT has been easy to fall out of love with football in the last few years. The beautiful game has been tarnished by money, exploited by oligarchs and priced out of the compass of many of the people who would previously have held it dear.
But every once in a while, something happens to make you remember why you fell in love with the game in the first place. Wednesday night’s remarkable events at Old Trafford, as Sunderland booked their first Wembley final appearance for 22 years, was one such moment.
It was a night that had everything – drama, heartbreak, seven of the worst penalties you could ever wish to see - and at the end of it, 9,000 jubilant Wearsiders had to pinch themselves just to make sure they weren’t dreaming.
Suddenly, from the embers of a season that had been careering towards the abyss under the chaotic control of Paolo Di Canio, the prospect of a glorious triumph has emerged.
The fact it had looked so unlikely just three or four months ago simply serves to make it all the more precious now. Sunderland supporters should cherish it because as we know only too well up here in the North-East, days like the one they will experience on March 2 do not come around very often.
When they arrive, though, they nourish the history of a club and sustain it through the inevitable dark days that follow. That is what Wednesday’s victory really means for Sunderland. A day out at Wembley, yes. Perhaps even the chance of qualifying for Europe. But more importantly, a shared set of memories that reaffirm the bond between shirt and supporter, club and community.
Think of famous dates in Sunderland’s post-war history, and what do you come up with? 1973, obviously. But also 1985, when Clive Walker’s missed penalty enabled Norwich City to claim the Milk Cup, and 1992, when Sunderland’s Division Two status did not prevent them pushing Liverpool all the way in the FA Cup final. For all its heartbreaking drama, you can probably also include the 1998 play-off final with Charlton Athletic on the list.
The common factor? Wembley. And the mass exodus of supporters on the east coast mainline and main arterial motorways that a weekend final in London entails.
The chaos started yesterday as Sunderland released their ticketing details for the final, with all season-ticket holders guaranteed at least one ticket for the game.
Plans are being hatched, hotels are being booked, lots are being drawn to determine who will be the designated driver. “I’ve heard that Jim has a couple of spare tickets because his mates have already booked to be away on holiday. I’ll give him a ring now.”
That’s why we’re all football fans. Forget the Sky-induced hysteria about worshipping at the altar of the self-styled ‘best league in the world’ or the notion that success should be measured on a balance sheet rather than by a trophy cabinet, we continue to turn up in our thousands because we buy into the dream that somewhere down the line, we’ll get to enjoy our brief moment of glory.
And when it occurs, we’ll be in it together. That’s the clincher here. It’s not an individualistic pursuit of success that carries us to those midweek matches in the rain and enables us to shake off the countless, inevitable disappointments that characterise life as a supporter, it’s the shared sense of being part of something bigger.
In this day and age, it’s increasingly hard to identify unifying causes or institutions that bond people together. In years gone by, it was easy. The pit or steelworks. The village or town. The clubs and societies that filled the limited space that could be termed ‘leisure’.
Now, life is more disparate and fractured. The old bonds have been broken, and communities have become much less unified, with the institutions that once gave people a shared sense of identity either diminished or defunct.
But for all that they have changed out of all recognition in an era of Premier League finances and overseas owners who have no interest or links to the areas their businesses represent, football clubs continue to confer a shared sense of belonging.
It’ll be evident in Sunderland in the build-up to March’s final, and it’ll be there on Wembley Way on the morning of March 2. Wearside will be out in force, an area that might be economically marginalised and, in the eyes of some, culturally insignificant, but which remains fiercely proud of its traditions, heritage and what it means to be from Sunderland.
Celebrating all of that at Wembley is an opportunity not to be missed, and while some neutrals might bemoan the potential for another one-sided final in the wake of Swansea’s rout of Bradford City 12 months earlier, the wider footballing world should cherish the presence of a club, and a group of fans, who regard the League Cup final as a huge occasion.
Last year, it was uplifting to witness the thrill that supporters of Swansea and Bradford experienced as they watched their team play in a game they never quite imagined would happen. This time around, that joy is the preserve of Sunderland.
If you’re of a red-and-white persuasion, breathe it all in. Because in 20 years time, if your club is experiencing different circumstances in the way that so many others have after a taste of success, you’ll still recall it with a sense of pride.