Every sports fan likes to complain. That’s the main point, really. I’m a Chicago Bears fan, for God’s sake. I’m made of gripes now. But we have it pretty good over here in the States, when compared to what you might go through in other parts of the world. What we would have all gone through had we been Sunderland supporters.
Can Liverpool Win The Quadruple? | What You Need To Know | FA Cup
For new soccer fans, you might not have heard of Sunderland. It’s been seven seasons since they appeared in the Premier League. But it’s far beyond that. Sunderland are one of the bigger clubs in England, at least in terms of their stadium and support. There is nothing else in Sunderland but Sunderland AFC. Their home ground, the Stadium of Light, holds 48k and is one of the largest in the land. It’s bigger than Chelsea’s. It’s larger than Everton’s. And a more rabid support one couldn’t find anywhere. It borders on a cult.
And it’s been hell for them. Not only did they get relegated from the Premier League in 2017, but the very next year they finished last in the Championship to get relegated to the third tier. And they spent four seasons in League One. Imagine the Bears getting kicked to the Pac-12 for seasons on end (maybe they should!) They went from away dates at Old Trafford or Anfield to standing in the freezing rain at Cheltenham or Doncaster. Ever get stuck in the weather at a rest stop? It’s about the same, feeling like you’re 100 miles from even getting to nowhere and what it says about you that this is where you are.
This was Sunderland, the poster child for a big club gone wrong, cycling through incapable or unwilling owners and managers and still in the muck. The vicious world of football showing just how a short period of mismanagement can handicap a club for a decade or more.
And there’s no club that any group of fans hate more than Sunderland fans hate Newcastle. Hate is a word we throw around too much in sports, but the feeling between these two clubs in the northeast of England is no exaggeration. I get physically ill whenever I see any combination of green and gold, and yet I am terrified of the bile that bubbles between Tyneside and Wearside. It is frothing.
There’s a Sunderland supporter close to me. I once watched a Tyne-Wear derby with him years ago that Sunderland lost on a last-minute Nikos Dabizas header. He was catatonic on a couch in the pub for the next five hours. He wouldn’t have even flinched for a nuclear bomb. That’s what losing one league game to Newcastle did to him.
At least Sunderland supporters, most of the time, could take solace in the fact that Newcastle had essentially been the same as them, a misguided basketcase. They’d also suffered inexcusable relegations, though never down to League One. They’d always underachieved when compared to the size of their support. And when the two shared the same league, Sunderland came out on top. Even in League One until this season, they could cling to the fact that they were hidden from their biggest rival and their nine-game unbeaten streak against them was protected. Sure, it was embarrassing to be two divisions below them for so long, but deep down they knew it ate at every Geordie that they hadn’t beaten Sunderland in years. And wouldn’t even get a chance to, as silly as it sounds. After all, superiority isn’t official until it’s on the field.
But then Newcastle were bought by the Saudis. And while that’s gruesome and repulsive in most ways, it still means what took place on the field was still hurtful to the Mackems. Suddenly, Newcastle weren’t a comedy case anymore. While Sunderland were toiling away in the Championship, Newcastle were securing games with AC Milan and PSG, things Sunderland fans have never known. Newcastle will, probably, be one of the biggest clubs in the world one day. Sunderland still have to scrape off the gunk after a game with Millwall. Even on the rise as Sunderland have been in recent seasons, they’re still getting kicked while they’re down.
And then the FA Cup throws them a lifeline. For the first time in seven seasons, Newcastle were drawn to come to the Stadium of Light. They might have all the money. They might have the memories of trips to Milan and Paris still bright and shiny in their minds. But now, for one afternoon, they’d have to arrive in the cauldron of the Stadium of Light. Wouldn’t this be the ultimate chip to have? To beat the nouveau riche Magpies on their own turf? Wouldn’t this be something Sunderland fans could carry forever? Newcastle may have all the oil money, and yet they can’t win the game their fans want most. That’s the FA Cup, the possibility for the little guy.
And better yet, this was the time to see Newcastle. They were beaten up. They were exhausted. They were playing terribly. They’d just gotten completely mauled by Liverpool in their last game, looking out on their feet for most of it. For the 40k+ heading to the stadium on Saturday, by the time they entered, the belief would have been palpable. It’s all lined up for Sunderland to have their crowning day.
Well . . .
Even this tattered version of Newcastle was miles beyond Sunderland. No player in the red stripes got within five yards of a player in black stripes for the entirety of the 90 minutes. The gulf in class couldn’t have been more illustrated. It was a stroll, which is about the worst outcome for Sunderland. Lose, sure. That happens. But for the difference between the two clubs now to be put in such relief that no one could miss it, that’s forever.
All month, since the third-round draw, spent in anticipation of getting just one afternoon to make Newcastle feel what Sunderland has felt for the past seven or eight seasons. To have convinced themselves that it was going to happen, that Newcastle was in just the type of form that Sunderland could catch cold on their best day. To be so excited to shout and sing until their lungs bled. And then . . .
Sometimes, the magic of the FA Cup is reality hitting you in the face like a 2×4. So is being a Sunderland fan.
Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate and on Bluesky @Felsgate.bsky.social