Panini and Twirls

In this regular feature we will be rummaging through the memory banks to pinpoint the earliest and most treasured memories of following Sunderland. This week, blogger Gary McLaughlin takes you back to the late nineties and turn of the millennium…

I have spent so much time on this first paragraph. I wrote about those horrible clichés everyone readily blurts out, you know, rollercoaster amongst others. Yuck. I even made up my own non-sensical one. How do you introduce someone to some of the most magnificent memories which magnanimously moulded the person you are today? Yeah okay too many M’s…

I was very much given freedom to choose my own paths in life. Sunderland was never imposed on me. I was never handed the kit unless I wanted it, I was never taken to a game without the opportunity to decline – I dare say had I done a bit of glory hunting like a few of my friends at the time, that would not have been frowned upon either. But Sunderland drew me in and I did nothing to resist it. My favourite kit incidentally, despite the fortunes it brought on the pitch, was the sky blue away kit from the 2002-2003 season. It’s not so blue these days after the early afternoons of ‘internach’ and ‘rush-ins’. Those are park football games by the way.

My memory is not fantastic but I vividly recall just a moment looking at a Panini sticker of Martin Smith, with his odd double-quiff thing, possibly from the ’97 season. I was eight or nine then. As a kid you were just so in awe of these players – they were untouchable and regardless of how useless they may have been, you would defend to the moon and back (for the record, I would not put Smith in the useless category). Such was the overwhelming optimism, I remember Ruud Van Nistlerooy scoring his second for Manchester United just before half time at Old Trafford. Despite Sunderland being three down and completely outclassed - I still fully expected us to win 5-4!

Before my teens the man most synonymous with Sunderland to me was actually Simon Crabtree. Saturday rituals were structured, scrupulous and all very much the same each week. I would take my pocket money to the Spar opposite my home to buy a large bag of crisps (salt and vinegar twirls) and a bottle of Coca-Cola. I was very meticulous when consuming these, ensuring they lasted throughout the first half and were finished before the second. Twirl by twirl, never more than one at a time, ensuring I had all of the flavour before crunching. I swilled the Coke with each swig – something that drives my wife round the bend to this day. I was riddled with OCDs as a kid!

Kick off and I always started off on my bed, but the radio would be on the other side of the room on the floor because of where the electric sockets were. Depending on how exciting or intense the match was, I would often find myself lying tummy-down on the floor, propping my head up with my right arm, swaying my feet vigorously in anticipation for a goal. Every time a goal was scored I would leap to my feet, sprint down stairs to tell my father. No idea why because I knew he was listening to it as well whilst preparing dinner (spag bol, every Saturday – oh yes!).

Everyone remembers Crabbers’ famous rant after the final whistle back in ’00, but that was not my most treasured memory from those years perched in front of the radio. It was from the same game mind; Tommy Sorensen’s incredible and infamous save from Alan Shearer’s penalty – that was my favourite moment. Everything just went insane, Crabtree went insane, I went insane, dad went insane.

When he and Gary Rowell were parted it was pretty much the same time I stopped listening to Sunderland commentary in quite such a ritualistic manner.

My first game was the first game at the Stadium of Light, the friendly against Ajax, aged 9 – I never did have the pleasure of going to Roker Park unfortunately. Here I am, in the middle, during the SoL construction;

As such a young lad you really could not comprehend just how huge and empowering the new stadium was. I felt energised in a way I had never encountered before; the butterflies would lose control with each gasp of the simply spectacular atmosphere. The walk through the turnstiles, through the access and up the stairs took us maybe fifteen minutes we were travelling with such a dawdle – gazing at what felt like a different world. You really did get a sense of ‘this is it, this is where success starts’. It worked too, for four seasons at least. I did not really chant or shout, or even stand too much during the game. I sat, relatively quietly, knocking my knees together and finding it difficult to concentrate on the pitch with my eyes wandering around every corner of what is such an incredible place.

Kevin Phillips scored a perfectly good goal which was disallowed yet despite that, the couple of seconds where 42,000 of us all thought we had scored – I could not possibly describe it. I know it was a friendly and ultimately meant nothing, but for me it was the first moment I felt anything like that, it will come with me to my grave no doubt.

There was me, my dad and one of my brothers at the match. Bovrils at half time, you really could not get much more stereotypical – it was brilliant.  After that, my attendance was quite sporadical, some league games, most cup games, it was not until ’09 when I picked up my first season ticket. I do not anticipate putting it down anytime soon!

To be quite honest this blog could quite possibly have went on for 10,000 words. I do not think I would ever be able to do justice to those early memories. They really did play an enormous part in who I am today.

If you would like your story here – please email us You don’t even need to write the whole thing…we can help you out there!

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