To say that I was excited to hear that Sunderland was playing in Toronto would be quite the understatement. To know that my Lads were now so close that I could finally reach out and see them within a fairly manageable drive was exciting news. For some people 400 miles might be too far to drive in one night after work across international lines. But not this guy, I’d cross international lines.
I’ve been know to drive the east coast on a couple tanks of gas and all the caffeine I can handle, so the state of New York and Lake Ontario wasn’t getting in between me and the Black Cats. Plus I was finally going to meet someone from the U.K. I’d talked to over the years for breakfast on the morning of the game so I was bound and determined to make it all the way there on the day before the game, which I did just before midnight (Google Maps lies!).
My daughter was going to go with me, seeing as how she’s a Black Cat in training and my wife had to work. When we set off I had grand intentions that maybe somehow I’d end up making her into a bigger Black Cat fan, maybe even during the game she’d learn to love them even more from being there. Seeing as how it would be both our first live matches, I knew my love would only be cemented by the atmosphere of being around singing Sunderland supporters. I had no idea what she’d come away with.
The morning of the game we met my mate for breakfast and I got to ask him all kinds of Sunderland questions. “Did the trees grow up?” “What is Sunderland like?”. And on and on. I’m sure it was tiresome but I was dying to find out more. He had to return to work and my daughter and i were off to the hockey hall of fame but not before he told me that he would bet that Jozy was “nailed on to score against us.”
As game time approached I got more and more excited, it was set to begin at 7 so we arrived at 5:30 to walk around. I couldn’t believe the number of Red and White kits that met me. They seemed to be everywhere. We walked all over and I was quite sad there was no one selling scarves or anything Sunderland related. Hopes dashed. Toronto F.C.’s field seemed ok from the outside but I wasn’t sure how close to the field we’d get for 30 bucks a ticket. (Keep in perspective Chelsea tickets at Red Bull Arena were well over 100 dollars for crap seats).
Once inside we found our seats and looked out at the field but also found the standing room section where other Cats were gathering. Cats from all over the world. The kits people wore were amazing, they had the Black Cats on the sleeve (which were absolutely fantastic) and there were cool t-shirts. On more than one occasion I told myself that these are the people I relate with. I’d never seen anything like it.
I knew it wouldn’t be too long after we got through the gates that the players would come out. It wasn’t more than maybe five or ten minutes later that they did. Vito and Jordan Pickford led the way and we applauded the keepers as they ran toward us to take warmups. Underneath the away fans’ section is a standing room area where you can see the goal area from what seems like only feet away, so for me it was a magical experience. I was mesmerized. There were my heroes warming up. Next thing I knew here comes this giant of a fellow running from the tunnel.
“Pants.” Someone yelled behind me. It’s Costel. I had seen him on television but seeing him in person, I realized the man was huge. He lumbered down the field but he was so agile. Watching him take crosses, he seemed so fluid. He didn’t move like I would imagine someone his size would. He was perfectly suited to be a keeper. Vito and Jordan took shots at net and Jordan missed one that hit a Toronto F.C. seat attendant right below us. The guy had his body turned away from the field and had no idea when he got stung by a Pickford drive. The entire Sunderland contingent had a chuckle as he tossed the ball back to the field.
A couple of fellows to the right of me were talking about the outfield players warming up and I noticed that Giach was out there to the right side with what might be the subs. The starting 11 seemed to be warming up on the left.
“Who’s that fellow,” he asked me pointing to the left.
“I think that’s Fletcher, he got quite the tan.”
“Where are you from? You’re not from England.”
“New York,” he stammered, “Why do you like Sunderland.”
That was the magical question I got asked from everyone I met. “Why Sunderland?” Why Sunderland indeed. It’s hard to put into words the passion and intensity for a club that you fell for. How do you explain it when it feels like you’ve known this club all your life. How do you explain it when it feels like this club is all you know. When this club plays and it’s the only thing that matters for that 90 minutes? Is it about the passion that they show on the field? Like Lee Cattermole? When my mate asked me who my favorite player was I said it was Catts but it’s hard to pick one.
“Why Sunderland,” I replied, “because the passion. Because they are Sunderland. I don’t know how to explain it more than that.”
“Aye,” he said, “like Cattermole. I like him. He plays with heart.”
“You can’t teach that.”
We stood there and talked about things. We watched them warm up. He told me he was at Old Trafford last season when we took three points from the Red Devils. He has a framed picture on his wall with his scarf he purchased from the match hanging around it. He was from the area and interestingly enough knew one of the linesman from the game.
“Joe,” he yelled.
The linesman turned and gave him a thumbs up as he ran through a warm up.
We watched Fletcher, Johno and Defoe take shots from just outside the box. I marveled at the pace on the shots. But Vito and Pickford took them in style. Some saved, some not, but they were diving and jumping and punching.
Finally the clock counted down and in the Lads ran to get on their green away kits for the match. To be fair, I asked if the green was as bad as it looked in the pictures. I was told it wasn’t and I’m going to say it grew on me as the match went on. I don’t think it’s as bad as the pictures look. Maybe if they play in a forest they’ll be trouble.
My daughter and I took our seats in row three of the far left hand section of the visitor’s area. We watched the Toronto F.C. people tell some Sunderland fans they had to hang a giant Sunderland flag at the top of the visitor’s area. I didn’t realize it until I saw pictures later but there were Sunderland flags everywhere there. When we sat down in our seats, we met a father and son from southwest England and unfortunately I can’t remember where. But they couldn’t have been nicer. The first thing the father asked when we sat down was whether we were from Sunderland.
“New York,” I said.
“New York? Why Sunderland?”
Again I repeated my take on why I chose the Cats. He told me had been to the Sunderland – Bristol Rovers Worthington Cup match back in 2000. The two couldn’t have been nicer. We chatted during the match, they said they were going to Niagara Falls the next day before heading back to England.
The anthems were sung and the starting line-ups were announced but there was no Jozy:
Sunderland: Pantilimon, Jones , van Aanholt, O’Shea (c) , Brown, Larsson, Cattermole, Rodwell , Johnson, Defoe, Fletcher .
Toronto: Bendik , Morrow , Perquis , Zavaleta , Jackson, Lovitz , Cheyrou , Warner , Delgado, Giovinco , Findley
I want to tell you that I can remember everything that happened during the first half. But I remember Toronto fans barely made noise. Meanwhile Sunderland fans were singing their hearts out and sang along:
“My garden shed is bigger than this,
My garden shed is bigger than this.”
One of my favorites:
“Sunderland til I die.”
“Ha’way the Lads.”
A brilliant one:
“Na na na na Jermain Defoe”
We are Sunderland of course we are going to out sing you. We out sang them and we were loud and we were proud.
The first 2o minutes or so we seemed to be on the back foot as Toronto came pouring toward where the away fans were sitting. I think at some point a comment was made that maybe the team was jet lagged and someone in front of us made a sarcastic remarked about being jet lagged.
“Jet lagged from what? Sacramento?”
But if you thought about it, they had been on the road from July 12 or so, crossed over to California, then crossed back to Toronto and they were working on training the whole time. Plus Toronto was in mid season form while Sunderland was barely two games into pre-season. I don’t think it’s fair to criticize. My mate from England seemed rather jet lagged, so I could see how it could be true.
I know Seb got himself a yellow when he got in a tussle with one of the Toronto players, I can’t remember who. They were grabbing each other’s shirts. In fact the Toronto player was shown a yellow as well. I was glad to see us showing fight and not giving in. Johno tried this really ambitious shot in the first half that almost caught their keeper napping, on the replay it looked like the keeper had no idea it was coming until the end. It would have been a marvelous goal. We kinda were even in the first half even though Toronto practically made a hockey line change about the half way mark and subbed in half a team. I never saw that before. We did well at stringing together some passes and playing some down the wings. Fletcher missed just wide on a header, Patrick made a brilliant tackle right in front of me and Pants made a couple good saves especially on a few corners.
A fan in front of me threw off Jonathan Osario who was taking a corner in front of us.
“OSARIO,” he yelled, “OSARIO!”
Osario looked up in the stands before whipping in this terrible ball that was headed out.
The second half meant Sunderland was attacking toward us so we got to see Fletcher and Defoe running at us and Johno crossing into the box. But not too long after it started, Matthews couldn’t clear the box and Toronto put one past Pants. 1-0. Ok. Ok. It’s not what I expected but let’s get it going.
The Lads showed fight. A couple of fans behind me wondered if Catts would get a card. He sure did. He tugged and pulled and a Toronto player helped by diving. The Canadian judge came over from the Pan Am games next door and gave him an 8 and the ref gave Catts a yellow. We kept fighting back and somehow we worked the ball to Defoe at the top of the box who worked the magic to get it past Bono (I thought he was in U2 not a goalie). There it was. Defoe came back to haunt them. I expected it was time for Jozy to show up. But nothing.
We went ahead not too long later on a Defoe tap in after he took a pass from Fletcher as they had a 2-1 with the Toronto goalie Bono. We sang some more. With minutes to go we watched Toronto fans streaming for the exits as we sang.
We stuck around til the end and the Lads came over and applauded us. All of them came over and we applauded them. We made sure to let them know we appreciated them.
No Jozy. I heard that he was nailed on to score, I won my friends house in a bet.
Pants looked good. Not enough movement on wings. Happy with Catts, Defoe, Van Aanholt and even Brown. Fletcher was ok, he had a nice assist during a stoppage of play. During the second half there was a stoppage down by the goal area and he kicked the ball and I yelled “nice pass,” he gave me a thumbs up. We do however need work on our corner defense, they came awfully close multiple times and I was certain they were going to score. Pants’ big foot stopped one goal from going in, you could hear it bounce off his shoe from up in the seats.
They say football is a uniting factor across many different nations, languages, backgrounds or religions. I have been to professional sports before and I’ve never experienced anything like meeting Sunderland fans. I was introduced to the family. I was welcomed. It didn’t matter that I was American. There were Canadians, English, Australians and people from all over. Football united us. I know what it’s like to be a part of something bigger than just being a fan, I know what it’s like to a part of the Sunderland family. It’s a way of life. I don’t know how to compare it to anything else. I can’t compare it to anything else. Sports in America is nothing like it. There is nothing that compares to it. This is magical. It’s passion. It’s a way of life, it’s something you have, it’s something that’s in your blood that you don’t give up. You either have it or you don’t and once you get it it doesn’t leave. You ask me why I’m Sunderland, I just am, I’m Sunderland til I die. I’m Sunderland and I’m passionate about it. I’m in the Red and White Army and proud of it. This was my first game but I promise you it won’t be my last. For all of you who were there, thank you…thank you for introducing me to the Sunderland family.
Only sight of Jozy:
The field from the standing room section:
Toronto and Sunderland…our Red and White army visible in the stands: