Where next? Sunderland`s Stadium of Light.
Where are we seated? It`s all change for the visiting support this year. In previous seasons, away fans had been allocated 3,000 seats in the Metro FM Stand, behind the south goal. However, this year away supporters have been moved to the upper tier behind the goal in the North Stand. This is a bit of a shame, the South West corner houses the noisiest of the Sunderland fans just over the fence from the away support, which always made for a good atmosphere. I`m told the club have moved visiting fans to avoid altercations in a boisterous area of the stadium. Like I said, a shame and I suspect the experience of going to the Stadium of Light will be poorer and more sanitised as a result.
What`s it like? From an architectural stand point, it`s in the identikit mould painfully familiar for clubs that built new stadiums in the late 90s. It`s only identifiable from the likes of Pride Park, Walker`s Stadium, Madejski and the Ricoh Arena because the seats are red. It`d distinguishable from Middlesbrough`s Riverside only because a couple of the stands are two tiered. It has a lopsided look too, with two of the stands two tiered affairs, whilst the South and West Stands only have one.
However, the fans and the club give it a greater character than the aforementioned bowls. For instance, the ear splitting volume at which “The Dance of the Knights” by Provokiev is played both makes the hairs on your arms stand erect, and also serves as a siren call to supporters to finish their beers in the concourse and make their way to their seats. The stadium seems to fill in seconds as the first notes of this lofty string composition sets the scene. As one would expect from a modern stadium, sight lines are good and leg room is plentiful. I would imagine that remains the case in the North Stand, Upper tier, even if I do worry that one will feel cut off from the atmosphere up there.
What are the facilities like? Again, as one would come to expect from a modern stadium, the facilities leave you with little room for complaint. The concourses, in the Metro FM Stand at least, are very, very wide (even if the overall décor has something of the multi storey car park about it).
It being “The Norf” prices are much more palatable, even if Sunderland do us a disservice by serving fizzy pigswill such as Foster`s and Strongbow. And John Smith`s of course. John Smith`s is kind of like the soft porn of beers. People that don`t like bitter don`t like it. People that like bitter don`t like it. Yet it sells millions of units every year. Who are these people that keep buying it? Is there some kind of international conspiracy to piss me off? Or has the recession ground down your self worth to the point that you`re willing to debase yourself by drinking this vile concoction of bin juice and old man`s farts?
In any case, prices are around the £3 mark for a pint. If your dignity is worth that little to you, knock yourself out. Pies and hot dogs are about £2.50 and taste exactly the same as they do at pretty much every other ground in the country. (They don`t taste of anything at all, it`s just empty gristle).
What are the home fans like? Passionate, loud, witty, self deprecating when the occasion calls. A couple of very meek relegations in recent history have armed Sunderland supporters with the perspective and customary humour so sorely lacking in their rivals Newcastle. (Newcastle fans tend to be hysterical, whilst Mackems fans take strife and success in their stride). In fact, Sunderland supporters are pretty much everything the press has been telling you Newcastle fans are all these years.
Whether serenading Niall Quinn`s Disco Pants (“they come right from his arse to his chest” apparently) or quipping that “Alan Shearer`s illegitimate he ain`t got no birth certificate” they have a penchant for funny, original songs. My personal favourite came last year, when Korean striker Ji Dong Wun`s last minute winner against Manchester City was greeted with a huge kiss from a celebrating Sunderland fan, which birthed the legendary, “Save all your kisses for Ji” chant.
Sunderland fans, in my experience, have always tended to be warm and friendly, able to engage in “banter” without the need for vein bulging fits of rage. After last season`s cup exit, they drily informed us that “Thierry Henry, has f****d off home.” It`s a shame that they don`t always sell the Stadium of Light out, but all things considered, I`d say the Mackems are some of the best fans in England.
How to get there? It`s a really long drive from London. Like 52 hours or something. Get the train. Trains run from London St. Pancras to Sunderland and take around 3 and a bit hours. You can comfortably finish off a six pack in that time. There`s something oddly quaint about being pissed before midday. Sunderland station is around a 15 minute walk from the ground. It`s a nice walk too, especially when your eyes have that pleasant fuzzy glaze a few breakfast cans can give you in the bleak English midwinter. The stadium appears gently on the horizon as you make your way over the Wearmouth bridge.
Any historical landmarks? Most eye catching is the statue of a panama hatted Bob Stokoe just outside the main entrance. But Sunderland have some classy reminders of the area`s industrial past. There`s a large red wheel behind the West Stand which is emblematic of the lifts miners use to take to get down into the mines. There is also a monument in the shape of a miner`s lamp on the east side of the stadium.
Where to drink? Personally, I tend to drink in the Miller`s Inn, which is a Harvester on the Newcastle Road. It`s pleasant enough, with a lot of space, plenty of tables, good service and plenty of screens too. But I don`t drink there out of a great deference to the place, more that I know a Sunderland season ticket holder who likes to drink there.
Most places in Sunderland are accommodating to away supporters and there`s never too much aggro about wearing colours in my experience. The Companions Club and the Democratic Club on Bridge Street are popular with away fans. If you`re a beer enthusiast replete with long, fusty beard and convex gut, the CAMRA Good Beer Guide is complimentary of the Harbour View on the seafront, which is around 20 minutes walk from the stadium. LD.
A Vital Guide to…Stadium of Light
Where next? Sunderland`s Stadium of Light.