Soccer: Comment

Sunderland fans bask in their rare 'ray of sunshine'

Foul weather fails to dampen the celebratory mood of the Black Cats' hardy supporters

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 July, 2013, 12:33pm

I'm no meteorologist but I am pretty sure the weather will be dry and temperate on Monday night at Hong Kong Stadium because it never seems to rain on Manchester United. Even God, it appears, roots for United.

Now Sunderland, that's a different matter. A downpour before their opening match of the Barclays Asia Trophy against Tottenham forced officials to move the starting time back a half hour. But no matter as the first half was still played under a steady drizzle. And yet for supporters of Sunderland nothing was going to dampen the rare chance to see their favourite side play in Hong Kong.

The Black Cats were founded in 1879 and have actually won six first division titles, but sadly none since 1936. Their last significant trophy was the FA Cup in 1973. Since then their most meaningful achievement appears to be avoiding relegation for the past six years. It can't be easy being a Sunderland fan. It's the type of misery that one would most likely have inherited.

"My mum's brother basically threatened me and told me I would be a Sunderland fan so it's a family tradition," said Hong Kong-based Darren Harrison, who is the head of the local Sunderland supporters club.

Harrison grew up in the Sunderland area and seems quite pragmatic. "We know what our position in the football world is," he says.

That position it would seem is clearly outside of the top four or five teams who routinely dominate the EPL. Because there is no salary cap in the league, teams like Manchester City are spending northward of £200 million (HK$2.4 million) annually on player salaries, while Sunderland had a payroll last season of £65 million.

There is not even a pretence of a level playing field here and for teams like Sunderland, with virtually no chance of a title this year and also very little prospect of ending up in the top four and getting a spot in the Champions League, it has to be extremely frustrating.

"Actually it's not frustrating at all," said Harrison. "We come from a very working-class area coal, shipbuilding, glass. It's more than a football team, it's a community thing and our family heirloom. You don't get frustrated because some of our greatest years have been in the second division."

Harrison claims the local chapter of the Sunderland supporters group has close to 100 active members and that there were 350 more from around the world who showed up for the match in Hong Kong.

One of them was Paul Gibson who is originally from Sunderland but flew in from Dubai. "I have been a supporter for 44 years and to be a Sunderland supporter takes a lot of heartache and a lot of stamina," he says, before adding that he would be happy with a top-10 finish this year.

"The only thing that annoys me is when the players come out and they don't perform for the fans. We've got over 350 people coming from our fan clubs all over the world who will spend over a million pounds to be here so you want the team to put out an honest effort."

Well no worries on that front. After giving up the first goal of the match to Tottenham, Sunderland stormed back for a 3-1 victory and a spot in Saturday's final against Manchester City.

Unlike Sunderland, both City and Tottenham most definitely have championship ambitions this year.

For big teams like United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea international tours are old hat. Their legion of fans show up in droves and often it's more fashion than football.

Still, there is an admirable grit and integrity behind supporting a side like Sunderland and while fans like Harrison and Gibson are born into it, far more intriguing are the local Hong Kong backers. What could possibly possess them to support the Black Cats?

"I'm a fan because I loved Kevin Phillips a long time ago," said Hong Kong native Victor Leung. During the 1999-2000 season Phillips scored 30 goals to win not only the EPL Golden Boot but also the European Golden Boot award, the only Englishman to ever have done it. Leung admits that almost all of his friends follow United and despite the recent lack of success of the team, he remains undaunted. "The spirit of Sunderland is fantastic," he says. "The never-say-never attitude, I love it. Sunderland has not come to Hong Kong for over 15 years so this is a thrill to me."

The pleasure seems to balance out the pain and it's an infectious vibe. For one miserable, rainy night in Hong Kong the sun is finally shining on Sunderland and its supporters.