There was a book we used to have at home that contained a photograph of Wearmouth Bridge taken on a Saturday afternoon sometime in the 1930s. It looks north, the camera peering into a faint hint of sun, and shows the backs of thousands of men, all in dark coats, most wearing flat caps, traipsing to the match. On either side of the bridge, smoke billowed from chimneys. Slightly out of focus on the banks, there were cranes and lattices and funnels: there was industry, an extraordinary amount of it, the backdrop to everyday life. These days, there is nothing: just walls and bushes. But the most striking thing is the sheer number of people – and they were going, of course, to Roker Park, another mile or so on, not simply turning left under the railway to the Stadium of Light. I don’t know the details of when the photograph was taken and I don’t know where the book is now, but if anybody asks what football means to Sunderland that image is what comes to mind, a whole community engaged in one collective act.

Football is changing. Last year, at an event in West Hampstead to publicise the release of Patrick Barclay’s biography of Herbert Chapman, the issue of franchising came up. I was dismissive: the glory of European football, I argued, of our clubs that had grown up organically, was that they had a rich history, roots in the local community, that they so transparently meant something – which is why it’s not an irregular occurrence on Twitter to find, say, a Barcelona fan from Bangalore arguing with a Real Madrid fan from Montreal about arcane details of the Spanish Civil War. Increasingly, though, I wonder if I was wrong.

It’s the messing about with kits that’s really done it. It’s a trivial thing and yet it’s hugely revealing of football’s values. When West Ham played Manchester City at Upton Park this year, City wore dark blue shirts that were actually harder to differentiate from West Ham’s than their home kit would have been. Swansea wore purple at Everton last season, which made the sides almost impossible to tell apart on television. Tottenham wore black at City this season, denying us the classic sky blue versus lilywhite clash that’s gone on for over a century. Hearts wore pale blue and white stripes at Hibernian. Every weekend there’s some egregious insult to tradition. Does it matter? Perhaps not: Tottenham are Tottenham in white or black. But given the extraordinary throughput of players at some clubs, it does feel at times that football has become a series of games between random collections of players wearing random kits – a bit, in other words, like the IPL.

More seriously, the financial structures of modern football dictate that the same handful of teams dominate perpetually. Occasionally the likes of Atlético Madrid rise from the second rank to challenge the superclubs, but it would be something miraculous if they could sustain their success for more than a couple of seasons. In that regard Borussia Dortmund provide the paradigm: however good the coach and the underlying structure, it only takes a spate of injuries or a bad signing or two to take them back down. Increasingly all of Europe is moving to the German model, something Financial Fair Play reinforces: only if the superclub or superclubs fail is there a competitive title race. In fact, it could be argued that the relative competitiveness of the Premier League is precisely the reason for the relative recent underperformance in Europe.

That becomes a serious issue as the nature of support changes. Once teams were supported largely by people who lived near the ground. The games weren’t televised, so the only way to see football was to go in person and watch. That meant that the clubs became rooted in the local community and an expression of that community; they were the men in cloth caps streaming over Wearmouth Bridge. Football gradually became about self-validation; a means, in England at least, for provincial cities to put themselves on the map, to get one over on the capital. Power, in those days, came from gate receipts and small-scale investment, the local businessman putting something back into his community (or seeking to raise his profile by being associated with the club). That’s why no London team won the league between its inception in 1888 and Arsenal’s first title in 1931.

Once the notion of football clubs as an expression of identity is accepted, a second phase of fandom can open up, when a certain section of society feels itself disenfranchised, usually for economic reasons. The disenfranchised, with little else to cling to, turn to football clubs as a means of defining themselves. This process often goes hand-in-hand with a vague right-wing nihilism that lashes out against anything perceived as ‘Other’ – be that other fans, other social classes, other nationalities or other races. That is what lay behind the hooliganism that marred English football in the seventies and eighties and continues to blight the game in, for instance, parts of South America and eastern Europe.

Then there is phase three, which is where English football is now. In an age of globalisation, fans are drawn from all over the world. Many won’t even have visited the city where the club they support is based. They consume on television and online. The sense of community is far less pronounced. At the same time, football within England has become so pervasive that it seems absurd if anybody in the public eye doesn’t at least feign allegiance to a team. It’s much easier for those from towns and villages without major clubs to follow a big team. The internet is awash with bloggers on Manchester United or Liverpool or Chelsea who’ve never been to Old Trafford or Anfield or Stamford Bridge. In phase three, success tends to be drawn more directly to money – that is, financial centres or those traditional clubs who have successfully transformed themselves into global brands. That’s why London now plays a weightier role at the top end of English football than ever before.

For the new wave of supporter, football is often primarily an entertainment: they demand goals and deride defending. For phase one and two supporters, the loyalty of phase three fans often seems ersatz. There is resentment of them: resentment if they don’t go to games and then resentment if they do, because “tourists”, as they will be dismissed, dilute the atmosphere and drive up prices. It’s those phase three fans who have made the Premier League so apparently determined to take matches around the globe, to make the tournament not even a global league that happens to be played in England (and Wales) but a simply a global league. And once that happens, frankly, you may as well invite Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Paris St-Germain rather than trying to convince people in Beijing or Doha to stump up for games involving Burnley or Stoke or Sunderland. And once you’ve done that, probably persuading them to join the new league with a pot of cash and insulation against relegation, how different really would an elite league of 12 or 16 superclubs be from a franchise? 

When I was about seven years old, I marched into the kitchen where my mam was preparing lunch. “Mam,” I said, “I wish I’d been born in Liverpool.”

She looked understandably surprised. “Why?” she asked.

“Because then I could support a team that wins,” I replied. Sunderland, at the time, were in their fourth straight season of battling relegation. I’d been too young to understand the promotion of 1980: scrapping against relegation was all I knew and so too was Liverpool success. Their reign seemed eternal and my instinct in those days was to equate with them any good foreign side who happened to appear on television: Aberdeen, the Liverpool of Scotland; Bayern Munich, the Liverpool of West Germany; Independiente, the Liverpool of Argentina. They even all wore red: the world in those days was a pleasingly simple place.

Three decades later and two things strike me about that conversation. The first is the categorical acceptance that you supported the team from the town where you were born. I was from Sunderland and so I was a Sunderland fan. There was no thought that I could just choose to support Liverpool. At birth, you were dealt a hand and you played it as best you could, and the team you supported was one of those cards. 

The second is a profound sense of relief. Supporting a successful side seems a tremendous burden. I go to most matches expecting Sunderland to lose: anything else is a bonus. The best experiences are the unexpected victories, the sense of overcoming the odds. Goliath faces David and completes emphatic victory over him thanks to superior physique and weaponry isn’t much of a story: what joy, really, could Goliath’s fans have taken from that? The Ryder Cup, perhaps, is a case in point. In 1985, Europe winning seemed an epic achievement because it was the first victory for Europe (or GB & Ireland) since 1957; winning this year felt mundane because it was an eighth win out of the last 10 matches. Success comes to be expected and so what is memorable is failure. 

There is little glory in expected victory. In 2008, I visited the Japanese national football museum in Tokyo. They showed a documentary about qualification for the 2006 World Cup and it, farcically, portrayed Japan as heroic underdogs overcoming extraordinary odds to secure their place in Germany. In fact, Japan had won three of the previous four Asian Cups, were overwhelming favourites to qualify and did so by winning 11 of their 12 matches. The need for narrative, for a satisfying arc, overcame any sense of reality.

In fact, I’d go as far as to say there are only really two satisfactory victory paradigms. One is the underdog story and the other is that of the ageing or ailing champion, combatting not only his opponent but also the fallibility of his own body to rekindle past glories. Golf, again, perhaps provides the best example: the greatest of Jack Nicklaus’s major victories was his last as, aged 46, he shot 30 on the back nine at Augusta on the Sunday to win by a shot. Many of his other 17 majors felt routine: that one, defying his creaking body as well as Tom Kite, Greg Norman, Seve Ballesteros and Nick Price, was gloriously unexpected.

In that sense, I’d probably enjoy being a Liverpool fan now more than I would have done in the eighties, precisely because there is always that battle with their own past, because the sense of expectation has been diminished. When José Mourinho criticised Chelsea fans for their lethargy in the win over Queens Park Rangers in November, it prompted a brief flurry of soul-searching about ticket prices and exactly who goes to games now. They’re valid issues, but there’s surely also a sense in which Mourinho is to blame for having made Chelsea to relentless at home. That hilarious defeat to Sunderland at the end of last season was the first he’d ever suffered in the league at Stamford Bridge. I’ve been through that myself: in 1998-99, Sunderland scored 50 goals in their 19 home games, losing only once at the Stadium of Light on their way to promotion. They won Division One by 17 points, taking 55 points from the last 61 available. In some ways, it felt an appropriate reaction to the 4-4 draw and penalty shoot-out defeat to Charlton Athletic in the play-off final the previous season – “You want us in this division? Really? Because this is how much too good we are for you” – but in other ways home games that season stopped being much fun. I remember seeing a Sunderland crowd boo the team off at half-time when they were 2-0 up. Yes, it was partly ironic, but only partly: a sense of entitlement creeps up quickly and the worst thing about entitlement is how it saps the joy for things that ought to be good.

I suppose in part that’s my conditioning as a Sunderland fan speaking. I remember explaining to a Boca Juniors fan that I hated it when Sunderland went ahead because it meant agonising for the rest of the game over the victory we might be about to lose. She looked at me with pity and said, “Small club mentality.” Which it probably is.

But that’s what I have and it’s what seems to me most fun in football. It’s why thousands of Sunderland fans took over Covent Garden last season the night before the Capital One Cup final. It had been 22 years since we’d last been in a final and it might be even longer before we’re next in one: it was an occasion to be relished. Did Manchester City fans – even City, who were promoted from Division Two in that 1998-99 season, whose past was essentially comparable to Sunderland’s, however different their present may be – feel the same sense of glee, the same joy at simply being there? There’s a reason that, on the morning of the final, Sunderland fans were gathering on Olympic Way at 9am and City fans arrived much later, and that is familiarity.

In 2007, I was commissioned to write a book about Sunderland’s first season under Roy Keane. That promotion seems to me a hugely under-rated achievement. Outsiders talk about the money he spent as though that made success inevitable; they underestimate, I think, just how low the club was when he arrived. The previous season Sunderland had broken their own record for Premier League ineptitude, taking just 15 points, and they’d begun the campaign in the Championship with five successive defeats, the last of them in the League Cup to Bury, 92nd in the league pyramid at the time and reduced to 10 men for the final minutes. 

I decided to structure the book around a walk from the old Roker Park to the Stadium of Light, partly to create a sort of symbolic pilgrimage from the past to the present and partly for sentimental reasons. I’d been living away from Sunderland for more than a decade by then and, although I go back to the North-East regularly, it seemed necessary to reacquaint myself with places I hadn’t been to in years, to try to establish some sort of geographical context for Sunderland. After all, for all the Irish fans who follow the club because of Keane and Niall Quinn – and before them Charlie Hurley – Sunderland remains fundamentally a team whose support is geographical. Some older supporters, perhaps, were drawn by the glory of 1973, but you need a pretty good reason to support a club like Sunderland. They’re not a team you follow on a whim.

It became a journey into my own past and that of the city, and into a particular type of fandom. I hadn’t been back to that part of Roker since 1997 when I went with a few friends to watch the demolition, thinking we could maybe pick up a souvenir or two. It had been impossible, though. All the good stuff had already been auctioned off so, unless you fancied an anonymous brick, all we could do was wander disconsolately around and wonder if going to matches would ever be the same again. All my life I’d been going there at least once a week, whether to watch football or to visit my gran, who’d lived about 200 yards behind the Roker End. But she’d gone 18 months before the stadium, moving into a home in December 1995, on the day Sunderland beat Crystal Palace 1-0 to go second in the table, and dying a few weeks later.

I was in the North-East covering the England v West Indies Test match at Chester-le-Street. Because my parents were on holiday, I ended up staying in a hotel in Durham and had to get a cab to Roker at 6am so I could make it back to the Riverside in time for the first ball. That gave the walk a weird feel, partly because the streets were empty and partly because I was being dropped in Roker, rather than, as I usually would have done, wandering the couple of miles south from my parents’ house.  I’d feared the driver might think it was a little strange going to visit an old football ground a decade after it had been knocked down, but Bobby from Chas’s Cabs seemed almost more excited by the trip than I was. It turned out he’d missed only one home game since 1965 and that because he’d been in hospital.

We turned left off Roker Avenue, past the Cambridge, where the pub sign still shows an immaculate Roker Park gleaming in the floodlights, then swung right down Roker Baths Road, past the Roker Pie Shop with its red and white frontage. “Yer can ’ear it,” Bobby insisted. “Yer can still ’ear it, man. Listen to ’em.” Maybe he could, but I couldn’t. I often feel a chill in empty stadiums as though some shadow of expended emotional energy remains and I wanted desperately to hear some echo of past chants or roars or the ageless programme seller with his shopping-trolley and his indecipherable nasal roars but all I could hear were the shrieks of the gulls and the gentler twittering of the odd blackbird.  

Bobby dropped me off where Town Centre Garages had once stood and I tried to get my bearings. The New Derby, where in later years we’d go to clear out the quiz machines after night matches, was still there and so was the newsagents at the end of Brandling Street, but nothing else was the same. I turned up Grantham Road, which would have taken me along by the Main Stand. Back when I lived in Sunderland, the route of my longest run would take me down there here, completing the loop off Fulwell Road before turning back for the long pull up alongside Roker Park – the park – and past St Andrew’s church before dropping down to the sea-front. I probably ran it once a week on average for about four years but I could barely recognise it. 

On the other side of the road is the Wimpey housing estate, covering the old car park. It was there that you’d queued at the ticket-office, there that you caught official buses to away games, there that Lawrie McMenemy was mobbed on his arrival in 1985. The stand, designed by Archibald Leitch and featuring his trademark latticework, had once been one of the finest in the country – would have been finer, if Rangers hadn’t purloined his original design for Ibrox. By the nineties, though, it had begun to look shabby. The paintwork was faded, the concrete stained and even the style of the lettering that spelt out ‘SUNDERLAND AFC’ looked dated, almost as though, as many Sunderland fans wished it had, time had stopped in 1973.

I wandered round, looking at the street-signs: Turnstile Mews, Midfield Drive, Clockstand Close… it was all desperately banal. This surely was a chance to pay tribute to the greats who had played on the spot, to celebrate Carter, Shackleton and Hurley, but perhaps that would have been too much like showing off, and that, in the North-East, is pretty much the unforgivable sin. 

Wimpey also built the new houses on the old Ayresome Park in Middlesbrough and they too suffer from an uninspired naming policy. There, though, there are at least physical reminders of what the area used to be. A bronze ball marks a penalty spot, a sculpture of a child’s coat hangs where the goalposts used to be and, most movingly, there is also a low, stud-scuffed bronze mound on the spot from which Pak Doo-Ik scored the goal with which North Korea beat Italy in the 1966 World Cup. Forty years on, local residents looked out of their windows one morning to see half the North Korea squad standing to attention around the sculpture, singing their national anthem. Why couldn’t Sunderland have similarly marked Jozsef Szabo’s dramatic goal-line clearance for the USSR against Hungary in the quarter-final of the same tournament? Or even a great Sunderland moment: Trevor Ford hitting a shot so powerfully on debut in 1950 that it uprooted a post, Vic Halom’s screamer against Manchester City in 1973, or Gordon Armstrong’s headed winner against Chelsea 19 years later?

I retraced my steps, passed the newsagents and turned left down Givens Street. The streets here are typical of the early twentieth century, imposing and sturdy, unwaveringly respectable, with between them the backlanes that allowed for coal and such-like to be delivered. I passed Cooper Street, where George Reynolds, the notorious safecracker and former Darlington chairman grew up, and then the back lane where, between the walls topped with shards of broken glass, my dad had taught me to ride a bike. Then I came to Appley Terrace, where my dad grew up and where my gran lived until her death.

From her back garden – even from inside the house if the crowd was big enough or the wind was right – you could hear the roars from Roker Park so clearly that there was no need to check the final score. In the old days, as she would regularly tell me, she’d open the doors of the garage so fans could park their bikes inside, leaving a box on a shelf for them to drop in sixpence as a fee. We’d regularly go up there for tea on a Saturday and after a while my dad started taking me to watch the last 20 minutes of games, sneaking in when they opened the gates to let people leave. The first piece of action I saw live in a football ground was Steve Williams stroking in an equaliser for Southampton in October 1982, Ally McCoist having put Sunderland ahead with an overhead kick in the first half. It was more than a year later that I first saw Sunderland score, Gary Rowell plunging in to head an equaliser against Leicester.

Even after I started going to games with mates, heading for the Fulwell as my dad took his usual spot in the Roker, we’d meet up at my gran’s afterwards. A match wouldn’t have been a match without an over-milky coffee and some homemade ginger biscuits to follow. 

My gran died shortly after Christmas and was cremated on January 6. That day, Sunderland played away at Manchester United in the third round of the FA Cup. In the afternoon following the funeral, my dad drove me back to university and we listened to the game on the car radio. Nicky Butt put United ahead but in the second half, in quick succession, Steve Agnew and Craig Russell scored. For a while it seemed football may be handing out a sentimental favour but Éric Cantona equalised with a late header and United won the replay. As we lingered on the terraces following the 3-0 victory over Everton eighteen months later, my dad in the Roker and me in the Fulwell, it wasn’t just a football ground to which we were saying goodbye.

At the end of Park Parade is the Booze Buster that, when it was still Blayney’s, was drunk dry as thousands of fans queued overnight for tickets to the 1992 FA Cup semi-final and over the road at the end of Bede Street is Armstrong’s Aquatics, still selling turtles and other pets. Opposite is the Methodist church, where you used to be able to get tea or coffee and homemade cakes before games. I turned down through the park, past the bandstand and through the ravine to the Cat and Dog Steps down onto the beach. The name supposedly derives from the fact that when dead cats and dogs were flung into the river, it was there that the bodies were washed up but these days in summer it’s probably the most popular part of the beach. In 1963, Brain Clough slogged up and down through the sand by the steps as he tried to regain fitness after rupturing his knee ligaments.

I turned right, past two crows fighting over a polystyrene tray of half-eaten chips, past the marina and on to the old North Dock. Through the aspen and the hawthorn the path climbs Look Out Hill. At the top is a sculpture of a telescope, pointing straight into the shrubs, and alongside it, carved of stone, a stool, a Gladstone bag, a picnic hamper and diary, part of the Sculpture Trail that dots the north bank, memorialising the past in trying to create a present. Two centuries ago, a gun battery stood near here, defending the port against naval attack, initially from the privateer John Paul Jones, who carried out raids in support of the Americans during the War of Independence. A similar battery stood across the river, and it was there, local legend has it, that a soldier on watch duty, startled by the mewing of a black cat after falling into a drunken sleep one moonlit night, insisted he’d been approached by the devil incarnate. From then on, it became known as the Black Cat Battery and the black cat took a central place in the folklore of Wearside and, particularly, its football. The nickname was formalised by a vote after the move to the new stadium in 1997, but Sunderland players had incorporating black cats into their team photos for almost nine decades before that.

From Look Out Hill, the path drops back down to the river. The area is thick with bushes now and although the South Dock still bustles it’s hard to believe that half a century ago these banks were home to Britain’s most productive shipyards, and had been for more than 100 years. In 1834, the Lloyd’s Register recorded that Sunderland was “the most important shipbuilding centre in the country, nearly equalling, as regards number and tonnage of ships built, all the other ports together”. Between September 1939 and the end of 1944, 249 vessels totalling over 1.5million tons were built on the Wear, 27% of the UK’s output over the period. To put that in context, the output of the entire United States in 1938 was only 201,251 tons. The loss of shipbuilding dealt a grievous blow to the city, not only in terms of jobs – as the pits closed as well, unemployment reached a peak of 22% in the eighties – but also to its pride.

Carrying on, I passed by the National Glass Centre, a nod to the glass industry that until very recently had remained strong in the town since Benedict Biscop, abbot of St Peter’s, had first brought over craftsmen from Rome in the seventh century. St Peter’s, where the Venerable Bede took his vows, is still there, a squat, robust building, and in front of it, where once the ballast from ships formed ever shifting mountains, is the main campus of Sunderland University. 

By the river is a metal tree on a plinth, one arm arcing out from the trunk towards the river. The obvious association is the tree of knowledge, extending its reach further and further, but then you notice the odd patterning of the paving stones stretching away from it. Viewed from the bridge, or in a mirror set in the sculpture, it becomes apparent that the shape formed is that of a hammerhead crane, industry’s shadow reaching out from knowledge, the past reaching back from the present. 

Under the bridges, the banks are supported by brick ramparts that once formed part of the shipyards. A brick chute – once used to drop coal down from the colliery to the river – cuts through the tangled grass to the right. The Stadium of Light is up there, no more than 60 or 70 yards away, but obscured by the steepness of the bank. Behind the West Stand, beyond the car park where the land falls sharply towards the river, are a series of sculptures by Graeme Hopper, strange silver stickmen done in the style of the artist LS Lowry, who visited the city regularly from the early fifties until his death in 1976. They may be a nod to the miners who once worked the site but as they strain to push an enormous silver polyhedron – manifestly a rock – up the bank, the more immediate reference, appropriately enough, is to Sisyphus.

And for a club like Sunderland, Sisyphus is the perfect metaphor, forever striving towards achievement, only to be relegated or to sell their best players, forever building again. And for what, exactly? Perhaps one day Sunderland will win something again, but what then? My dad always spoke of the strange sense of sadness he felt when the final whistle blew at Wembley in 1973. Sunderland had just completed perhaps the greatest fairytale in the history of football, going in six months from being sixth-bottom of the Second Division to beat Manchester City and Arsenal before overcoming Don Revie’s great Leeds United in the FA Cup final. They’d just won their first trophy in 36 years. They’d just become the first second-flight side since the Second World War to win the Cup. And he knew, in the moment of consecration, that nothing in football would ever be that good again. I wouldn’t say I was relieved when City came back to beat Sunderland in the League Cup final last season but there was a part of me that thought that if Sunderland are going to win only one trophy in my lifetime I’d rather it was in another 30 years: young enough, hopefully, still to enjoy it, but old enough not to suffer the 30-year hangover my dad and others of his generation went through. 

But what of other teams, bigger teams, those for whom winning a trophy isn’t some great culmination but just another notch? That’s where European competition used to be so valuable: it offered exoticism and a chance for a club to test itself against teams whose very foreignness gave them a sense of mystery and menace. Even for the truly great sides, Europe was an adventure and a challenge. That feeling is being diminished. Familiarity has dulled the sense of the unknown and such are the economic divisions in European football that a virtual franchise system now exists, with half a dozen sides habitually reaching the quarter-finals. Winning the Champions League is still, of course, a great achievement, but it feels less like an epic quest, as it was when, say, Manchester United or Liverpool first won the European Cup, and more as though, for the superclubs, if they hang around long enough, it will eventually be their turn. The romance has been diminished and, in its place is a self-perpetuating elite supported around the globe that is extremely difficult for smaller clubs to penetrate. And the global nature of that support, necessarily, means the connection between the club and its immediate community is reduced.

Just across the car park, outside the main entrance of the Stadium of Light, there is another statue. In bronze, it depicts a family of the thirties – standing behind two children, a mother holds up the arm of a flat-capped father as though she were a boxing referee and he had just won a title bout. His face heavily lined, he holds aloft a sphere made of three interlocking hoops. A plaque in the plinth makes the point overtly: “All generations come together at the Stadium of Light,” it reads. “A love of ‘The Lads’ has bonded together supporters for more than 125 years and will for many more years in the future… Supporters who have passed away have their support carried on by today’s fans, just as the supporters of today will have their support continued through family and friends.”

It is a touch saccharine, perhaps, but it taps into something quite profound. Perhaps, in this age of quasi-franchises and superclubs, when the structure of the competitions and the nature of globalisation makes the rich richer so they exist at an impossible remove to the rest, this is all that remains of the traditional mode of support: football not as an expression of provincial industrial pride, but as a reminder of it.

This article appeared on Episode Thirty Eight of the Blizzard Podcast. You can see which other articles we have featured by searching the Podcast tag, but we'd really like you to subscribe which you can do through iTunes, Soundcloud, our RSS feed or wherever you usually get your podcasts of choice.