England’s J-Force give Sunderland fans brief respite from gloom

Louise Taylor on 12 July 2018

Tina Carney kept scrolling through the phone and, eventually, located it. “Here he is, doesn’t he look young,” exclaimed the lifelong Sunderland supporter, as she showed off a screen suddenly dominated by a photograph of a beaming Jordan Pickford standing alongside her. “It was only taken last year but he’s filled out a bit since then. He’s such a lovely lad.”

Carney and her husband Peter were watching the game in a hotel bar in which the view from almost every window is blocked by the imposing bulk of the Stadium of Light and its vertiginous stands.

They had travelled the short distance from their home in the Sunderland seaside suburb of Seaburn to cheer on the “J-Force” of Jordan Pickford and Jordan Henderson. England’s goalkeeper and key midfielder may have abandoned Sunderland for Everton and Liverpool respectively but, locally born and bred, they will always be Mackems.

“We’re so proud to have players from this area who came through Sunderland’s academy playing so brilliantly for England,” said Peter, settling into his chair at the stylishly welcoming Hilton Garden Inn where he and Tina have chosen to watch Russia 2018 a long goal kick away from their season-ticketed seats in the adjacent stadium. “The Jordans have brightened things up after last season.”

He was referring to Sunderland’s ignominious plunge into the third tier of English football, something which even the combined £50m earned from the sales of “Pickers” and “Hendo” could not avert.

Anyone heading into the city yesterday afternoon could hardly avoid the electioneering style “J-Force” posters adorning assorted windows. How they must have perplexed those visitors in town for the famous Tall Ships Regatta currently illuminating the River Wear.

One route towards the football ground takes drivers past Seaburn’s broad sandy North Sea beaches before pulling inland towards Roker’s neatly tended bungalows and on through Fulwell’s maze of terraced streets. Along it on Wednesday this reporter spotted only two cars flying flags of St George but Fulwell’s Sea Road Laundrette, Barlow’s Fruit and Veg shop and the Muller Swiss Bakery all sported “J-Force” signage.

There is also an embryonic trade in similarly branded T-shirts and it will be no shock if babies born on Wearside in the next year or so are seen dressed in junior versions. After all Jordans from the north east have a habit of proceeding to play for their country; Jordan Nobbs, remember, is one of eight current England Lionesses who began their careers with a Sunderland Ladies side now fallen on hard times.

Nostalgia for what might have been with the club’s men was heightened when a certain face loomed large across the television screens studding the bar. “We were alright when Roy was manager here,” said someone. “Keane’s wasted on ITV.”

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Thanks to Gareth Southgate England have, temporarily at least, helped re-connect Sunderland fans with an almost forgotten sense of hope cruelly heightened by Kieran Trippier’s goal.

“You beauty,” greeted a nifty slice of Pickford footwork, while Tina raised her arms aloft as a nifty Henderson manoeuvre temporarily subdued Croatia.

At half time the televisions showed Hyde Park showered with lager as Trippier struck. “What a waste of beer,” people chorused before the Wearside mood was somewhat dampened as Ivan Perisic equalised and supporters well schooled in disappointment renewed a vexed relationship with almost unbearable tension.

Mario Mandzukic’s extra-time winner introduced another horribly familiar Wearside football companion: anticlimax. “Losing,” said one drinker, his beer long since emptied. “Is something we know all about here.” At the final whistle, the bar emptied instantly as everyone disappeared into the dusk once again enveloping the Stadium of Light.

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