Being an international cricketer has its perks – how does three months in Australia followed by two months in the Caribbean sound? – but when the team you’ve supported since boyhood is on the verge of making it back to the big time after a comeback of Lazarus-like proportions there’s no place like home.
As one of the few bright spots of England’s disastrous Ashes and World Cup campaigns, Paul Collingwood often had more than one eye on events back home in his native North East, as Roy Keane’s Sunderland scorched a path back to the Premiership.
On September 16, the day after Collingwood and his England team-mates flew off to warmer climes to try and retain the Ashes, Sunderland lost 1-0 to Norwich at Carrow Road. This defeat, combined with the previous week’s home reverse to Cardiff City, left Sunderland in the lower reaches of the Championship. Flying to the other side of the world to escape the misery appeared a decent option.
“I went to the Stadium of Light a couple of times before we flew out to India for the Champions Trophy and to be honest we were dreadful,” Collingwood admits. “The crowds weren’t great, the players didn’t have any confidence and I thought that by the time I came back from Australia we would really be up against it.
Instead, as England were getting soundly thumped down-under, Roy Keane was inspiring his new side to one of the most memorable seasons in their history.
“When I eventually got to the ground to watch, the team was unrecognisable,” he says smiling. “The transformation was incredible, they were playing the kind of football we hadn’t seen for years.”
After the England team’s winter of discontent, life at the Stadium of Light was doubly sweet. “It was a very tough time, and although from a personal perspective it went OK there were obviously some massive disappointments.”
At least Collingwood could smile when Sunderland’s scores filtered through to wherever the England team were staying – which is more than his Newcastle supporting team-mate, the errant Steve Harmison, could do.
“Me and Steve are massive on our football, and with me being a Sunderland fan and him following the Geordies, there’s always some lively conversation in the changing room. We always like to have a kick around wherever we are in the world and I’m always between the posts, or jumpers, on the outfield.”
As a young man, though, it was scoring goals and not saving them that was Collingwood’s driving ambition.
“I played up front for various sides and scored the odd goal now and again but as I improved at cricket my dad thought it would be best for me to go in goal to lessen the chance of getting clattered.”
Fast bowler Harmison may have been forgiven for thinking that he had found an ally when his new team-mate, whose father supports Newcastle, broke into the England Test side in 2003.
But despite the family ties with the Geordies, it was the red and white of Sunderland that attracted the young Collingwood.
“My auntie took me to watch Sunderland play in Division Three when I was 11,” he says. “We couldn’t afford to go to St James’ Park when I was young but after that first visit to Roker Park I was hooked.
“Although the football wasn’t brilliant back then they were great days. I used to love watching players like John Kay who would kick the living daylights out of the opposition. At the end of one game the opposition’s manager said that one of his players looked as though he had been run over by a red and white tractor, so that was the nickname we gave him.”
Kay may have hung up his boots – and parked his tractor – and Roker Park might be no more, but although the Stadium of Light is one of the finest stadiums in the country, the ground that was sold for housing in 1997 will always be ‘home’ for the Durham batsman.
“I really miss it,” he says wistfully. “When Chelsea came� here in a quarter-final replay in the FA Cup in 1992 the atmosphere was just incredible. We won 2-1 and the place was rocking. When we left Roker Park something special left with it.”
Keane is the latest in a long line of managers Collingwood has seen trying to restore the glory days. And it’s the uncertainty of never knowing what’s round the next corner that he believes gives the club its unique character.
“As a Sunderland fan you have to prepare yourself for disappointment,” Collingwood sighs. “I can’t even count the number of times we’ve been relegated from the top flight since I started supporting them [it’s four], but that just makes you appreciate the good times even more.
“When Peter Reid got us promoted to the Premiership in ’99 it was fantastic, and when we finished seventh two years in a row you did start to think, ‘Hang on a minute, we could be on to something here’. We had Kevin Phillips and Niall Quinn banging in the goals and we were on cloud nine. Next thing you know we’re back in the Championship.”
So are the good times about to return? “I think we’ll be competitive this season,” Collingwood says without an ounce of uncertainty. “We need to make the Stadium of Light a fortress, the kind of place that teams will dread visiting.”
Harmison must already be thumbing nervously through the fixture list.
“Being one of 700 Sunderland fans in the top tier at St James’ Park with the rain lashing down in 1999. We were soaked but we didn’t care, Shearer was on the bench and we came back from a goal down to win 2-1. When Kevin Phillips scored the winner we went berserk.”
“It’s not a moment but a whole season. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so low as when we were relegated under Mick McCarthy. The football was awful, the crowds were dwindling and there didn’t seem to be much hope left.”
“Niall Quinn. Not only did he score a load of goals for us, now he’s ploughing the money in as chairman. A double whammy.”
Would you make your children support Sunderland?
“Definitely. Shannon’s not even one yet but she’s already learning that there’s only one team for her.”
Who do you hate?
“I have to be careful because I still enjoy the odd night out in Newcastle. Also, since becoming a professional sportsman you become a bit more level-headed about local rivalries.”
“Not sure if Roy has tried, but I reckon Ronaldinho would quite fancy a spell at the Stadium of Light. Sunderland’s very similar to Barcelona.”