First things first, for those Fulham fans making the trip to Sunderland, what’s the best thing about the Stadium of Light?
As with most grounds, it’s the atmosphere. While it may not always be full, when the team are on song it can be a great place to watch football. I find the pre-match routine very rousing as well. You’ll hear ‘Dance of the Knights’ by Sergei Prokofiev (AKA the Apprentice theme tune). If you can suspend your association with Lord Sugar for a moment, it can cultivate quite an intimidating atmosphere. That tends to be followed by a very moving rendition of the Elvis classic ‘Can’t help falling in love.’ While perhaps not as iconic as ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ it certainly has a similar vibe and aura to it, especially when the four sides of the ground chime in as an impromptu choir.
With the 2013/14 season beginning, what is the mood like amongst Sunderland fans – are you hopeful for the coming campaign?
I think there’s a lot of optimism on Wearside. It's a consequence of Paolo Di Canio’s exuberance destroying the cloud that had been hanging over us. His changes have been swift and wide-ranging, amputating anyone unwilling to work towards improvement of self and the club’s fortunes. Of the 10 new signings, few are what you would class ‘household names’ but after last season Di Canio was forced into change and the fans are aware of that. During pre-season (in particular the Barclays Asia Trophy) there’s been a vim and vigour about the club’s play and although Di Canio joined in March, his revolution begins on Saturday against Fulham.
The team finished 17th in the league last year – what was your assessment of the 2012/13 season?
Exhausting. Martin O’Neill put the majority of his summer budget into two players. Steven Fletcher flourished; Adam Johnson floundered. As the defeats piled up, the strain began to show on O’Neill’s face. His famous bouncing goal celebration wasn’t as prominent, and the claims that he was outdated and lacking in tactical nous seemed more convincing.
Undoubtedly there were highlights - besting Newcastle 3-0, the Christmas win over Manchester City - it came amid the caveat that the club almost dropped out of the division. New-signing Ondrej Celutska talked about how the club’s stability in the Premier League appealed to him, and it’s a point not lost on the fans. Survival is paramount and from there Di Canio can build.
What should Fulham fans expect to see and hear from the home supporters on Saturday?
There’s been a lot of hope and excitement during pre-season. This is essentially breaking the seal on those feelings and thus I’d expect a really raucous atmosphere at the Stadium of Light. Of course that could be promptly deflated with an early goal for Fulham. As I mentioned, the two club anthems will be prevalent, but if you can try and listen for the Stephane Sessegnon song, you’ll get a short, but insightful tale on how he came into existence.
Who have been Sunderland’s players to watch during pre-season?
Emanuele Giaccherini has been the standout by far. When he arrived from Juventus in the summer, his pedigree was fairly evident - Italian international, Serie A winner etc. Just in pre-season you can see glimpses of the quality that saw him earn a move to Juve and subsequent international call-ups. The fact Antonio Conte was loathe to lose him spoke volumes of his character, and I think his mix of skill and hard work makes him the ideal player for a Paolo Di Canio side in the Premier League.
What sort of game are you expecting on Saturday?
A tense affair. While it’s easy to say it’s just the first game of the season, for Sunderland this moment has been building. The club has done a lot to climb away from the precipice of last season, but start with a loss and it could set the season off horribly.
Kieran Richardson is a former Black Cat, but which other Fulham players are you looking forward to watching?
I think Dimitar Berbatov is always a big draw. He’s a mercurial enigma and for that same reason I’m also eager to see Adel Taarabt should he play. He had so much promise at Tottenham, but it still remains unfulfilled. I feel like under Martin Jol he’s got a good mentor who can keep him on track, and from there who knows.
Aside from the football, what else should Fulham fans look out for during their visit to Sunderland?
Well on your walk to the stadium you should cross the Wearmouth bridge, which is one of the nicer monuments in the city. Once you’re close enough to the stadium, I’d advocate stopping by the Bob Stokoe statue outside. He helped Sunderland towards their finest hour, a 1-0 win in the 1973 FA Cup final over Leeds. The statue commemorates the famous image of him running on to the pitch at full time, and if you read the inscription you’ll see just why he is so universally loved by Sunderland fans.
Can you recommend any food or drink to try out at the game? Where’s the best place for a pre-match pint?
I think if you’re trying in-stadium food, it has to be the Chicken Balti pie, it’s a deceptively delicious piece of pastry. Pubs are quite plentiful, but try the Albion pub on Victor Street, off Roker Avenue. Score prediction? 2-1 to the home side.