Russell Kempson takes in the Capital One Cup Semi-Final between Sunderland and Manchester United
An 11-strong group of men sit in the back bar of "The Victoria" pub in a sidestreet in Baldock, the historic market town in Hertfordshire. A mirror on a wall proclaims: "The World's No.1 Chelsea Supporter" but the thoughts of the 11 are miles away from West London.
It is the first Thursday of the month and, thus, it is time for members of the North Herts' Sunderland Supporters' Club (NHSSC) to meet and mull over the fortunes of their favourite team. Once the formal business is out of the way, which takes only 20 minutes, the talk turns to great deeds recently done and a big day out to come next month.
The deeds done? The dramatic penalty shoot-out success of Sunderland over Manchester United in the second leg of their Capital One Cup semi-final at Old Trafford. And then, perhaps even more satisfying, the 3-0 Premier League win against traditional rivals Newcastle United at St James' Park.
The big day out? That will be against Manchester City in the Capital One Cup final at Wembley Stadium on March 2, the first time that Sunderland will have appeared in the League Cup decider since 1985. The two pool-playing regulars potting balls in The Victoria may have not cared a jot but, for the NHSSC members, it means the world.
It is a fair reward for a lifetime of following a passion passed down through generations and for all the hours that the Black Cats exiles still spend travelling to the Stadium of Light. Through good or bad times at the Wearside club, through all weather conditions on the road and perhaps through personal financial pressures also.
A reward that the North Herts group, which includes many red-and-white followers from over the border in Bedfordshire, is fervently looking forward to. Colin Dunn, Ed Rayner, Colin Chandler and Frank Garrick chat over a pint. As do Ian Knowles, Ken Swinburne, Peter Jobson, Ray Holland, Pete McGuire, John Harrison and Brendon Lee.
Most live nearby - Stevenage, Bedford, Shefford, Royston, Luton, Letchworth, Hitchin. But Jobson, the branch webmaster, has made a four-and-a-half hour trek from Bournemouth, on storm-lashed and traffic-choked motorways, to attend the monthly get-together in Baldock.
After then staying overnight in an hotel, he would set off for the North-East, via Lincoln, to take in the Sunderland versus Hull City Premier League game on the Saturday. Mind you, not quite as tortuous as in the old days when he lived in Stevenage and drove all the way to Sunderland ... by moped. "It took me ten hours," Jobson recalls. "It was 251.6 miles door to door."
It is a devotion shared by all those in the back bar and the other 120 NHSSC members, some of whom now reside in Canada, the United States, Spain, Australia and Cyprus. Keeping in touch is crucial - a task admirably spearheaded by Dunn, the branch secretary and editor of "Review", the North Herts monthly magazine.
"I've been doing it for 22 years," Colin explains. "It started off with eight pages and the first one was handwritten. Then it got to a typewriter with a wonky key. The letter "E" wasn't very good. But it's developed since then and I've got used to the computers now. Well, a little bit."
Dunn, a debt collector from Stevenage, is the "Silver Fox" of NHSSC due to his white hair, moustache and sideburns. "Foxy 65" - also denoting his age - is proudly displayed on the back of his Sunderland shirt. It is a shirt that he has cherished since first introduced to the club by his Wearside-born parents, Fred and Cathy, and when he started going to games at the age of 11.
"From a couple of games a season, it sort of grew from there," Dunn says. "I think my first match was away to Luton in 1960. My first home match at Roker Park [Sunderland's former ground] was in 1962, a friendly against Sparta Rotterdam. As each year progressed and I got older and could travel myself, I started going to more and more games.
"In the late 70s, I got a season ticket and went to all the home fixtures and many away as well. The more you went, the more passionate you got about it all. Sometimes, when you'd lost, you got in the car to come back and you'd think: 'God, how long is it going to take to get home?' It was horrible. But you still did it the next week ... and the next."
Dunn's children, Ian and Julie, have inherited the Black Cats bug. Although Colin wasn't able to make the second leg of the cup semi at Old Trafford, he watched it in a pub in Stevenage Old Town. "When Phil Bardsley scored right at the end of extra time, Ian ran off around the bars shouting 'Wembley here we come'," he says. "By the time he got back, United had scored."
However, Sunderland were not to be denied, prevailing 2-1 in a series of spot-kicks that did not exactly owe much to laser accuracy. And Wembley now beckons. "Although traditionally Sunderland is a big club, these days they're not," Colin says. "In terms of success that comes our way, we're in with all the rest.
"But I don't see why we can't beat Man City. We probably won't, to be honest, and my fear is that City will embarrass us. The way they've been scoring goals this season, you don't want it to be a silly scoreline. But it's a one-off game and if we can get into them, we could unsettle them. You never know."
Ed Rayner, the North Herts transport and tickets officer, agrees. "We're the definite underdogs and it could go one of two ways," he says. "It could be close or it could be a heavy defeat for us. I just hope it'll be close."
It is not surprising that Ed is erring on the side of pessimism. He has attended four Sunderland matches at Wembley - the 1985 League Cup final against Norwich City, the 1990 Second Division Play-Off Final against Swindon Town, the 1992 FA Cup Final against Liverpool and the 1998 First Division Play-Off Final against Charlton Athletic. All of which Sunderland lost.
"I've got a four out of four failure rate," Ed says, with an almost resigned air. "I just hope it's not five out five coming up. It doesn't bode well, though."
Rayner, a 49-year-old pharmacist from Shefford, was born and brought up in Co. Durham - moving south, at 18, to attend Bath University - and inherited the Sunderland fanaticism from his father, George. In 1969, he went to his first game at Roker Park, against Wolverhampton Wanderers. In 1974, he bought his first season ticket.
"The bug bit straight away," Ed says. "Billy Hughes was my favourite player. The 'Wizard of the Dribble' we called him. You know when you're at school and you pretend to be someone? I was always Billy."
Ed organises the regular trips to the Stadium of Light in the eight- or 15-seater minibuses, depending on demand. It means a 7.45am departure from Stevenage for the North Herts faithful and they won't get back until around 10pm. That is, assuming all goes to plan.
"We've had to do a few repairs on the bus with gaffer tape," Ed says. "And we once had to keep the engine running all the way because the starter motor had gone. We've had a few scrapes, where we've lost our £250 deposit, but nothing serious. Let's face it, you're going to have the occasional prang in 20 years of travel. But we've never missed a game."
Like many of his North Herts colleagues, Frank Garrick, the chairman, an author and former Mayor of Bedford, owes his fascination for the ways of the Wear to parental guidance - from his father, Harry, who left Sunderland to seek work. Harry took Frank to their local club St Albans City, who played in the Isthmian League, to whet his appetite for live football.
"Clarence Park was only a short walk from where we lived," Garrick, 76, a retired history teacher, says. "But I've always supported Sunderland from afar and taken a keen interest in their results. My first game at Roker was at 11, when I was up there convalescing from scarlet fever. Nowadays, I still manage to get to the Stadium of Light once a season on the minibus."
"Mackem" minibuses from all over the country descended in their droves on Old Trafford for the most memorable of semi-final second legs last month. The Sunderland following of 9,000 was the biggest away turn-out in English domestic competition this season and they contributed to an electric atmosphere, mostly from their seats in the upper tier of the East Stand.
The constant drizzle did not dampen their spirits; nor did Manchester United taking a 1-0 first-half lead through Jonny Evans, which levelled the aggregate at 2-2. The United fans around me in the lower East grew increasingly nervous; the Sunderland fans above me barely stopped cheering and singing throughout.
Extra time ensued and, when Bardsley made it 1-1 on the night - and 3-2 overall - in the 119th minute, the Mackems went mad.
North Herts member Mike Atkinson would later report in issue No.253 of the "Review". "When the ball settled neatly in the net, instinctively we looked at the linesman. No flag. Cue mayhem! CRASH, BANG, WALLOP! I ended up three rows forward, staring backwards with feet dangling from the back of a seat. This was pure ecstacy ... "
Many United supporters around me rose from their seats and, utterly dejected, made to leave - only for Javier Hernandez's stoppage-time goal to stop them in their tracks. Back they came for the spot-kick spectacular; back down to earth, no doubt, came Atkinson.
But Sunderland kept their cool in the shoot-out, in front of a frenzied East upper, and the Black Cats booked their first cup final appearance at Wembley since 1992. As their joyous fans filed out of the stadium, incessant chants of "Wem-ber-lee, Wem-ber-lee" could be heard long into the evening.
Editor Dunn, having experienced every emotion imaginable in the Stevenage hostelry, later recorded his thoughts in "Review". "Man Utd to take the last kick," he wrote. "A poor penalty from Rafael - but a tremendously important save by Vito [Mannone]. YEEEESSSSSS! We'd done it!
"Think of all the adjectives you want, none can adequately describe the feeling of relief and joy! The players were having their own delirious moments on the pitch. GREAT!"
Back in Baldock, Colin Chandler, the long-serving North Herts treasurer and membership secretary, reflects on his first trip to Roker with his grandfather, Jack. "I was about seven years old," he says. "It was a grown-up world and I was just a little lad but it was great.
"I loved the atmosphere and the banter. Grandad said: 'Did you like it?' and I said: 'Yeah, will you take me again?'. He said: 'It's not going to be easy supporting this lot'. And he was right."
Chandler, a 58-year-old engineer from Bedford, did not need to work too hard to persuade son Robert, 35, or daughter Rachel, 33, to join the NHSSC brethren. Yet wife Sue is still a non-believer. "I took her to a few games," Colin says, "but she didn't really like it."
A minibus regular to the Stadium of Light, at least Colin and his fellow followers now face a rather shorter trip to the Final at Wembley on March 2. Letting the train take the strain will make a comfortable change.
"I don't have any great expectations, I just want to have a good day," Chandler said. "My grandad always said: 'I don't expect Sunderland to win every match but I'd like them to try as though they want to'.
"As long as we put up a good show, that's fine with me. If we win, fantastic; if we don't, we'll still have a nice day and enjoy it."