HANS de Roon laughed. He had not heard the report last week that males living in Sunderland have the lowest life expectancy in England - at 72, four years fewer than those resident in Cambridge. "Whatever happens in my life," he said, "I'm glad I've come here." He was looking out of his living room window, at Roker Pier.
"In Rotterdam I had everything I wanted in my life," he continued. "I had a nice flat in the city centre. I had my music. I had a girlfriend; she gave me the final push because for months and months I was undecided about what to do. But I think everybody has a certain feeling in his ... in here," he said, pressing his right palm towards his heart. "In some ways it was nonsense to leave everything in Holland but there was something that said to me, 'Well, you have to go to Sunderland'."
On the bookshelves opposite was a clue to that something: next to The Films of Ingrid Bergman, two video cassettes marked in bold red Premier Passions. Like the other 39,799 folk who will make the trip from Wearside to Wembley for the First Division play-off final tomorrow afternoon, Hans de Roon has a passion for Sunderland Football Club. Unlike the rest of the Sunderland crowd, though, his passion has known no bounds - no national boundaries, at any rate.
Four years ago, at the age of 50, he took early retirement as an office clerk at Rotterdam Town Hall to begin a new life, not with his girlfriend but with his beloved red and whites. He moved in next door to them, into a terraced house in Roker Avenue. He lives around the corner on the sea front now, though a photograph of the late Roker Park adorns his mantelpiece, like a snap-shot of some dearly loved deceased relative. Half a mile up the road, in the walls of Sunderland's new home, the 10-month-old Stadium of Light, is a brick which bears the inscription: "Hans de Roon, Rotterdam."
How Hans de Roon, Rotterdammer, became Hans de Roon, Rokerite, is a tale of pure romance, though his former girlfriend might not see it quite that way. "I had first heard of Sunderland when I was a schoolboy in the 50s," he said. "They came to Sparta Rotterdam to play a friendly and I was just fascinated by the name: Sunderland. It really came to life in 1973 when I watched the FA Cup final. I was so impressed by the supporters and by the team, a Second Division side beating mighty Leeds United. I was so amazed.
"I wrote to the club secretary, I took out a subscription to the match programme and to the Saturday sports paper, the Football Echo. I first came in 1980. We played Ipswich - Eric Gates, Arnie Muhren, Franz Thijssen - and I had such an intense feeling about Sunderland: the club, the people, the place. The sea front here still sticks in my mind. I said to myself, 'I hope there comes a time when I can live here'. On that very day it was so impressive. I'll never forget it.
"From then on it was part of my daily routine to think about Sunderland. I became a regular visitor to Roker Park and when I was offered the chance to take early retirement I thought, 'Well, this is the chance to go to Sunderland'. It was just for one year. That was what I had in mind. But here I am.
"My family - my brother and my two sisters - were not so surprised when I came here because I've always been an Anglophile. I've always been interested in the English way of life. But I think it has been a surprise to them that I have stayed for another year, and another year, and another. On so many occasions I've told them, 'I'll come back at the end of the season'. Deep in my heart I still have a longing to go back. But I have already renewed my season ticket for another year. If we beat Charlton at Wembley and Bergkamp is coming to Sunderland, and Jaap Stam and Newcastle...it would be unbearable to watch it on Match of the Day in Holland."
Sunderland's Dutch devotee is as affable and lucid a fellow as you could wish to meet - not, as you might reasonably expect, a few cents short of a full guilder. An accomplished banjo player, he has been back home this week performing in a traditional jazz festival in Breda. If his red and white heart misses a beat or two at Wembley tomorrow, it will be nothing new. In his four seasons of following Sunderland at first hand, de Roon has endured two relegation battles (one successful, one not) and two promotion campaigns (one successful, one to be decided tomorrow afternoon).
"I cried when we were relegated last season," he said. "But I think it is at those very moments that you realise what Sunderland means to you. It's even an extra reason to keep faith with Sunderland, because people who support a team like Man United don't know what it is to be in those circumstances. Every year they win something or almost win something. With Sunderland, it's always mixed emotions and that's something I like for some reason. Even if we don't make it at Wembley on Monday...well, so be it.
"It's a typical scenario for Sunderland for many years: up and down, and at the very last moment we make it or we don't make it. Whatever happens, this season has been incredible. The ground ... 40,000 in that bowl ... the atmosphere has been fantastic. And the team ... I regard myself as a very critical supporter because I've seen thousands of games in Holland. I've seen some of the best football in the world in Holland. But this season ... it's been so good, so attacking, so positive, with old fashioned wingers like Alan Johnston, and with Kevin Phillips it's been a complete transformation. I'm convinced this is the best football Sunderland have ever played. I know there is nostalgia for the past but I don't believe the football can ever have been better.
"We have scored so many goals and when you look at the statistics after every game the shots on target are 20, 22. It just underlines that we play such good football. It's also one of the reasons why I've already renewed my season ticket. The players have given me so much pleasure this season."
Once upon a time Hans de Roon took his pleasure watching the red and whites of his native Rotterdam. Feyenoord were his first football love: the Feyenoord Ernst Happel fashioned into European Cup winners in 1970, the first Dutch masters of any continental competition. "Ja," he agreed, "my dream match would be Sunderland versus Feyenoord in a European tie. But if we win at Wembley on Monday it will be another dream if we can stay in the Premiership for more than one season."
The resident Dutchman of Roker has not just learned to endure like a Sunderland fan. He has even learned how to dream like one too.
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