New Year's Day can often be a depressing day, you’re inevitably hungover, you’ve probably got work the next day and all the dying embers of festive cheer are extinguished as many household take down their Christmas decorations. Throw in a 1-0 home defeat to a Barnsley side that were without a win since the first week of November and it’s enough to make anyone retreat under the covers and hibernate until this all blows over.
What was more worrying was our approach to the game, we sat off a mediocre at best Barnsley side and even when we went behind we showed no urgency to get back into the game.
“We go again” is one of those tedious phrases that footballers trot out on an almost weekly basis, win, lose or draw. It may be a boring platitude but it’s very apt when describing my feelings on watching Sunderland over the past 18 months or so. Before the game, despite seeing the lads win away from home less than 48 hours previously, I had little hope or expectation prior to kick off. I didn’t feel a pre-match buzz, or a sense of anticipation. It’s like I’ve been conditioned to expect defeat and anything else if an unexpected bonus.
Looking back, I don’t think I can remember when the last time was I felt anything other than a sense of dulled dread in the run up to a game. Probably Leeds at home in August, when the sun was shining, we had made an unbeaten start and there was a bit of excitement. Since that day things have unravelled at an alarming rate and we find ourselves in the bottom three of the Championship with over the half the season gone.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, the fun of a match day is diminishing by the week. Not so long ago if you went to a Sunderland city centre pub from around midday onwards there would be standing room only and whilst giddy excitement wasn’t the order of the day, there was at least a hubbub of enthusiasm and a degree of hope for the afternoon ahead. Sure, we still invariably got beat most weeks, but there was something galvanising about playing the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea at home and a sense of communal pride at not lying down and meekly surrendering to the “top four”.
Now if you had to town at the same time most weeks, you’ll find yourself able to get a seat pretty easily, the atmosphere is akin to the awkward first hour of a party where hardly anyone knows each other. Then it gets to around 2.30 and you drag yourself over the bridge like lambs to the slaughter to watch us get beat in front of around 26,000 fans (that’s taking a generous figure), and endure watching yet another set of travelling fans having a lovely old time and taking the piss at our expense. Apathy seems to be the order of the day.
If this was happening a few miles down the road in Newcastle, horses would be getting punched all over, bedsheet sales would be doing a roaring trade and the local and national media would be labelling it a disgrace. But of course, we just have to accept it all like good little boys and girls and give ourselves 10 lashings because we aren’t showering the poor lambs on the field with unwavering love for 90 minutes.
In 2017 we were statistically the worst team in the country out of 92 teams. We won just 8 competitive matches in an entire year, and two of those were victories over lower league teams in the League Cup. Honestly, it is a minor miracle that we still attract crowds higher than a lot of Premier League clubs at home and are constantly backed by sell out away allocations. As I’ve said before, despite everything thrown at us, we all want to get behind the players. Rare wins have seen them given heroes receptions, Christ when they went off at half time against Brentford you would have thought we’d wrapped up the league title.
As with everything in football, context is key and on Wearside a perfect storm for our discontent has been brewing for a while. Even before we plunged to new depths of incompetence in 2017, we had won just 20 games since August 2014. We’ve not registered back to back wins since November 2016, crushing disappointment is the price we pay for rare moments of joy. In terms of our fan base we are in a horrible flux where people of all generations are getting increasingly fed up.
Old timers who have seen all us get relegated to the Third Division and struggle under Terry Butcher and Mick Buxton, get relegated with a record low number of points from the Premier League twice are finding this season to be a bridge too far. People my age (22) have witnessed the record low relegations but have never known us to struggle at this level and the younger generation have access to bigger clubs on tap via social media, TV and online content. We may be a football obsessed, one club city be we cannot continue to take the support we get for granted.
Another depressing thing about our situation is a lack of cult heroes, or favourites. As things stand I’m pining for us to just totally accept the next couple of years as a banter era and bring back Nyron Nosworthy, Danny Collins and Steed Malbranque no matter what their age or condition. At least it would be a laugh. I don’t actively dislike most of the team but it’s hard to build a connection with our current side. Too many times after we’ve scored a goal there’s been ear cupping and almost confrontational gestures towards the fans because we dare to be dissatisfied at being in the Championship’s relegation zone.
Of course, football is purely a results business and should we put a run together, I will be writing another article demanding that a statue of Chris Coleman is erected immediately and Donald Love is given the freedom of the city. But in the meantime, it very much seems to be new year, same old Sunderland. But “we go again next week.”
See you all at Boro…