Last week’s defeat to Bolton Wanderers represented arguably my lowest moment as a Sunderland supporter. After many months of experiencing the denial stage of grief, I had made the seamless transition to acceptance.
I couldn’t even muster anger at our predicament, sure we had been beaten by one of the worst sides I’ve seen in the flesh who started time wasting in the warm up. Yes, Ashley Fletcher’s miss was infuriating, Lee Camp’s howler was inexcusable and the missed handball in the build-up was hard to swallow, but it was all just a sign of the times. What did we really expect from a goal-shy striker who was deemed surplus to requirements at an under-performing Championship side, or a ‘keeper who hadn’t played a minute of football this season before joining us on loan? The lads reacted well to going behind and despite their efforts could not muster an equaliser. Since August I have maintained that this squad is better than its league position, but Tuesday felt different. I had just witnessed the majority of the team perform to near their maximum ability but ultimately it wasn’t enough. That was the most galling part. Our hastily assembled squad of free-signings, loanees, fatigued old pros and youngsters just did not look capable of scoring a goal, never mind winning a game.
On my journey home, the conversation was bleak. We discussed what the Stadium of Light could look like next season, how our relegation would impact on the City of Sunderland and the surrounding area and shuddered at the prospect of some of the players we would see in red and white should the worst happen.
We also agreed that Middlesbrough were the worst opposition imaginable for the following game. All I could envisage was a tentative start from the lads, followed by an early ‘Boro goal before the rest of the game was played out in an apathetic atmosphere from our fans whilst thousands of Teesiders’ partied in the north stand upper tier.
What transpired couldn’t have been further from this doomsday prediction, just 11 minutes into the game, the Stadium of Light was bouncing, I was stood with my arms aloft singing “and it’s Sunderland AFC, we’re by far the greatest team the world has ever seen” and life was good again. Naturally, we went on to have a mini-meltdown and found ourselves 2-1 down less than 10 minutes into the second half; but the character we showed to drag ourselves back into the game not once but twice was heartening. It felt different to the draw at Bristol City, that day we had a huge amount of good fortune which resulted in us getting a point. On Saturday we stayed on the front foot even when we trailed late on and despite injuries to Paddy McNair, a sending off and individual errors we rallied to gain a vital point.
Much of the talk building up to the match was about a potential change in ownership and how best to sell the club to a potential investor. If anyone interested in taking over witnessed Saturday’s game, they couldn’t have seen a much better advert for Sunderland AFC. Yes, we made costly errors, yes, we are still rooted at the bottom of the Championship, but we saw most of all we saw a never say die attitude, players putting their body on the line and showing a bit of nastiness and mental toughness. The crowd also reminded me of what the Stadium of Light can be like on its best days. From the first whistle, everyone was right behind the players and for once everyone was pulling in the same direction. In contrast to the numbness I’ve felt for the majority of the season, I was kicking and heading every ball, felt sick to the pit of my stomach when Boro scored and when Sunderland scored I celebrated like I haven’t done for a long, long time at a home game. It wasn’t about Ellis Short, it wasn’t about the players who decided they didn’t want to bother playing for the shirt, for 90 minutes it was about making a statement, ‘we are Sunderland and we aren’t going to lie down!” We may not turn things around today, tomorrow, or even this season but when we do and have momentum on our side then our upward curve can be unstoppable.
When we’re in a rut like this, it looks like there is no way out and we may only have gained one point from a possible six, but the performances against Bolton and Boro have been much more in the image of our manager. Many have complained that the feel good factor from the weekend merely papers over the cracks, but that’s indicative of the situation we are in. With this squad we aren’t going to turn teams over with ease or pull up any trees but if we show that application and willingness to take the game to the opposition we can continue to paper of the cracks. However, as we’ve said so many times, these performances need to become the exception not the rule if we want to avoid playing third tier football for only the second time in our history.