As a region, the North-East of England has historically been synonymous with heavy industry, hard graft and a strong sense of community spirit.
Therefore, it stands to reason that the football team who represents the City of Sunderland should embody those characteristics and provide the foundations for success on the field.
Over the years this school of thought has become something of a cliché to the point of being slightly patronising. As Sunderland fans we enjoy watching attractive football as much as any other fanbase, but it has genuine basis in truth, particularly regarding the feeling of community and identity.
That ideology has been lacking on Wearside for many years, you could argue that our continued great escapes showed a certain degree of fighting spirit but the culture at the club still didn’t seem right. During our stint in the Premier League we had an unfortunate combination of players who felt the club was beneath them, were past their best playing wise and/or simply not good enough.
This season however something feels different, there’s a freshness, a newness and a determination to put things right on and off the pitch. Of course, I’m not naïve enough to suggest that results bare no relevance to the mood of a fanbase and ultimately, if we were currently languishing in the bottom half of the league the good will period would already be over but the positivity around the club is based on more than wins alone.
Nobody epitomises this new-found spirit more than yesterday’s goal scorer, Luke O’Nein. There was a purity and an innocence in the way he celebrated his goal and reacted to it in his post-match interview. This may seem sycophantic, but after the years of witnessing players who didn’t want to be at the club, it is a refreshing change to see someone genuinely honoured to represent Sunderland.
However, the reaction to O’Nein’s goal is even more pleasing and represents the vast sea of change undertaken by the club in recent months. Jack Ross singled out the former Wycombe man for praise in terms of his attitude and performances in training and on social media, players and fans alike heaped praise on the youngster. In previous years, a player who made a slow start at the club could have already been written off by this stage, but everyone at the club has remained patient with him and it was great to see the overwhelming support for him after his first goal for the club.
What’s more, O’Nein has been spending his afternoons after training hanging out in our fair city. He’s been practising his swing at the driving range and keeping his fitness up on days off at the Aquatic Centre, next to the stadium, where Luke struck up a conversation with one the ALS lads, who embarrassingly didn’t recognise him! Presuming he was a student, because he looks so young, O’Nein humbly corrected our writer as he pointed in the direction of the SOL “No! No, I work across the road at that wonderful, wonderful football club. I’m a footballer!”
It demonstrates the ever-growing bond between the supporters and the club. Whether the lads had just wrapped up a hard fought victory in front of a sell-out away end or just played Stoke under 21’s at home with less than 10,000 fans in attendance, Jack Ross and every single player have acknowledged the support and when we have won the players have milked the applause for all it’s worth and celebrated as though they were life-long fans themselves.
As recently as last Thursday, the gaffer gave up his evening to discuss his football ideals and his career so far in front of a packed city centre pub and fielded unvetted questions from the floor. What’s more this event was organised by fans for fans, so well done to The Wise Men Say boys. This hasn’t happened since the late 80s under Denis Smith.
Investor Juan Satori has already taken in a game in the South Stand and enjoyed a kick about with Stewart Donald and young fans before the Charlton game. After years of clear separation between the supporters and the club, it feels good to have a team to be proud of again.
To end on a slightly different note, I would like to advise everyone to watch an NBC documentary which focuses on the community ties between Sunderland and the surrounding area. Sadly, it was launched during the David Moyes era where I couldn’t have felt more distant from the club if I tried. Last season as we plunged towards relegation I re-watched it hoping to spring myself from the apathy I felt and I felt even more distant, but I watched it again after the Shrewsbury win and as I watched everyone from Lynden Gooch to employees of Stirks Butchers talk about their burning passion for the club and the way it unites us all I smiled to myself and thought, ‘this is the Sunderland I know and love, we’ll be back.’