To say the last number of years has been tough for Sunderland would be quite the understatement. The transition from being a Premier League club, albeit it a Premier League club languishing in and around the pit of the relegation zone year upon year, to a Championship club and now to a League One club in such a short space of time has been a difficult one to acclimatise to.
For the most part of that time, all Sunderland fans have been accustomed to is the infinite struggle and uncertainty as to where the next notch in the ‘win’ column will come from – but it wasn’t always that way. Once upon a time, the Stadium of Light resembled the traits of a fortress – not the draw bridge over a moat kind of traits but a sporting context equivalent at least. Teams used to look at Sunderland away on their fixture list, grit their teeth a little, breathe in and roll their eyes in concession and acknowledgment that it was going to be one of their tougher trips of the season.
Somewhere in time however, that ideology from those in the away dressing room eroded. Sunderland became a soft touch. That once tough fixture became one of the easiest of the season, and whatever peculiarities of the Roker Roar which managed to make their way over that mile or so across the city and into the new stadium dwindled with apathy. For the past five years Sunderland’s home record has notoriously been one of the worst in the entire country. Defeat after defeat and humiliation after humiliation resulting in one less disgruntled turnstile click after another. Sunderland’s slide has been both impressive and unbelievably dismaying in equal measure.
That kind of unprecedented negativity can take its toll not just on a football club but an entire city. Where once the Stadium of Light’s beams would ignite the Wearside skies, a malevolent darkness submerged itself instead, a darkness necessitating major attention. Fortunately for Sunderland fans, there are sparks of light beginning to materialise once more under the new regime.
Losing can become an ugly habit in football, and a difficult one to get out of. While Charlie Methven may have alluded to pigs not quite flying yet during their tenure so far in his ALS interview this week, there is no doubting Sunderland have evolved. With a complete overhaul in the boardroom, dugout and on the field, that ethos of losing in recent years is beginning to wilt. One defeat in 14 league matches represents a pretty remarkable turnaround in such a small period of time whatever the level, and while Sunderland have yet to light up League One with their pre-season favourites authoritative tag, they have begun repairing the destructive holes in their sinking ship.
There was perhaps no greater evidence of that than on Tuesday night after Chris Maguire’s goal sealed a third successive win on the road at Doncaster Rovers in front of 4,000 travelling supporters. The successes at Bradford City and Shrewsbury Town in the previous two outings were both needed and welcome, but the victory on Tuesday resembled something so much more than just another win. Perhaps for the first time this season, there was a real sensing that the tide may finally be turning for Sunderland, that the ships’ holes have finally been plugged and it is readying itself to set sail once more.
The more optimistic Sunderland supporter will have you believe they have been convinced promotion back to the Championship has been a given since before a ball had been kicked back in August. The more pessimistic may have reserved judgement after two harrowing relegations in succession. But on Tuesday evening, after the full time whistle had blown, there was an element of that infamous Roker Roar returning again in South Yorkshire. It had the components of a ‘big win,’ a win which may be highlighted later in the season as a turning point, a point where Sunderland proved they mean business and are serious about getting out of this league at the first attempt.
The unity being displayed after winning football matches is something that has been missing from Sunderland for longer than one dares to admit. The unity between the club and the community is beginning to return to its more prominent days. It may have taken the club to fall as far as it ever has done, for its belly and its chin and everything else to hit the floor, but finally it is starting to bite back. Losing may have been an ugly habit Sunderland became engulfed in but winning may just start to become a healthy obsession. And when that winning snowball begins to gravitate for Sunderland, promotion campaigns of the past have proved it becomes difficult to stop.
And so, the League One train continues to roll on, back to Wearside for the first time in what seems like an eternity, as Sunderland host Southend United at the Stadium of Light on Saturday looking to build on that impressive trifecta of results on the road in recent weeks. There really is no time to rest on your laurels in this division. The Saturday-Tuesday line is often the media’s propaganda for football outside of the Premier League, but Sunderland must forget what has preceded them the past seven days.
When these two clubs meet again in the reverse fixture this season Sunderland will be hoping it is their last game in League One. For that to happen, the new-found winning ethos must remain, starting here.