To be perfectly honest, I felt OK when the announcement was made, even when I’d seen the revamped league table, well, sort of OK, but as today, the day after, wore on, I began to experience a familiar feeling, and it took a while to work out what it was. It was the feeling of being upset by football, by the fortunes of my club. Something I hadn’t felt since early March. I’d long since got used to being used to there being no football, if you get my meaning, but now it really is finished for us, that feeling has come back.
There you have it. Finally and officially, it’s all over... unless you’re Oxford, Wycombe, Portsmouth, or Fleetwood., of course, in which case you’ll be having a go at the play-offs. And it isn’t the season that never was for Tranmere, Southend, or Bolton, as they’ve been relegated. While Bolton and Southend looked pretty much like lost causes, Tranmere were on a run of form that had brought them ten points from their last five games. Also, up at the business end of the table, Wycombe somehow moved up several places to third despite a run of form that can at best be described as moderate. In the process, they leapfrogged Oxford, who’d won their last five games and had every chance of catching second placed Rotherham, who’d managed a single win in their last five.
Don’t get me wrong, that we are where we are is nobody’s fault but ours - well, almost, as we were seventh before the points per game stuff, which dropped us a place, but that makes no difference in the bigger scheme of things. Such calculations as the PPG don’t take into account current form, and you only have to look at our last few seasons in the Prem to emphasise the danger inherent in this. Had seasons been curtailed and PPG implemented, we’d have been relegated five times out of five. In reality, we survived four times, and in a couple of cases it was even entertaining, swashbuckling stuff as we did so. One of the beauties of football is its unpredictability, and if we don’t take account of that we might as well just see who’s spent the most money and give all the trophies to them. Reading University carried out an investigation and developed an algorithm that attempted to take form into account, but the resultant Heat Map (I’ve lost you already, haven’t I?) which attempted to predict where teams would be likely to finished was….well, it looked lovely, a heat maps tend to do, but was a bit complicated. Far too complicated for the powers that be at EFL Headquarters, obviously.
I’ve said since the games stopped that my preferred option would be to wait until it’s safe to play football properly (with fans in attendance) again, then finish this/last season. Next season will not be a “normal” one, in that we don’t know when it will start and we don’t know if fans will be able to attend, so make contingency plans for a shorter season, perhaps with only knock-out or round robin competitions. Perhaps even apply common sense and add a regional dimension to save us travelling to Plymouth – nothing against the Argyle, but they’re a long way away.
As for us, what went wrong? Why is it nobody’s fault but ours that we didn’t get the chance to make a late run for the play-offs, or even top the table? Probably because it’s been a season of inconsistency and uncertainty, and one in which our highest league position was fourth. We bumbled long either just in or just out of the play-off places, occasionally dropping to mid-table, without ever putting together a sustained run of good form.
When the season started, our opening fixtures didn’t give us much to worry about. In theory, that is, but when we followed our pitifully small pre-season with a far from impressive home draw with Oxford, with all the off-field connections, there were grumblings around the SoL. Around this time, we all got our knickers in a twist when it was announced that Michael Dell, he of the computers and associated technology and megabucks, was to buy us. A company called FPP, and consisting of Glen Fuhrman, Rob Platek, and John Phelan, was set up to oversee the sale of Stewart Donald’s majority shareholding to Dell, and, as their day job for MSD Partners was looking after the finances of the world’s 25th richest man, things looked positively rosy.
Early days, though, and the draw at promotion hopefuls Ipswich sort of gave us the idea that we might manage something, despite a disastrous first half performance. We followed that with five straight wins, starting in the League Cup at Accrington and ending with a well- deserved 3-1 at Burnley in the next round. Our nemesis of recent seasons, Portsmouth, were deservedly beaten, but all the good feeling generated by that little run evaporated at Peterborough when we were completely outclassed. Despite following that by repeating our 3-1 cup win in the league at Accrington, questions were being raised about Jack Ross’s inability to decide on his best eleven. Things got ugly at Bolton, when we needed a last minute penalty to rescue a point against a side struggling to put a team together and with a defence marshalled by Liam Bridcutt. Arguments raged, fights broke out, and we left the Reebok with the feeling that this was most definitely not one of those last minute equalisers that made a draw seem like a win.
In typical Sunderland style, however, we went to Sheffield Utd a few days later and produced a battling performance that brought a 1-0 win in the League Cup. Wemberlee? It’s a thought. A league win over MK Dons was followed by another abject performance at Lincoln in early October, leaving us in sixth place. On the day of our first game in the Checkatrade/Football League Trophy, the powers that be decided that enough was enough and gave Ross the boot. At least it gave those who witnessed the 3-2 win over Grimsby thanks to a late Will Grigg goal something to talk about. James Fowler managed the side for that game, but there was little hope of him getting the job full-time. Nor was there any appetite from the fans for that appointment. Ross’s win ratio of 50.67% wasn’t that bad, but the stats of played 75, won 38, drawn 27, lost 10 just weren’t good enough. The middle column, where so many of those draws could and should have been wins, was what did for him. Also featuring heavily in the conversation was that Dell, after due diligence, weren’t coming to SR5 and we were back on the open market. Too many unanswered questions, apparently. I believe there still are.
In came Phil Parkinson, with fans of his last club, Bolton, telling us that it wouldn’t be pretty, but it would be effective. He’d left the Trotters a few games into the season due to their dire financial straits, and, with his pedigree of relative success in League One and thereabouts, he appeared to tick a lot of the boxes on Charlie and Stew’s application form. Particularly the ones marked “cheap” and “available.” His first game was a narrow defeat at Wycombe, which we sort of gave him as he’d only been in the job a couple of days, and we appeared to be justified in that concession when his first home game saw us batter Tranmere 5-0 to take us from tenth to seventh. Unfortunately we followed that by losing at Shrewsbury, who managed the win with Donald Love in their side, and then things got worse. The League Cup tie at Oxford, with all the off-field connections, ended level, and Will Grigg epitomised his time with us by blazing his shoot-out penalty high and wide before summer signing Marc McNulty fired tamely at the keeper. One shot at Wembley gone.
After Luke O’Nien’s goal edged us past a pretty rubbish Southend side at home, we had the EFL Trophy. We played our first team; Leicester played their kids. The kids won 2-1. ‘Nuff said. We then passed up the chance to progress in the FA Cup, as Gillingham held us, and then we somehow managed to lose 3-0 at Scunthorpe in the ELF Trophy. Two shots at Wembley gone. A week after that, we replayed the FA Cup tie at Gillingham, and lost in extra time. Three shots at Wembley gone, all in the space of three weeks, and the fans didn’t think much of Parky’s tactics that had brought that turn of events. Out of all the cups and sitting tenth in the league was not what we wanted.
It got worse. Rumblings from a meeting between the fans and directors included Methven claiming that people in the North East didn’t understand business enough to get their heads around what the £10 million acquired from FPP was. Loan or investment? We just wanted to know, but the once rosy relations between owners and fans were strained to breaking point. He then announced that he was leaving the board for personal reasons, a baby on the way is a fairly good reason, I suppose and that Juan Sartori was “returning.” Mind, I didn’t know Juan had been away any more than he ever had.
A string of poor results in December meant that we were in twelfth place on Boxing Day when Bolton came to town, and thirteenth when they left with a point. There was a very vocal proportion of the crowd baying for Parky to go, and calls became more intense for the owners to make progress in the sale of the club. “Just get it done” was the call, and the feeling amongst our followers as we travelled to Doncaster was not the merriest. However, we got behind the team, who responded in in such style that we didn’t fear the worst when Gooch’s early goal was cancelled out before the break. In a proper attacking display, Maguire got the winner and a good proportion of our faith was restored. See, they CAN play football.
That win was the catalyst for probably our best run of decent football all season, as we went through January undefeated and got ourselves into the play-off places. At Portsmouth, however, we were well and truly done over as the home side played to our weaknesses and their strengths. Add to that the injury to Joel Lynch, which left us to see out the last few minutes with ten men after he clattered into Jon McLaughlin and left the ground in a bucket. Marc McNulty went back to Reading then on loan to Hibs, managed by one Jack Ross, and promptly scored a hat-trick in the cup. We brought in Tommy Smith and Bailey Wright, central defenders, to back up Joel Lynch, as well as Kyle Lafferty and Antoine Semanyo to get some goals and Josh Scowen to add teeth to the midfield. A decent bunch of signings, we thought, although we were largely going on the opinions of fans of their previous clubs, as we’d only really heard of Lafferty. We were warned that Wright was a big strong bloke, but prone to damaging himself. Which he did at Oxford, where a first minute goal from Jordan Wills, the best signing of last summer, was all that was needed for the three points. That was in the middle of a seven game run that saw us win five and draw two, leaving us in fifth place and accepting that the play-offs were our only realistic aim. Not that we really wanted to go to Wembley again, but we’d take it as the best of a bad job.
That run ended with a 2-2 draw at home to Gillingham in a game that typified what we’re about and probably summed up our season. Two goals for Kyle Lafferty, either side of one from former player Mikael Mandron, then a last minute equaliser from their man. High, low, higher, lower. Two vital points dropped, but we had a trip to Bristol Rovers, who’d just lost three off the belt, to put things right.
We didn’t. The Gas were well worth their 2-0 win, we were abysmal, and dropped to seventh when a win would have put us up to third… and then it all stopped. Bigger forces at work than football. A couple of weeks later, series two of Sunderland ‘til I Die appeared, putting our deficiencies out there for the whole world to see. I managed two episodes then gave up, as the novelty of series one was missing, and so much dirty linen had been noisily flapping in the wind since filming ended that everything that came on the screen was greeted by me mumbling “aye, but…”
In late April we brought in Jim Rodwell from Scunthorpe as CEO, which, after the performance of his predecessor Martin Bain, didn’t create many positive vibes amongst the fans. Wikipedia’s claim that he scored 97 goals in 34 games as a centre half for Sabah FA in Malaysia and Hednesford Town, after his single game for Darlo, take some believing. Mebbe he does his own publicity. Whatever the veracity of those claims, he’s come into a much tougher job than he had at those two clubs, and with some pretty negative comments from Scunny fans.
Where do we go from here? After three months in limbo, during which the club has lurched clumsily from one position on season ticket refunds and renewals to another, issuing statement then apology, retraction then alteration, and the fans are still unsure of what happens next because nobody knows when next season will start, if at all, or if we’ll be allowed to attend when it does. A decision on the “current” campaign has been made, for better or for worse, and it leaves us with a third season in League One.
That’s our reality, and we can’t change it. There was never going to be a solution that would please everybody, and it feels like we’re amongst those least happy with the curtailment. As are Tranmere, Peterborough, and Ipswich, who also voted to carry on. There’s no sign of the club being sold despite Mr Donald saying that he’ll not stay where he’s not wanted but he’ll not sell unless the new people are right for us. He now has added financial uncertainty to talk potential buyers around, as fans can’t or won’t commit to buying season tickets when they don’t know if they can use them or not, and many are unwilling to accept an internet stream as a replacement.
In summary, it’s a season that fizzled out rather than finished, and is probably best forgotten. Perhaps yesterday’s decision has given us the means to do just that.