Over the years Sunderland fans have become accustomed to uttering the phrase, ‘we just can’t win can we?’
The meaning of those six simple words has usually been depressingly literal, whether it’s been misfiring forwards, comical goalkeeping, managers that couldn’t motivate the sun to rise in the morning or refereeing incompetence, from August 2016-May 2018 we simply could not buy a win.
Indeed, out of the 84 league games played during that time period, Sunderland emerged victorious just 13 times.
Thankfully, this season our fortunes have been almost completely transformed but the phrase, ‘we just can’t win’ is equally as applicable.
Regardless of how we perform on the field there has been an undercurrent of bitterness running through the outside world’s attitude towards the lads.
At every corner there appears to be a queue of people ready to undermine our achievements, from club’s official match reports to fans of other clubs, it is evident that ‘we just can’t win.’
In the wake of a recent success at Bristol Rovers, the match report on their website saw fit to refer to Luke O’Nien and Aiden McGeady securing three points for the ‘expensively-assembled visitors.’
It is true that Sunderland’s starting X1 did feature Lee Cattermole and Will Grigg who cost sums of money that would the envy of the majority of third tier sides. But oddly, the author of the article chose to focus on the scorer of our second goal, Aiden McGeady, describing the free-kick as displaying ‘skill worthy of a player who joined Sunderland in the Premier League for around £6 million.’ Of course, our readers won’t need reminding that the Irish international joined us for around £250,000 during the pre-season of our 2017/18 Championship campaign.
This was not the first time that a football club’s official channels had trotted out fake news about the flamboyant winger’s price tag. Back in November, Plymouth Argyle proved that they were incapable of accepting a 2-0 home defeat and declared that McGeady had ‘been transferred for £9.5m not too long ago.’
It transpires that the aforementioned transfer, occurred in 2010 when he signed for Spartak Moscow. To put this into perspective, this was the same year that Joe McElderry reached number one in the UK charts, Sunderland were still three years from beginning their six in a row sequence over Newcastle, and midfielder Bali Mumba was yet to sit his Key Stage two SATS.
After the struggles we’ve had to endure in recent seasons, it should be a relief that many League One clubs display a degree of envy towards the players at our disposal and it could be argued that I’m being slightly precious over how we are viewed by the outside world. However, when media narrative isn’t challenged it can easily become an established fact.
There appears to be a very widespread determination to downplay anything we have achieved over the course of the season. Exaggerations over the fees we have paid for players seem to be accepted without question. I’ve seen a variety of media and supporters of other teams confidently state vastly inflated figures regarding our incoming transfers.
All of this feeds into the perception that Sunderland should simply be walking the league based on the quality we have at our disposal. If we win comfortably then there’s a communal shrug of the shoulders because we ought to be winning every week, although usually this is not good enough because we are accused of ‘riding our luck’ if our goalkeeper dares to make more than one save per game. However, if one of our supporters expresses a modicum of dissatisfaction then we are told that our attitude is arrogant before being lectured on the need to respect every opponent we come up against and that our reputation doesn’t count for anything. If our fans don’t have a 90 minute long disco then our support is deemed to be embarrassing and it is claimed that 50 Fleetwood fans made more noise during a Tuesday night match last season. But if we dare to exuberantly celebrate last minute equalisers after being down to ten men and trailing 2-0 then it is embarrassing for entirely different reasons and the reaction is dismissed as being small time and we are ‘celebrating like we’ve won the World Cup final.’
Of course, this does all come with the territory of being a big club in a division that we’ve previously spent just one season in over the course of our entire history, but the public perception of Sunderland’s season detracts from the good work Jack Ross has undertaken since his arrival.
When we were in the Premier League under David Moyes, we had England’s future number one in goal, an on fire Jermain Defoe upfront, a centre half who almost completed a £20 million transfer just a few months previously and a youngster on loan from Manchester United who Moyes was credited with bringing through the ranks at Old Trafford.
This side was humiliatingly relegated without putting up a fight, last season our squad looked far too good to go down on paper but due to a combination of circumstances we found ourselves rooted to the bottom of the Championship come the end of the season.
Naturally, the standard of the players in proportion to the level was not as out of kilter as it is has been at times this season, but it’s not as if we went out and spent a king’s ransom in the summer and even the fee mooted for Will Grigg is overplayed. The way the figure has been reported you would be forgiven for thinking that the entire transfer sum has been paid upfront as opposed to the £4 million only being payable should we get to the Premier League as a result of his goals.
When Ross took over in the summer he had just 11 first team players at his disposal and he was so uncertain over the future of much of his squad that he and his assistant, John Fowler were sat looking out of the window at the AOL counting the amount of cars arriving at the car park.
Despite being pivotal to our success as it stands, in the summer of 2018 neither the departure of McGeady or Lee Cattermole would have been mourned. Cattermole had been written off as over the hill and part of a tumour which needed to be cut out of the club and McGeady was seen as a luxury player who wouldn’t be up for the fight in League One.
But Jack Ross managed to motivate the likes of McGeady and Cattermole effectively as well as integrating his new signings into the squad, while successfully weeding out a number of players who did not wish to remain at the club.
As we have evidenced in the past, talent doesn’t guarantee results and more experienced managers could have been forgiven for being unable to handle the range of abilities and egos within the squad. But Ross has fostered a never say die attitude throughout the squad with every player from Aiden McGeady to Luke O’Nien mucking in together to get the club to back to where we all want to be.
His work for this season has been commendable and no amount of bitterness can detract from his leadership thus far.