There is a chant that, all my Sunderland watching life, I have found ridiculous. You see (and I’m sorry if this comes as a shock to anyone), we’re not the greatest team the world has ever seen. Real Madrid could probably have sung it for a bit in the late fifties. Brazil 1970? Possibly. Sunderland? No. Never.
But do you not what else we’re not? We’re not the worst team either. At Peterborough I saw and heard both. Four minutes apart. I have never understood why, for so many of our fans, there can be no middle ground, no shades of grey. I read a fan the other day saying that second would be a disgrace as it would be the lowest finishing position in the club’s history. History is, quite literally, in the past. We need to look at where we are this season and how we move forwards from here.
A poll at the start of this season said most fans thought we could get into a play-off spot and would view that as a successful season. I personally thought that, with the signings we’d made in central defence (I know, I know), we might sneak an automatic spot. So where are we with three games left? In a play off spot with a chance of sneaking an automatic spot (in spite of our central defenders). So, good then? Not perfect, but good.
I read on twitter last week that the board must do everything to keep Scotland away from Jack Ross. Last night I read that the board needs to sack him if we don’t go up this season. Ludicrous. He has learned a huge amount this season. I think he’s made mistakes, but I don’t think he’s made any mistake twice and, with a young manager, that’s what matters. He came into a bomb site in July and built a team that, as I’ve already mentioned, has achieved what most fans said would be a good season. I believe we will finish with over 90 points in a season which started with physios making up the numbers in training and arguably our best midfielder going to get his GCSE results. The answer is he’s done a great job. Not a perfect job, but a great job.
As I left Peterborough a woman was telling anyone who’d listen that our defenders aren’t good enough for this league, never mind the Championship. There is so much wrong with that sentence. First of all, they are good enough for this league. Our central defenders are absolutely in the right league (though I can see that with a few more years, Dunne has potential). They are League One defenders. We signed a Burton reserve and a player Peterborough were keen to move on. We signed a player from Turkey without a club and, my greatest disappointment of recruitment this year, a leader of men with Championship experience who, sadly, had just a bit too much experience in his legs. Are they good enough for the Championship? No. But did anyone ever claim they were? We needed League One defenders and we got League One defenders. No one is expecting anything other than recruitment in that area in the summer but, with the fourth best defensive record in the division, they’re certainly good enough for this division.
I love Luke O’Nien. Hell, I want to be Luke O’Nien. I want to have a daughter just so I can introduce her to Luke O’Nien. He proved himself as a good League Two attacking midfielder so we signed him. And we have played him at right back. And he’s not a right back. But the club Ross came to hand two international, yes, international, right backs. Matthews and Love would be supported by Flanagan (also an international) if required. Luke O’Nien is, in human form, everything going on at the club this season. Lost and nervous against Charlton, he never gave up, he’s worked and battled, he’s put a smile on people’s faces and in positions we’re not familiar with and styles of play we’ve not dealt with before, he’s given everything and developed as the season has gone on. Sometimes, just sometimes, he’s come up short. And when he has, he’s got up and tried to put it right. He is, for me, one of the players of the season and the player who represents our season, not perfect but not bad at all and moving in the right direction.
The club is rising from the ashes of a club that very nearly completely died a year ago. The women’s team have started again and done well. The fans’ groups have taken huge strides to improve the atmosphere, the environment and the mood of the club. The seats, the flags, the latticework. The work of the SAFC social media team has been amazing in how the club speaks to the fans. On the business side, the directors are trying their best to move the club forwards. Their decisions aren’t always popular but, again, we must look for the positives and understand why we have to live with the negatives. If calling it the ‘XYZ Stadium of Light’ gives us enough money for a centre half, I can live with that.
This season was always going to be difficult and I firmly believe we will look back on it as a good one. Not perfect and not a disaster, but a season of change and development would never be either of those things. To quote another chant, we’re on our way.
Our role in taking the club forwards will demand less focus on our perfect right to be pushing for Europe or our inevitable slump into non-league but rather to cheer the lads to be the best they can be and, wherever the next month takes us, to be ready for the next step in the journey and supporting the lads there as brilliantly as we did against Doncaster and Peterborough.
After all, as every Sunderland fan knows, living in a world where everything is either black or white is an ugly world to live in.