It is early August and it is sunny in Sunderland. Not just in Sunderland. It’s bright and hot in Orlando, Florida, too. And that’s where I am. A family holiday, one that, unusually, didn’t take into account the football season, is entering its second week. I am sat in a pleasantly air-conditioned villa, perched on the edge of a loudly patterned sofa, watching an iPad jitter in front of me.
Unable to find League One football on early morning American television, an internet stream has had to suffice. Much like the action it shows, the quality on offer is little to write home about. And it looks very much like the result of the game itself will be similar. Sunderland have a corner in the sixth minute of added time, but a draw appears the most likely outcome. Lynden Gooch steps up to take it and… nothing. The stream stops abruptly just as Gooch is about to send the ball in. I exhale and curse. A good minute later, I’m doing a jig that remained mercifully absent from any holiday snaps. Having missed the goal, the stream returned a few moments in the future, to the scene of Gooch celebrating in the corner and being mobbed by his teammates.
That was 295 days and 60 games ago. The first day of the rest of Sunderland’s life, life in the third tier for only the second year in our history, began with a whimper and ended with a bang. One down inside 10 minutes, Jack Ross’ side flipped the game on its head, Gooch’s last-gasp header getting the new era off to a welcome start. That the vanquished opponents then now present the final roadblock to a Championship return seems rather fitting.
Fulwell73 are unlikely to be caught up in a match-fixing scandal any time soon but it remains that they could not have hoped for a better script for the mooted second season of ‘Sunderland ‘til I Die’. Today’s renewal of acquaintances with Charlton Athletic ought to round the narrative off nicely for them, whatever the result.
For the rest of us, this has been a seminal season and today marks a seminal moment. Win and the upward trajectory that succeeded the nadir of last year’s Championship stint will continue, not quite at speed but at least with a modicum of momentum. Lose and, though many will rightfully say they have enjoyed life ‘down here’, the shine will look rather faded and expectations for next term will soar through the roof.
As soon as today’s combatants were confirmed, thoughts immediately turned to events of 21 years past. No one should need reminding of what happened on that fateful day in 1998 and nor should anyone need reminding that the only recurring characters from then and now are the fans in the stands. None of those on the pitch or the dugout were there to see Michael Gray’s tame penalty trickle slowly into the arms of Sasa Ilic at the end of 120 minutes of mania, so any fears that a loss over two decades ago will cast a long shadow should fade from our minds rather easily.
If people don’t feel that events of the past can be cast off so simply then perhaps it is worth remembering that Gray’s penalty miss was followed by one of the best seasons in Sunderland’s recent history. That will be of little comfort come 5pm (or later) if Jack Ross’ men do not get the job done today but, when the dust settles, it will at least serve as a reminder that football, just like life, goes on.
That is the past and future though and this is the now. As we stand here on the precipice of a second Wembley visit in as many months, it is worth reflecting on the journey to date. Depending on who you talk to, the grade awarded to our season either hinges on this afternoon (defeat will represent failure) or is already set in stone (getting this far represents success already). The reality is probably somewhere nearer the middle: much good has been done this term, but a tumble at the final hurdle will act as a restraint on any claims to an overwhelmingly positive year.
The year has been punctuated with drama and intrigue all the way, both on the pitch and off it. A good start and a roaring autumn were interrupted with the abrupt departure of Josh Maja, before a succession of finely balance games ultimately resulted in the side acquiring more draws than your average smoking area. In the end we settled lower than we expected to but, really, where we deserved to, as a division that comprised a top five and then the rest (an almost literal ‘pound shop Premier League’) drew itself to a close. In the meantime, we managed no end of goals and a Checkatrade Final defeat against Portsmouth, the latter being avenged in the sweetest fashion a week gone Thursday when, if you pardon my French, we out-shithoused the shithouses.
Meanwhile the boardroom, previously inhabited by mutes, has had loudspeakers installed. The arrival of new owners last spring provided a jolt to the system that was sorely needed by a club tumbling into terminal decline, and though there is plenty reason to worry about both the deal done then and the state of the club’s future (a certain Daily Mail article shouldn’t be dismissed, despite the unnecessary tone of it), that is not for today. Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven will be watching from the Royal Box hoping for a victory that would crown a remarkable first year for them and, whatever is to come in the future, it cannot be denied that for many they have renewed a bond that looked entirely broken just over a year ago.
60 games ago Lynden Gooch headed Sunderland in front to get Jack Ross’ managerial reign off to a perfect start and, while there have been plenty of missteps along the way, the man from Sterlingshire has been a breath of fresh air for the most part. It is a sign of this marathon season (and, in fairness, a recent proclivity for sacking managers) that, come today’s final whistle, Ross will have overseen more matches as Sunderland boss than Chris Coleman, Simon Grayson, David Moyes, Sam Allardyce, Dick Advocaat, Paolo di Canio, Martin O’Neill, Howard Wilkinson, Terry Butcher and Malcolm Crosby. If we think we’ve had a long year then imagine how he feels.
That year has brought with it 31 wins, 22 draws, seven defeats, 100 goals for, 54 against, 16 transfers in, and 25 players out (including two sacked). In a world of 24-hour rolling news, Sunderland AFC have more than played their part in keeping the content wheel turning. Now, today, in front of a sizeable stadium audience and an even larger one watching on TV, a nice and simple win would do us just fine. 3-0 up by half-time please. Or one up inside a minute and coasting from there. Whatever. 1973 and all that was very nice indeed but I’m sure Monty won’t mind the suite being renamed after the method of victory today, whether it be a 35-yard screamer or an effort bundled in from a yard out. The ‘Glenn Loovens’ Arse Lounge’ has quite the ring to it, don’t you think?
So here’s to today and here’s to Sunderland. Here’s to everyone who has played their part this season, the owners and the manager, the players and the fans, the happy-clappers and the doom-mongers. Here’s to them all and here’s to, hopefully, a happy ending. Here’s to The Lads.