Sunderland fans are currently sat reflecting on an exceptionally strange, somewhat surreal three seasons of football. After a ten-year stint in the Premier League we finally succumbed to the drop and fell into the Championship. We all know what followed and now we find ourselves still in League One, at the lowest point in the club’s history.
So much has gone on in that time. From numerous managerial changes to a completely new ownership, we’ve seen it all, and so quickly. Our rapid fall means that the memories of the Premier League are as fresh as those from the season just gone in the third tier. Just two short years apart, yet two huge leagues. While reflecting on our so recent exploits in the top tier of English football, I found myself thinking about what has changed about being a Sunderland fan in that time, now that we find ourselves playing at a far lower level.
One of my favourite matches from Sunderland’s time in the Premier League was the monumental 3-2 win against Chelsea that saw us all but safe from relegation for another season. It was an amazing day. As was the case most seasons, we were in a fight for something, and it was a tough ask to pull off another escape. I’d seen Sunderland enough to believe we could do it, but we knew it would be difficult to beat that Chelsea team. There was a nervous buzz around the Stadium of Light, the sort of buzz I think our fans thrive off. We love being nervous because if we can succeed then it feels so much better.
Being a Sunderland fan on that day was incredible. We saw our team play against world class players like Eden Hazard, Diego Costa and John Terry. We saw our team go behind twice and yet still fight our way back against them. We won that game with outstanding goals and a late winner from Defoe. It had everything. The joy on that day as a Sunderland fan was immense and we all celebrated together. Every Sunderland fan felt ten feet tall that day.
Fast forward only three years and I can now compare that day in the Premier League to one of my favourites in League One. Rochdale away. This time we weren’t fighting for Premier League safety, we were fighting for promotion to the Championship; but we were still fighting for something. It wasn’t Champions League winners Chelsea that we were playing, it was Rochdale AFC. We weren’t up against Eden Hazard or Diego Costa, instead it was the likes of Ian Henderson standing in our way. Yet despite the lack of big names, we still all felt that nervous buzz.
Our fans were as loud against Rochdale as they were against Chelsea. We were still as excited, still as nervous. We again saw a match where we again went behind but fought our way back and won with a late goal. There were no wonder goals and no promise of Premier League football, but there was still the unbridled joy, the wild celebrations. The opposition might have been smaller, we might have had players with less ability, but three years and two leagues later, every Sunderland fan felt ten feet tall once again as we beat Rochdale 2-1 in League One.
I know none of us want to be in this league. We all want to get back to the Premier League. What I have realised, however, is that no matter the opposition, the players or the league, nothing has really changed for us, the fans. I compare my experience as a fan over the last few years and nothing has changed. The bad moments still hurt the same, and the good moments still bring the same ecstasy. The emotions haven’t lessened.
I don’t speak for all fans. Every fan feels differently and has their own opinion about our current position and the state of the club, but I know one thing. The joy is the same. The pain is the same. The excitement is the same. We all embrace each other in the same way when we win no matter who it is against or where we are at. We are all anticipating the next season as much as we always have every season before. Premier League or League One, it’s still football, and it’s still Sunderland.