In 1988, in the relative calm before the storm that was the Stone Roses, Ian Brown came out with the line ‘It’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re at’. This idea that the past doesn’t matter and the present is what counts was meant in an encouraging, positive way. This could not be further from the situation Sunderland find themselves in.
The result against Leicester City’s U23s has been described by some as the worst result in the club’s history. And to a point I agree. There’s no way that Sunderland’s first team should be in a position where they come up against any club’s reserves in a competitive fixture, let alone lose that fixture. But the most appalling thing about Tuesday night was not the result, but that the two XIs that took to the field were too equal for comfort.
Leicester’s side on the night contained three full internationals. Their captain, George Thomas spent last season on loan at Scunthorpe United and played against us twice. Defenders Filip Benković, who cost Leicester £13m, and Darnell Johnson both had temporary spells in the SPL. As you might expect from an academy of a side full of players looking to break into a top Premier League side, they were of our level at least.
This alone means that it can’t be the worst result in the club’s history. In our last spell in the Premier League, we went out of cup competitions to lower league opposition six times, three of those sides being in League One at the time. These results were so shameful because of the gulf in the ability of the squad and resources back then. That certainly wasn’t the case on Tuesday night.
The disappointment at the result highlights a need to, in the short term, accept that we are a League One side. It’s been an ongoing debate between supporters since our relegation; whether to accept our newly gained status or maintain the top flight standards of years gone by. In the short term, it’s something we need to collectively accept.
It seems like a strange thing to write part way through our second campaign at this level. Like most though, last season I believed we’d be doing a a whistle-stop tour of League One, at the end of which we’d re-take our place in the top two tiers. I could at least live with that and tolerated our diminished status in the meantime. The idea that we wouldn’t be promoted at the end of last season didn’t occur to many, something which intensified the devastation of the Play-Off Final. Very few thought that we’d still be here and it’s taking a while to process.
The idea that we are currently anything other than what we are played a huge role in Jack Ross’ sacking. Of course, there is no denying the serious problems we had under his management. There was though, a genuine belief amongst certain sections of the fanbase that we could attract a big name if he left. This was based on our history, stadium and fanbase, not on our squad or budget. Where fans saw potential and stature, these dream candidates saw an average squad in a lower division and kept their distance. Even if they saw the potential the club undoubtedly has, we couldn’t offer them the wages or budget they could get elsewhere.
Likewise, no good comes raising our own expectations of our League One quality squad based on the club they play for. The size of our ground and the fanbase can inspire players, but it is no substitute for skill or ability. We shouldn’t be dwelling on any defeat in this division. Every team loses games, and our squad is not so far ahead of everyone in the league to make us invincible.
What none of us should be doing though, is accepting this idea in the long term. This club’s long-term future lies in higher tiers. It’s where we should be, though we have no divine right to be there. Whilst we should be mindful of the limits of our situation, and not expect more than players and staff can currently give, we should still demand the best from those currently at our club. Unlike most clubs in this division, we have huge potential. There is no reason why fans shouldn’t look at certain Premier League teams and wonder why that isn’t or couldn’t be us. We just need to remember, for now, where we’re at.