As football fans we like to talk about different eras at clubs, when talking about Sunderland you don’t tend to say, “remember that time between 1995-2002?” You would be more inclined to refer to the Peter Reid era. Bar this high point and the FA Cup triumph in 1973, you could argue that ever since we were relegated from the top flight in 1957 we have all endured the era of frustration, yo-yo’s and false dawns. But recently, it has gone beyond that and I can’t think of any way to word it other than simply taking the piss, or to put it in more polite terms, the years of gross mismanagement.
Our decline since Sam Allardyce’s departure has been astonishing; it is hard to believe that it’s little over 18 months since he embarked on an ill-fated stint as England manager. The fall from grace is encapsulated perfectly by a documentary made less than a year ago, entitled “Never lose faith-The Sunderland AFC story.” It’s a stirring watch, talking about the ties between the City of Sunderland, the football club and the social intertwining of the two. Everyone from Jimmy Montgomery to the staff at Stirks Butcher’s are interviewed and the running theme is one of unity, defiance against the odds and the unwavering love everyone has for their football club. At the time, I remember watching it and feeling almost overwhelmed with emotion. For those of a more cynical mind it may have come over as pop psychology and lavished with over the top sentiment, but it represented the Sunderland I know and love. We were going through an awful run of results at the time, but it hit home everything that I love about supporting the lads. Through times of hardship, it has been a source of great comfort, we might not have much but we are bloody proud of what we have and the footage of fans celebrating and unlikely escapes not only filled me with hope that we could do it again, but made realise that despite our on field struggles we will always have the fanbase, and we will always have the almost unique connection between the supporters the surrounding area and SAFC.
Therefore, the other night I watched it back to try and breathe some life back into my Sunderland supporting life, rather than just a constant depressing numbness and I just didn’t recognise the club as described in the documentary. It was like reminiscing on a friend you were close to at school, at the time they were full of life, had their whole future ahead of them, they were funny, charismatic and even through hard times they were there for you. But now they are distant, withdrawn, don’t take care of themselves and have shut off their old friendship group. You initially didn’t notice the decline, but now it’s too late to do anything about it and what you have left is a shadow imitation of what they once were and some recollections to comfort you.
Apathy doesn’t come easily to a place like this, it just doesn’t. I grew up on tales from my Granddad who told me that there was a huge increase in accidents in the ship yards on a Monday morning due to negligence after a defeat. Conversely if we won, productivity improved, in 1973 in the middle of a country wide economic depression which tore the north east apart the FA Cup win boosted morale and the football club was used as a way of escaping every day struggles. But as I said at the beginning of the article everyone has a breaking point and slowly but surely the resilience of a fan base has been chipped away at and this is the result.
The recent Jack Rodwell saga sums up much the direction the club has taken in the past 18 months. The self-serving interview he gave to the Daily Mail should have been a shocking isolated incident which inspired an out pouring of anger. But, just like a 4-0 defeat to Cardiff, a 5-2 defeat to Ipswich and 3-0 defeat to Barnsley, this has become the norm. It’s just another irritation in a timeline of shambles.
In a recent interview, Billy Jones talked about players deliberately disrupting training when they were wanting to leave the club. In an interview with the Sunderland Echo he said: “Obviously when we have been in training, situations have cropped up where you have seen players who particularly aren’t happy, maybe want to leave, they can act up a bit, start to interrupt the sessions.” This is an extraordinary statement but it appears to have gone under the radar somewhat. He does go on to say that the current crop of players are all 100% committed to the cause, but for a so called professional to deliberately undermine their colleagues by disrupting training is staggering and says a lot about the declining standards across the board.
This isn’t the first time we’ve heard grumblings of this nature, before the last game of the season, David Moyes claimed that a number of players refused to play in his final game in charge against the champions elect, Chelsea. One of these players is widely thought to be Lamine Kone, who Simon Grayson made club captain for a few games early on in the season. Now, I can understand the players lack of respect for Moyes, we all feel their pain in that regard. But to refuse to play in a competitive fixture is a disgrace, regardless of how you feel towards the manager or the significance of the match. It shows a lack of professional pride and a massive lack of respect for the club’s supporters.
On the day in question, an undeserving number of Sunderland fans made the trip to the capital to witness players choosing to sack it off and under our manager’s instruction putting the ball out of play for John Terry to receive a vomit inducing send off from the Chelsea fans. Again, this is not a one off, on Saturday little under 1,000 die-hards travelled to Cardiff to watch yet another embarrassing capitulation but at full time not one player went right over to them to show their appreciation. In fact, rather than being lauded for our continued backing, we appear to be treated as an inconvenience instead of a source of pride. After scoring just his second goal for the club away to Burton Albion, James Vaughan sprinted over to the away end and cupped his ears to the fans. This is despite the terraces booming to the tune of “I’m Vaughny, so Vaughny, Vaughny, Vaughny” just after he’d scored. At any football club if you do the business, you get rewarded, it’s that simple. Not only do the players display such contempt, but the media continually stick up for the poor lambs that play for us by saying that the Stadium of Light is a tough place to play. Once again, if the lads perform and show some effort, the place is rocking. But as is common place these days, accountability is severely lacking.
Off the field, things have been little better, in the summer the club saw fit to invite 8,000 Glaswegians down for a jolly up to “celebrate” 20 years at the Stadium of Light. We then proceeded to lose 5-0, our record defeat at the ground. On the day itself, there were no appearances from former players, no highlights from previous wins on the big screen, no nothing. What should have been a colourful, family-friendly day ended up being an embarrassing farce designed to satisfy our sponsors, Dafabet.
What made this all the more farcical is that it occurred during a PR campaign which insisted that “our future is rooted in our history.” So that would be a history that was built on industry, hard work and pride replaced with patronising slogans when the reality in front of our very eyes contradicts the image they attempted to portray. The launch of a third kit claiming to be a nod to our mining heritage also came over as insincere and slap dash.
What made the campaign all the more comical is the sponsorship deals that go against the notion of representing the local community. As mentioned earlier, the people of Sunderland and the north-east are known for hard work, endeavour and a sense of identity. But unfortunately, like most post-industrial towns and cities companies and corporations play on people’s vulnerability. These include pay day loan companies and bookmakers. I appreciate in the modern era we aren’t exactly going to see Jacky White’s Market sponsor us but the affiliation with Dafabet and Satsuma loans makes me feel uneasy. Of course, the football club are not to blame for people being in this position but I think the majority of us are all too aware of the affects of gambling and debt have on this region and to see our city’s focal point advertising odds all over their social media and referring to their “proud affiliation” with Satsuma leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.
Obviously, people would argue that little of this would matter if we were riding high in the league and challenging for promotion. I take this point on board and I don’t disagree, but when a team is struggling like we are the ties to the community and the responsibility to the fans is never greater. The love is still there and it will never die but I just feel that there needs to be more appreciation of the lengths people go to on a weekly basis. I know lads and lasses who regularly take overnight mega busses to long distance away games to keep costs down. People make many sacrifices to follow Sunderland and it’s sad to see ourselves be repaid in the way we have been. Chris Coleman has already started the process of weeding out the bad apples and he has my full unwavering support. Hopefully, under his management he can help give us a club to be proud of once again and I hope everyone gets behind the gaffer from the first whistle against Hull on Saturday.