The Fifth Stage of Grief

A man named Tom was on the radio a few weeks ago. In as much as we can glean from one person’s utterances during a five-minute appearance on the airwaves, he seemed a pleasant man, one clear in his views and comfortable in articulating them.

Tom, like many others around him, was an exasperated man. He had called up BBC Radio Newcastle’s Total Sport programme, the day before Preston North End were due to visit Wearside, not to rant but rather to lament. He was, he confirmed, rather fed up with the state of Sunderland AFC. He was not alone.

Tom was sick of what he saw on the pitch, sick of the drift that has occurred in recent times. He was scratching around for an answer and, though he did not say quite say it outright, he stumbled towards the idea of replacing the manager. Chris Coleman is flailing, and perhaps a change is necessary.

Tom is not the only one to have hinted at this. In fact, plenty have started to say it outright: Chris Coleman is flailing, and a change is necessary. After an initial surge in form, the Welshman now oversees a side that simply cannot stop conceding goals. Combine that with an inability to score them, save for one bizarre evening in Derbyshire, and you do not have a happy mix. Yet while Tom’s – and others’ – laments are understandable, their solution suggests that, in this particular episode of grief, they have not yet reached the end of the line.

Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance. Five stages of grief, often in that order, but in Sunderland fans’ case they may just be a tad out of sync. Tom and his fellow thinkers have been through anger, wallowed in depression, likely thought of some bargaining (“If only Big Sam hadn’t left”, “What if Asoro and Maja start scoring for fun?”).

Yet, throughout it all, denial persists. It persists because hope remains, because, before it is mathematically confirmed, relegation might not happen, might fade into the distance, as another great escape comes roaring into view.

Only once the figures add up, for some, will that fifth and final stage arrive. The realisation that, no, this really is going to happen, we really are going down to the third tier, there really is nothing we can do about it now. The confirmation that the Birminghams and the Boltons and the Readings and 18 other clubs have made it certain that we cannot catch them. That we cannot eke out another late season revival.

Tom called up the radio over a fortnight ago and he still had hope. So, did many more. That hope surged on Friday evening in the Pride Park rain, then came to be all but extinguished on Monday afternoon. The loss to Sheffield Wednesday was Sunderland’s 23rd in their last 39 home league games. It is a disgraceful record, a shocking, embarrassing pathetic run of form that isn’t worthy of the surroundings it has been ‘achieved’ in. Those who have been present for the past two years have seen their side amass just 26 points in that time. That would be average at best across at one season; it is abysmal across two.

With the extinguishing of hope comes the eradication of denial. Still some persist with the broadsides against Coleman and, in fairness, they have valid reasons for doing so. The manager brought about positive happenings in defence upon his arrival, but the downturn since has been pitiful. Monday saw another shipping of more than two goals, the eighth time that has happened since Coleman took over in November.

Coleman has disappointed and he will know it fine well. Yet, as always, there is mitigation. He inherited a weak squad that did not just plateau but got worse still, as Lewis Grabban departed and the club would only sanction the recruitment of untested loanees in return. Complaints about his chopping and changing of tactics would be more justifiable if it weren’t for the fact that the vast majority of goals come by way of individual mistakes, ones that render a manager’s tactical tweaks null and void. Moans about his reluctance to play four at the back were vindicated on Friday before being shot down on Monday. Put simply: nothing works.

Nothing works because this is not the fault of the manager. This is not even the fault of many of the young players who are left carrying the can. Crushingly, Monday was one of Sunderland’s best home performances of the season, at least for the first hour, and still they conspired to concede three and lose. The defeatism and fear runs so deep through this side that one expects it may run aground at the bottom of the Mariana Trench sooner or later.

Birmingham’s victory at Bolton on Tuesday evening sees the gap to safety widen to eight points. Eight points with six games to go. It took Sunderland 12 games to gather up their last eight points. To expect them to manage it in six – indeed, to manage more than that, as other sides will pick up points too – is not just hopeful but downright deluded.

And thus, we arrive at the final stage. Acceptance. It is not a certainty, not yet, but for the sake of all involved we hope for a swift end. No long goodbyes and no dragging it out, just end it and end it now. Put us out of our misery. Acceptance comes almost as a relief, an end to the permutations and the worries and the fears. Acceptance does not mean we give up, does not mean that we don’t push for the changes in ownership and structure that are so badly needed. Serious conversations need to be held and sensible plans need to be made. Acceptance doesn’t ignore these facts, it simply means that we accept our fate, we go away for the summer and we return with hope all over again.

Sunderland AFC will be back. Maybe not next year, maybe not the year after. Maybe not even in five years. But one day, one day that we cannot even envisage right now, they will be. Football is cyclical and that is how these things go. Save for a small cabal of elite clubs, the rest of us are just fighting to keep up, enjoying the peaks when they eventually come along.

And in the meantime? We accept what comes next.