The first weekend in January means only one thing – FA Cup third round. Except it didn’t mean only one thing, as we weren’t in it, thanks to Walsall and the small matter of a League One game at Charlton. Watching the Cup games on TV gave the general football world a hefty reminder that football isn’t restricted to players with gold-plated Bentleys and midweek breaks in Dubai. There was mud, nettles, and lung-busting, necks-on-the-line performances – how often do you hear a commentator at a Premier League game say that a team, or individual, is performing above their natural level? Very rarely, but it was a commonly used phrase over Cup weekend.
Look at the teams from our current home, League One. Gillingham, a team that we thumped 4-1 at their place, played their hearts out to get past Premier League Cardiff by a single goal. Accrington did the same to Ipswich of the Championship, as did Portsmouth at Norwich, while Doncaster did arguably even better, going to Preston and winning 3-1.
Go down a division, and it gets better again. Oldham came from behind to win at Premier League Fulham with two late goals, and, in the televised game, Newport County, so close to vanishing from football altogether not so long ago, recovered from a heart-wrenching equaliser by Leicester to win with a late penalty. Great stuff to watch and going down a league further – out of the league, if you like - Barnet won by a single goal at Sheffield United.
If those games don’t stir your emotions, then you’re not much of a football fan, but you do have to wonder what Leicester were thinking – they’re going to finish mid-table, they were out of the League Cup, so had only the FA Cup in which to chase some silverware, yet they left out a host of first-teamers. Underestimate the magic of the FA Cup at your peril, Mr Puel. The weekend has made heroes of several players from Leagues One, Two, and National who will be remembered by their fans for decades, Ronnie Radford, anybody? On top of that, they might well have done their careers the power of good as well as giving some impetus to their club’s league season.
Having said all that about being given a hefty reminder of what football isn’t necessarily all about, we at Sunderland have been subject to that reminder over the last five months – you could even add last season, if you’ve not been lucky enough to erase it from your memory banks. There is very much life in League One, and I think most of us have accepted that it’s where we are – so why not make the most of it? New grounds, new towns, and for a change being welcomed to those places because the opposition are genuinely glad to see us, rather than our experience in the last few years in the Prem, where the opposition were, quite justifiably, sick of the sight of our rubbish team and couldn’t understand why anybody would travel to watch us. We’re getting appreciation rather than sympathy for a very welcome change.
However, our very presence in this division presented a pretty big psychological barrier for our fans and the club to overcome, particularly as it came so soon after a lengthy residence in the so-called Utopia of the Premiership. It wasn’t the fans’ fault that they/we became used to the cosseted world at the very top (even though we never actually got that close the very, very top), and we’ve had to get used to little things like muddy paths outside grounds, portaloos, open terracing, and the complete lack of a whole host of little things that we took for granted -stuffed crust pizzas and Sauvingnon Blanc, for instance.
Many of our younger fans will have known nothing but the luxuries of the Premier League and will be struggling to come to terms with League One life, but are being helped along the learning curve (copyright every Premier League interview) by older fans and the new regime at the club. The fact that Messrs Methven and Donald come from the football background that they do has been an enormous help, as they knew what to expect and how to deal with it off the field, despite being burdened with a wage structure born in two divisions above. We as a club are still working to put that right, with Catts, Love, and Oviedo being paid £7 million a year between them. As our ticket sales should bring in about £7.5 million, that leaves precious little, in football terms, with which to pay the rest of the squad. Compare this with Portsmouth, whose ticket sales bring them around £5 million, but whose total wage bill is £6.5 million, and you can see why money’s still tight and contracts are short.
Have we, the fans, accepted where we are? In general, I think we have, although there will be, understandably, a few who simply can’t. It’s a very different place to that to which we’d become accustomed and perhaps taken for granted, but there’s an awful lot of football in League One and it’s far from being rubbish. Of course it’s different to the top flight, but you still see fullbacks doing Cruyff turns and central defenders dribbling out of their own penalty area, you see top class goalkeeping and dazzling wing play, but the ball being hoofed out of the grounds is the norm rather than an extreme rarity – and there’s probably a lot more blood and guts stuff that you can relate to.
One thing that is certain is that it’s a lot more entertaining from a Sunderland perspective than the last few seasons, what with us doing crazy things like scoring goals and winning games. Whatever level you’re at, they are the two most important things. That’s entertainment, that’s enjoyment, and that’s what the fans want.
League One Life isn’t rubbish…