Sunderland laboured to another three points on Saturday as League One’s basement club, AFC Wimbledon, caused more issues than they might have at the Stadium of Light. But if the latest unconvincing win did one thing, it finally cemented what should be a change in attitude for those supporters unwilling to accept the current circumstances.
For some this change in attitude will have happened over the summer, it may have even happened immediately after the full-time whistle blew against Burton Albion in April when relegation to League One was confirmed, but even the most pessimistic of supporters still clung onto the hope that this season might have been easier than it is proving to be.
After a summer of upheaval, the new owners, Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven, established a reinvigorated interest in the club after the tsunami of shit in the two years preceding. A percentage of fans stuck to their word and returned following the departure of Ellis Short, and in the dug-out yet another new face – this time a somewhat unknown, but welcome, commodity in the shape of Jack Ross. The turnover was vast both upstairs and downstairs at the football club but there was that ignition of hope being lit once more on Wearside that a successful season could be had and promotion achieved at the first time of asking.
Fast forward six months and there’s nothing to say that can’t or won’t be achieved, but what is happening is that Sunderland are being made to work for it. Who’d have thought it?! Of course, teams weren’t going to roll out their welcome mats and send us off with three points every week and allow us to score at will. This is a slog, and one that will go on until May. And yet we still fall into the same trap every Saturday at 14.00 when the team sheet is released; the “that side should be good enough to beat these man,” mentality.
A lot of opposition players are unknown to Sunderland supporters, why would they be otherwise? Sunderland have not had to deal with third tier opposition before in the lifetimes of many. But that doesn’t make teams any less of a threat than those in higher divisions. During his relatively short and unsuccessful reign, Chris Coleman would regularly retort: “We are where we are,” during his press conferences and that statement could not ring truer than this season.
As difficult as it has been to accept, Sunderland are a League One football club. There is no divine right to be putting teams to the sword on a weekly basis. The players in the squad are in a League One squad. Would they not be playing at a higher level if they were capable of comprehensively beating League One teams every week?
Of course there is a strong argument to suggest that Ross should be able to get a finer tune out of the players at his disposal – even more so now with the addition of the most expensive player purchased by a League One club in history available to him – but we are over the halfway point of the season and there still remains to be a run of comfortable victories for Sunderland at any point this season. As each week passes by it is becoming more and more likely that this is it. This is the level, this is the ability and these are the kind of performances and gritty wins that are the norm.
I have been as guilty as any of longing for a first 45 minutes against Scunthorpe United at the Stadium of Light on a regular basis - a dominating display where the game has been put to bed by half time. But with 28 games played, that particular performance appears to be the anomaly, and the supposed lacklustre, laborious displays are common. It may not be enjoyable, we may not particularly like it, but it is converting results and as always; the only thing which matters this season is to ensure we are not in this league come the end of it.
So, in the end, it has taken me 28 games to accept and realise that this seems to be what happens in League One. Don’t get me wrong, come 14.00 on Saturday and the XI chosen to take on Oxford United are revealed I will still, almost subconsciously, feel the side is, and should be, good enough to take all three points. I will still express frustration when certain passages of play fail to yield a goal or a player of Aiden McGeady’s ability fails to control a ball, or the defence give possession away cheaply or when we find ourselves camped in and around our own penalty area against a League One team. But it happens.
There is room for improvement, there is always room for improvement at any level, and there will continue to be justified criticism throughout the remainder of the season at some performances, but let’s just get the job done. Over the past two years, supporters would have given precious body parts up for the number of wins we have achieved so far this season. Somewhere along the way, or during the fall in Sunderland’s case, we lose sight of what matters and take for granted these victories. By hook or by crook, convincing or unconvincing, results are being ground out and the ultimate goal is still very much achievable. Let’s hope that continues.