Failure’s Not An Option

As Lee Cattermole slammed the ball into the back of the net for the second time in less than 20 second half minutes, the away end was temporarily transformed into a mosh pit. The 800 or so travelling Sunderland fans who had been lucky enough to secure a golden ticket for the game scattered in every direction, the dugout was given a severe hammering and people were left helping one and other off the floor of the terrace once the chaos had subsided.

In isolation, a 2-1 away success at AFC Wimbledon does not sound like a result that would generate such elation, but on that sun-soaked Saturday afternoon in South London I felt the weight of the world lift off my shoulders. Despite the season being in its formative stages, I had already witnessed just one fewer league victory than I managed to be present at throughout the entire 2017/18 season and had already exceeded my tally for the 2016/17 season.

At full time the players and fans celebrated with equal enthusiasm and just months after sinking to one of the lowest points in the club’s history, the connection between the fans and the club had already been reborn.

In the hours and days that followed the victory, many fans took to social media to A) ask what all the fuss had been about over the summer and B) can we stay in League One forever?

Of course, both the remarks were tongue in cheek but there was an element of truth to them.

After inheriting a threadbare squad, Jack Ross had successfully integrated the new signings and blended them perfectly with players already at the club. In our opening five league games we had won four times, coming from behind in three of them. Against Charlton and AFC Wimbledon we had shown tremendous character and grit to emerge victorious, but against Scunthorpe and Gillingham we overwhelmed our opponents at times. If that was what we could achieve with a backdrop of speculation over the future of our top earners and a squad packed with incomings, what would we achieve with a settled team?

Not only that, but the fan base were experiencing emotions that they had long since stopped associating with supporting Sunderland. After season after season of constantly having their faith chipped away at, we suffered back to back relegations, winning just 13 matches across the two campaigns. As a cold hearted statistic this is depressing enough but as we all know, living that reality on an almost weekly basis is much worse.

Football is supposed to be a release, it is supposed to be something to look forward to and get people through the working week. But for us as fans it was like a nightmare we couldn’t wake up from. The match day experience was non-existent, pubs were virtually deserted compared to a standard home game and walking over the Wearmouth Bridge at half past two you could be forgiven for not realising that a game was taking place. There was no anticipation, dread or excited chatter you just felt numb. Sure, people were angry at Short, people were angry at the players and even Chris Coleman to a certain extent. But that anger was hard to channel in a constructive manner and apathy engulfed Wearside. So to go from that to seeing a team play their hearts out, getting results and finally having a manager whose proactive substitutes and tactical changes were a comparative breath of fresh air was always going to stir up extreme positive emotions.

From a fan's perspective late winners against AFC Wimbledon is always going to evoke more joy and satisfaction than being in the Premier League to make up the numbers season after season.

This is the idealistic side of playing League One football, however if the season up until this point has taught us anything it is that the club as a whole is desperate to escape the third tier of English football as soon as possible.

Just weeks after that victory over the Dons, we had recorded underwhelming 1-1 draws at home to Oxford and Fleetwood and lost to Burton Albion. Naturally, questions quickly started to be asked. Had we been found out? Would our decision not to sign another striker as the window drew to a close come back and bite us on the backside? Did Jack Ross have the experience to guide us through such an unforgiving League?

These two extreme emotions have been seesawed between for much of the season thereafter. At the time of writing, we sit in the automatic promotion places with a game in hand on our closest competitors. If you had offered me this scenario at the start of the season I would have been delighted, if you had also told me that we would have lost just two games all season, remained unbeaten at home and scored in all but one game I would have been ecstatic. However, the mere thought that in under a month’s time, the season will all be over makes me feel sick. We’ll either be basking in the glory of promotion or gearing up for the dreaded play-offs.

As I said earlier, even the slightest blip has led to some fairly extreme reactions, particularly on social media. By this, I don’t mean that the fans have ever turned on the players because they simply haven’t. But it has generated plenty of debate amongst supporters about whether we have been successful this season or we’re underachieving given the talent at our disposal and accumulated too many draws due to being excessively conservative.

Pupils of the latter school of thought don’t make such comments because they want to be negative or just have a pop at the team for the sake of it. On the contrary, the attitudes are born of pure desperation to get promoted and get the club back to where we belong.

Away games at the likes of Blackpool, Rochdale and Doncaster will live long in the memory, where we won the game and took a massive following. But at this level every failure to win is an indignity and it stings far more than the majority of defeats we’ve suffered in recent seasons.

People are so desperate because they know that should we fail to gain promotion. the momentum we’ve built up over the course of the season would grind to a halt.

We would be unlikely to see crowds of 30,000 regularly flock to the SOL, the novelty of travelling to the likes of Scunthorpe and Bristol Rovers would be lost and the grim reality of being stuck in the lower echelons of football would begin to hit home.

Should we get promoted, this season will live long in the memory as the year that the club was reborn from the ashes. The campaign that saw us take over London and put the club back on the map. Fail to get promoted and the consequences don’t bare thinking about. So with that in mind, if you’re at any of the remaining matches, sing your hearts out, roar the lads on and carry them all the way to the Championship.