Still Sunderland

Just over a year ago I walked away from the SoL after the last game of the season in which we had suffered a second consecutive relegation. A Wolverhampton Wanderers fan said to me “You will love the 3rd Division, enjoy every minute of it”. The words, although genuine and well meant, felt slightly hollow at that time.

His team had served their time in League 1 and were now celebrating promotion to the Premier League, and it had been a long time since watching Sunderland had been enjoyable. For the previous few years, the heart and soul had been systematically ripped out of the club we love, to the point that it was unrecognisable. An absent owner that got bored with his little hobby when it didn’t go how he had envisaged and left us to rot. A thoroughly unlikeable ‘yes man’ left in charge to strip the assets. A conveyor belt of managers that lacked the basic tactical nouse, or charisma to succeed, some of them both . A string of off-field controversies that made us a national embarrassment. Talentless players that showed absolutely no desire to win, or any kind of affection towards the club, the area, or the fans, despite them earning more in a week than the average fan’s annual salary.

Some fans had had enough and stayed away. Others, like me, kept going back for more, but as a sense of duty rather than as an enjoyable afternoon out, or even in hope or anticipation. The hope had long since evaporated. The atmosphere was toxic, and the ground regularly nearly empty by half time, with us already 3 or 4 down. No way back from there.

Thanks for the positive outlook, Mr Wolves, but love and enjoyment were still a fairy tale.

But something was happening. New ownership that appeared to have the best interests of the club at heart. People in charge that realised that it was the fans, who had for a long time been ignored and even treated with contempt, that were the heartbeat of the club. A knowledgeable and charismatic manager appointed, although, fairly unknown, successful in his previous job. Time would tell whether he could deliver success to our team. Although what would constitute a successful season? A football club which had been on its knees for so long, having only known failure and despair for years. How could he turn that around, especially when he only had a handful of players with first team experience available to him, and some of them wouldn’t be there come the first game of the season. A serious question, what would be a successful season? Realistically, after winning only 13 games in the last two seasons (84 games), and with less than 11 players to pick from with only weeks until the season kicked off, finishing in the top 6 must be considered a success, surely?

10 minutes into the new campaign, it was a familiar sight. A needless penalty conceded, Sunderland 0-1 down. But something was different this time. As Lyle Taylor of Charlton Athletic wheeled away in celebration, there was a large cry of encouragement from the Sunderland faithful. Not heard in several years, the Roker Roar had returned. Instead of heading for the exits, knowing a defeat was inevitable, the lads and lasses stayed to see if the new crop of unheard of players were different to the charlatans of recent memory, and would actually show some fight, show some desire, show some pride in the shirt they were wearing. They did. Not a great first half but following some canny tactical changes from the new manager, and plenty of encouragement from the crowd, the new lads dug in and did us proud. Somehow, pride had returned, but when Goochie sent everyone bananas with his 96th minute winner, something else returned. It’s the hope I can’t stand.

The next few weeks saw some decent wins, at home and on the road, and good memories were being made. Fans having to get into away grounds through someone’s back garden, or through the side door of a greengrocers. Standing on proper terraces in proper football grounds, soaked wet through in an uncovered stand, view 70% obstructed by a girder, but watching Sunderland WIN football matches.

Mr Wolves was right. The 3rd Division was a lot of fun. We were enjoying ourselves. The players had bought into it as well, Interacting with the fans, celebrating victories together with pride. Pride in themselves, pride in each other, and pride for the loyal bunch who pay their money to watch them play football.

Sunderland supporters – the best in the land. Selling out every away game. Averaging over 30,000 at home (incredible achievement in League 1), 46,000 on Boxing Day, taking 8,000 to Blackpool on New Year’s Day. The iconic scenes in Trafalgar Square before the Checkatrade Trophy final. This was not a celebration of Sunderland potentially winning a fairly meaningless piece of silverware, this was a race of special people, Sunderland AFC supporters, coming together to celebrate that they had their club back. Whatever the result at Wembley the following day was in many ways irrelevant, we were celebrating a real victory.

Ultimately, I think that our cup run and trip to Wembley contributed to loss in form and missing out on automatic promotion (as it also did for Portsmouth). Squeezing our 9 remaining league games into a month led to some tired performances (although never a lack of effort), which meant if we were to achieve promotion, it would be through the play-offs. This was regarded as a failure by some. Social media awash with criticisms of players, manager and owners. Fans vocal at games, quick to groan at a misplaced pass, and shout for someone to be dropped, or sacked. The negativity was creeping back in. It’s all we’ve known for years before this, and old habits die hard.

One moment of magic in 180 minutes of fairly unattractive football was enough to see off Pompey and book our second trip to Wembley of the season. This one significantly more important than the last. But it wasn’t to be, as the season turned full circle, and this time Charlton broke our hearts with the last kick of the game, and season.

“You will love it in the 3rd division, enjoy every minute of it”. Well we did. And we did, all but the very last minute. In truth, it was a poor game, and a poor performance, much like what we had seen in the final weeks of the season, fatigued and leggy, which isn’t surprising, given that it was our 61st competitive game of the season, the most games we’ve played in a single season in our history. But we’ll have to do it all again, for at least one more year.

People are entitled to their opinion, but now is not the time for negativity, calling for the manager to be sacked, shouting that the owners should go, spouting that our players are not good enough, telling everyone that they’ve had enough and won’t be back. It is the time to get behind all of them, trust them to come back stronger, learn from their mistakes, do the things that went well, but do them better. It is the time for all of us to stick together, prove we are the best in the land. Remember how much fun it was taking over nearly every ground. Remember how enjoyable it was watching a team that cares about the badge. If you haven’t renewed your season ticket, get it renewed. If you haven’t got a season ticket, get one. Let’s have another Boxing Day sell out. Let’s take over Prenton Park on a Friday night. Let’s break our own record for an average attendance in League 1. Do this and we won’t need to sweat in the play-offs next year. We will smash that league to bits and be promoted by Easter. The fans need a club they can be proud of. They’ve got it. The club needs the fans, ‘the best fans in the land’ according to many. Well prove it!

See you in August.