It’s hard to believe two months have passed since our latest failure under the Wembley arch. It feels a lot fresher than that. It still hurts.
I can still see the entire West End of Wembley, in my mind, going batshit crazy. I can still hear the chorus of ‘Twist and Shout’ echoing around the stadium and the foundations being shaken as Charlton’s fans rejoiced and their players celebrated while those in black and us in the other end crumpled in despair. Another Wembley weekend ruined. Another season in League One confirmed. Sigh.
As a result it’s been a complicated summer. The time away has been much needed – if anything more is required. I’ve had a long weekend away in Dublin, I’ve been to a couple of concerts, I’ve been to the races, I’ve been to engagement and christening do’s, I’ve had family time, I’ve watched and enjoyed other sports, I’ve walked many a golf course, I’ve relaxed and even been subdued to a summer of Donald Love Island; but the wounds are still to heal. The capitulation at the end of last season remains raw. How are we meant to get stirred and find our motivation for another season of this? The awful football, the gamesmanship, the misconception of angst from opposition fans, the officiating, the draws, Portsmouth…
Usually, the pre-season return galvanises some enthusiasm. The training footage, the anticipation of new signings, the new kits, the fixture list and a local pre-season game are enough to get the cogs of stimulation turning again. But this time I feel nothing. The despair of Wembley has subsided and been replaced by apathy. An apathy even beyond that of the malevolent clouds of the energy vampire, David Moyes’, tenure – and the kits are shit!
As the sun shone through on that Thursday evening at Mariners Park a couple of weeks back, that should have been the opening of the new season’s door. Where you meet up with the match day group and look ahead to pastures new. Where the shine of immaculate new pitches and the smell of clean grass excites you. But for some reason I was numb to it all. Numb to the holiday stories. Numb to the transfer rumours. Numb to the laughs, and most certainly numb to what those in red and white were doing on the pitch.
And little has changed if I’m being honest. The club’s trip to Portugal yielded a draw and a defeat with no goals scored, and the home tie with Heerenveen being as popular as a Mag in The Bridges – albeit a roaring success in comparison to the Celtic debacle two years ago – producing another blank haven’t enticed much excitement.
It’s open for debate whether we have strengthened the squad – with pace, power and creativity the necessity, who’s to say whether Jordan Willis, George Dobson, Marc McNulty and Conor McLaughlin will bring those attributes. Will McNulty replace Josh Maja’s goals that Will Grigg and Charlie Wyke were incapable of replacing last season? Will our defensive additions steady the ship enough to prevent the 1-1 draws? I would suggest these signings, on face value, appear underwhelming with the hope of proving us wrong. Here’s hoping at least anyway.
And then there is the manager. With a number of disgruntled rustlings towards the end of last season for the inexplicable collapse during the run-in – those defeats at Fleetwood and Southend in particular – and failing to secure promotion, how much rope will fans afford Jack Ross this season? I may not be from Wallsend and he might not be from Wallsend, but you do fear a poor start will only sharpen the pitch forks and create a tentative atmosphere around the SoL.
The uncertainty circulating the club’s ownership throughout the summer has also done little to dispel any apathy. The ambiguity of the finances available is a concern along with the benevolence of Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven being curbed somewhat. Do they just want a quick buck and be able to hit the road? Where are Sunderland in their interests? Perhaps that is being a little unfair. Donald’s 100-point requirement suggests he demands a pretty emphatic promotion this season and so should we all.
This ‘we are where we are,’ excuse can only wash for so long with many. We are about to embark on only our third ever season in our history at this level – without being arrogant, let’s not pretend we aren’t better than this level as a club – for once history actually backs that up. People are going to be deterred and irrational in their exigencies. Failure to earn promotion this season would as good as send us over the precipice. We would be lost in the doldrums, a Sheffield Wednesday or a Leeds United at best – struggling to get out of League One before making up the numbers in the Championship.
Throughout my life growing up as a Sunderland supporter, whatever the lows were – relegation from the Premier League with a record low points total (twice) – I was always given the old wives tale of ‘You’ve seen nothing until you’ve seen us in the Third Division,’ ‘Those were the dark days.’ Well unfortunately, those horror stories from our older generation of supporters – those whose fault it is for us being in this red and white boat alongside them with only one oar – don’t ring true anymore. We are now, in the present, at our lowest ever ebb as a club. You can dress it up and make a case for previous regimes where the players weren’t as likeable or the owner abstained, but this is very much the lowest point in the history of Sunderland AFC. Fresh off the back of finishing fifth in League One. No supporter has ever seen this story, or what happens next for that matter.
It’s going to take time; it’s going to take a fast start and a good-looking league table. People are pissed off. People are disillusioned. People need a kick up the arse and a modicum of hope to attach themselves to. Where this time last summer there was the wave of optimism for fans as we clung to the coattails of the owner’s carpet ride into town, this year there hasn’t been any transferrable optimism – other than blind faith.
I’ve no doubt that a couple of wins and regular football back in our lives will be enough to get the bug back and clamber aboard the band wagon in our quest for promotion and rosier days. That starts against a side who completely nullified us and out-League-One’d us last season in both meetings in Oxford, where the harsh reality of what that Play-Off final defeat back in May means will be upon us.
21-years ago we found ourselves in a similar position having to drag our bellies off of the floor and bounce back from Wembley heartache against Charlton. That one turned out pretty well, here’s hoping this one follows suit.