It’s fair to say that 2020 hasn’t exactly been the best of years. Off the field the world turned upside down and, for many, has been the worst in existence as loved ones, jobs, homes and life as we know it have been lost.
Sadly, on the field, Sunderland were unable to provide any kind of solace either, as the club continued to throw off the conception of “rock bottom” by somehow finding further troughs with which to sink to. While there may not have been a complete year of football due to the Coronavirus pandemic Sunderland still found a way to mess things up on numerous occasions to alienate the fanbase - a fanbase who haven’t been allowed into the Stadium of Light since March no less.
I suppose you have to go back to October 2019 to pinpoint where yet more water was thrown onto the club’s slippery slope of an uphill climb and Phil Parkinson’s appointment as manager. It was an appointment which consolidated Sunderland as a proper League One club. Forget your one or two seasons at max of begrudged nostalgia and a couple of extra ticks on the away grounds list, this was an appointment which reeked of “We’re here to stay.” And here we have stayed.
Despite this being the strangest of years in football, Sunderland have still played 34 games in 2020 – excluding the pizza trade trophy where motivation and enthusiasm levels are as low as the age of some of the opposition teams. Of those 34 matches, there have been just 14 wins. At the Stadium of Light, fans were present to see eight of 19 games on Wearside, five of those were wins and just three more have arrived since. Throw in the fact the club is in League One and we enter the New Year 11th in the table, closer to the relegation zone than the top of the league, those are pretty grim stats and evidence enough as to why this has been another ghastly year as a Sunderland supporter.
Dig a little deeper and consider the chronic lack of judgement from Jim Rodwell and whoever else made the decision on the initial season ticket renewal fiasco and there’s yet more reason. Continue to scratch and reflect on the number of [failed] takeover rumours, the sub-standard fan group meetings, the dismissal of a 26-year-long employee, the text messages from an owner criticising the fans, the club’s best player being ostracised and a loony running around Sunderland in vintage shirts declaring his love for the club online and how he is set to become the new owner and you have all the ingredients befitting this year.
For Christmas I received The Absolute Record on Sunderland by Rob Mason. Over the past week I have spent a number of hours just flicking through its pages, reminiscing about the good times of yesteryear – even some of the bad times because let’s face it, those bad times weren’t as bad as they are now. It’s quite saddening to think the next edition of this book at some stage in the future will contain the last 18 months of the club’s history. If only it were as easy as tearing those pages out and pretending this part in history never happened; instead flipping over a handful of pages to where things resemble more like what you would expect with Sunderland.
It is something that will hang over Stewart Donald, Charlie Methven, Jim Rodwell and Phil Parkinson; just how badly they got it wrong. While those in the boardroom will head the front of the queue for those of us with pitchforks out, and rightly so, it is perhaps Parkinson who I reserve the most disappointment and exasperation towards. The owners had already sealed their fate as far as burgeoning relationships with the fans had gone and while what happens upstairs, or lack thereof, impacts happenings on the pitch, there is still a sense of hope the manager is able to perform.
Parkinson’s dismal honeymoon period was akin to a month spent in a castle in Wales with Ant and Dec in that it stunk and had a tendency to bite you on the arse. But for the first six weeks of 2020, his time was so apathetically disappointing. Towards the end of his reign he had me almost unmoved at Sunderland dropping points. Where once there was anger and long dissection of a game, I found myself impassive: “If we don’t win this game, at least maybe he might be moved on and we can forget about this period.”
What a horrible feeling to have as a football fan. I can never forgive this regime and Parkinson for allowing me to feel like that, to have the energy and enthusiasm so abruptly suffocated out of me.
Which is why it is remarkable, despite not having a game to endure over the festive period, the year has potentially ended on a positive as we move into 2021. A raft of changes in the dug-out and behind the scenes have Sunderland preparing to take off on yet another new adventure – hopefully this time the plane makes it off of the tarmac.
Just when you feel so detached from the club, something happens to draw you right back in. The year 2020 has been brutal for so many reasons and one to immediately forget but, and I may kick myself for saying it, things can surely only get better from here?
After all, it’s the hope you can’t stand.