As we get into the swing of things, with five competitive games under our belt, we asked some of our regular ALS writers to answer the same five questions in another round table discussion and here's the results of their thoughts on the season so far.
Have you been watching all the games on the stream and how do you find it?
Sobs has been watching all the competitive Sunderland games in various different ways, “I’ve watched all the games since the season started – I didn’t bother with the pre-season – and found it a strange, detached experience that’s nowhere like the real thing. I watched the Hull game at home with a couple of bottles of Double Maxim as it was my birthday, but the TV’s just not the same.”
On the other hand, Gary Burrell hasn’t been watching any SAFC games, “No. Apart from seeing some of the goals online, I’ve not watched any of our pre-season fixtures, league matches or cup ties so far and I can’t see that changing anytime soon. Having worked all week, the thought of spending a Saturday afternoon at home watching an online stream of a behind-closed-doors League One match, is about as far from appealing as I could imagine.”
Michael Conroy has watched most of our matches but feels there's still something missing, "I've watched most of the games so far and I have to say I find the whole thing very odd. It comes across as something of a high intensity training match, a bit like the early rounds of the EFL Trophy I guess. The strangest thing for me is that it feels quite voyeuristic watching it, almost like you're not supposed to be there but you have somehow managed to sneak in. The matches themselves have been fairly uninspiring as you would possibly expect from Sunderland in League One and that just feels worse when you're watching them in an empty stadium with a stream that keeps buffering."
Giles Mooney has seen this a s a positive for him as he cannot usually get to the SoL, "Yes. It’s been a big win for me because I’m too far away to get to home games and so to watch with my son has been fantastic. The lack of a crowd is obviously taking away one of the biggest part of the atmosphere but, I’m sure there are a few former players who wouldn’t say it was a bad thing! I suspect Kilbane would have been a far better player without the crowd there. I had to work while the Oxford game was on so I was back to Barnesy and Benno keeping me up to speed on the radio stream. There’s something beautiful about football on the radio as they paint the pictures for you. But, yes, I’ve enjoyed watching the games."
Are you doing it with a group of mates and making it an event or just fitting it into your day the best you can?
Despite him watching all the matches, Sobs just doesn’t think that football is the same these days, “It’s not a case of fitting it into my day the best I can – if there’s a match on, that IS my day, and it takes priority. I tried the Bristol Rovers game in a licensed establishment (which shall remain nameless for obvious reasons), and with it on my phone in the company of some friends, but they just couldn’t get into it. The Villa game was watched on my phone in a pub with the England game on in the hope that there’d be some atmosphere – but there wasn’t. I even tried going out for a beer before the Peterborough game to try and make it a bit like a proper match day, and that improved things a bit. Watching the game by myself, with no comments from the next seats, no chat, and no jumping around means it doesn’t feel real... and the lack of commentary on the live stream from Oxford was ridiculous.”
It was Twitter updates in the park and Soccer Saturday for Gary Burrell though, “For the Peterborough match at the weekend, I spent the first half in a local park with the kids, occasionally asking my son to check Twitter to see what was going on and the second half at home with Soccer Saturday on TV in the background. An occasional few words from Chris Kamara amidst a backdrop of empty seats provided my only updates. I cheered when we scored and was happy we won of course, but those were mere fleeting emotions. Not the make-or-break to my whole week it used to be.”
Michael Conroy feels as though he's in a similar situation and doesn't find the games all that enjoyable, "I usually watch them on my own or with my son, especially with the new restrictions in place now. It's become a bit of a guilty pleasure though because I keep having a moment of realisation where I am a grown man watching a dull football match taking place in an empty stadium in the third tier of football. I have to compensate by doing something useful while I'm watching, like the ironing or something otherwise it feels a little like your life is wasting away in front of your eyes."
For Giles, it's a standard procedure when it comes to matchday, "For us it’s clear the decks by 2:30, wire the laptop into the TV and watch in the living room. It still feels like a bit of a treat at the moment but, inevitably with Sunderland, it’ll become a chore at some point."
Does the thought of going a whole season like this depress you or do you think we might get back to the sol by Christmas?
Sobs’ outlook is bleak, yet realistic on when football fans will be allowed back into grounds and like us all, misses the games on the road the most, “The thought of a whole season like this is utterly depressing. The day isn’t the same, because there’s nothing either side of the ninety minutes – no warm-up, no warm-down. The way things are now, match day lasts a shade over ninety minutes, whereas in real life it’s about eight hours for a home game and anything up to twenty for an away game. It’s the whole day that makes match day, not just the bit inside the ground. You don’t realise how much you miss visiting places like Chorley or Bicester until you’re not visiting them. I can’t see fans being allowed back in before Christmas as we simply don’t know how things with the virus are going to pan out, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the ban lasts the whole season – in which case some clubs won’t survive, which is even more depressing.”
Gary Burrell isn’t hopeful and doesn’t expect to be back in the stands this campaign, “I think I’ve mentally written this season off. In an ever-changing situation with government restrictions and COVID infection numbers, who is to say when we will be allowed through the turnstiles again in any capacity, but my gut-feeling is it won’t be this season. If I’m wrong, what would the experience be like? A few thousand fans in masks dotted around the ground? No thanks.”
Michael Conroy is in agreement and cannot see fans back in the stands this year, "If it were to go on all season like this I suppose I might eventually get used to it; I'd certainly get a lot more ironing done! Ultimately though the lack of the matchday experience is felt keenly. Like when Leadbitter scored that penalty against Peterborough; if we had been at the stadium and that had happened we would have walked out smiling and looking at the table on our smartphones. As it happens the dominant reaction was to criticise the performance. I think that kind of thing would be more depressing than anything. Personally I don't think we'll be back in the Stadium this side of Christmas and possibly beyond that. It's 6 months since all this nonsense started and now it's picking up going in to flu season."
Giles Mooney reckons it will be early next year before we're back on the terraces, "I think it’ll be March but, hey, if it’s for a title winning run in imagine the crowds! Equally, if it’s all gone South by then imagine the (lack of) crowds!"
Are there any ways you could suggest to the club to improve the “atmosphere” or presentation?
Sobs suggests we put some flags or banners around the SoL for matches and the club add a bit of extra entertainment on the stream, “The presentation is a strange thing – seeing the empty seats is strange, and hearing the players and managers shouting, with it being the only noise, is strange. The club could put the “Ha’way the Flags” stuff out around the lower rows of seats – at least it would give the impression that something’s happening, like the cheesy banners and stuff you see in the grounds on MOTD. Half time needs to have something - just stopping the stream and putting up a still picture is pretty poor. Get some replays of the highlights; get some former players talking about what’s just happened, put Benno and Barnesy on – there’s plenty of room in the stadium for that, either in the seats or one of the function rooms. And get a couple more cameras, as one angle is a bit dull, even if it replicates how you’d be watching the game if you were there.”
In an ideal world, Gary Burrell would like to see seat coverings and some crowd noises on the stream but isn’t holding his breath, “The large covers for sections of seating you see in the Premier League definitely look better than just empty seats, but I can’t see the club forking out any ‘unnecessary’ costs and I’m not sure if we could have volunteers in the ground under the new COVID protocols. I also prefer watching on TV with the added crowd noise, but I assume that technology isn’t readily available on iFollow!”
Flags seem a popular suggestion to boost the matchday experience, Michael Conroy also reckons they should become a fixture at the Stadium of Light, "In terms of improving the atmosphere, I'm not really sure what they could do. The doors are shut to fans both physically but also perceptively. The matches are taking place without a nod to the missing thousands from the ground. The club should try and find a way to include the fans even though they aren't actually there. I think the best way of doing that would be to invite fans to send their flags in to the club and they could be placed over the seats. At least, if nothing else, people would be able to play spot their flag while watching the match buffer."
Crowd noises are certainly off the cards for Giles Mooney, but banners again crop up, "Definitely no added crowd noise. That drives me potty on TV. I’d have thought the marketing team would be getting sponsors to put their names all over the seats. A club like Sunderland might not have huge appeal in league one but with a potential international audience every Saturday for a few months, this would be a great chance to pull in some money. Use the STID profile and aim big. That or get the photos of people like some clubs have done on the seats. It would raise money at a time when every penny counts. Alternatively let some local charities raise their profile with some banners on the seats."
Happy with the way it’s going on the field so far and early observations on new players?
Sobs is fairly impressed with the squad but still thinks we need a goal scorer, “On the field, I’m reasonably happy, although it was a bit worrying that we could still be held at bay by a team like Bristol Rovers who came to frustrate and generally succeeded. As far as the new players go, I still include Scowen and he was great in the Villa game with his dead ball delivery – but the same quality wasn’t there against Peterborough, while the rest of his game was fine. Danny Graham has been exactly what I expected, and Aiden O’Brien just looks more and more like McGeady with every game – although McGeady would have put away at least a couple of the chances that O’Brien’s missed. Shooting practice needed for him, and the lack of an out-and-out goal scorer remains an issue.”
As he hasn’t seen any of the games, Gary Burrell doesn’t want to say too much on the squad but is happy with the results so far, “I’m happy with the points return, but other than that I can only base my views on what I’ve read elsewhere - decent at the back, poor up top being the obvious ones. I decided not to renew our season cards for this current campaign, not in protest at our hapless owners, but as I couldn’t imagine a scenario where we would be able to attend fixtures in the near future. To sign up and receive a streaming pass in the interim, didn’t appeal at all. Football without fans is nothing in my opinion. I know that’s just the way it is at the moment and it’s great that the option is there to still watch the match should anyone wish, but it’s just not for me.”
Michael Conroy is somewhat impressed by the play and is optimistic for the season if we continue on the path we've started on, "On the field it's hard to find too much to complain about. Obviously I would rather we were playing tiki taka and lashing 6 goals in against the standard of opposition we have faced thus far but the fact is, we are in league one and it's a clarty horrible league. Expecting anything beautiful to emerge from this turgid league is ambitious at best. Three games played, unbeaten and fourth in the league. It was disappointing not to win against Bristol Rovers but there will be games like that where we won't be able to break teams down. Those teams will waste time and feign injury; it's part of the unwritten contract for the division. So far so good really."
Giles Mooney still thinks we're lacking something but is happy on how the results have went, "Not especially! Yes, the results are OK and I’m not being deliberately negative but we clearly still lack a couple of players to take the game forwards. I’m never sure the players know what their roles are, especially after substitutions. But who knows, get a player or two and beat Charlton and it’s all starting to look pretty good. And let’s be honest, I’d take the dullest season ever if the results are going well."