Do a review of the year, they said. It’ll help you get it out of your system, they said. It’s not as if you’ll be missing a match to do it, they said.
As they Queen said of her Christmas speech, “Where the Hell do I start with this one?”
Easy - in January 2020. Or rather, just to add a bit of context, the very end of December, when, after mounting disillusion among the fans about the team’s tactics and results, we took a bumper following to Doncaster and came back with the three points. The fans had really backed the team that day, exuding post-Christmas spirit even when pegged back just before the break, and were rewarded with an “all in it together” performance that sort of gave manager Phil Parkinson another chance. Two days later, on the last day of 2019, Stewart Donald announced that “with a heavy heart” he’d decided to sell the club after mounting pressure from various fans’ groups to basically “dee summat.” This was despite having been actively trying to sell the club for over a year previously, with a deal to sell to Mark Campbell having been “days away from completion” six months earlier.
Ah well, at least we could start the year knowing what the official stance of the owner was. After that 2-1 win at the Keepmoat meaning that the year started with us in 13th place, we did well in January, winning four and drawing the other two of the six league games – possibly thanks to our non-involvement in the FA Cup, our interest having ended at Gillingham in November. That saw us back in the play-off positions, but on the downside McGeadygate had become a thing. All sorts of rumours were bandied about as the truth, with sources exclusively being a mate’s cousin who knows somebody at the club. Whatever the truth was, the results was that for the third successive season, our top scorer was out of the club (Grabban and Maja, if you’d forgotten), this time off to Charlton on loan. While many mourned his absence and the lack of creativity it left us with, others celebrated the solidity of the formation without him. Even those who aren’t fans of three central defenders, like myself, were grudgingly accepting that Parkinson was actually putting a team together that could operate that system. Winning games is a wonderful way of convincing folks that your ideas are the right ideas.
In the middle of this, there had been a transfer window and we’d brought in Bailey Wright in central defence, Josh Scowen in midfield, and Kyle Lafferty and Antoine Semenyo up front, while the closest thing we had to a natural goalscorer, Marc McNulty, drifted off back to parent club Reading. Off the field and away from football, Covid 19 had been making an unwanted name for itself, and, a bit like SAFC, the actual truth about numbers and origin was the source of much internet expertise. What was becoming apparent was that people were getting ill and dying all over the world, and that there would more than likely be some sort of impact on the game.
February brought us another six games and another decent run, as we won four, drew one, and were comprehensively undone at Portsmouth. It was at Fratton Park that Joel Lynch, who is built like a heavyweight boxer and looks as hard as a frozen pitch, proved to be a bit more femmer when colliding with keeper Jon McLaughlin and left the field in a bucket, never to be seen again. To bolster our options in central defence, we signed Kiwi free agent Tommy Smith, formerly of Ipswich and Colorado Rapids.
March arrived amid rumours that something had to be done in football as well as the world in general to halt the spread of the virus, and we only managed three games before the league was suspended and our fate was effectively sealed. Having started the month in fourth place and with the wind in our sails for a climb up the table, we lost at Coventry, then drew at home with Gillingham, Lafferty’s first two goals for the club being cancelled out by two from former player Mikael Mandron, the second deep into injury time. If that wasn’t bad enough, our performance at Bristol Rovers three days later was arguably our worst of the season as we were easily beaten by a side who were in a stinking run of form. On the eve of our next game, at Blackpool, the season was halted with us just outside of the play-off places and with ten games left. Fans wondered what to do – they could hardly wander the Saturday afternoon streets like zombies, as we were being advised to stay away from other people, but lower league games still went ahead. That at least allowed me to see a game, as we spread ourselves evenly across the terraces at the Brewery Field and Spennymoor beat Hereford FC 4-0.
...and that was it. No more football. With no matches to report on, the media turned to speculating about who, if anyone, was about to buy SAFC. March petered out as a national lockdown was announced, our holidays were cancelled, and the hospitality industry was closed down. It was television and an hour of exercise a day for the population of the UK, unless, of course, you were either stupid (see TV reports from Middlesbrough in particular) or the government’s senior adviser.
I’m immune, that’s me - Strong and warm and wild and free
The virus won’t get me – My laws do not apply to me
Talk was of the game returning without fans, just to see the season to a sort of satisfactory conclusion, and SAFC came up with some well thought -out plans for getting as many back into the stadium as possible. Unfortunately, that “as many” stopped at 12,000 for obvious reasons, and as we moved into April, noises from the club’s hierarchy were not good. Season ticket renewals were due, and the club appointed a new CEO. Jim Rodwell brought fairly negative reviews from fans of his previous club, Scunthorpe, and immediately set about upsetting the Sunderland faithful with some pretty ill-judged statements.
The players and staff were furloughed for the foreseeable future, and the fans wondered what would happen to the rest of the season. Behind closed doors? Wait until all this blows over and finish this season at the expense of next season? Statement was followed by apology for the statement, then our CEO eventually came out with the absolute classic that he “hadn’t realised the emotional connection of a season ticket.” From someone who’d been a footballer and a CEO at other clubs? Haway, man! This proved the final straw for many long-standing (sitting?) ticket holders, who cancelled their direct debits on the fairly obvious grounds that they shouldn’t be paying for something that might never happen and that when the ground was open they’d buy their tickets as usual. Refunds only available in the form of permission to watch on the telly? Behind all of this, series two of Sunderland ‘til I Die was released, and the workings of the club were laid bare for all to see. Personally, I stopped watching it after Charlie Methven’s Boxing Day swearathon as it had lost the novelty of series one and I could do without my club looking silly as well as not being able to go and see them play.
By the time June arrived, we fans were suffering serious withdrawal symptoms, and it was announced that there would be no more games, with clubs voting on how final places should be decided. As some clubs had more games outstanding that others, the best options depended very much on which club you were. As we are Sunderland, we didn’t get the chance to end the season in the best possible way, and we were guaranteed a third consecutive season in Division Three. Paul Reid left his position of Academy manager, in the wake of a couple of seasons of rotten results, and on the playing side, Jack Baldwin officially left, as did Duncan Watmore, and, most surprisingly, Alim Ozturk. Jon McLaughlin was off to Rangers, Tommy Smith disappeared without having played a game, and Joel Lynch presumably signed on the dole. Bailey Wright came back after his short-term deal ended, which was good as he’d established himself as mostly reliable at the heart of the defence.
In July, Stewart Donald resigned from his position as chairman, effectively (or apparently) handing over the running of the club to Jim Rodwell. This followed what was described as a “contentious” meeting with fans groups but left us wondering if a change in ownership was in the offing. If not, what was the point of resigning?
As August came along and there was still no sign of the season starting, the club entered into a period of exclusivity with another prospective buyer, meaning that they couldn’t talk about it. Of course, this meant that rumour and speculation as to exactly who this buyer was. Step up William Storey, AKA Billy Fizz, who apparently owns an energy drinks company, the products of which you can’t find for love nor money, and who claimed that he was in the running even though it wasn’t him the club was talking to.
Who was it, then? Were Dell back in the running? Were the Americans who’d loaned us £10million about to start making that investment work? Had Sartori called in a few favours and got his in-laws involved? Was there a local consortium with former players? The name of Mark Campbell was mentioned again, probably by somebody short of a rumour. What we did know was that there would be no pre-season and that things would start again in September, so we started bringing in the loans and free transfers – because we either had no money, or Stewart Donald wasn’t prepared to spend any more.
In came Arbenit Xhemajli and Morgan Feeney in defence, Aiden O’Brien as the replacement McGeady, and Remi Matthews in goal. McGeady was back at the club, although with Parky still not speaking to him he was ostracised to playing and training with the U21s. With no chance of attending our games for the foreseeable future, I searched for something “down the leagues”, and managed to find something close to home. In a torrential downpour, I watched Bishop played off the park by Hall Road Rangers in the FA Cup on the 2nd but manage to score the only goal of the game way into added time. That’s the magic of the FA Cup.
On 5th September our pre-season began with a League Cup tie against Hull. It was at home, not that it made any difference as nobody was there to watch, and we outplayed them in every department but the scoring department, and lost on penalties. Guess what? Will Grigg took the first one, and it was saved. The second “warm-up” game came a few days later against Villa U21s in the Papa John Trophy, and we went mad, with debutants Feeney and Danny Graham, who’d re-joined the day before because he was free, among the scorers in an 8-1 win. Feeney buggered his hamstring in his only appearance to date and won’t be back until after the turn of the year. Likewise Xhemajli who knacked his knee on international duty and hasn’t kicked a ball since. How very Sunderland, the pair of you.
The period of exclusivity, originally described as a couple of weeks to buy the unpopular owns time, dragged on beyond the start of the League campaign with no details of who or what emerging. Sunderland ended the month in 4th place, having drawn with Bristol Rovers before beating Oxford and Peterborough. Perhaps the most notable thing about the second of those games was that Sunderland fans actually watched it, from those tree-stumps in the Oxford car park and from stepladders atop a transit van. We’d get in where a draught couldn’t, man, cue internet meltdown.
October saw the arrival of wingback Callum McFadzean, formerly of Plymouth, and young defender Dion Sanderson, on loan from Wolves and with good noises coming from Cardiff, where he’d spent the latter half of last season. We continued our EFL Trophy adventure with a 5-3 win over Carlisle which was notable in that both our fullbacks, Hume and Diamond, scored, and won three, drew two, and lost one of the League games. However, the goalless draw at Charlton highlighted our biggest problems, lack of pace and lack of goals. In a game totally dominated by the Lads, we never looked like scoring despite hardly allowing the home side any of the ball and despite being watched by some of our fans from a flat overlooking the Valley. Calls for Jack Diamond to be given a chance higher up the field were getting louder, although we had to scream them at the telly or type them into internet forums as we couldn’t scream them at the manager in real life.
Although we were unbeaten in the League in November, a worrying set of injuries, weirdly almost all hamstrings, came along and rumours of dodgy training practices ran rife. Such an injury robbed us of Benji Kimpioka for four months. Parkinson spoke of trying to get a move for McGeady that would be to the benefit of both club and player, while many of us believed that if we were paying him, we should be playing him, as his little moments of bewitching trickery were exactly what we were lacking. Charlie Wyke was justifying his selection with goals, but he was largely alone up front, as O’Brien was proving to be anything but a McGeady replacement, and Grigg – well, he wasn’t doing anything to justify being given an extended run in the side.
Then there was an awful defeat in the FA Cup at the hands of the Football League’s bottom club, Mansfield, and we lost a meaningless game at Fleetwood in the EFL/Papa John’s Trophy just to knock whatever gloss there was off the month’s performances and we went into December in 7th place – but without Phil Parkinson. “The board”, whoever that is these days, had decided enough of Jurassic Parky was enough, and sent him off to seek employment or be furloughed elsewhere. While few mourned his departure, some questioned the timing, as we’d been told (again) that a takeover was imminent. Surely a takeover might involve replacing the manager, so who would we get in? Also, no longer at the club was John Cooke, who, after 26years as kit man and having been furloughed in April, was relieved of his duties without so much as a thank you. The fans were understandably up in arms over this, and Cookie’s son Jay might not have done his future with the academy any favours by slating the club on social media over his dad’s treatment.
Andrew Taylor oversaw the home draw with Burton, then Krisjaan Speakman arrived as Sporting Director, having had an impressive time in that sort of role at Birmingham, and giving us a hint as to the nature of our next “manager.” Within days, Lee Johnson slotted in as Head Coach, but not in time to have any influence on the home defeat by bottom club Wigan. According to the man himself, Stewart Donald had been at the heart of the discussions, which made us think that something else was in the offing and that something depended upon us having a proper, forward-thinking structure in place. Then came a knockout win in the EFL Trophy at Oldham, and that game at Lincoln, where we ditched the wingbacks, brought back pace in Diamond and guile in McGeady, and smashed the Imps all over the shop. Right, we thought, here we go – but we didn’t. The game against Wimbledon was played in the shadow of several players testing positive for Covid and the team selection being seriously affected. In hindsight, it should never have been played, and ended the year with no more games.
With McGeadygate now a year old, the man himself gave his version of events, which was that he had no idea what he’d done wrong, but that Parky obviously didn’t fancy him and that he’d recognised in a matter of days that Parky wasn’t the man for the job. That’s that sorted, then.
Christmas Eve did bring some positive new, the timing of which had more than a hint of clever PR about it. It was announced that Kyril Louis Dreyfus, whose dad used to own Marseille and who is ridiculously rich as well as only 23, was taking the majority shareholding. As it had been several months in the making, it was entirely possible the young Monsieur Dreyfus had made some demands as to the structure of the club regarding the positions of Sporting Director and Head Coach. That deal has been agreed with the club, and is now with the EFL for ratification, which all sounds brilliant, as do the quotes from the garcon himself. Mind, Billy Fizz still claims, Trump-style, to be in for buying us, as well as offering to box four fans for charity. You have to admit he’s tenacious, and on the one hand, given what’s happened to our club over recent times, he’d be a perfect fit. On the other hand, dinnet. Just dinnet.
The last real action of the year came on December 30th, when Lee Johnson brought in Jamie McAllister as assistant head coach, which was no real surprise as the pair had worked together at Bristol City. Another piece of the jigsaw falls into place.
Anyway, 2021 is almost here. We have a new structure in place, deed rich new owners (please, let this one go through, EFL), and the very, very slight chance that we might be able to attend some games some time before 2022.
We’ve seen enough televised games to know that what we need to get back to the Premier League are man-buns and socks that go over the knees, and also to know that televised games are in no way an acceptable substitute for actually being there. Even by Sunderland standards, it’s been a pretty mad year - probably the weirdest that football in this country has known. We’ve realised that certain things previously deemed “essential” are anything but, while other things that were previously considered irrelevant or meaningless are the exact opposite. We’ve realised, thanks to the swimming-baths sound of the televised version, that managers, coaches, and sundry other backroom staff shout just as much absolute tosh as us fans. We’ve realised that our football family is a very real thing, that we benefit hugely from time spent with that football family in the environment that we’ve grown to take for granted, and that other members of that football family feel the same about us.