Whisper it quietly, keep it amongst us Sunderland fans. Make a tentative, feint pencil note in the margin of Tuesday 9th February 2021: SAFC, bottomed out.
How many times have we thought it? How may false dawns have gone before where we thought, surely we’ve bottomed out now? It can’t get worse than this, can it?
Who among us didn’t allow ourselves a fleeting moment of thinking, on relegation from the Premier League, might not be so bad? At least we’ll win some games. And then 12 dismal months later, bottom of another division, again thought, well, might not be so bad? At least we’ll win some games.
But we didn’t. Not enough anyway. The team got worse even when we thought it couldn’t get worse. New levels of ineptitude were plumbed. We adjusted, nauseatingly well, to the flabby middle of the League One table. Every time we thought, OK, this is it, we’ve bottomed out now. There was another shade of shit still to suffer. Another disappointment to sink in to.
We have seen every possible new dawn. A new manager, a new owner, a new approach, all end in failure. We have reasoned every possible fairy tale to end our misery only to be brought up short by play-off heartache, last minute Wembley losses, a coupon-busting string of one-one draws snatched from victory. The realisation that misfortune had been replaced by inadequacy. The normalization of woeful.
Whenever we thought it couldn’t get worse, it did. Bottom place in the Premier League was followed by bottom place in the Championship. A side had not managed to be so consistently bad over two full seasons since Wolves, 35 years ago in 1984/85. Surely now we had bottomed out? New owners came in, full of guff and bluster and salmon-coloured trousers bringing new hope. Old memories of Third Division fun. Of Marco’s thighs and McPhail’s blue eyes, Gatesy’s untucked shirt and rolled down socks, ticking new crumbling old grounds off the list, taking over town’s and win, win, win. We’ll bounce back again, no problem! It’ll be fun!
Then more gloom. Disingenuous owners. More misery and, Christ, maybe this is terminal? When does it end? The glory of Wembley and Trafalgar and McGeady fizzing. A failed firework, a damp squib. Where will it really end? When will it stop getting worse and worse? A stalled takeover, a pandemic, another sacking, another failed dawn. Down, down, down. Any glimmer of hope swiftly snuffed out, any ‘now we can go on a run!’ quickly suffocated before hope could lift us. Division 3 forever. Tuesday 9th Feb: Shrewsbury 2-1 Sunderland AFC. Not even outraged any more.
But wait. What’s this? A thumping win against promotion rivals. Where did that come from? Then four days later, a penalty shoot-out win in a pizza trophy. OK, OK, I’m listening, what next? And then... And then, a day later a takeover confirmation. OK, so the last change in ownership didn’t work out too well but that’s why we need to welcome another change!
Don’t tell anyone but *checks over both shoulders* ...I think that might just be it? Maybe, maybe we’ve bottom out. Just a slither of hope is all we need. Tentatively, cautiously, no-doubt falteringly Sunderland might just have started to haul their sorry carcass in an upwards direction.
A dispassionate view of things might reign in such rampant optimism. We’ve beaten Doncaster in the third division and drawn (after 90mins) with Lincoln City in a meaningless cup for lower league teams. A 23-year-old, who no one has the faintest idea whether he knows anything about running a football club, has bought us because he’s bored. We are still clinging to the very edges of the play-offs and we won’t be able to get inside a football ground until next season.
But football is all about hope, about the promise of what might be. At a time when supporting the Lads has been unremittingly bleak and depressing for far too long, it does feel like something might just change. The first scapegoat in football is the players – they need dropping, hopeless, Sunday-leaguers – followed by the manager – has to go, clueless – then the owner – chancer, skinflint, should sell-up. We’ve been through all of these in the last few months, changed players, manager and now owner, so it’s a full re-set.
Lee Johnson, although not blessed with a strong, winning CV (yet), has started brightly overall and at least seems to have some new ideas about systems and tactics. Not everything he’s going to do will work first time but he’s relatively young, enthusiastic, has some charism and there seems genuine promise. Picking different players, changing systems and even making some substitutions is an improvement on the previous incumbent. He, and his coaches, also seem to be improving individual players too; Wyke being the standout of course but McLaughlin and Sanderson have played better in recent weeks, Gooch looks bright, McGeady in from the cold is having a great spell. When fitness returns for the likes of Hume, Xhemajli, Willis, Jones and Stewart we should have enough strength in depth to rise up this division.
There is reason for hope too, for the new regime under Kyril Louis-Dreyfus. Leaving aside his age and inexperience, he is steeped in footballing traditions, seemingly well-connected in the game and, crucially for the modern game, a billionaire. Removing the previous owners’ ‘yes man’ and CEO, advertising for new analytics/insight staff, improving match coverage, retuning the support liaison officer from furlough to full-time work and rumours of new state-of-the-art pitch investment represents a decent first week on the job. Also, how right do you have to get it to get a club like Sunderland out of the third division? OK, we’ve seen others make a mess of it but, if money’s no object, surely someone could haul us up one division?
It’s never a smooth upward trajectory so undoubtedly there’ll be mis-steps along the way but, if nothing else, it shows that all we need is a little sliver of hope and, despite all the misery and disappointments, our ability to imagine a brighter future for Sunderland AFC remains undiminished.