• By Michael Conroy


Close season is always a bit of an odd time. The final whistle goes on the final game and you’re left contemplating where it all went wrong or, if you’re lucky, how things are now going to pick up next season. Every couple of years the boredom caused by the lack of football is mercifully removed as international tournaments take centre stage. Then of course there’s the rumour mill. I understand Messi is looking for a new club, it’s surely only a matter of time before he’s spotted eating a saveloy dip in Jacky White’s. This close season was, of course, entirely different.

The first difference was that we didn’t get the chance to say goodbye. The sudden and abrupt ending to the season was entirely unexpected. As I left the stadium after Mandron had done for us I said goodbye to the old fella who sits near me, as I do every match usually with a roll of the eyes. He looked at me and said that it wouldn’t be for a month or so until we were back here. Fixtures and international breaks had conspired to keep us away from the Stadium of Light for a long time, a mercy in my view at that time. The darkness around the corner was not even envisaged, let alone suspected. When the Blackpool game was cancelled, people took the whole thing a bit more seriously. That didn’t stop a fair number of Sunderland fans travelling down to Blackpool anyway. It was probably unwise in hindsight as there is a chance that contributed towards the spread of the pandemic. At the time I was quite proud of the fact that some of our fans were merrily continuing the party but as the death toll rose I think we all probably realised we hadn’t appreciated how serious it was.

The season ended on a points per game basis as clubs voted not to play again, especially the team who would go on to play 3 more times on their way to promotion. I wasn’t really bitter from Sunderland’s perspective. We weren’t looking anywhere near good enough for promotion. I felt for Peterborough really, I thought it was grossly unjust for Wycombe to leapfrog them by virtue of the fact they had played a game less therefore their points per game was skewed. The fact that their form was hideous and their game in hand was away to Coventry was not taken into account. That said, what else could the EFL do really? Unprecedented was used as an adjective for the pandemic at ten minute intervals as news channels recycled panic inducing bulletins 24 hours a day. Sunderland stopped, Britain stopped, Europe stopped.

Some football carried on though eventually. Liverpool won the league in bizarre empty stadiums and players eventually figured out that it looked a bit odd holding your hands up to empty stands when you scored. Players knelt in unity with the Black Lives Matter protests and that was probably the most newsworthy thing that was happening. I, like many others, lost interest in football. It seemed utterly insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Flares were lit outside Anfield and I asked myself the question whether or not I would have been there if it had been Sunderland. I guess it's a conundrum I'm unlikely to face. As if it wasn't bad enough losing interest in football, we also had the calamitous handling of season card refunds, renewals and streaming passes. To call it a shambles is doing a shambles a disservice. Renewals dropped significantly. Probably just as well really because it means it's less tricky to fit those social bubbles into the ground should that happen. Of course your bubble can no longer be bigger than a group of 6 now.

So my close season was a gradual decaying of my interest in football and a rapid disconnect with the club against a backdrop of global pandemic. A pretty horrid set of circumstances all in all. I actually seriously wondered if I would ever get the love for the club back. Then we beat Gateshead in a preseason friendly. Will Grigg was scoring goals. We actually looked good against Hull, an absolute class above them but we were shot shy. If you don't score goals then....8-1! For the first time in months I am actually missing football now. If anything lockdown has removed me from the club as a corporate entity. Yes I care about who owns the club but by and large they're non entities. If they don't spend money then we hate them, if they do we love them, until they stop spending money. This is how it has been. Don't get me wrong, I still condemn the inconsistency in promising a youth driven model to re establish the club and then proceeding to sell the best prospects from the Academy. You could be forgiven for thinking that they didn't really mean that whole Dortmund model thing. What I have come to realise is that yes, we can write about it and talk about it, but we can't really control it. So whilst that disconnect with the corporate entity has arrived for me it has only really served to pull me further in to what really matters and it's now, with an almost childlike naivety that I'm approaching this season. My negativity has been cleansed and we are going to win the league by a country mile. We're going to break goalscoring records and clean sheets records. They may as well just hand it all over now.

Why is that? Why am I so confident? It's simple really. You see this pandemic, which has taken place rather neatly serving as the filling in a Bristol Rovers sandwich, means that we can't go to the match. Being the eternal pessimist with delusions of my own influence and importance, this will be the best season ever purely because someone up there is looking down and laughing at me not being able to watch the season when Sunderland were good.

Welcome back (ish) everyone I hope you are all safe and well and for those who have been adversely affected by Covid-19 my thoughts are with you and your families. Stay safe, Stay SAFC.