Whilst promotion is not inevitable by any stretch of the imagination Sunderland certainly find themselves in the mix and, with current form, would probably be seen as one of four pushing for those automatic spots at the top of the league.
We certainly don’t want to be looking at the play offs and another trip to our least favourite ground nestled in North West London. With thoughts of promotion comes a certain degree of trepidation at whether we would be capable of holding our own in the Championship given that last year’s League One top two are languishing at the wrong end with Charlton not that far above them. Those thoughts are for another day though and for now we have to contend with League One and all it offers.
From the delights of rekindling the embers of memories of football past with quaint old grounds rather than faceless arenas to the joys of invading stadiums en masse; there will be some things we would miss about League One were we to go up. Special mention must of course be made of the spectacular pasties on offer at Bristol Rovers and the double decker beer bus at Accrington Stanley.
In contrast there are things which we will definitely not miss, should we managed to escape. Sunderland have a stadium fit for the Premier League, a reputation of being a Premier League team albeit one that regularly flirted with relegation for years, a fan base that eclipses anything on offer in the division and apparently the most professional travel arrangements the division has ever seen. These riches are matched with… well, by and large, a League One playing squad.
It is little surprise that, given the quaintness of the grounds we visit on our away days, teams that visit the Stadium of Light perform as though they are playing a Premier League team in the third round of the cup. The time wasting, the parking of buses, the general “sportsmanship” we have seen it all. Then there are the referees determined not to be bowed by the big home crowd at the Stadium of Light to the extent that they often go too far in the other direction. These frustrations are something we have grown accustomed to at home and they were embodied in splendour against Fleetwood last night.
Joey Barton referred to David v Goliath, the difference in budgets and resources and performed the post-match interview equivalent of a teary-eyed X Factor contestant who has strived through adversity to reach their pinnacle. That sums up how we are viewed in the eyes of the rest of the division, the highlight of the season there to be stopped. Joey’s rags to riches story tells only a fraction of the Fleetwood history though. Promotion from the North West Counties League to League One in a matter of 16 seasons does not come without significant investment and losses reported in recent years have been upward of £2m and dismissed as being nothing to worry about. These are minor details for Joey though and the perception he is working miracles on a shoestring.
The time wasting and referees draw vitriol from the crowds and even as I stood decrying the Fleetwood keeper moving the ball for a goal kick yet again because that particular square inch of grass wasn’t suitable for the precise goal kick he wanted to deliver I could sense Joey Barton smiling as the Sunderland crowd booed and bayed. All the time wasting could have course been avoided if the referee had drawn the Fleetwood captain to him midway through the first half (yes the time wasting did start very early) and warned him to have a word or face the consequences. The referee instead chose to wait until the game was in its evensong before taking disciplinary action for time wasting. Let down by cheating and incompetent officiating yet again. I mumbled as I left the stadium that I would be embarrassed to turn in the performance I had just witnessed from Fleetwood but on waking this morning I realised something. The referees are bad, the time wasting and gamesmanship will happen. It is, however, an easy thing to blame. The fact of the matter is that if we had defended properly in the opening ten minutes and looked alive and alert from the off then we might have been the ones who took the lead. If we get that first goal there will be no time wasting; instead the away team will attack us and leave us more space to maybe add a second or third or however many.
I have noticed a trait which I share with many; too often in the past our own inadequacies are airbrushed by the incompetence of referees and the tactics of opposition teams. We probably need to just accept that there will always be a team like Fleetwood coming to the Stadium of Light and accept it; there is absolutely nothing we can do to control it and the volume of noise we make in protest only serves to tell the opposition players and coaching staff that their plan is working. Similarly, telling a referee he isn’t fit to carry out his duties is unlikely to make him start to award us decisions as that would look like he was swayed by the crowd; the inequity between Max Power’s yellow and the various fouls from Fleetwood that passed without drawing a card was blatant. However, if the referee bowed to the demands from the crowd you can imagine how Barton’s press conference would have gone. “We tried our hardest but the big club with the big budget swayed the referee and made poor little old penniless Fleetwood lose the game”. At which point every referee in League One would make a vow never to let that happen to them. It’s hard to control emotions at football, I understand that, but often we play into the opposition game plan by showing those emotions. Perhaps rather than expressing outrage we could come up with a way of lightly mocking teams that waste time. Telling Akinfenwa that a certain part of his body was offside was both humorous and effective. Get your thinking caps on, there’s a chant to be struck up to counteract this unsporting behaviour that eats into the game time that you have paid money to watch.