The headline says it all really. Michael Graham takes us on a journey from SAFC grafters to crafters, and why the current generation shouldn't be frowned upon for not making hard-hitting, mistimed tackles...
Being a Sunderland fan has never been an easy undertaking. No one ever said it would be. In fact, for most of us who come from families who have always had a connection to the club, it has almost become a sadistic inheritance handed down like a poisoned chalice as soon as you are old enough for football to catch your eye but not quite yet old enough to realise when you are being conned. Although I was born in Sunderland and both of my parents supported the club, I was living in Chippenham, Whiltshire, when I caught the football bug. All my friends supported the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool, or Spurs and, eager to fit in, I fancied joining them. When I got home from school that day and told my dad of my intentions, he had just four words for me; "no son, you’re Sunderland". That was that.
I was lucky, to some extent. I had just missed the McMenemy era and the club I walked into a lifelong relationship with was one in the third tier of English football but being rejuvenated by Dennis Smith and Marco Gabbiadini. Granted, it was my friends who could watch their teams on ITV’s "The Big Match! Live!" on a Sunday afternoon, but it wasn’t long before I was the only one in the school able to boast I had been to live games in person. My dad had taken me to Roker Park one Saturday when we were up in Sunderland visiting relatives, although it probably had more to do with him wanting to escape an afternoon with the in-laws than any special desire to continue my football education. Fair play to him. I’d have done the same. We watched from the Clock Stand seats as the lads beat York 4-2. Thanks to my relatives in Sunderland, who were never more than a short Jolly Bus ride away from the club shop, I was also able to wear the Sunderland kits for school football practice. "Mam, who is Patrick and why is his name on my shirt?". Everything was great. We had two promotions in three years, then relegation, granted, but then a cup final. I remember being a little bemused as to why it was my parents weren’t quite enjoying it as much as I was, but I was about to learn the most quintessential reality to being a Sunderland fan – no one does implosion quite like Sunderland and the more peachy things appear, the more worried you should be. Never has the quote "most people would rather be certain they're miserable, than risk being happy" been better applied than when talking about Sunderland’s long-suffering support.
Grimly, for me, the implosion, which came primarily in the form of a succession of hugely unimaginative internal managerial appointments, coincided with moving to spend the rest of my childhood in the Newcastle area, which was my very first interaction with mags. The inspired appointment of Kevin Keegan’s there completed a perfect storm which would heap football related misery on me for the next few years. Things were looking even grimmer until Peter Reid was appointed, but, true to form, the club went straight from the ridiculous end of the scale to the sublime with absolutely no kind of prior warning. Promotion to make our first appearance in the Premier League followed very quickly, with a new Stadium thrown in at the end of that season. It was a short-lived first spell in the Premier League, but progress was undoubtedly being made. Niall Quinn had begun his Sunderland odyssey and formed what would become a legendary partnership with Kevin Phillips, and it wasn’t long before we were back in the top flight following a record-breaking good season. We were within touching distance of Europe, twice, were signing players we had actually heard of without the Echo’s help (to this day I still have no idea who John Frain was…), and even had the pleasure of watching Sunderland players make the odd appearance for England and in World Cups. We really should have known better. Looking back, the older generations did. They knew the implosion was imminent, and turned on Peter Reid for not doing enough to prevent it. I must confess that through the naive eyes of youth I thought of them as being ungrateful and impatient at the time. Experience has led me to seeing them in a much more understanding light. A record-breaking bad spell was to ensue, and one we don’t need or want reminding of here.
But where does all this leave us now? There can be little doubt that for the vast majority of us, the club is performing better than at any time in living memory. So well, in fact, that only those battered most severely by Sunderland over the years remain entrenched in their positions and engulfed in paranoia about the future. Where doubts existed about the ability of the club’s previous leadership to devise a plan to deliver the necessary foundations for sustained success, there seems nothing but universal trust and belief in the current regime.
But what of the players? When will Sunderland fans start to trust their footballers to play football and appreciate them thusly? Obviously I don’t mean trust their integrity as men, as recent events has left us in no doubt at all about the nature of the modern football business, but trust them with a ball at their feet and to be able to represent the club with quality football rather than clear outwardly expressive endeavour. The Sunderland crowd love a grafter, but I would suggest that is because that is all we have really had the opportunity to love over the years. John Kay and Kevin Ball are revered by any Sunderland fan that had the pleasure of watching the passion and pride with which they adorned the red and white stripes, but they were nowhere near capable of playing the club to where we all say we want to be. Danny Collins contested his ground manfully and was, by all accounts, a committed professional, but he never quite managed to look like anything resembling a footballer. More tellingly, nor did he need to to be able to win multiple various player of the year awards at Premier League level. If the fans were to be given a vote today, Phil Bardsley would likely walk away with this season’s award. Now I think that Bardsley has shown remarkable improvement this season, He is fitter, and he is better than ever before. But how responsible is he for this season’s success on the pitch? Compared to the midfield guile of Jordan Henderson, the attacking potency of Asamoah Gyan, and the defensive resolve of Titus Bramble, Bardsley must surely be seen only as a hugely welcome yet ultimately peripheral influence in the success of the team.
In no way do I wish to disparage Phil Bardsley here. He is a good player with an admirable attitude, and I am utterly delighted with the manner in which he represents my club. The point is this: when you have been force-fed a diet of mediocrity all your life, it does not mean that we must fear learning to appreciate the finer alternatives when they are offered. Time was that effort and an exuberant display of passion was all a Sunderland fan could look for in a player. But times have changed. We no longer have to mistake activity for achievement. Whilst we should never fail to acknowledge and respect endeavour, we should also remember that perspiration merely provides the springboard from which inspiration can deliver greatness, and it is in inspiration that we are now able to trust. We enjoy the privilege of watching some footballers of genuine quality and pedigree wearing our crest upon their shirt these days. It would be a sad waste to fail to appreciate them when we can, especially supporting, as we do, a club of such stunning aptitude for implosion.