Supporting Sunderland is like living in a fairy-tale. Before you interject and say: "Who is this clown? He must be a lunatic, let’s bottle him", let me elaborate. I don’t mean fairy-tales in the modern sense. I mean the original works.
In the original folk-lore version of Snow White, the beautiful damsel was not awoken by true love’s first kiss but by the jostling of the Prince’s horse as he carries her dead body back to his castle. What he wanted to do with the dead girl’s body I’m not entirely sure. I’ll let you decide. If you think Little Red Riding Hood was rescued in the woods by a brave and noble huntsman then you’re sweet but mistaken. The wolf ate her. The end. Don’t fuck with strangers reads the moral. Quite literally. And so on and so forth.
Enough about dead damsels… back to Sunderland. It is often said (by me) that to support SAFC you have to balance misguided optimism with the inevitability of crippling despair. The 2012/13 Premier League season demonstrated why my philosophy is both bleak and accurate, and the 2013/14 season isn’t exactly helping either. I remember those heady days of July 2012. Waves of optimism swelled as big-name signings came in under the stewardship of Martin O’Neill, in charge for his first full season. What could go wrong? We were going to have a good year. We were going to challenge for Europe. Then came the games. It started badly and then it got worse, a lot worse. There were some highlights, including impressive wins over Everton and Man City, and they will never take that glorious day on Sunday 14 April away from us. Yet, these goodtime glitches only served to fuel optimism. Do you see a pattern developing? That is Sunderland AFC in a nutshell. Wash, rinse, and repeat.
This has increasingly made me feel like Little Red Riding Hood. Only I look better in a red cape, trust me. We both go blindly into the proverbial forest to see something that we love (Sunderland for me, Grandma for her) but both end up disappointed. I say disappointed. She ends up brutally murdered whereas I’m sobbing into a pint as Alan Shearer eloquently informs me that Adam Johnson ‘should have done better than he done there’. I don’t know which is worse.
After ten tortuous games (and two surprisingly good ones), this season seems stuck on the same plot path as before. Breadcrumbs of optimism line the way (Giaccherini, Altidore, Poyet) but the path always leads to the witch’s house and ultimately, disappointment. Just 7 points after 8 winnable games in the league goes some way to vindicate my pessimism. The Man City game threw me further crumbs, but with Chelsea and Tottenham the next visitors to the Stadium of Light, it is hard to see a safe way out of the forest. The Premier League is a tricky thing to navigate, harder still when your path is seemingly pre-determined.
If there is one man to rip up a doom-laden script and change destiny it is Gus Poyet. With his crazy, I’ve-killed-a-man stare and his even crazier insistence that John O’Shea plays the ball on the god damn floor, he clearly has the vision to re-write our seemingly tragicomic plot path. I trust him more than I did Paolo Di Canio, if for no other reason than because Poyet doesn’t wear a watch on his right hand (seriously, what was with that?). Sky Sports liked to call Di Canio "box office" because his man-management style meant he was always close to a Ji Dong-Won induced killing spree, but this was not what Sunderland needed. The violence in the Grimm fairy-tales was always didactic. The stories were not violent without reason, but to teach valuable life lessons, and I trust that Poyet is the man to balance squad discipline with a more successful playing style. Having said that, I sympathise with Di Canio - even I was close to sinking into a bath of hydrofluoric acid, Breaking Bad style, after that Ji Dong-Won ghost header versus Crystal Palace.
It is important to note here that conclusions in fairy-tales are not static; depending on which edition you read, Snow White is either eaten alive by her evil step-mother or becomes a Queen. This is quite the transition. In fairy-tale tradition, stories often start out as gruesome but become more saccharine to reflect the shift in the genre’s target audience – from adult to child. I am still waiting for the same to happen to the Sunderland story. From Peter Reid to Howard Wilkinson, from Mick McCarthy to Steve Bruce, I have put my faith in a string of managers who have failed to provide the happy ending I long for. Peter Reid and a happy ending. Now that’s a mental picture you can’t erase.
Yet, the fact that fairy-tales have shifted meaning so dramatically gives me hope that Sunderland can too. Maybe one day Sunderland will justify my misguided faith in them. Maybe our knight in shining armour is just around the corner. Or maybe the man to change the script is already in charge. God knows Poyet would look good on a horse*. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so gloomy. What used to be Jeff Whitley is now Emanuele Giaccherini. What was once Jon Stead is now Steven Fletcher. I would kiss a thousand frogs for transformations like these.
If you want a bed-time story to send you off to sleep, go support Manchester United. If you want to lie awake trembling, screaming ‘No Carlos NO!’ as you recall nightmarish visions of Villa Park, then you too have been sucked in to the Sunderland tragicomic "fairy-tale". It may not be pretty, but it is entertaining. So excuse me as I wait (in vain) for the excitement of true love’s first kiss. So long as it isn’t from Lee Cattermole, I’ll be happy.
P.S. If you want to know who the evil ogre in this fairy-tale is, look at Ashley, look at Kinnear, look at Pardew. Have you got it yet?
*Because horses are for riding, not punching
By Daniel Graham Parker. Who can be found on twitter @dgp202 and will always welcome suggestions for professional footballers and their fairy-tale character equivalents.