Durham Times: Remember Gillingham? Remember 15 Points?

Clive Brunskill

Each week we provide our views to The Durham Times newspaper. If you enjoy the local press and the good work they do then get a copy for just 50p each and every Friday. Oh, that's also why this is slightly out of date, but avoid that by buying the damn thing! Here's our latest...

When I was seven-years-old, I sat in the back of the car as it travelled down Hylton Bank one early summer evening, persistently pestering my Dad to explain to me how Sunderland had been relegated to Division Three despite a desperate late rally to beat Gillingham at Roker Park.

I can remember the day well, probably because it was the first time that the club who would become my life-long obsession had properly registered on my radar - the first time that seeking to relate to them felt genuinely important.

There was an element of me struggling to wrap my mind around the concept of away goals and whatnot to the protracted nature of the conversation, but looking back the principle reason it was being so drawn out was, of course, because my Dad simply didn't want to talk about it.

He had been brought up watching the likes of Brian Clough, Charlie Hurley, and Colin Todd, and naturally attached a lot of pride to his football club. To him, the magic of 1973, just 14 years prior, was as fresh in his mind as Kevin Phillips' Golden Boot winning season is in ours now.

The sheer concept of Sunderland slipping into the bottom half of the football league and the Roker Park pitch that those legends once graced being about to play host to third tier football must have been absolutely gut-wrenching. No wonder he didn't want to go over the finer points of it all with an insistent and inquisitive child.

I don't really know what made me think of it, but considering the penchant modern football has of generating needlessly dramatic verbs and throwing them around to describe the mundane, I thought it was an important image to evoke.

If you took to Twitter and various other marvels of the technological age following Sunderland's narrow and unfortunate defeat to Arsenal last week, you'd have seen words like ‘embarrassing' and ‘disgrace' used in reference to different aspects of the performance, and such murmurings were not entirely uncommon as the crowd itself trudged away from the Stadium of Light either.

They are just words, I suppose, but since when should Sunderland - or anyone else - feel embarrassed about failing to beat seasoned Champions League opposition? Where is the disgrace in failing to prevent them from showing a goal threat and enjoying a spell of dominance at some point during the ninety minutes?

The reaction to last week's game was not an isolated reaction either. I was surprised at how much fury the draw against Swansea fostered considering the opposition are League Cup finalists who boast the best defensive record in the Premier League whilst on their travels and have already registered away wins at half of last season's top six.

Expectations and hope are the bedrocks of football, and no one is saying otherwise. We all need to believe in better. You could also argue, fairly, that having sold out to the Sky TV money train and driven ticket prices well beyond what is reasonable, football clubs should be more accountable to their supporters than ever.

But that doesn't have to skewer the perspective entirely. We can hope for better - we should hope for better - without believing ourselves to be entitled to it and without airbrushing history.

As a Sunderland fan, I found the 19-point and 15-point relegations a disgraceful embarrassment. I found the years labouring along under the likes of Malcolm Crosby, Terry Butcher, and Mick Buxton embarrassing. I found failing to beat Notts County in order to save ourselves from another stint in the Third Division just three years after playing at the highest level a genuine disgrace. I was embarrassed by Howard Wilkinson pretty much from start to finish.

A poor twenty minutes or so against a top side and just falling short in forcing an equalizer is certainly nothing I'll be getting upset about by comparison. It was frustrating, and frustration tends to require a release of some kind, but generally it was a hugely credible effort against a very good side.

Much of that frustration seems to emanate from a sense that there is no progress being made at the club. This looks like being the fourth successive season in which The Black Cats will finish in the lower mid-table positions despite solid spending. It isn't all that inspiring. You can't deny that.

But it is in itself, perhaps, a sign of the progress that we all crave. Survival alone used to satiate our hopes for the club. That is nothing to be especially proud of but it was the reality during those agonizing yo-yo years. If the bar has now been raised above what was formerly the target and achieving it has started to disappoint, then the track upon which we travel is at least the right one, even if the speed at which we traverse it isn't quite as swift as we'd like.

Personally, I just hope that when the day arrives that my son starts pestering me to talk about a bad Sunderland result that I'd rather forget, an inconsequential narrow home defeat to a top side is the closest to embarrassment that I ever get.

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