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'Remember Sunderland, Hope Is A Good Thing, Maybe The Best Of Things'

They say it's the hope you can't stand with Sunderland. Well, that's an assertion that has certainly been put to the test this season.

Alex Livesey

I can still remember the day when my (now) wife learned, through a look of total astonishment, that I'd never seen The Shawshank Redemption. I was instantly sat down in front of our tiny little university-budget TV and told to change the habit of a lifetime and shut up for a couple of hours. To this day, it remains the only movie I've ever watched twice in one night.

Loving The Shawshank Redemption is nothing ground breaking, of course. In fact, I don't think I know a single person who doesn't love it. With its powerful metaphor of using a prison to depict the lives into which we are unwittingly thrown, it provides a narrative that resonates with just about everyone on some level or another.

For me, though, it was always the Sunderland AFC obsessive in me that it spoke most palpably to. Red, the 'institutionalized' man who made a decision in his youth that held influence over his entire life, condemning him to spend his days bound to the mercy and whims of others until hope and disappointment become spirit-crushingly connected concepts in his mind.

How could any Sunderland fan fail to identify with such a man?

True, it's love and not crime that binds us to our prison, but its hold is just as tight. Every weekend of our lives we throw ourselves at the mercy of our football club, and every day we fight the urge to hope for fear of it going unfulfilled and scarring another little piece of our soul.

In the build-up to last weekend's massive game with Cardiff, I don't personally know anyone who dared to hope. Dared to dream, certainly, but not hope. There may have been a few Andy Dufrenses out there, and to those people I doff my cap, but I didn't encounter any and I'm definitely not going to claim to have been one myself.

It wasn't that the opposition or even the occasion was all that daunting, either. It was a home game against a poor side - the worst on their travels in the league - when we were enjoying a genuine wave of momentum. It was a home banker, even for us. Well, it was to neutrals.

But we know better than to trust in logic and reason when it comes to Sunderland. Such things seldom apply to us. We've all been brought up learning the same key lessons: Just when you think it can only get better for Sunderland, it usually gets worse; the big moments invariably belong to someone else; it's the hope you can't stand.

This season has been the most exhausting that I can ever remember. It has seemed like from day one we have been up against it. I struggle to remember a league game which I watched free of pressure and anxiety.

Even when we haven't been playing, watching the results of rivals in the relegation scrap has been torture. It's felt like someone condemned us to death back in August and we've been waiting for the axe to fall without warning ever since. It's no way to live.

Today feels good though. The win against Cardiff has not guaranteed anything, but it has at least offered a little respite. The conclusion no longer feels so grimly certain.

Somehow, and don't ask me how because I genuinely have no clue, we have wrestled ourselves away from the immediate threat of a fatal blow. It's nothing to aspire to, but after a whole season of tension, there is a soothing degree of freedom to be found in it. There is hope creeping back in and, against all my better judgement, I'm choosing to embrace it.

To borrow a few words from Red himself:

I find I'm so excited that I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it's the excitement only a free man can feel. A free man at a start of a long journey whose conclusion is no longer certain. I hope we can make it across the finishing line above three others. I hope to see my club preserve the Premier League status that our ambitions demand. I hope the future is as bright as it has been in my dreams. I hope.

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