The start of something. Two or three quality additions. The awakening of the sleeping giant. Finally after years of false dawns…..
Back to square one. Starting over. Rebuilding. Patience. The comatose giant. Another false dawn.
Sound familiar? That’s pretty much the cycle of things at Sunderland. We’ve had more false dawns than most, certainly relative to the size of the club. All football clubs have good and bad spells, but this one has few good and even when things are going Okay, it feels like a struggle to keep it at 'Okay'.
One of the false dawns has just passed. Blink and you would have missed it, and it already feels like a distant memory. Seven miserable games this season have seen to that. We thought we were on to something with Sam Allardyce. But then he went to England and we had to start over, and he humiliated himself and his departure from Sunderland was all for nothing. Oh well.
John Gray is a professor at the London School of Economics, but being a ‘philosopher’ is his proper job. Philosophers are the occupation looked on most favourably by car insurance companies. Sitting on top of a grassy hill, gazing into the near distance is considered a low risk occupation, even when driving a car.
Gray was born in South Shields, so you would expect he would know a thing or two about hopeless, gloomy situations (just kidding). So much so that he has written several influential books predicting the doom of capitalism and society as we know it.
I’d hazard a guess that he supports Sunderland. Pessimism flows throughout his work and ultimately he offers "no hope, no reform and the gloomiest of futures" for civilisation.
That sentence could be applied to us – no hope, no reform and the gloomiest of futures. If the last five years in the life of Sunderland AFC have felt like Groundhog Day - a perpetual, futile, annual cycle of failure, doing the same thing again and again praying for a different result, then in truth it’s been like this for fifty not five years.
The evidence is compelling, a club incapable of performance to match its resources, fan base or early history. The Bank of England Club of the 1950s messed the job up by being caught bang-to-rights making illegal payments to players. Sadly, everyone was doing it, but someone grassed us up and we got done well and truly. Some say we're still feeling the effects.
Since then each decade has ambled along with little success, generally bobbing up occasionally to catch a breath, almost continuously flirting with relegation from whichever league the club happened to be in at the time. Board room wrangles and in-fighting, supporter angst and the equivalent to the GDP of a small nation blown on sub-standard players.
But, two or three times in each a generation, a new dawn appears on the horizon. The promise of better days, of success even. Occasionally the club has hauled itself up to the crest of the rollercoaster, surveyed the landscape of milk and honey before it, and rather than plough headlong into the good times, the wheels fell off. The worst of it? Usually it was as a result of our own doing.
Here’s two of a significant bunch. There’s plenty more in my lifetime, but these are two which for whatever reason I felt deeply.
Saturday 4th December 1999, and as Wearside stood on the brink of the new millennium, a certain Gus Poyet scored an inconsequential goal to give Chelsea a crumb of consolation in what would finish as a 4-1 defeat at the Stadium of Light. Sunderland, managed by Peter Reid, climbed to third in the Premiership in their latest return to the big league.
Crowds were consistently above 40,000 and the Stadium of Light was rocking. But, as had been the case throughout his tenure, Chairman Bob Murray erred on the side of caution and hoped for the best.
And it worked, for a year. A run of two defeats in seventeen games the following season had Sunderland hit the dizzy heights of second. Those two seasons petered away somewhat, but in truth double seventh place finishes appear to be as good as it is going to get for the current generation of red-and-white faithful.
If Sunderland’s failure to invest to consolidate was not unique amongst clubs newly promoted, it was galling all the same. Because in football, he who stands still for a season regresses about three years compared to the forward-thinking clubs among your competition; and so it was. The following year it was seventeenth, a year later relegation and the club reaped what it sowed - little.
The sad fact of it – with crowds as high as they had been for the previous half a century, and with a proven manager and a brand new high-end stadium, there had never been a better opportunity to establish Sunderland in the top half of England’s top division for years to come.
If they couldn’t do it then, would they ever?
Well certainly not in the years that preceded the new millennium. The 1990s were a dismal period in Sunderland’s history. If the decades before the 90s were the prelude, the final years of the century were when the decline since the 1950s finally limped to a doom-filled conclusion.
The 1992-93 season had finished in a desperate clenching fashion. Sunderland had needed to win on the last day of the season to avoid dropping to the old third division for the second time in six years. Approximately six-thousand fans watched in horror at Meadow Lane as Notts County romped to a three goal head start in under forty minutes as Sunderland looked certain to drop.
Who knows how many away fans were really in County’s new Kop Stand. Certainly there were more fans than seats, as Sunderland supporters were cramped into every orifice, aisle and gangway available.
The fact that Brentford and Cambridge both lost too and saved the day, was a fact supporters could not forgive. Relief quickly gave way to a cold fury and County’s snapped cross bar bore testament to an anger which ran deep.
Terry Butcher had replaced the cup-final boss Malcolm Crosby in the February and most supporters had watched with suspicion as the former England centre-half appeared to position himself for a managerial coup.
His performances on the pitch were still decent for a 34-year old and his arm-waving crowd encouragement appeared to have been sufficient for the board to consider him as a suitable fan favourite to replace Crosby.
After the Notts County match he avowed to rip up the squad and start again. Chairman Bob Murray, a man not known for grand gestures, backed him with £2m to rebuild. A pittance now, at the time to Sunderland supporters devoid of enjoying investment in playing personnel, it seemed like a big-buck bonanza. The fact that Butcher splurged it on players no one had heard of, only served to have us believe finally someone at the club knew what they were about. Surely after years in the wasteland, the club weren’t stupid enough to waste the opportunity to invest in players.
They were. In truth his signings were not bad. Phil Gray and Andy Melville the pick of the crop. But an opening day 5-0 defeat at Derby the following season exposed exactly what Butcher was about. He was incapable of getting the side playing in any semblance of team work, and by the November, with his side looking like relegation shots once more, he had gone. A false dawn of crap proportions, it was typical Sunderland.
Of course there have been more, but those two are merely examples of the nature of Sunderland false dawns. One a failure to invest at the right time, and the other a failure to invest in the right people.
There are others felt by my generation – Quinn’s magic carpet ride, Lawrie McMenemy’s arrival on Wearside even; in fact each new manager and each dawning of a new chapter in the club’s history arrives with hope. Each generation can recount a list of dashed dreams. Yours will be different to mine, but you will have plenty. Sadly, they all have one thing in common – a failure by those in charge to show their mettle at the right time.
Sunderland are not fated to ill-luck and malaise, no matter how often it feels like a curse. We simply are rarely run effectively as a club; and when we are, the lasting effects are anything but lasting.
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