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Black Cats Analects: Who Cares?

This is a sombre time at Sunderland AFC. Long-squandered finances are at the point of impending calamity; rotating management has taken squad and supporter alike through the motions, and one particular constant in all this has started to rear its ugly self again: the underwhelming, abject performances from the players, most recently represented by one Lamine Koné.

Okay. First of all, if you’ve read these articles enough times, you know that devil’s advocate is played upon heavy, so let’s get that out in advance. The career of a professional footballer is bitterly short. And if a player is not of a certain standard, they are chewed up and churned out of this sport, as their childhood dreams inevitably fade away before they reach forty years old.

Simply, on average, a footballer has two decades to be successful, and what they do in their brief career defines them professionally and, lamentably, on a personal level too. These are men who start this journey as children and, without the proper guidance, they can be sunk under the saturation of fame and extraordinary wealth. To an extent, their reality is just not ours.

So what we have, regrettably, is a culture that exists within football whereby the monster of monopolised sport is rewarding players for merely being just that – players. Now, so long as an atom of talent exists, image and positioning overrules any semblance of meritocracy.

It may not occur everywhere, but it nonetheless still does: a great player can earn less than those who are less deserving, while the less deserving rest on the laurels of their hype, transfer values or the league they play in. In essence, even the most below-average footballer is guaranteed to personally profit whether they play or not, making the outcome of their matches irrelevant; so why should they care what it means to the supporter?

For fans of many clubs, this is a cause for determent, with a growing sense of negativity aimed toward this culture. Ticket-paying supporters can only watch a band of should-be-good players underperform without ramification for so long before they choose not to come back.

And that has everything to do with Sunderland right now. Nearly every supporter of this club knows somebody who has either opted out of renewing their season ticket or refuses to attend games live or, in more extreme cases, has just lost the love for the game altogether. Now think about how many of those people have club-supporting children – or who already are those children – and are of a generation of fans who want nothing to do with this club so long as below-par performances continue to emerge from players who fail to put in even a half-decent shift.

Let me tell you something you already know, on why this is happening. There is an ethos here on Wearside – a principle code of expectation. And, as a footballer here, you either get it or you don’t. Some have grasped it, others have become fully engrossed in it. However, for the last decade or so, we have seen far too many come and go who either did not get it – or just did not want to get it.

These are the players who get found out by supporters very quickly; the sort of players who hide behind part-time false work ethics; players like – right now – Lamine Koné.

That ethos is simple: effort. And no, not the kind of toiling Jozy Altidore or Danny Graham did. Merely running is not a struggle for a professional footballer. Effort is finding new ways to positively contribute to the team and adapting to stay consistent and in better form. Y’know – earning your spot. There is a reason why Lionel Messi started chipping balls over goalkeeper’s heads as a new way to score goals, or why the best players in the world are the best players in the world – they work hard for that claim!

So then, must we see Sunderland players continue to disappoint in the same, repetitive manner every week because they don’t try to be anything more than they are? Or maybe they just don’t need to try?

After all, like it reads earlier; we are talking about players in a sport drenched in vast seas of money. How do you motivate an average player to be a good player, or a good player to be a great player, when there are no consequences for not trying? No matter the result at full-time, complacency still wins when it is rewarded regardless; and that is a sorry fact we see at the Stadium of Light week-in-week-out, after the latest familiar home thumping by a newly-promoted club, featuring opposition players usually paid several thousand pound a week less.

And no matter how much full-time booing the remaining 5,000 fans in attendance give them, too many of our players are still rewarded for what is usually tantamount to inactivity and regression.

Our current crop of talent has exemplified just that. Too many times have we seen players (who we know can do better!) burn out after a couple of minutes of forward runs or occasional tackling, only to call it a day on the hope that one of their team-mates carries them the rest of the way.

It was not a temporary lapse in concentration that saw us concede immediately against Crystal Palace, it was a permanent lapse in work rate. There is no way that seasoned professionals can defend so competently between March and May to prevent relegation, only to become so inept from August to November that same year. That is complacency and a knowingness of protected status. Yes, the team may lose the game, and lose the points, but the individual player loses ... what?

And no, we cannot become apologists for this off the back of any suggestion that we just lack the ‘quality’. ‘Quality’ is not a commodity in football – it is a myth. We are talking about men as flesh and bone as those at Burton Albion or Chelsea. When Sunderland beat Manchester City four years in a row, nobody talked about ‘quality’. It was effort. It was desire and it was passion. It was down to a modern rarity at this club where we had players motivated enough to believe that they had something more to play for than guaranteed wages.

Ask yourself: did Jordan Henderson suddenly erupt with ‘quality’ when he grabbed those matches by the scruff of the neck back in 2011, when he bust his gut to see us fight back to beat Wigan Athletic? Or was he just motivated enough to want to win because it actually meant something to him, and to the supporters, that his team didn’t lose?

Now, this isn’t to brush all of our players with this same slanderous stigma. That would be unfair. We all know which players clearly have heart, we all know which players have genuine respect and care for the supporters; enough to remain humble, hard-working and professional at all times. John O’Shea, to his credit, has effectively given up on declining gracefully as his aging legs are still called upon to save our defence from itself. He’s just one example.

And yet, we still have those names at the club who are a polar opposite of the likes of John O’Shea or Lee Cattermole or Sebastian Larsson or Fabio Borini. We still have those names at the club who have all the ability to be better but would rather remain ignorant of the want of the supporter and flounder at sub-standard levels of unprofessionalism both on and off the field.

Ultimately, the ones most detrimentally affected by all this are the players themselves. It would be one thing for one of our players to be like, say, Mario Balotelli; driving around city centres with a wad of cash buckled safely in the passenger seat because, in Balotelli’s words, “I am rich”. That kind of youthful, monetary boredom (again, without proper guidance) is one thing, but at Sunderland we see a much bleaker side to it all; such as players making ridiculous demands through their agents, like Lamine Koné; players building disgusting reputations, like James McClean; and yes, players who lie to supporters until the point of a criminal conviction. Players like this don’t get it.

And all that comes from both the players’ inability to buy into that aforementioned ethos and their part in that culture of sport-inherent irresponsibility. Instead, any supporter working an eight-to-ten hour shift per day on fractions of a footballer’s hourly rate will roll their eyes watching a select number of players struggle to muster the same work ethic for two hours a week with a fifteen minute break. And we’ve had to watch that for a long time now.

Is it any wonder why there’s such a growing disconnection between players and supporters?

Take Victor Anichebe; a player who dropped arse on ‘copy and paste’ over Twitter, only to pull back with an imbecile-assuming excuse fresh off the ABC recommendation of a club consultant.

A thing like that, as hilariously depressing as that was, is still an insult to the supporter. It shows that so many of those players representing the club and representing you or me, quite frankly, don’t care. There is no genuine attempt there to engage with supporters or attain that connection founded on hard work, honesty and an appreciation for the crowd. The standard-issue template of social media-thanking messages is bulls**t. And we all see through that.

These are the sort of players who cannot be inspired to forge bonds with supporters in this way. It is a laziness rooted in contentment and a sense of introverted self-approval, where they know that their bare minimum earns them more than most people’s best efforts. And so, not only does it create a player culture where their off-field responsibilities can be ignored, but their on-field responsibilities are met with a half-heartedness. These are players who are ignorant of their own ignorance, as they disrespect supporters with their bone idle efforts and mock the superior work of their more humbled team-mates and managers. Clearly, the image of the player is more important than the image of the team.

This is why, when the club promotes visitations to local businesses such as Nissan, the critical response is often so sarcastically damning. Nobody cares enough because we all know too many of the players don’t care enough. Preferred public relations plans like this only serves to fuel disdain toward player ignorance all the more. Didier Ndong can watch car manufacturing all day long but if he puts less effort into the next fixture, nobody will remember what sandwich he ate at the Nissan canteen.

The message here is straight-forward. If Sunderland AFC want to tout its players as community-caring try-hards, that’s okay. But don’t take them to the streets to offer hollow handshakes to the same supporters they annoy by 5pm the next Saturday. Instead, get them showing their respect for the region and its people by concentrating their efforts on what they are paid to do.

If those players truly want to show they give a damn about the supporters, then they should never allow themselves to be in that mutually awkward situation of applauding the fans after another defeat.

Just go beat AFC Bournemouth. Or don’t – just try to. Then do it again against Hull City. Then against Manchester United. Then Swansea City. Then whoever is next. Just don’t stop until the season is done, because it doesn’t take ‘quality’ to do that.

Prove this wrong.