Perhaps the only clubs that come close to defining their city in the same way are Rangers and Celtic and the fanatical devotion they inspire among the people of Glasgow. That said, there’s something missing in the relationship between the Old Firm and their fans, that elusive something that makes Sunderland the club that it is.
Maybe it’s the never-ending stream of hope, the constant belief that each new season could be "our year". Sunderland are hardly the only club whose fans have a tendency to spend much of the summer break predicting varying levels of glory for the season ahead but they have a very special way of doing it, a glowing positivity combined with a kind of gallows humour, almost an acceptance that the dreams of the fans are just that, dreams.
After years of underachievement, it doesn’t take much to get Sunderland fans excited but when the Stadium of Light is in full voice there’s hardly a football ground like it.
Perhaps it’s the nature of the relationship; Sunderland in modern times have not exactly inspired unyielding belief that the team walking out onto the pitch every weekend will be successful. Yet time and again we see the Stadium of Light packed to the rafters, fans cheering, flags waving and a constant reminder of the incredible support that our "perennial relegation strugglers" receive.
This inspires a very specific brand of cult hero of which Lee Cattermole is more-or-less the blueprint, players who will run themselves into the ground for the club, not necessarily brilliantly talented or enormously effective players, but players who care for the shirt as much as the fans do. You only need to look at the photos of Jermain Defoe barely holding back the tears after the Chelsea game or Younes Kaboul looking absolutely overwhelmed at the final whistle of the Everton game to know that these are players who truly care. Sunderland has gotten under their skin.
Whatever it is that makes Sunderland such a truly and uniquely brilliant club to support, it has been shown in abundance over the past few games. After a year that has featured some crushing lows for fans of the club, lows that hardly need highlighting again, this will go down as perhaps one of the great Sunderland triumphs of the Premier League era. Sam Allardyce took a squad devoid of confidence, spirit and heart and turned them into a team that proved so many doubters wrong.
While acknowledging Allardyce’s brilliance, the real difference-maker in the run-in has been the attitude of the fans. For those of us too young to remember the legendary Roker Roar, it has been nothing short of breath-taking to see and hear the passion of the fans and witness the affect it so clearly has on the players. To a man, they have played like men possessed at times and this new-found drive and desire was undoubtedly crucial to ensuring top flight survival.
So perhaps the thing that makes Sunderland so special is the fans. The thousands of mad, red and white clad pilgrims who journey thousands of miles every season to watch their side annihilated by the playthings of billionaires and appear at games without fail in wind, snow and rain. Without them Sunderland wouldn’t be the club it is and going forward they will be every bit as important as the eleven lads running out in red and white. Who knows, maybe the return of the Roker Roar might even inspire heroics on the scale of another recent relegation struggler?