What I’m talking about is more like having a recurring nightmare about being stuck in a recurring nightmare.
I seem to spend my summers the same way these days. Observe:
Phase 1: Relief. Sunderland have survived, again, when it looked pretty dicey for a few months there – again.
Phase 2: Optimism. This won’t happen again. The manager that we’ve got this time is going to be the one.
Phase 3: Hope. Perhaps this is more of a 2.5 really, but you know the drill. I’m still optimistic, but the cast-iron certainty of reason upon which it was built and thriving just a few weeks earlier has been replaced by a "we’ll be alright this time, we have to be, I don’t know why but, you know, it’s got to be kind of our turn to be alright, yeah?"
Phase 4: Ball ache. I’ll admit it, this is the stage I am at right now. Transfer movement is slow, other Premier League clubs have the temerity to be buying players, and life has generally become one long and seemingly pointless struggle.
But - and here is the kind of central point around which this whole article revolves - it’s not the slow progress in the transfer market from the club that invokes Phase 4 for me, it’s the panic it prompts in the fans.
And let’s be clear on something here: I am a fan myself. I’m fortunate to be employed by the sports media industry, but I’m not some anybody who was assigned to cover a football club and developed a soft spot or slight affinity with it somewhere along the way.
I’m Sunderland through and through and have been for three decades now. I’ve followed them home and away, I’ve been an exile with a season ticket and a very long drive every other week, I’ve traveled abroad to support the club. In fact, I’m literally writing this on a flight home from Geneva after spending a week traipsing around France backing the lads. For whatever else this might be, it’s the opinion of a Sunderland fan.
I have to say, too, that, as a fan, I’m as frustrated as anyone out there about the club’s failure to make a breakthrough in the transfer window. Every time I see breaking transfer news and it’s not about Sunderland signing someone, it gets harder and harder to stay positive. I get it. Honestly, I do.
But that frustration isn’t what ultimately gets me down. It’s the fending off of strange and frankly paranoid conspiracy theories about the club’s intentions and ability.
You know, stuff like: ‘It’s the same every year, man! We’re always messing about and signing no one quickly.’ Except that, by this time last year, three new additions had been secured and best part of £20million spent.
Stuff like: ‘We’re the only ones who ever seem to have "transfer sagas". Every other club wraps deals up in a flash while we mess about.’ Which, against a contextual backdrop all summer of Manchester United taking weeks to sign Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba, Arsenal fans moaning about Arsene Wenger failing to land targets again, West Ham trying and failing to sign just about every striker on the planet, and ‘new money’ Everton doing pretty much the square-root of f*ck all despite being linked with literally everyone, is frankly astonishing.
Stuff like: ‘Ellis Short doesn’t want to spend any money.’ That’d be the Ellis Short, then, who has singularly pumped more money into Sunderland AFC than anyone else – no, everyone else combined – in the club’s entire history. Yeah, let’s blame the bloke who has always put cash into the club, never taken it out, who has never presided over a relegation, and who only last January put his hand in his pocket to make the signings that kept us up. Him. He’s the bad guy, is he?
The fact is that there is no ‘bad guy’ at all here. There is no transfer bogeyman deviously sabotaging Sunderland’s plans from the shadows. No one is sat on their hands at Black Cats House thinking they’ll just not bother with transfers this year for an easy life.
I’m not saying we should be giving the club a free ride by any stretch of the imagination. Any football club, any healthy one at least, must be accountable to their supporters. I’m just saying that perhaps they get cut a little slack, especially this time around.
The new Premier League TV deal, far from making the transfer market easier by swelling clubs’ spending power, has actually made for a tougher market than ever before. Prices have skyrocketed, with players and agents holding more power than ever before as their potential value to clubs is realised. Foreign clubs have attached a Premier League premium to every deal as they clamour to get their share of the pot.
It’s tough for everyone, everyone, and that’s before you factor in the three weeks Sunderland lost to the FA while England casually sauntered in at their own leisurely pace and poached their manager, not to mention the unplanned and immediate tearing up of months’ worth of summer planning that came with it.
It’s not as if transferring footballers has ever been a simple process, either. Three parties have to find an agreement on a multi-million-pound contract. It’s never been easy, as evidenced by the examples of other clubs struggling to conduct swift business I mentioned earlier.
The frustration is completely understandable. In fact, for a club built so proudly upon passion as Sunderland, I’d be incredibly worried if there wasn’t any.
However, it’s becoming increasingly tough to watch that frustration descend into anger, division, accusations and conspiracy.
Everybody knows that Sunderland need to make signings. You won’t find a single fan argue against that and you can bet your bottom dollar that the club know it too. Actually, they probably know it better than anybody.
But, you know what? Signings will come. They always do. And, if they don’t by the end of the transfer window, that’s the time for anger.
For now, I’m choosing to go back to the optimism and hope. I’m lucky enough to support a bloody brilliant football club, who have just appointed a very fine manager indeed, and play, in my hometown, in the richest and most-watched football league on the planet.
Signings will come, the frustration will pass, we’ll win some games, we’ll have a drink and we’ll have a laugh. This is Sunderland AFC, and every little thing is going to be alright.