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Black Cats Analects: Black Cats get ten lives

Fifteenth, sixteenth, thirteenth, tenth, thirteenth, seventeenth, fourteenth, sixteenth, seventeenth. Well, we may never truly appreciate the total hell Arsenal fans suffer, but nine years of minor ascension and plummeting descent is an experience other club’s fans might not quite have the stomach for. 

Sunderland v Chelsea - Premier League Photo by Paul Thomas/Getty Images

And, sadly, some of ours don’t either. See, here we are in March 2017, and another week goes by where yet another supporter has decided to call time on some semblance of their support for Sunderland AFC, either through a week of staying home, or refusing to renew their season card. Y’know – the usual.

However, this time the feeling is ... different, bleaker. Prior years of vexed disappointment have given way to this current season of (for lack of a better word) depression. Our near-decade of often-ridiculous escapology acts have seemingly burnt out and now, this year, we are seeing the ashes through prolonged, lacklustrious failures tantamount to watching a nine-month slow death.

Now, this isn’t an attack on our players. We’ve done that, we know who works hard, et cetera. Nor is this to berate David Moyes’ all-loathing sulking realism. Problems on Wearside began long before that positivity-sapping, aging Oor Wullie turned up.

Instead, this is to address a very real struggle our club has to contend with now. See, that sixty-something-year old supporter who decides this season will be his last is just another entry in the long list of folk who do that. The older generation of fans – as loyal as they are – have been doing this as far back at the Bank of England Club days. Just read the comments on our Facebook posts.

We can’t question the decision of a fan who has endured the highs and lows of our club for as long as those supporters. But something should be asked of what this means for the younger fan; those who haven’t yet been brought in long enough to comprehend that territorial attachment to the club, its association with the people of the region, and passion for the game.

After all, right now Sunderland AFC is a supposed club of the people that will soon have to make difficult decisions that financially affect those very people. You know what this means, and it’s a damn shame as livelihoods are dictated by the failures of men who earn so much more without succumbing to any consequence as severe themselves. It’s the nature of the beast, sure, but it’s a hell of a raw deal too.

It would go some way to explain why our club has taken such deliberate steps to distract the eye of the supporter to a more appeasing direction; one that flirts with our nostalgia (the purposefully marketed £18.79 shirts), reaches out to us through our communal values (the “Wearside by side” video), and hits us with the common denominator that matters most to us (child ticket cost reduction).

Yeah, we all know why they’re really doing this, but we can’t criticise it. Not this time, anyway; the whole process has an air of genuine understanding about it, as if our club (likely through Martin Bain) finally ‘gets it’ when it comes to the want of the supporter.

No, Sunderland AFC is not trying to dupe us with faux recognition of our loyalty. If that were the case, then such decisions would be the financial equivalent of s**ting the bed. Better be ourselves to look at this for what it is: our club (finally) taking responsibility to pre-empt the fallout of its failures by accentuating the existing positive bonds between club and supporter. And, in doing so, Sunderland deserves a lot credit for its sincerity and, at times, class.

Some of this has come from simple transparency, and while that is hardly the absolute priority for us, such frankness from the club has nonetheless shattered its share of blockades that would otherwise rouse bad feelings. After years of being kept in the dark on why poor decisions have repeatedly occurred at Sunderland, even being informed of no longer pursuing Davide Santon was (sort of) welcomed.

Then there’s the club’s involvement with Bradley Lowery. Centuries of evolved literacy doesn’t muster the words to justify how proud we should all be of what our club – our great, f**king club – has, and is, and will continue to do for that boy. This year has seen Sunderland show itself to be overwhelmingly willing to do the right thing, not because the club had to, but because the club wanted to. And by association, so many of us also helped in any way that we could because we wanted to.

And if you are one of the thousands who have provided support for Bradley, there is every likelihood that you did it not just because it was the right thing to do, but because you were inspired to do it by the involvement of Sunderland AFC. That’s your club. That’s our club. That is us and that is him. This is who we are, and our club ‘gets that’ too.

If Sunderland AFC is responsible in any way for turning supporters away, then its help for that one boy did everything to reunite those people with the club again – if only through good deeds, and maybe only for those short instances.

The only shame of this is the knowledge that there are still those fans that, for several years now, have invariably become disillusioned with the failingly desperate state our club has fallen into. At least we can say now, even if it is probably too late, that the club may have caused it, but the club is trying to fix it.

Which brings us to the inevitable end of our club’s damning freefall: relegation itself. The titular reference of this piece may refer to Sunderland’s uncanny nine-year knack of surviving the Premier League, but any “tenth life” the Black Cats have is in no way meant to suggest our current crop of players can pull off the seemingly impossible feat one more time.

In truth, if we were to call it here, we already all know that our time is up. Much like Aston Villa, Fulham, and Wigan Athletic, at some time or another, it’s your club’s time to take the hit. And whether you agree with the methods or means Ellis Short has taken to ensure our near-decade stay in the Premier League, credit is owed to the Chairman who has overseen such a lengthy stay in the top flight despite so many multitudes of cluster-f**kery.

So no, this metaphoric “tenth life” of the Black Cats has little to do with remaining in the Premier League – not this time. Instead, this is about an opportunity for the club to undo the wrongs of the last nine years; on a new stage, with a new challenge.

For at least five years now, the evidence has well and truly mounted that inconvenient truth: Sunderland AFC cannot rebuild to compete in the Premier League whilst simultaneously struggling to compete in the Premier League. Maybe we should make that challenge look as easy as other clubs have, but the reality is we can’t; not with Sporting Directors, not with excess funding, not with minor funding, not with innovative young head coaches, and not with experienced veteran managers.

Stick a fork in us, we’re done.

But, y’know what, it doesn’t matter. Not really. I once heard a guy say how ‘every new beginning is the end of some other new beginning, and the only way to have a new start is to the scorch the earth’, and for Sunderland that scorching is one league below, against twenty-three other clubs. For too long have we tried these new starts, shake-ups, revolutions – you get the idea. New beginnings such as these don’t work if you’re still left with the debris of the last new beginning, and that truly is the way our club has been operating since at least 2011.

It’s more than that, though. It is important not to see the Championship as some prison of former Premier League clubs. Yes, Aston Villa will still be there next season, just like Fulham, just like Blackburn Rovers, and every other club that could or should have elevated right back out. Instead, our club’s circumstances upon dropping a division should be seen for the opportunities they raise.

We’re talking about rebuilding consistency here, and not in that immediate ‘youth system’ approach you just thought of. Young players can do well in the EPL, yes, but that’s nothing without the right mentality – something Sunderland has lacked for a very, very long time. That frail thinking of desperately-sought equalisers and all-too-frequent under-par performances has got to go, and go for good. We’re talking about our team’s hand been forced: put us in a league where wins are more likely, get those wins, and let winning mentalities breed winning mentalities.

Because actually winning matches is the whole point of why people watch football! And that is exactly the one transparent point our club is not making. Yeah, lowering ticket costs can go some way to deterring kids from going to another certain north-east-based stadium before their allegiance is forged. And yeah, what supporter isn’t going to think twice about buying a shirt when the price just plummeted to all hell?

But the one thing that Ellis Short and Martin Bain and whoever else can not influence is the most important thing of all, and that is the result on the pitch. You can’t market a 0-3 home loss, you can’t refund every ticket every time we lose a match, and you can’t fix the match in your favour. You certainly can’t throw out statements about how utterly pathetic some players’ attitudes are, though don’t be surprised if Bain hasn’t considered it just to get supporters on his side.

What our club can do, however, is prepare for the worst case scenario, and parachute that freefall. And that brings us back to the original question: what does our club’s current state mean for the loyalty of the young fan?

Look at it this way: when results go sour, people go sour, and for a supporter of a certain age – say, a child – that constant weekly feeling of despair is not being balanced by the nostalgic essence of better days or decades-long loyalty to the club. A seven-year old supporter doesn’t have to keep coming to the Stadium of Light just to watch a team of players fail him or her repeatedly when Sports Direct is selling Chelsea strips down Dalton Park and their team wins every day. Is this a good time to talk about all those kids who became Manchester United supporters just ‘cause they beat Bayern Munich that one time? Think about it.

How many fans of the younger generation thought “this is the club for me” when they watched Darren Bent miss ten penalties but saw Bolo Zenden both score and warp reality in one movement against Tottenham Hotspur?

How many fans of the younger generation thought “I don’t need this” when a crap Aston Villa side tore us apart in forty-five minutes?

Watching your team win matches makes you feel good, and when you feel good about something, you want more of it. No clever marketing or monetary trick can match that momentum. Winning generates the enthusiasm to repeat and, ultimately, will be responsible for reuniting Sunderland with those fans who have become jaded after so many years of staleness and failure.

Martin Bain recently said, “... it is key for us to demonstrate that supporting Sunderland is accessible to young fans ... we hope [this] will encourage a whole new generation of supporters to develop a greater bond with Sunderland ...”

With that claim comes some evidence that our club knows where the real struggle this season has been. Relegations happen, and sometimes we just have to accept that it’s our time. But keeping the support of the fan is more important than keeping the club in any particular division. And while it’s highly unlikely that relegation was foreseen at the start of this season, it is nonetheless a positive sign that our club has taken matters of retention (especially of young fans) so seriously.

By lowering the ticket price for children, Sunderland has subsided the unwanted anticipation of relegation with an opportunity for more supporters of a new generation to come to matches, and see what their local team has to offer them in both entertainment, and in how just one victory can make them feel about the team they’ve come to see. All it’ll take now is more of those victories to turn mild interest into eternal loyalty.

And maybe, in a league where wins are more likely, it would be just the ‘tenth life’ we need.

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