I don’t know if it’s because I’m a pessimist, perfectionist or just beginning an early mid-life crisis, but there are certain aspects of past glories that get under my skin. During the Leeds game recently my frustrated friend turned to me mid-match and repeated the oft said phrase:
We’re bigger than this man.
We finished 7th in the premier league not long back and now look at us!
I turned to him annoyed and replied:
Mate that was nearly 20 years ago and even then it was only 7th! We didn’t win anything and we were relegated soon after. Can we please stop cracking on about that?
Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing embarrassing about finishing 7th in the Premier League. But holding onto a good league position from nearly two decades ago tells me nothing good has happened since - or certainly nothing much - and that is embarrassing.
I know it’s me. I even get quite irritated by the ironic ditty sang regularly at our place - you know the one. Where ‘Sunderland AFC are by far the greatest team the world has ever seen?’ I mean, yes I get the irony… but still.
Don’t misunderstand me. I absolutely loved that period of time - I loved being part of a mini-Reidy revolution and to this day my kids get bored of me telling them how good Kevin Phillips was. Roker Report’s recent interview with Kevin Ball – which was top drawer work by Graham and the team, also served as a sweet reminder of a time of genuine excitement. I just wish, from a personal point of view, we’d had something else to celebrate since then. It was well before any of my children were born, when touch screen meant cleaning the telly, and if someone had mentioned ‘iPad’ you’d have confusedly thought - personalised sanitary towel?
But the mention of those heady days of Quinn and Phillips being the archetypal ‘unplayable’ partnership has caused me to pleasantly reflect, despite my personal grumpiness about could have, would have and should have. It reminded me of being a younger man recently moved to South Africa for work, with a cassette (remember them?) of ‘Cheer up Peter Reid,’ trying to explain to befuddled Africans what it was all about.
It also reminded me of just how much of a mess Reid found the club in when he arrived and the inevitable comparisons between him and Simon Grayson have jumped through my mind as quickly horses on Grand National day leaping the fences. Reflecting on his time at Sunderland, Peter Reid himself commented:
When I got there, the football club was fourth-bottom of the First Division (the championship), and utterly rudderless.
Sound familiar? Grayson surely finds himself in a very similar position. Perhaps worse, after the darkness of the Moyes reign which offered nothing - in terms of hope, on field play, optimism, tactical proficiency or pleasure. It was a year-long footballing black hole that sucked almost everything decent from the Sunderland solar system. And it wasn’t great before that!
When Peter Reid took over from the sombre, monotonous Mick Buxton, who anonymous sources believe once smiled in 1978, it was much the same. Buxton’s defensive strategy seemed to be his entire strategy and the football he left behind was uninspiring.
Reid came in and lifted the place straight away. Three wins and three draws from the 7 matches he had until the end of the season kept us up. And despite some successes, there were also failures with Peter Reid, yet Sunderland fans remember him fondly. Indeed on at least two other occasions in the last 10 years (2008, 2012) he was heavily linked with a return to the Stadium of Light and many of my friends were keen. We are fond of him and the feeling is mutual.
We stayed up that season, and one of the reasons we stayed up was because of the support at Sunderland. It was brilliant.
I’ve played there back in the days when it held 50,000, and I loved it. The fans helped keep us in that division when I got there… the biggest thing for me is the fans.
Reid believed he had a connection with the club due to his and the city’s roots.
Where I grew up in Huyton – Harold Wilson's old constituency – wasn't known as the poshest part of Liverpool. The rougher end of town, if you know what I mean, and I was the council house kid... classic. I think my back ground is down to earth from blunt talking people….The people of Sunderland relate to that.
Just yesterday Grayson is quoted, espousing very similar platitudes:
These supporters pay our wages, so why not engage? I am a down-to-earth bloke who loves his job and feels in a privileged position that I am getting paid for something that many people would love to do. People care so much about their club and their city that failure hurts them.
Grayson continued to hit the right social notes that Sunderland fans understandably like to hear. It resonates with us and we positively acknowledge it.
This is a working-class city that appreciates hard work. There is nothing worse than a working-class bloke going to watch bad football, because it spoils his weekend.
Reid is a working class kid from Liverpool who earned his footballing stripes in the industrial furnace of Bolton, while Grayson, from working class Yorkshire stock began his career in another place of northern grit - Leeds.
If anyone has seen Premier Passions, a documentary that followed Sunderland during Reid’s reign for one unsuccessful Premier League campaign, you will know that his team talks were brutally harsh and definably rudimentary. Everything, anyone can learn about the art of swearing can be identified from this documentary. While Grayson’s management style will have undoubtedly changed with the times, he admits:
I’m plain speaking, down to earth and approachable.
So far, like Reid did when he arrived, Grayson has changed the mentality of the team and the fans. We’ve won, we’ve drawn and we’ve played some good football. Which automatically improves our state of mind. We’ve also lost, but not unlike Reid’s failures, including relegation and play off disaster, it doesn’t seem the end of the world. When Mr. Reid was at the helm, it seemed this council estate kid was fighting against the odds to kick and scratch his way onto the top table and we fought with him. Which meant despite failure, he persevered and so did we.
Grayson understands this - he understands us. We in turn should show him the same patience and grant him the same leverage as we did Peter Reid. They’re from the same stock as us and know what motivates the fans from towns and cities with industrial heritages.
As Reid looks back on his seven years at the club he does so with great happiness:
….when I left we were in the Premier League with a new stadium, a top-notch training facility at the Academy of Light, and it was all paid for. I rest my case.
Along with Bob Murray, we built a legacy which (I hope) will last for as long as Roker Park did.
I’m pretty proud of that, to be fair… I love the place.
I hope that when Simon Grayson leaves the club he does so with a similar sentiment, with comparable levels of support and success. That will mean we’ve done something we can all be genuinely proud of. We deserve that and after his hard graft at hardy, gritty places like Huddersfield, Leeds and Preston, perhaps he does too.