There’s no shying away from it; Saturday was the lowest point in recent memory on Wearside, despite the last half a decade going from one colossal disaster to the next. Maybe we’ve become arrogant after ten seasons in the Premier League but I don’t think many of us expected to be leaving Oakwell with our tails between our legs, battered, bruised and once again embarrassed by the men representing us on the pitch. We all knew it was going to be tough, but the attitude shown by the team wasn’t good enough and it’s simply not acceptable.
Saturday’s dismal display took me back to a childhood memory I remember all too well. Those of us old enough to remember the Stadium of Light’s opening season will recall the first few months of the campaign were certainly not pretty. Home defeats to Norwich and Middlesbrough had left us disgruntled, with those frustrations coming to the fore during a 4-0 defeat to Reading at Elm Park. The players were being questioned as Peter Reid’s struggling side sat in mid table. Only 24,782 fans turned up to our next fixture, at home to Huddersfield Town, with many fans showing their displeasure at the manner of defeat by simply not showing up. Some even called for the head of manager Peter Reid. It was a darker time than many remember - the dawn of the new era looking just like same old Sunderland, but in new clothing.
Still recovering from an afternoon of torture handed out by Reading’s Carl Asaba, Peter Reid decided he could no longer put his faith in his old guard and brought youth and hunger into the squad, throwing the likes of a young Jody Craddock into the starting eleven - perhaps sensing a freshening up was needed in an attempt to turn around our fortunes. The experience of Kevin Ball and Niall Quinn was complemented wonderfully by the desire of the new batch of youngsters as they fought for every ball in an attempt to show they were the future of the club. Most importantly he built a team of men that understood not only what it took to be a professional footballer, but also what it takes to succeed at Sunderland.
What came from those changes was a season that, despite a heart-breaking ending, I still hold dear - I’m sure many of you do too. From the desperate performances in the season’s early months, and fear of the SOL becoming a white elephant, came one of the best Sunderland sides of the past fifty years, and it was an era that just got better and better.
During my interview with Kevin Ball this month, he commented on the bond and that team ethic that it created. He mentioned how the young pros would keep the more experienced players on their toes, whilst the more battle-hardened players amongst the squad would pass on their knowledge and know-how. A will to win was prevalent throughout and married it together perfectly. No player’s place was guaranteed and as a fan it was not just refreshing to watch, but exciting. A workman-like team that had every right to wear the red and white jersey (or the weird looking gold one if you prefer) took us to the brink of the Premiership, losing out only in that memorable, yet exhausting, play-off final. It was a period of time that I go back to often when I try to remind myself why I love this club so much.
Fast forward twenty years and we all find going to the Stadium of Light a little bit of a chore in all honestly, don’t we? Sometimes it feels we’re there out of principle, not enjoyment.
As I watched the spineless bottle-jobs succumb to another stuffing at the weekend, I can’t help but feel that perhaps it’s time to be done with the players that show disdain for wearing our jersey, those who don’t break a sweat over ninety minutes and evoke the spirit shown in 97-98, by replacing them with the younger, hungrier players. We’ve lost patience with the attitudes of certain players, lack of ability and complete absence of heart that it takes to succeed at a club like ours. We cannot afford to accept it anymore.
One of our most successful managers of all time understood this. Peter Reid understood that, in the aftermath of a drubbing away to an average second tier side, going on to change the personnel on the pitch and injecting the right qualities and personalities into a struggling, debilitated squad, resulted in relative success. A period so successful in fact, that we remember it almost as fondly as any silverware we’ve ever won. Simon Grayson has to get it right in the final throes of transfer deadline day no matter how small his budget may be - or he risks experiencing Groundhog Day every weekend.
The impostors that mimic playing staff need to be moved out in these last days of the transfer window, and must be replaced by something that embodies the spirit of this once-great football club. If Simon Grayson is honest and his phone really is ringing off the hook with players desperate to join him at Sunderland, let’s hope he’s not just paying lip service when he says he understands what this fan base and area requires. Our future could depend on it.