“I have been bent and broken, but - I hope - into a better shape.”
― Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
When Charlies Dickens was at his writing pomp, he could never have known that some of his most famous works would be so relevant to one particular group of football supporters over a century and half later. Perhaps his most famous written quote could be directly attributed to us, the long suffering red and whites of Sunderland AFC:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness….it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness.
Perhaps he wrote his biggest seller, ‘Great Expectations,’ just for us.
After years of playing footsie with the Premier League, flirting with the big boys and often allowing them fulfill their pleasures without so much as swapping numbers, it’s easy to understand why our expectations as a football club can be as inconsistent as our performances.
It’s not easy for us fans. We’re not helped by the usual platitudes and tantalising promises from owners, managers and players that provide a twinkle of ambition that against our better judgement entwines us in belief. We don’t and in many cases can’t help ourselves and are buoyed by our own inner hopes and natural optimism. Our practical benefits like a beautiful stadium and exceptional home and away support give us reason to be hopeful that we could, potentially be full and equally respected life partners to the Premier League big boys rather than just easy weekend rollovers, whose names they can barely remember.
But whether it be terrible ownership, poor management, mercenary players, a drink culture, our geographical location or a host of other issues, we have never truly eaten at the top table. We’ve managed to get a couple of last minute bookings and feasted when we got there, but invariably it never lasted and we returned to a diet of super noodles and Aldi hotdogs washed down with Tesco’s branded cola.
Ten years ago this year Roy Keane hit the headlines with this observation:
If a player doesn't want to come to Sunderland then all well and good. But if he decides he doesn't want to come because his wife wants to go shopping in London, then it's a sad state of affairs…it's a lifestyle move….It tells me the player is weak.
This idea…concerns me and worries me, but the players we're talking about are soft. Priorities have changed in footballers.
It's different with Chelsea, Arsenal or maybe even Tottenham but if players are starting to go to clubs just because they're in or nearer London and they're not even that big a club, it's clearly down to the shops. To me it's wrong to sign for a club with half the crowds than Sunderland.
This situation has hardly improved in the last ten years, has it?
I recently visited two football mad cities - Naples and Rome. All the Italians we met wanted to talk football as soon as they heard our accents. But no-one had heard of Sunderland and it’s too galling to describe yourself as being close to Newcastle, so I ashamedly had to describe us as being close to Scotland instead. Despite them looking bemused when I said we support Sunderland, several had heard of the amazing bravery of one little boy called Bradley. It was joyful to hear his legacy had stretched way beyond our nation’s borders and highlighted how much he and his family reignited a genuine sense of non-partisan unity through a myriad of differing peoples and communities. If anyone has taught us about realigning our expectations and priorities it is that wonderful family. As we often sing - ‘one of our own.’
So we find ourselves back in familiar territory. Back in the Championship with Bristol City, Preston and Burton Albion. We’re mixing it with our peers at Barnsley, Bolton and Millwall. Proper clubs. Not marketing brand names propped up by Rolex and Bentley. Not teams of superstars who stare at the ground and ignore the fans by walking past them while listening to oversized headphones.
Adrian Durham - from the parish of TalkSPORT - like him or loath him, always hammers Arsenal for playing in the Champions League and not even bothering to be successful in it, and it has a familiar theme to it:
Let me explain what I mean when I say Arsenal ‘don’t bother’ trying to win it.
For six successive seasons now the Gunners have failed to make the quarter-finals which is a disgrace for a club of their wealth, size and fanbase.
In those years, Galatasaray, Malaga, Apoel, Marseille, Benfica and Schalke have all made it to the last eight. Even Tottenham have reached the quarters since Arsenal last managed it.
As a comparison (at the southern end of the table) I’ve felt the same about us in the last five years.
I reached the point of hating being in the Premier League to some extent. We did nothing to improve it, we never tried to better ourselves, or significantly improve our league position and we paid for it with relegation. We played at being in the Premier League but did not do enough to be in the Premier League. Clubs with half our crowd, history and potential were killing me by consistently finishing above us. Swansea, Bournemouth, Palace, Burnley, Watford - are all good clubs - but not our club.
But I’m not certain our strength as a club, a fanbase or a region comes from fraternising with glamour or flirting with dazzle. It comes from integrity and hard work, born from the hardy and humorous souls who walk our streets on a daily basis. Who empty our bins and teach our kids.
Yes we have had to realign our expectations, but it’s for long term gain. Who felt better against Derby? I did. My little girl saw chance after chance, a good competitive game and was surrounded by more cheerful fans who were happy to be there. By sheer dumb luck Ellis Short’s lack of support may take this fallen Premier League club back to its roots. The community, to whom after all, the club really belongs and that will be a good thing for all.