New Stadium, New Hope - remember the feeling?
The other night I was up late after work, and I noticed that there was an MLS game on the tele. Any football is good football to me, so I popped it on and gave it a watch. Atlanta United hosted LA Galaxy and absolutely demolished them 4-0.
Atlanta are in their inaugural MLS season where they have already set attendance records, virtually qualified for the playoffs, and play a fantastic brand of football that really catches the eye. Of course some may argue that this is only the MLS; however, Atlanta’s head coach is Gerardo Martino - the former Barcelona manager - who has his side playing extremely impressive football that resembles the Barcelona style of play.
As I was watching the game I had seen that Atlanta had moved into their brand new Mercedes-Benz Stadium - a magnificent arena which holds upwards of 70,000 people. Moreover the stadium was full, the people were passionate and never stopped singing. It reminded me of Sunderland when they moved into the Stadium of Light 20 years ago - a club that was on the upward trend with seemingly few obstacles to stop them from achieving their goals.
Falling In Love
The Sunderland of the late 90’s had the region excited and daring to dream that they could make their mark on the Premier League like nearby neighbours Newcastle had under Kevin Keegan. Sunderland had a brand new, world class stadium with a fanbase that could not get enough of them, and we had players that people could look up to as heroes - something that has eluded us in the years since the likes of Quinn and Phillips left.
I remember as a child being in awe of our Stadium and the fans; the noise and the atmosphere were deafening. Dance of the Knights would give me chills down my spine and my heroes would run onto the pitch with Ready to Go blasting. My dad remarked to me and my older brother after we defeated Arsenal at home on the opening day of the 2000-01 season that there was ‘no reason this club should ever be relegated again.’
My dad was right - on paper we had a good team with a superstar player in Kevin Phillips. We had a world class training facility in the Academy of Light being built to help usher in the next generation of players. We had a stadium, extended to 48,000 because of the demand for tickets - with Bob Murray willing to expand the magnificent Stadium of Light to 55,555 within the next few years.
We all know what happened after 2001, however, as the club somehow managed to go from European challengers to a record low point relegation in 2003 - and again in 2006. Sunderland’s one chance to become a true force in English football left as quickly as it had arrived - the joyous early Stadium of Light days had ended and an era of empty seats and disillusionment followed.
The Big Depression
Sunderland AFC is now the joke of English football. Everyone looks at the club as having a half-empty stadium with pink seats and fans who more often than not leave before the shrill blast of the final whistle. Every club in the country has won more games than Sunderland this year, and since we gained promotion to the Premier League under Roy Keane we have only won 95 league games - less than 10 a season.
In the last five seasons, and the beginning of this season, we have won 23 out of a possible 100 home games. A paltry return for a crowd that, in that time, has been in excess of 40,000 spectators every week.
The life and soul of this once proud club has been drained. Even I, a loyal fan who views the Stadium of Light as my church, have considered not going to games this season. Make no bones about it; we are entering a dark period in Sunderland’s history. The once fortress Stadium of Light is now a graveyard of hope.
Every element of Sunderland AFC is in depression currently. We have not won a home game this calendar year. We have an owner who does not want the club. A CEO in Martin Bain who’s only ability seems to be his talent for cost-cutting. A group of players who show no passion or skill. Even a fanbase who are rightly turning their back on the club in numbers - attendance for the Cardiff game was down to around 25,000 - the lowest for a league game for more than a decade.
When will it end?
In 2006, the club felt like it was on its knees. We had endured a record breaking relegation campaign, a humiliating 4-1 home defeat to Newcastle and the club was struggling financially. Bob Murray had been a fine chairman, but it was time for change. Niall Quinn brought in his consortium and the ensuing years were much improved.
We are at the stage now where we need some cathartic change to our fortunes - we need a Niall Quinn-esque figure to to bring back some belief to the fans and the club. If someone can get this club going in the right direction again, the fans will come back - there’s no doubt about it.
If I look at Atlanta United in comparison to Sunderland, I see stark similarities. But Atlanta is in the boom era we experienced almost 20 years ago and Sunderland AFC is suffering a depression of the kind of magnitude not seen since the Wall Street crash. Something needs to change fast.