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The conflicting emotions of a Sunderland-supporting SoL-dweller; can we improve the atmosphere?

The emotional spin cycle of being a Sunderland supporter can leave us empty. What do we feel and how can we change it?

Soccer - FA Cup - Third Round - Sunderland v Leeds United - Stadium of Light

Legendary actor and raconteur extraordinaire Peter Ustinov was once asked what he thought hell would look like. His answer was barbed with classic sardonic sarcasm.

I imagine hell like this: Italian punctuality, German humour and English wine.

As an appendage to this ironic description you could add, “… while sitting in hope at the Stadium of Light…”

On the coat tails of our very own Tom Atkinson and his ode to returning mackem exiles and what they might expect from the current melodramas at the Stadium of Light, I too speak partly of a transatlantic Barnsley experience.

Over the Christmas holidays some dear American friends flew over and stayed with us, joining our family for the traditional festivities. Dan and Rachel are confirmed Anglophiles and lived in Durham before they returned to the US a couple of years ago.

You may not expect this if understandable American stereotypes unduly dominate your expectations of what American’s look, act or sound like, but Dan is a proper football man and no, I’m not talking about the NFL. He played for Penn State on a full football scholarship before playing for Durham University, after which he played professional football in the emerging ‘soccer league’ in Australia. From a business perspective he’s also involved and interested in attempts to bring a ‘soccer franchise’ to his home state. Sure, he’s shot few moose in his time, buys diapers instead of nappies and steals spoons from his hosts... anyway I digress... but I promise you the man does know his football.

Sunderland v Birmingham City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

I decided it might be a good way to round off the holidays if we all went to the Stadium of Light on New Year’s day to watch us play Barnsley after somewhat of a mini (very mini) revival by Coleman’s men.

By 5 o’clock that day my friends must have thought I’d decided to punish them for a wrongly presumed allegiance to a bleach-blonde, twitter addicted KFC junkie, who may kill us all by accidentally dropping his litre of Mountain Dew on the big red button entitled ‘Launch Nuclear.’ Perhaps they were thinking the match was pay back for being younger and better looking than me - a feat easily accomplished by nearly everybody these days. Surely they didn’t believe I’d taken them there to enjoy themselves?

When I asked Dan about his experience after the game, he was gracious, almost apologetic of our fate. The last time he watched Sunderland was a few years ago and it was in the Premier League. The stadium was full and the atmosphere excitable. He was shocked by the new found bitterness, the quivering apathy and the fact that half our crowd are no longer with us. I often worry if they are ever likely to return.

Sunderland v Birmingham City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

I sometimes liken our faithful worship at a place rarely deserving of it, to the well-known apologue of the frog in boiling water. For those unfamiliar with this well used verse, the boiling frog is a parable where the premise is that if a frog is put suddenly into boiling water, it will jump out immediately for it knows it will die in such burning fury, but if the frog is put in cold water which is then brought to a boil slowly, it will not perceive the danger and will allow itself to be gradually cooked to death. It sometimes feels that the crowd who are no longer with us were the alert frogs who jumped out of the stadium when their feet got hot. The rest of us seem like we’re slowly and almost unwittingly being boiled to our footballing deaths.

I’ve so many conflicted emotions about our current state. And to some degree it’s the emotional entanglement that makes our experience as Sunderland supporters so difficult. Yes it has its pay offs too, but for the emotional and financial investment we all make week on week, year on year - those pay offs are few and far between, and I’ve been going since 1985.

Sunderland First Team Take Part in the Fans Festival Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Long term, away from the pitch I feel a renaissance is possible but as each week goes by it appears ever further in the distance. On the pitch we’re almost impossible to watch if you’re any kind of purist or even wish for a mild slice of energetic entertainment.

I don’t blame Coleman for that, that’s impossible - he’s definitely improved things without question and to some degree (and only some) I don’t blame the majority of players. As a club we’ve sold our dignity and had to gyrate and wiggle our asses in the infamous footballing nightclub ‘The Barrel’s Bottom’ just to seduce the rag tag mix of limited talents we have. They were never going to be very good, and yet we berate them for not being good. It’s like buying a three-legged race horse and then abusing it because it takes an age to get round the track.

Sunderland Training Session Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

When it comes to the varied mix of emotions we feel as supporters, I’ve compiled a short list of my own usual weekly emotions that spin, stretch, retract and then spin again all within the space of 90 minutes.

  1. Sympathy: I feel a great deal of sympathy for our young players, like Maja, Asoro, Gooch and particularly Honeyman, whose limitations are used as a stick to beat the career out of him. On Monday, despite some mistakes and perhaps a talent limitation, he never hid. Not once. He always wanted the ball, despite knowing there are some waiting for a chance to groan at his first missed pass. I admire his energy, willingness and determination. Those are straits we need - desperately. I feel sorrow for the supporters who are almost guaranteed an irritable and depressing afternoon. I feel sympathy for the institution of the club which feels like its imploding.
  2. Anger: I feel anger at players who I don’t believe put in a proper shift. They attempt to defraud us by giving the appearance of work without a great deal of genuine effort. I feel anger with the board and owner, not just because of how their mismanagement has us dangling by yet another thread, but because the power of renaissance is also in their hands and yet they actively avoid it. At the moment we are merely existing as an entity and that is simply unacceptable. If no money is made available this month then bringing in Coleman is nothing more than a token gesture to buy off the fans and an insult to the man himself who is capable of so much more.
  3. Frustration: I’m frustrated at Coleman’s position. It appears that Short and Bain feel all the hard work was done by bringing Coleman in, when in reality that was the simplest part of what needs to be done to ensure relegation is avoided and to build the foundation of what can be the source of an identifiable re-emergence. Frustration that even in another league, we offer little. If the Championship powerbrokers were in China with a highlights reel looking for a contract, I doubt we’d be a prominent feature.
  4. Trepidation: for Coleman’s ability to do the job as he wishes. Yes he’s a big name, yes he’s really added something positive to the mix and yes I genuinely believe he has all the attributes to make it work. Somewhere and at some time Coleman will have a top class club career and I hope it’s at Sunderland. But will he be left high and dry by a lack of support? And if so, where does that leave us? Relegation? And then what? Will Ellis get his asking price then? No chance. So does he keep us on the metaphorical ventilation machine or pull the plug?
  5. Bitterness: Bitterness that them up the road, rightly or wrongly have someone willing to pay £300 million for the club, when we’re struggling to shift ours for less than a quarter of that figure. Bitterness that my young daughter has lost interest and for the first time last week my little lad asked to leave before the final whistle because he was bored. Bitterness that the day may come, that other more engaging and enjoyable activities will replace the Stadium of Light and that will be that. Bitterness the club has been left to languish and bitterness that we have to cough up hard earned cash because we love it and pay it to people amazingly better off than us and yet aren’t grateful for it at all.

When those negative emotions are all evident on Saturday afternoons, all swimming around our minds like tigers waiting to pounce it’s no wonder we collectively fall apart a few minutes in as soon as our opposition do these mad things called ball retention and shooting.

Sadly for Sunderland fans we cannot control the world around us. We can’t sign players or sell clubs. We can’t chair board meetings or finalise contracts. We can’t do any of those things, yet we can still help Coleman more than Bain or Short currently can unless they have personality reversal surgery. Quite literally the only thing we can control is our reaction and emotional output when we put our tense bums on those red seats on Saturday afternoons. Don’t be like me. Don’t let the world around you dictate how you feel or what emotions you display. My negativity permeates pitch side. It weighs me down. That multiplied by 25,000 must be a weight too difficult to bear for some of our brittle players.

‘A strong human spirt with control over emotions and passions is not a slave to them. Freedom from self-slavery is true liberation.’

Russel M Nelson.

I’m praying for a strong Coleman inspired January that will liberate us from those suffocating emotions that make the Stadium of Light a toxic environment.

Everyone feels it, except those that stay away - and that’s not the answer either. But together? We can’t change the team but we can change how they make us feel. And feeling good about football is surely the point.

We can make this happen but only if we do it together.

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