A few years ago I lived in Kent and sometimes used to drive into central London for work. There was a petrol station on the route, somewhere in east London, which had a concrete wall running along its side which you had to drive past to get out.
On the wall was scrawled “Sunderland AFC. We will be back…”
I’ve been thinking about this recently because we are well and truly back – back in the McMenemy era, back in the time of Butcher and Buxton. But worse – rock bottom of the Championship, apparently penniless with a weak squad ravaged by injury, no backbone in the team, a Chairman with a plan to take us to 7th in the Premier League which involves him spending no money and selling the few remaining assets at our disposal, and fans flocking away from the Stadium of Light, perhaps never to return.
It’s this last point I want to focus on. There’s been a fair few blog pieces recently, some hosted by our mates here at Roker Report, which have been nothing short of apocalyptic. Fans are deserting us. A whole generation will be lost to the club. The only people left are attending out of habit, zombies trapped in an eternal relegation battle hell, shuffling into the North Stand until their few remaining signs of life are extinguished forever.
Look, it’s bad, it’s terrible, but we have been here before, we got through it, we came back. I remember attending a game in the mid 90s. I’d come up from London, all excited for the match and I remember getting off the train at Sunderland to find... nothing.
I seemed to be the only person in a strip. No-one seemed to be going to the match. The pubs were quiet. A few shoppers were going about their Saturday messages. I seriously thought I’d made a mistake and the game was on the Sunday. But no, as I walked over the bridge there were a few hardy souls heading to Roker, but the experience was dispiriting.
This was at a time when the Mags were seriously good and openly talking about becoming THE football club of the North East, leaving Sunderland as a town club like Hartlepool or Darlington. Our ground was crumbling, our squad was rubbish, we’d had one top flight season in the past decade, we hadn’t finished in the top half of the top flight since the 1950s. The newspapers talked about the “missing 20,000” – the fans who used to come in the 70s but had given up.
It was perhaps five years later that we beat Manchester City 3-1 in the opening game of the Stadium of Light in front of 38,000; later that season the Sheffield United play-off game witnessed an atmosphere that recalled Roker in its heyday; a couple of years on we were thrashing Chelsea.
We’re in for hard times and it could all easily get worse – I wouldn’t bet against another relegation – but this club, our club, will not lie down and die because of managerial incompetence. The passion for the club is a part of our identity, it’s what makes us tick, and it can’t be switched off.
It might be subdued or temporarily hidden but it will be back. And when it returns the pride and passion in our club will be as great as it has ever been.
Chris Coleman could be the man to bring that passion back.
The way he communicates is exceptional. He’s sussed out the cancer which has eaten the heart out of the club, with his talk of kittens not up for a dogfight.
I hope the likes of Jack Rodwell and Lamine Kone feel proud of themselves for taking their wages for minimal contribution, and I was happy to see the back of Kitten-in-Chief Lewis Grabban - what a disgrace to bail out because he hasn’t got the testicular fortitude required for a relegation fight.
There’ll be a few managers watching that and realising that he might be good for a few tap ins, but when it’s backs to the wall Grabban will be under the bed with a ball of string and a pretend mouse.