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OPINION: Seabirds & odd-shaped balls; How a day at the ‘football’ made me think about Sunderland

They might seem worlds apart, but this past weekend’s NFL game at Wembley saw a battle between two teams experiencing situations remarkably similar to the ones that Sunderland have found themselves in recently.

Seattle Seahawks v Oakland Raiders Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images

Despite League One status seemingly providing a club with immunity, the dreaded international break reared its head this weekend and confidently blasted its unwelcome load all over the menfolk of Wearside.

Whilst that’s melodramatic and possibly a little bit unsavoury, the newly formed UEFA Nations League welcomed itself in and proceeded to trod all over any optimism lingering from England’s summer excursions - with Sunderland’s game at home to Blackpool its very first victim.

With no game, options were slim. Go for a run? Wash the car? Finally finish all the little odd jobs? Get dragged around the Metro Centre or IKEA? Have human contact forced upon you? Whatever post-apocalyptic torture you endured whilst Sunderland had a day off, be assured, it’s over now.

I had the foresight (luck) that the game fell on the same weekend I was at Wembley stadium taking in the Seattle Seahawks and the Oakland Raiders. For those not familiar, the game was part of the ‘International series’ the NFL hosts in the capital annually.

Seattle Seahawks v Oakland Raiders
Football in Wembley.
Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images

The Oakland Raiders, the designated ‘home’ team, are on a horrendous run. They’ve won 1 and lost 5, plus they traded away their superstar, Khalil Mack, for what may as well have been a punnet of apricots. Times aren’t great in Northern California.

In contrast, the Seahawks are rebuilding. After falling from grace with no playoff birth in 2017 for the first time in forever - most of the coaching staff have been replaced, and in have come young, hungry players with a point to prove - either drafted or signed from free agency.

Now, you’re probably thinking I’m four paragraphs in and we are talking about a sport I literally could not care less about, and what does this have to do with Sunderland? That’s if you’re still reading. If you’ve made it this far, thanks.

But back to the other football at Wembley. The Seahawks came out the tunnel to large cheers, the players responding to the crowd and the crowd responding to the players. Chanting and swathes of support followed, as the hawks scored a touchdown on their opening drive. You could feel the fans’ energy forcibly driving Seattle forward.

Out come the Raiders, with silence in the stadium, complemented by pockets of booing and intermittent taunts. The Raiders kept making mistakes, kept giving the ball away, and never looked remotely like scoring a touchdown. The lack of support was telling. In fact the only points they scored, a field goal, was met with large sarcastic cheers as the Seahawks marched on to a 27-3 victory.

Seattle Seahawks v Oakland Raiders Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images

Okay, less talk about football and more talk about football. Sunderland didn’t feature in the game of course, (thankfully, the Wearside Wildcats just doesn’t have the same ring to it), yet so many themes of the last three seasons did.

A hopeless home team, a disillusioned set of fans, a manager/coach nobody has confidence in who hasn’t done anything in years, and quite comfortably the worst performing team in the league.

A different sport, a different venue, but how similar are the fortunes of the Raiders currently compared to Sunderland under Moyes, Grayson and Coleman? Players giving the ball away, not looking capable of scoring, being embarrassed at home with no direction - the list goes on. This was the Uncle Sam version of the SAFC Class of 2017.

Then by contrast, the Seahawks - a team in a position they’ve not been accustomed to for quite some time. A new set of players hungry to prove their worth, a team building a new identity and style. Some of the most committed and fanatical fans in the league behind them. They couldn’t be further away from Oakland. Whilst few expected the Seahawks to win every game, many had expected them to have won more than 3 of their 6 games, sound familiar?

Sunderland v Manchester City - Premier League
Pictures, speaking, thousands of words?
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

I realised half way through that this wasn’t week 6 of the NFL, this was a live metaphor of Sunderland AFC in front of 90,000 people. The laughing stock, the perennial losers against the historical, fanatically supported club on a rebuild, determined not to be defined by their current status.

This was David Moyes versus Jack Ross. Ellis Short versus Stewart Donald. Hopeless versus hope. Simply put, this was losers versus winners.

A different sport but the same outlook - it was startling to see that the mindset of the Seahawks had the Raiders beaten before kick off. Further to that, Oakland don’t have the worst team in the league on paper, far from it, and they shouldn’t be where they are. Maybe they’ve been taking some consultation from Chris Coleman and Simon Grayson?

Sunderland are determined not to be defined as a League One club, not to act like shrinking violets but rather, Chris Maguire’s. To build for the future with young superstars like Maja and have a set of fans that are behind them every step of the way.

Sunderland needed reform - what they got was an intrinsic root and branch surgery that’s been a tremendous success - and it’s taken a day surrounded by people dressed as Seagulls for me to realise.

I’ve always appreciated the importance of self-belief in sport. As I left the stadium, the biggest lesson I learned was just how important that confidence and belief is. Without it, you’re Oakland, you’re David Moyes, you’re getting humbled at home and you’re hopeless. With it, you’re Seattle, you’re Jack Ross, you’re hopeful, and come May, maybe, just maybe, you’re Champions.