Following Max Power’s second sending-off of the season, I was raging about personal indiscipline when my wife interjected ‘it’s the pressure, it’s the weight of expectation that perhaps makes some players flip’.
This got me thinking about what may be going on deep in the minds of Sunderland players. They carry within themselves day in and day out the expectation of promotion and what it means to be at Sunderland AFC.
Last year, an atmosphere of depression and disaffection hung over the club; however, this year there’s a raging anticipation, with some players clearly living off their nerves. But what’s causing this rash of red cards?
Let’s dispel potential causal factors for Sunderland’s emerging disciplinary record. Do we have a particularly psychotic bunch of players? Not really. Max Power has professed his love for the club and is prone to acts of kindness, such as picking up the fans from the bus stop to take them to the match.
Bryan Oviedo, another sinner, is regarded as a consummate professional and the incident that led to his sending-off was considered completely out of character.
And there do not appear to be any sources of disaffection. Much the opposite. All the signs are of an increasingly cohesive group of players – a band of brothers – that want to play good football. The Sunderland team simply do not look like a bunch of nutters with a tendency to acts of casual violence.
But before we leave this issue, there is the case of Lee Barry Cattermole, our own avid collector of yellow cards. His combative and increasingly excellent performances on the pitch has re-cemented bonds of affection with Sunderland fans, but he too has picked up a host of yellows this season, and has already missed out through suspension. That being said, Jack Ross has repeatedly commended Cattermole, not only for his professionalism, but also for his personal support.
So, does the manager encourage indiscipline? Hardly likely. Jack Ross is probably the most emotionally intelligent manager in League One if not more widely. He has a master’s degree in economics; writes children’s books and his style of play is about the creativity of a passing and movement game, not taking out the other player. Perhaps the case of Cattermole is part and parcel of his role on the pitch? Sunderland press high and force the opposition into making mistakes - are cards simply unavoidable for Cattermole?
So the red cards are either just individual discipline thing or there’s also something else going on. I think it’s worth exploring the latter.
Imagine you’re a Sunderland player (we’ve all had this fantasy). You know that the club shouldn’t be in League One, and it’s your role to ensure that this is only the most temporary of stays. Being somewhere you shouldn’t be is fed by the narrative of the hugeness of Sunderland AFC. Jack Ross talks about this in pretty much every interview he gives - as well as noting how much he relishes these unprecedented challenges.
Then there’s the responsibility of responding to the expectations of the 30,000 home crowd and the amazing away followings. Many of the new players who are used to League One football had never been in a football ground like the Stadium of Light. On top of this, each week comes the challenge of overcoming teams that will want to be at the top of their game to take the big scalp. Jack Ross repeatedly remarks that no match is easy regardless of the depth of our squad.
Something of rare beauty is happening: a place that’s so important to the city and the region is being reborn. Stewart, Charlie and Juan know this is a long-haul and they too share the weight of expectation; having stated that they are custodians of an institution, not just the owners of a football club.
All of this may be getting to the team – early conceding, battling out draws, not always killing off a game and not quite playing to full potential. You can be doing fairly well, but it’s never good enough compared with what’s expected. If it was me, I’d sometimes feel frustrated and that’s what might well be happening in the red card cases we’ve seen so far this season.
So what can be done? Fortunately, we go into the international break on the back of a win with a postponed game. Ironically, another pressure of expectation. Which other League One team has to postpone due to having so many international players?
The Lads might be able to use this space to reflect on what it truly means to be at Sunderland and to be part of a venture. Amidst the intensity of training and constantly learning, whether it’s Zen, yoga or taking a long walk in beautiful Weardale, a space could be found for mindfulness and collective reflection on individual hopes and fears.
With this can come the inner confidence that we’re only going to get stronger and that one day soon the team are going to put five or six goals past an unfortunate opponent.
Perhaps it’s only fair, then, that we finish with a note to Max Power (on the off chance he’s reading this!).
I imagine you’re not feeling too good today and, while you’ll want to ensure that your discipline holds in the future, it’s important to realise that this kind of pressure to can get to the best of players.
You’ve been great for Sunderland and we’ll need you back soon to be there when we really show them what can be done. Then we’ll get promotion.