There’s a common idiom in football that gets bandied about every now and then; fans, pundits and managers are all guilty of its repetition and dissemination, but I’ve often wondered whether it’s genuinely a substantial claim.
“They’ve found their level,” muse the footballing community when a particular club, player or manager looks incapable of taking the next step. When circumstances seemingly fail to allow growth or improvement, it is universally declared that the person in question is doomed to spend eternity in situ. Stagnation.
Point and case would be Everton’s “woes” under Sam Allardyce. They’ve found their level with him apparently, as a man synonymous with unspectacular consistency keeps his side sitting comfortably in ninth - seven points away from the relegation battle below.
Everton have spent almost £200 million this season, and their appointment of Big Sam was met with raised eyebrows and side-eyes as fans across the country saw Everton’s new managerial signings as something akin to signalling an acceptance of the club’s place in the Premier League pecking order. Comfortable mid-table obscurity.
And that got me thinking: have Sunderland ever really had a set level, have we ever really had a particular location in the mind’s eye, imagined or not?
For what feels like an eternity, the lingering threat of relegation and impending doom seems to have been Sunderland’s lot according to the footballing Gods. We dined at the top table, but never really seemed to fit, and as such we were tasked with removing ourselves and finding our proper level.
Upon relegation, people argued Sunderland’s prophecy as a club was to be fulfilled, we would find our feet in the Championship and seemingly linger there until we were afforded the chance to maybe have another crack at making it in the Prem before likely succumbing to its siren-esque calls and subsequent hemorrhaging of cash emanating from the Premier League's golden coffers.
But, as everyone certainly knows, it would appear that the Championship seemingly isn’t our level right now, and in a bizarre way - I’m not incredibly shocked or saddened by that.
This isn’t some hip, apathetic shrug of the shoulders feigning excitement at the exotic wonders of League One’s finest; in fact, I’m genuinely worried at what relegation would spell for us as a club. However, there’s something about this demoralizing slide toward a consecutive relegation that leaves me feeling vaguely cathartic.
Sunderland haven’t found their level, and in a really odd way that’s comforting because this turbulence might just enable the club to reinvent itself as something new and rousing.
Like some endangered species teetering on the edge of extinction, this wonderful club of ours seems to be on its knees, yet amidst the mortal danger surrounding us lies the chance to rectify past mistakes and emerge as an ambitious club with a point to prove.
I don’t want to be relegated, and I don’t want to face the seemingly incessant humiliation, but as Bill Shakes once said, wise men say to embrace adversity as it’s the wisest course to take.
Nobody is suggesting it would be easy, and nobody is suggesting this is definitive. But with a sale looking likelier by the day, and with a manager starting to draw the requisite levels of fight, passion and guile from his men, it’s hard not to feel a little optimistic right now - even in the face of impending relegation.
Like I say, I’m in no way a proponent of relegation, and I’m in no way stating things will definitely get better. Yet, there’s something about this turmoil and unrest that suggests something special might be just beyond the horizon should the stars align.
In the last few weeks I’ve seen a change in the players’ attitudes, and I’ve seen a change in the fans’ too. Crippling apathy has been replaced by anger and a determination to encourage positive change; this is something that should be welcomed.
Coupled with an active fanbase, we also have an owner keen to sell the club to fresh investors; this could be a once-in-a-generation chance for us to sculpt our club into the image we want.
I know we’re a joke right now, but this incessant parade of grim terrors feels like a darkest before the dawn situation to me. People talk about finding a level, but what if we don’t want to conform? What if we don’t want to be a part of the traditional cycles of revolving clubs orbiting the top six like Haley's comet flirting with the earth? What if we want something new and progressive? What if we have the chance to encourage progressive change?
Financial wariness, a clear style and identity cultivated by someone like Chris Coleman, and the adoption of techniques both in terms of business dealings, player trading and future planning that help keep the club moving forward can only be a positive thing, right?
A clear approach formulated by those with the club’s interests at heart is exactly what we’ve lacked for so long, and I might be mad, but the turning point feels like it could be just around the corner.
We might have to take another dose of bitter before the better, but should a sale materialize and a positive relationship emerge between owners and fans, then this inability to settle and ‘find a level’ might just be the making of a club we could be proud of.