It’s no secret that Sunderland are in dire straits. As I write this we sit at the bottom of the Championship table with nine games left in which to scrape enough points to be able to say we’re still in this league next season.
Personally, I think the vast majority of this squad lack the b*llocks for such a fight, but recently I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t really care any more.
Do I care about the club? Of course. Do I care if the fans are let down week in, week out? Absolutely. Do I care that 95% of the players are taking a salary from a broken-back football club with barely a pot to piss in? Yes, yes I do. But one thing I no longer care about is where we’re going to be next season.
Call it the acceptance of an inevitable fate, or perhaps (unfairly) call it apathy because both are perfectly natural responses to the red and white travelling circus that flies the flag in recent days. But I like to think this is coming from a place of optimism. Here’s why.
One of the real joys of being a supporter is hero worship; it is inevitable that we live vicariously through our playing counterparts on the pitch. Each and every fan considers the club to be their own, and rightly so, therefore the success of a player on the pitch is our success; their energy galvanises us; the path they follow is one we all walk down, together. That’s the foundation of following a club as a true fan, as I see it.
I was watching the U23s Premier League International Cup match against Newcastle a few weeks ago, partly because it’s streamed live on Facebook (a welcome and necessary system to provide much-needed coverage of the development teams) and partly because you know how it is – any Sunderland is better than none.
I came away from it with a lot to ponder, because not only did I find myself enjoying the match more than I’ve enjoyed most senior matches this season, but at the back of my mind was a voice sullenly whispering “this is the first team of Sunderland AFC.”
It is beyond a struggle, becoming a professional footballer. Statistically speaking, the chances of achieving that dream are astronomical. In the BBC documentary “Football’s Suicide Secret”, Clarke Carlisle states that;
Of all the guys who come into football, only 1% will make it as a professional footballer.
Now it’s nigh-on impossible to nail down a solid figure on this but you won’t find anything above a 10% success rate from any angle, and that’s playing fast and loose with the numbers. Carlisle is closer to the mark. Hundreds of thousands of young hopefuls fall by the wayside on the path to semi-professional contracts, let alone laying claim to a full ride on the Premier League gravy train.
Of course there are exceptions to the rule, as pointed out by my Roker Report colleague Craig Davies in his damning summary of Jack Rodwell, Sunderland’s answer to “Could you possibly f**k this up anymore, guys?”
It’s almost unique if you really think about it. The progression of such a large group of young players has rarely been so clearly imminent to the players themselves; they surely know the opportunity given to them by our impending drop?
With no certain funds to reinforce, whatever is left of our current first team come relegation to League One, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the mantle of responsibility will be shouldered by no small number of these young players. They’re already contracted on wages akin to the League One average; they’re a known quantity for the backroom staff, and to top it all off they haven’t given the fans a reason to boo them. This in itself is almost a blessing in disguise because while there’s no guarantee for their futures beyond the upcoming season, the savvy among them will understand the doors their dedication and innate ability may open for them in the near future. They know who we are, as fans. They know that if the stars align and the future is bright for us, it is as bright for them.
It strikes me then that most footballers themselves are dreamers. They get it. The lads that will go out onto that pitch in the years to come will know of this tumultuous time and will fight tooth and nail against it, of that I have no doubt. The club itself has an opportunity once again to attract players that want to be part of that destiny, because aside from the albeit envious wages of those that earn them, glory awaits those with the courage and fortitude to bear that responsibility.
What great things may come for those that carry the dreams of others beyond the threshold of reasonable thought and into the realms of the unreasonable? Is there a limit to joy, when the world is perceived through the rose-tinted glasses of a football fan that watches a team of heroes, and heard through ears that witness a stadium – a temple for the faithful – in full voice?
Don’t get me wrong – bragging rights are great. It’s great that we spanked the mags six times in a row, and it’s wonderful that an army of Sunderland fans were given the opportunity to descend on Covent Garden for those heady days of hoping beyond hope that together we could achieve greatness, however fleeting it might be.
But when the chips are down and you’re thinking of renewing your season ticket, or planning your away campaign, the emotions that spur you on and kindle that excitement in the core of you are influenced not by some grand spectacle that is ‘elite’ football, but rather the passion of your team on the pitch. We all enjoy a Barcelona game but would you give up Sunderland for them? Not in a thousand lifetimes.
What I wanted from my club three years ago and what I want now hasn’t changed, not really. I remember stating quite happily that I’d settle for mid-table anonymity in the Premier League – why? Why is that OK? Why is that acceptable? Where is the dream in that? Sat now at the bottom of the rung with our peers mocking us on an almost-daily basis, I’m left wondering why I ever wanted to settle for being out of the spotlight, as we are now.
It’s typical of an adventure though; the need to stop and rest, and take account of your surroundings. Man... the last ten years were some adventure. We may not have been pulling up trees in the league or knocking on the European facade, but we made some noise didn’t we? And it was tiring, wasn’t it? Every season more mentally draining than the last.
That was an adventure in itself, but it’s time for a new one.
A few months ago I said something similar but with apathy on my lips, an apathy that is no longer present. Many are the cries of “what’s become of this club!?” and there is justifiable anger at the people that finally broke the bus. Talk of protest is still on the table and that has its place for any number of reasons. But for ourselves – for our own sanity and sense of self-worth – that won’t define us or the future of Sunderland AFC.
So now I guess I’m looking forward. I’m looking past the next nine games, and I’m looking past the CEO and the owner and the mess that’s been made. I’m looking past the manager (whilst still hoping he has the balls to hang around after the dust has settled) and I’m looking past the players. The hour is late and the time for blame has passed. The villain has all but left the stage.
And in a year or two’s time when some as yet unnamed hero is doing the business on the pitch, and all you can hear again is the white noise of the fans in ecstasy as they chant his name and the name of our club, you’ll look around you, and though the bright lights of the Premier League may be far off, you’ll know you’re right where you belong: enjoying football, and with one eye on those bright lights.
This ship may run aground but so long as there’s a club to call Sunderland and a stadium to call home, it will never sink. I get that now.