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The Great Sunderland Witch-Hunt; Has fan anger towards talented misfits been misplaced?

Patience is a virtue - but do Sunderland fans have any left?

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In all honesty I would be ashamed of myself if I were on this team that are going down yet again. Now that isn’t as harsh a dig as it might seem, and I certainly mean this more for the senior players than the younger lads that actually play with their hearts on their sleeves every week, but if I were John O’Shea I’d be fucking mortified, you know?

I’d take it personally. I’d be sat there thinking “How have I been here so long, turning up to work every day and yet watched so many fans become visibly crestfallen over 90 minutes? How have I stood in this last line of defence year upon year but failed conclusively to defend this club’s stature?”

I imagine they don’t look often to the fans in the stands anymore. There’s precious little love there, and I wouldn’t be surprised if comments like many I’ve made previously, and the thousands of others directed at these people, have made them somehow care that little bit less.

So I’m as much to blame as anyone. We all know how it is: we’re all personally infallible in our own eyes, aren’t we? Few people are willing to wholeheartedly accept all responsibility or blame for the dire straits they find themselves in, and you have to wonder if for all the bluster and all the rallying calls and sit-down interviews and post-match whining – what amount of responsibility do these men actually take?

How much blame do they proportion to themselves? Do they truly believe it is/isn’t their fault? If you see something that you don’t like and you have the power to change it, you change it. That decision then changes you, and you spend your future efforts on ensuring you aren’t powerless to influence what bothers you. That’s called learning a lesson - something many of our current squad seem incapable of doing.

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It seems to me the careers of many of said squad peaked when they signed for Sunderland, as absolutely mental as that sounds. What other explanation is there for the breaking of their spirit midway through what should so often be a routine match for them? It’s obvious to me that most of the problem is down to who we choose to represent on us on the field, or rather those chosen by the “poor advisers” our neglectful owner speaks of.

We speak about needing players that want to come to Sunderland but we’ve got a squad full of useless players that don’t want to leave.

For too many years it has been a free-ride, signing for this club. So maybe we should go back to buying players that think they’re actually better than the shit Sunderland serve up? At least with that comes a drive to outperform your colleagues. We want and need players on the pitch who are trying to outdo one another. We need personality and charisma, not just a love of Sunderland.

Everton v Newcastle United - Premier League Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Look at the love we attribute to Henderson and Pickford, and in return do they not love Sunderland? They do – but where are they? In greener pastures. Of course they are, because Sunderland AFC could not offer them an opportunity to be the best that they could be.

But that one’s a bit easy isn’t it, both being Lads fans themselves. Consider Jermain Defoe then for a moment. Much as it was difficult to wrap around the heads of many, Defoe had a relegation release clause in his contract. For me that’s a no-brainer because we needed him and Altidore was getting bent over a barrel daily. He was also a domestic name still with something to prove to his detractors, and he clearly felt the same. I’ll tell you what Defoe wasn’t though: a Sunderland fan.

Now, Jermain Defoe developed a lovely little affinity with Sunderland fans, but why? Did he do a John O’Shea; swear some kind of oath to defend the club to the death, and then stroll about looking lost for huge swathes of the season, before jumping into an interview on the club website to rally the troops and whinge that he’s sorry and that he’s got to do better? No. He did it because he showed up, did his job, and the fans loved him for it. That’s how Defoe endeared himself to the Sunderland faithful – by doing what he was paid to do. Not by being loveable; not by whispering sweet nothings in the ears of club cronies - he did it because he was a damn good player.

That’s fair enough, right? Surely there isn’t anyone that holds ill will towards him because he made the decision to jump the sinking ship? Defoe never had his heart set on Sunderland, he never had his heart reside on Wearside, but he still enjoyed the rapport his talent gave him.

Sunderland v Swansea City - Premier League Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

Points are what the club needs, not friends – we’ve got plenty of friends. I don’t want a John O’Shea that’s on a first-name basis with the groundsman floundering about the penalty area like a fish out of water as ball after ball trundles slowly past him. I want someone hungry to play the game and hungry to prove that he’s capable of Champions League football, even if it means selling him after a season or two. That’s the way this modern game is and by refusing to accept that we’re strangling our chance of growth.

Lifetime, “one-club” players will become – if not extinct – more infrequent than they already are as the years go by. This is partly because there is so much money to be made for shrewd heads conducting transfers, but also because players crave instant gratification as much as any of us. They have all-too-human attention spans and changes of heart, and they’re as susceptible to those catalysts as any other person; they require change of stimuli in order to be happy; new places, faces, things to do. People move on and that’s OK. The trick is to get them working their arse off for the time that they’re here.

Sam Allardyce knew that. I won’t depress you all by talking about what could and should have been though.

Rarely do the fans and their ire have much impact on the gaffer’s team-sheet. A fair chunk of the groans heard by the team on a match day may well be because you’ve got thousands of people dismayed that Jack Rodwell has been brought in, or that the manager is persisting with a certain formation, or what have you. But that ire has a huge effect on the players themselves because they aren’t exactly immune to social cues.

Most professional footballers are on social media (as are most people in general, for our sins) and I’d venture a fair 90% of them can read. It isn’t simply social media and comments cast through the digiverse either: it’s the very real, palpable hostility that can be directed at them on the pitch. When even one person judges you to be a moron it’s pretty hard to take for most people, but imagine if there were hundreds or thousands of people booing at you and calling you every name under the sun? And I don’t subscribe to this “ah wey they get paid loads so tough” bollocks, because life just isn’t like that.

Crystal Palace v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

That isn’t to say that those boos may not have been deserved at one time or another (see also Jack Rodwell, again) or even at many times during the last two seasons but surely we have to temper our expectations and indeed our aggression towards these people if we expect them to graft for us on the pitch rather than just show up to the academy and hit the weights every day?

So if Defoe doesn’t long for the sea, dream about the fans at the Stadium of Light and eat beef dips thrice a week: why did he do so well for us? Is it merely that he is a consummate professional that we signed by pure chance? No. Now that isn’t to say that we should throw down millions on another Jack Rodwell, but look at the players we’ve got farmed out on loan right now – Whabi Khazri, Fabio Borini, Didier Ndong to name a few. Every single one of those players would have made a staggering difference to our season, and what’s most disgraceful about the attitude towards these players is that somehow we built them up to be total arseholes.

“They don’t want to play for us? Screw them. Send them out on loan.” Well let me give the club a slow clap there because rather than managing to put an arm around the only real talent we’ve got on the books, they did what Sunderland do: took the easy way out and washed their hands of them, whilst simultaneously (in true Sunderland fashion) failing to effectively recoup wages or fees, or adequately replace them.

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Rather than give these people what they want – something intelligent managers under respectable clubs do – the relationship between them, the fans and the back-room staff was allowed to deteriorate to the point that it became impossible to keep them around. We found ourselves studying and analysing their behaviour on the pitch; the furore that came with Borini celebrating in front of the man who didn’t pick him in the role he wanted in spite of his pleas is a fine example of this overly-aggressive fandom; this display of some imagined heritage that this club has. We aren’t owed players that love us as fans. We make them love us as fans by cheering them when they do well and supporting them when they don’t.

So much of the onus is on the fans to create that all-important relationship between player and fan, and I think somewhere in the clusterf**k of the last five years we’ve all but forgotten that. It’s too easy to lambaste players at this club because we’ve lost one of the most important attributes a great fan base can have: patience.

We have sat through year after year of dross, an incalculable number of counter-intuitive decisions, and endless scandal – but we boo Borini because he celebrated in front of Moyes. Mate, the lad wants a medal for calling that dour, useless has-been out in public, and he’s as good as got a medal because Sunderland are paying a portion of his wages while he plays for AC Milan!

UEFA via Getty Images

Does this not strike anyone as absolutely backwards, upside down and side to side? I swear that Sunderland AFC is an Idiocracy. Too often we hear of the “poor attitude” of quality players in the same breath as a commendation of John O’Shea as some kind of personal Jesus. “It matters so much to Lee Cattermole, he’s just cut up about it” while we sell Ndong, a man twice as valuable for half as much money as we brought him in.

It’s pure, unadulterated madness the true extent of which won’t be known for at least another year. “It’s an essential revenue stream for next season.” Pffft - we’ve cut our noses off to spite our face and they’re probably quite-rightly laughing at us for it.

Listen – this isn’t a fault of many Sunderland fans, it’s a characteristic and temporary flaw that has arisen as a direct result of years of disingenuous, unstable governance and a veritable legacy of failure that flows down from the boardroom of the club.

One cannot suffer the governance of Sunderland AFC and its myriad jesters and dancing (wealthy) clowns without eventually feeling the need to direct anger at those you deem responsible.

And who strikes you as most responsible on a match day? The players, of course, because they’re right in front of you and they’re visibly tiring/struggling/losing. People get upset; they feel hard done by; they feel they deserve more – these things are all true of every single person on Earth, every single one. But if we threw away our angst-ridden fans in the way we do our angst-ridden players I’m telling you now we wouldn’t have 100 people show up for a home game.

It’s beyond ridiculous and however much the ultimate blame lies with the owner and those in the boardroom, we as fans unwittingly contributed to this farce with our misaligned search for someone to blame. We created witches for our witch-hunt and the only people that escaped it were those that were, somewhat ironically, either not good enough for greener pastures or not loud enough in the face of the obvious corruption that exists at this club.

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