Kingsmeadow - home of AFC Wimbledon and the sort of ground one largely imagines in the lower leagues. Imagines. Not for many a year had any Sunderland fan actually deemed it a possibility, let alone a fact.
Even now - six matches in and unbeaten in the League - there seems an air that Sunderland aren’t actually playing for real in a lower league. The atmosphere is too good. Everyone is enjoying it. Sunderland are winning matches.
At Kingsmeadow the welcome was warm - the whiff of the burger van drifted downwind and we sat yards, yes literally yards, from the pitch and could smell the grass and hear every word and grunt and huff and puff and the thud of boot on ball. Beautiful.
I grew up on that when I used to watch Exeter City from the ‘Cowshed’ or the ‘Big Bank’ at St.James’s Park. Many who used to frequent Roker Park will remember the same. The connect between the fans and the footballers was tangible.
The big difference though between an Exeter City or Carlisle United and Sunderland is that Sunderland can enjoy this season – and hopefully it is only a season – because the ambition of returning to the Premier League or even the Championship is real and attainable. For most in League One though it is unimaginable, it is still a dream. Take Rochdale for example.
For many years Rochdale languished in Division Four. The fear of re-election and then relegation from the League was palpable. Mark Hodkinson and Derrick Allsop both wrote books in the 1980’s about the wretched ‘enjoyment’ of supporting Rochdale AFC, whose first ‘promotion’ to Division Three came about in 1958 because of the reorganisation of the lower Leagues, and they were immediately relegated. They survived finishing bottom of the Football League six times and, in 1962, reached the unheard of heights of the final of the fledgling League Cup.
Now all that fans of Rochdale can realistically dream is the final of the ‘Checkatrade Trophy’ and surviving in League One.
There-in lies the rub. Rochdale can accept their current status and embrace it in a way fans of say Arsenal or Manchester United could never quite articulate. I spoke to an Arsenal fan the other week who said he was actually enjoying the Europa League because they were winning matches, unlike their time in the Champions League.
Sunderland fans are now enjoying their own ‘Europa’ league - winning matches and enjoying the sense of renewal, believing it to be the start of something bigger and better. Rochdale fans I’m sure would love that sense of entitlement, that they too are just as ‘entitled’ to be in the Championship or Premier League, but the harsh reality is that unless a country as rich as Dubai buys them it’s highly unlikely.
The point here is that all fans of every club dream of greater glory.
That greater glory, though, is by degree. Sunderland in League One is no slight on the club at all but let us not lose sight of the Rochdale’s and Accrington Stanley’s, for whom League One is arguably the greater glory.
‘Vanity Fair’ is currently airing on ITV – described as an enjoyable romp through Napoleonic England. Now Sunderland are enjoying an enjoyable romp through Brexit Britain. Both veil deeper problems, but both are looking to come out on a brighter side, with stories of characters and place on a journey which won’t be without pitfalls.
Vanity has no place in football and that is what League One is all about - character building for a brighter future back in the Premier League, or survival in League One.
While here embrace all that it has to offer - including the Checkatrade Trophy.