We’re half-way through the season and we’re in a great position - a few average performances doesn’t mean we should alter our perspective. Life in League One has been rejuvenating and now is the time to build further, not get nervous.
As a reflective soul, I find it intriguing how the cycle of life can repeat the same cultural and historical markers. In 1987 I was a young boy thrusted into a footballing addiction by his enthusiastic father, who felt a hereditary responsibility to inject the footballing molecules of Sunderland AFC’s DNA into his small son’s blood stream.
As an impressionable lad, the vision of a young matador of Italian heritage bullying forlorn men, leaving them in his wake as he sprinted towards goal was incredibly inspirational. For a young boy, as I was then, Gabbiadini’s proportions were cartoonish - legs the width of an elephant’s, the speed of a cheetah, the raw strength of a silver back gorilla... Marco bashed his way, like an unorthodox wrecking ball, through lower league defences as if they were mere matchstick men and he were Conan the Barbarian.
The 3rd division of English football felt like the top tier of sporting satisfaction for an eleven-year-old kid, as it does for my ten-year-old son now.
So, for a romantic sentimentalist like me - or old fart for you younger readers - League One this season has had somewhat of a transforming impact upon my outlook and linking it back to my childhood through rose tinted glasses is not the only reason I feel a sense of idealism and hopefulness.
There are genuine reasons to feel the warm, tingly sensation of a sanguine faith restored - of a hope renewed.
It’s not perfect. But there’s enough promise in the air to feel excited and after the misery of the last few seasons, the third tier of English football seems - at times - like a footballing paradise. Certainly compared to the hellish feeling of perpetual relegation fights and life-draining, joyless football.
We have owners who seem to ‘get us.’ Just pause for a moment and take that in.
The whining, wailing and gnashing of teeth that occurred during the souring reign of our last owner was exhausting. I look back on articles I wrote at the time and I was poisonous and bitter. The fight was all we had left towards the end.
But we stand on brighter shores these days.
Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven have helped breathe life back into the lungs of a decaying dragon. Their PR offensive has been relentless and welcomed. The ease of communication between owner and supporter has never been smoother. They’re accessible and relatable.
Crucially for me, when I hear them speak about Sunderland, they sound genuine, positive and honest. They may turn out to be Southern con men in the end, and if they do I’ll happily stand to be corrected. But for me, as of now, they’re hitting all the right notes. Even the sight of our exiled Uruguayan investor, Juan Sartori, watching us play Bradford City on a laptop with dodgy WIFI in the foothills of Montevideo was weirdly satisfying.
So far, our new ownership team deserve the praise that’s coming their way.
We also have a young, dynamic and ambitious manager in Jack Ross. He speaks with authority and with blunt common sense. He understands the owner’s vision and crucially has a vision of his own.
It might be a complicated task, balancing a squad where Premier League relics like Cattermole and McGeady are earning considerably more than home grown talents from our academy. One could expect fall-outs and jealousy in such an environment. But Ross has built a squad that appear unified and determined, not likely to be shaken by matters that don’t exist when the whistle blows. He’s getting some great performances from academy graduates but has the patience and sense to know when and how to use them appropriately. His inclusion of Mumba and Kimpioka in first team affairs and his gradual release of opportunity and encouragement have been impressive and welcomed.
Has every decision he’s made been right? No. Has every formation or squad delivered brilliance at his hand? Of course not. He’s not untouchable from human error. Like the squad, he’s also growing and developing. Yet, his passion and desire to succeed is obvious and like the owners, the Sunderland bug seems to have hit him hard.
We have a young squad who are determined to work hard and succeed. In the Premier League, you often feel that some players felt they were doing us a favour by being here. Now, perhaps through disaster rather than design, we see hunger and pride. Are any of them going to be gifted the Ballon D’or? No, unless Honeyman wins one for best football player in a Documentary series about a North Eastern football team.
The raw desire of some of our players has been uplifting. Luke O’Nien (My little lad’s Gabbiadini) put in a thunderous tackle against Luton that had 35,000 people jumping - and he was up for verbals afterwards. I love it. It showed heart. It showed dedication. It showed courage. We’ve seen a lot of that this year. With some shrewd additions this month, some pace up top and some strength at the back, we will only improve.
Sunderland lifers and Hollywood production company Fulwell73 have done what they do best, by utilising their creative minds and Sunderland hearts to produce a beautifully moving and pulsating docu-tragedy. They encapsulated a dark and troubled period for sure but twinned it with love and honesty. Making it hopeful rather than hopeless. They may not have been able to buy the club in the end, but giving us their loyalty, skill and global media reach has been a massive positive this year.
We play Scunthorpe on Saturday and as often happens with nervousness surrounding the transfer window, disquiet about players wanting to leave and agitation about some mediocre displays, there is a little tension on the terraces. Scunny are top of the League One form table and with such a pivotal game, it will be another opportunity for our away support to showcase their brilliance and passion. They’re an absolute credit to the club and a massive plus for this iconic institution. As we all are.
Are we top of the league? No. Are we running way with it? No. But with the benefit of perspective the club has found light after a long tunnel of darkness. A win, lose or draw against Scunthorpe won’t change that. Our resurrection has begun and it won’t stop. It can’t.
Our club’s entire past is a living example of re-invention. As our history shows, this league is a temporary detour and not a dead end - so hope is back and long may it stay.