Rewind back to the summer of 2018, when Sunderland AFC emerged from the ashes of one era and into a new one. Premier League football was now a memory, and our Championship status had been ripped from our grasp after a season where just about everything had turned rotten. Suddenly, we were forced to confront a reality that, a few short years ago, might have seemed unimaginable: we would be playing third-tier football for only the second season in our history.
How did you feel when the 2018/2019 fixture list was released, and you saw team names like Accrington, Gillingham, and Southend? Shocked? Saddened at how far we had plummeted, or excited at the tantalising prospect of us spending a single season down here, ripping the league to pieces, before reclaiming our place in the Championship?
Fast-forward to Wembley, and to Patrick Bauer’s scuffed winner. Reality hit hard. The great escape was off, thwarted in the dying embers. And so it WAS to be a second season in League One for us.
One argument I have heard being bandied around for a long time, even before the playoff run, is that we ought to view our present status as a third-division football club as a ‘novelty’ and as an ‘adventure’.
Indeed, an article published over the weekend contained a quote that said that a third season at this level would be ‘intolerable’, and hinting that whatever novelty factor was there has quickly been wiped away by our failure to escape the division at the first time of asking. In theory, it sounds plausible, but if you scrutinise it, I think it carries far less weight.
The reality is that we are not a one-off example of a club who once dined at the top table before being thrown out of the banquet. Current Premier League stalwarts Man City, Southampton, Leicester and Wolves have all spent time in this division over the past twenty-plus years. This proves that, if anything, it isn’t as rare as you might think.
Consider the duo of Leeds United and Nottingham Forest. Two teams with a proud tradition and a good history of winning trophies (On the European stage, in Forest’s case), and clubs who once challenged in the Premier League before experiencing a significant fall from grace. From 2007 to 2010, Leeds United were anchored at this level, ditto for Forest, who were in League One for three seasons from 2005 to 2008 before escaping to the Championship. In theory, both clubs might have been too ‘big’ and too prestigious for this division, but they got it wrong, and paid the price. No club is immune from the suffering such a fate, regardless of how glorious their past might have been.
Put simply, I see absolutely no ‘novelty’ in Sunderland being in this division, travelling to intimate, old-fashioned stadiums and playing games against teams who many fans could never have imagined that we would cross swords with.
Yes, it might be a shock to the system after years of visiting the stadiums of the Premier League, but we knew what was coming as the whistle blew following THAT Burton game. A football club with a stadium the size of ours, a fanbase as passionate as ours, and facilities as first-class as ours playing at this level is no novelty.
It is an indictment. An indictment of wretched mismanagement, of atrocious decision-making in just about every area of the club over a number of years. Indeed, our current situation perhaps ought to serve as a warning to teams in the leagues above, who perhaps once believed that they are impervious to experiencing the same fate, because they are certainly not.
League One, as we found out last season, and continue to experience this time round, is not glamorous, and it is certainly not a league that often produces matches that live long in the memory. It is a grind of a division, filled with clubs who’ll happily dish out humbling results, set against the backdrop of a remorseless fixture schedule.
For as much as we might like to proclaim that we merely visiting this division with no plans to stick around, there is every chance that might not be the case.
The argument that, “If you accept where we are now, you’re part of the problem,” is completely illogical to me. There is absolutely no shame to be found in accepting, if not embracing with open arms, our current status.
The starting point for any journey to new heights has to be a low, and if being in League One hopefully teaches the club anything, it is that we should never gamble, and never again adopt the same careless methods that got us into this position in the first place.