This morning I woke up and did everything that I usually do on a Monday morning - I walked the dog, made a coffee, caught up on the news, and listened to the Roker Rapport Podcast. Our guest this past weekend was Paul Butler, the former Sunderland defender who was part of one of the most stable and resilient red and white defences that we’ve had at the club in the last god knows how many years.
The thing that stood out most from listening to what Butler had to say was regarding momentum and standards. The performances on the pitch were almost always maintained to a certain level because throughout the squad the players stuck to a set of principles that they lived and died by. Paul said the only real demand placed upon him and the other defenders was that we keep a clean sheet by any means possible, and that if we won 4-1 the manager - Peter Reid - would still berate them for having the gall to concede. Standards.
It’s fair to say that, thus far, things haven’t gone to plan this season. People are right to be annoyed and angry - and it’s because we have standards.
Across the board Sunderland have allowed their standards to slip. We shouldn’t be content with conceding goals. We shouldn’t be content with losing to an U21s side in a competitive game. We shouldn’t be content with losing in the league to Lincoln and Wycombe. We should strive for more, and until this club is competing properly for a spot in the top two then we need to box clever and work out a way we get ourselves into that position.
Obviously, fans have a small part to play in how smoothly that goes. Butler spoke about how the players would compete for a spot in the team at Sunderland every day in training because they wanted to play in front of forty-thousand supporters. Those numbers have dropped somewhat, but this club is remarkably still capable of attracting an average of 30,000 fans in the third tier - a salivating prospect for any player hoping to improve themselves, knowing that the opportunity for third-tier players to play at a club the size of Sunderland do not come along all that often.
So how does this club get to the point where it’s competitive in the league again? Well, we aren’t that far off in terms of league results - because of the relatively close proximity of games in the calendar, you could win three games in the space of seven days and totally change the outlook of your season.
We’ve got to get back into a pattern of winning games, which has been difficult during a period where our schedule has been fragmented by a combination of the necessity to take part in various cup competitions, and cancellations due to international call-ups.
Once we start winning games, people will start believing in our ability to achieve success again. This team IS good enough to get promoted. This club has shown many times before what it can be capable of with everyone on the same page, hoping to achieve a common goal. That has to start today. So I say this - let’s get back on the same page; put aside our differences and remember what it is that we’re out to achieve this season.
What will it take to get there? Better performances on the pitch is the big one, of course. The management team and the players have to raise their own standards.
Did we lose some of our integrity when Cattermole and Honeyman left? Possibly. The dressing room needs new leaders. People have to step up and take it upon themselves to demand more from their fellow teammates.
Players like Luke O’Nien have to be the benchmark for what is considered acceptable when it comes to the amount of work you put in both on and off the pitch, and the mentality that you have when turning up to work every single day.
The manager has to raise his own standards. We’ve got to give Phil Parkinson a fair chance to make an impact on this squad, but at the same time we also have to demand more from him. He cannot be content with some of our recent performances. Looking forward, he has to ask more from each and every player - and if they aren’t pulling their weight, he needs to be given the full backing of all at the club to shift players out who aren’t buying into his methods. Likewise, he needs to spend whatever it takes to get the players in that will improve us and get us out of League One at the end of the season.
The club’s owners have to remember what it took last season to get the club moving in a positive, forward direction. I thought that Paul Fletcher summed this up brilliantly in his piece on Roker Report earlier today - think back to where we were at, at the turn of the year last year. 46,000 there on Boxing Day. The fans united in their passion for the club and potential success.
Can they do more to help matters off the pitch positively affect matters on it? Can they raise their own standards to ensure that everyone below them raises theirs?
Stewart Donald’s appearance last week had the desired effect, but there needs to be more. Stewart has the propensity to put his foot in his mouth from time to time, but I honestly believe that the fans believe in him and want to get behind him.
Stewart needs to be the man front and centre, leading this club forward, setting the standards and preaching positivity in the manner he did last season.
And the supporters. I know that there are fans haven’t taken kindly to some of the things said recently about the followers of this great club, and a fair portion of that discontent has been warranted. When it comes to standards I feel like fans are in the right head space - the vast majority of fans don’t accept mediocrity or standing by as standards elsewhere in the club slip, and I think that’s absolutely fine.
We just want to see the team on the pitch winning games, in a manner befitting of a club the size of ours operating in a division that we dwarf.
Can we do more to help create a positive buzz around on-pitch matters?
I think so. I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t think that the message needs to move along to a more positive one. I’m not saying we have to ignore the inadequacies of the players, manager or owners - I just want to see what a bit of positive buzz around the club and games again could do for our chances this season. Hopefully a win at Gillingham on Tuesday can kick-start the momentum we need going into a tough run of games. Coventry - six places and four points above us in the table - will be tough on Saturday, and if a 30,000-strong crowd can witness a hard-working Sunderland side winning in a convincing manner, it’ll have us believing in our ability to motor forward at pace. I’m sure of it.
It’s a new week and a chance for a fresh start. The sun is shining over Wearside and I’m feeling good. For Sunderland to gather momentum all involved with the club - owners, management, players and supporters - need to get on the same page. Let’s all play our part.