“Big club” perception depends in part on timing. In the 1930’s Huddersfield Town were the Man City of the day. Blackpool soon followed, and in time Sunderland became known as ‘the bank of England club’ due to our financial muscle and the healthy wage packets enjoyed by our top earners.
Its been some time since the world beyond Wearside described our beloved club as big. Naturally, we supporters always receive the familiar worn out platitudes from Southern based media operations, that vary between ‘great support’ to ‘obsessed lunatics.’
Support is our hobby, obsession is our vulnerable determination. Lunacy is our sporting right.
But love is our true weakness.
No matter how big or weak the outside world view our hallowed club and regardless of what stormy disasters spin us from one negative hurricane to the next, or how humiliated our public falls from grace may make us feel - one overriding emotion always remains strong. There is always one last heartbeat remaining, even if the walls around us are caving in.
Love is that emotion.
Love of the region. Love of the city. Love of the club.
And for the reason of love, in this writer’s opinion, Sunderland are massive. Huge. Gigantic. Regardless of media perception, short memories or the dedication of our cousins up the road to paint us as pathetic losers who would celebrate the opening of a crisp packet, Sunderland AFC is a genuinely big club.
What league we are in or what trophy we play for does not and cannot alter that fact.
This season of self-rediscovery has been something of a miracle considering our malignant recent history. For those who wish to detract from our joy, who wish to suffocate our optimism or mock our spiritual and footballing renaissance, they can continue to jump from the cliff of ignorance and painfully belly splash into the sea of stupidity.
Their narrow mindedness is only matched by their purposeful lack of knowledge, or refusal to recognise the obvious. Their presumption that Sunderland fans can’t identify the indisputable, only highlights their own willful prejudice.
Of course we know our current weekly opposition in terms of media recognition is something of a come down from our Premier League experiences. Yes, we are fully aware that our squad and individual players may not be globally recognised and feted as spoiled superstars with Nike contracts that could finance a small country. Yes, we know that the Checkatrade Trophy is not internationally known as a tournament for the ages, or a contest played out between footballing Gods on a pantheon of gold-plated pitches.
WE ALL KNOW.
I’ve always felt that down-to-earth realism is one of our finest qualities. That our dark and gallows humour is a genuine trait of Mackem divinity. If anyone knows the gravity or reality of our current situation then its us, the Sunderland supporters, who live, breathe and eat Sunderland football club.
But our current elation and overflowing optimism is not just a symbol of where we are or even how we’re doing. That forms a part of the renewed sense of hope, of course it does. But the journey of where we’ve been is just as telling as our next trip to Wembley is, when it comes to a revived sense of who we are.
To put our restoring confidence into context, it wasn’t very long ago - less than a year in fact - that Sunderland supporters we waking up to headlines like this in national newspapers:
Sunderland are a club in freefall – and the situation could soon get even worse. Administration looms.
Have Sunderland slipped to the brink of disaster? Administration is in the air.
To put this in layman’s terms that even our most monosyllabic critics can understand, for many of us, there was an authentic fear that the club of our childhoods, the club of our families and the club of our communities, could soon be a club of nothing but altered memories. On the precipice of disappearing.
Financially, we were choking on the toxic fumes of ineptitude and our lungs were full of poisonous mismanagement and fiscal irresponsibility. The thick smoke of which, was both squeezing the life from the club and blinding the supporters from the antidote that could rescue us.
We were broke. Financially and emotionally.
Sadly, that was just the end game of a decade long contest, that despite some tremendous highlights, seemed to continuously denigrate and degrade this wonderful club.
From one failed manager to another. Broken promises that, if linked together, could wrap around the circumference of the earth a thousand times. Constant relegation battles at the foot of the table, with poor, negative football that survived on killing the virtues of hope and joy one minute at a time. Coaches blaming owners, owners firing coaches. Bizarre appointments of inexperienced and crazed managers with a public affection for fascism and an admiration of right-wing despots. From disgraced players sent to jail, to back to back relegations and very public humiliations, all formed on a backdrop of continual confusion, mistrust and pain.
Sunderland supporters aren’t happier just because of where we’re heading - we’re happier because we’ve survived where we’ve been. In the context of barely existing and perpetual in-fighting, the glorious air of possible promotion seems pure and transformative.
From the point of a near no return, the beauty of the Checkatrade Trophy seems seductive and beguiling.
This season, enjoyable football has returned to the Stadium of Light. A steely yet connective ownership has restored confidence in who are as a club. We have players with integrity and honesty who give it their all. More simple than that even, we’re winning games, scoring goals, leaving the ground satisfied and content.
The sniping has gone, the virus of negativity has largely all but dissipated. The black comedy has returned, the unity restored. We may be in League One and fighting for a trophy our former Premier League foes wouldn’t pee on if it was on fire, but I don’t care. Not one bit. The club is out of its coma. We’re stable. We’re happy.
We deserve that.
From a footballing flat-line we’ve started a robust resurrection. Maybe, just maybe, it’s because we’ve stripped away all the imitation tinsel attached to the glittery fraudulence of that unstable sporting utopia - the Premier League. Perhaps we’ve returned to simpler times, the reasons we fell in love with football and Sunderland AFC in the first place. The reason it’s a big club.
Community, kinship and heart.
Its not like we wouldn’t welcome a return to the higher echelons of the footballing pyramid, but when we do regain our place in the stratosphere of Premier League pyrotechnic displays and prawn sandwiches, we will be doing so a great deal wiser, happier and more at peace with who we are as a club and perhaps, who we are as a people.
For me, right now, League One and the Checkatrade Trophy have never seemed more beautiful. But rather than define us as the club were are now, both competitions could mould us into the club we are yet to become and that will be worth the pain of the last few seasons. We may not have the perfect road map drawn out, but perhaps we’ll know which roads to never drive down again.
We’re on out way to Wembley and we should cry it from every roof top.