There’s a lot being said about success as we come into the final run of the season, and I can’t help but feel the way I choose to understand the word differs a little from the general consensus in that I don’t feel we can really use it this season if we don’t gain promotion.
Sunderland AFC have achieved many things in the last year.
They’ve succeeded in refreshing the Stadium of Light; in reinvigorating the atmosphere; in reuniting the fans with the club in a common cause; in streamlining an organisation that was overburdened by past mistakes, thereby making it more efficient; in clearing up massive debts that were hindering every aspect of the club. All fantastic and pivotal work done by the new owners and driven by resolute fans.
Bearing in mind all of this brilliant work that the owners should be commended for, this season cannot in any way be considered a failure - but failure to achieve promotion is not part of that relative success and certainly shouldn’t be viewed as such.
So much of our current emotional outlook towards the club is weighted in the comedown of the shitstorm of the last years under Short that I wonder if we can thank that for the contentment I’ve heard people speak of; comparing now to then is comparing light and dark. That doesn’t count for a whole lot in the grand scheme of things as a football club though, not when the aim of the game is to win it. We don’t need to win it just so that we can say we have, although that’s a perfectly reasonable expectation from any fan of any sport. We need to win it just to stay in the game.
Unlike buoying around the Premier League with a guaranteed income and a stable of players that were worth millions by default for merely playing at that level in the first place, consecutive seasons in the third division of English football offer no such luxuries.
There’s a very clear reason why it’s so difficult for clubs to break through the glass ceiling above us and it often has very little to do with the tactical acumen of a manager and the niche abilities of a squad on paper.
The financial disparity between the Championship and League One is so vast that the only positive I can see in rebuilding in this league is that there’s a slight possibility that we could unearth the odd gem that’s better than this division. But football runs on money and there’s simply naff all to be had competing in League One.
We brought a “big club” mentality down with us when we dropped twice in quick succession but how long can that feasibly last? As much as we pride ourselves on having and being great fans everyone has a breaking point, and many people seemed to find that before League One became a reality. It strikes me as inevitable that the longer we stay away from where the money - and therefore success and excitement - is we’ll lose potential profit through simple attrition.
Would one more season in this league break us? No. But who’s to say it would make us? Chances are we’ll have a similar run next season to this one - can that be considered success? What if we buy a few players and they get crocked, or if some poor chap dies in an unforeseen accident, or someone has a heart attack; or any number of a thousand unforeseen and uncontrollable things go wrong? We’d be in exactly the same position that we’re in now but we’ll have lost comparatively expensive players that are frankly much better than any team in this division deserves to have on the books.
I don’t understand the belief that this isn’t an urgent situation. For me it’s vitally important that we’re promoted because anything else is effectively back to square one with fewer employees at the club and a slowly - but steadily - decreasing audience.
I’m not the only one to hear of the owners potential plans for the immediate future. If rumour is to be believed there are investors waiting in the wings for a club this size to demonstrate their potential by rising out of this division.
I can’t speak for Stewart Donald but I doubt he’s looking at the prospect of another season in League One and relishing it. I think it’s more likely he’ll kick himself if that comes to pass, but that’s just my opinion. Regardless, there’s no denying that being the owner of a Championship club provides a lot more opportunity than not.
The owners determination to spend big on Will Grigg in the dying moments of the transfer window are testament to that, in my eyes; you don’t stick your neck out to tread water at this level.
Going beyond the designs of our owner: as much as I want to claim that Sunderland fans will always be there come rain or shine it feels arrogant to assume that will be the case without some form of relative success to show for it.
Not all fans are football purists, every club of this size has a hefty part of revenue that is generated by people that aren’t content drawing games in League One. All of these things are inextricably tied with recruitment of quality players for both the playing squad and the academy, another crucial factor in our progression as an institution. It’s all one machine that requires hundreds of tiny cogs to be in place in order for it to function.
It’s easy to say “sod them - we don’t need them if they don’t want to be here” and that’s what I’d expect most fans to feel at this concept, but it’s not an opinion grounded in fact.
We do need them. We need tickets on the door and we need bums on seats, we need season card holders and people to buy sundries and merchandise, and to ensure those crucial revenue generators we need to be constantly moving forward and providing the most basic of things expected from the customer of a club - entertainment.
If that isn’t on sale then what are they paying for?
This is just one potential outcome, but if you don’t think it’s likely just cast your mind back to those uneasy final months in the Championship when you could hear a pin drop in the Stadium of Light.
Are we of the belief now that flags and red seats are enough to sustain a fan base that craves good football and wants to be proud of their city on the national platform that football creates?
It’s a fantastic start but it isn’t enough. Contentment just isn’t enough. It may well do for now, all things considered, but failing to achieve promotion at the first time of asking not only carries huge risk with it - it flies in the face of the belief that Sunderland AFC don’t belong here.
In spite of all the good work done to and for this club this season, in my eyes that puts paid to the suggestion that this year has been a success. One thing we learned in the Premier League is that stagnation is the enemy, and another season in League One is precisely that.
Nothing is written in stone yet. I would still wager that Sunderland will do the exact opposite of what I expect them to, and that’s part and parcel of being a fan. I also have no doubt that the players will give everything they have to get out of this league, and that Jack Ross will sweat bullets to make it happen, and I live in hope that it pays off.
But isn’t that half the point? If League One is such a blast, why have we been watching everyone work their arse off to get out of here?