When I was a bairn, I remember my dad taking me to a Sunderland game against Spurs and - in typical Sunderland fashion - we were playing dreadfully. Watching the game, I made the point, saying to my dad, “we’re doing terrible”, only for the bloke sat next to me to turn around and say, “I’m sorry, but you’ve got another fifty years of this left”.
Although it hasn’t quite been fifty years, I can safely say that I’m yet to prove that bloke at the match’s comment wrong.
It almost feels like treason to say that when the season was cancelled at the start of lockdown, I was secretly relieved. I wouldn’t have to watch lacklustre League One football, listen to the moans and groans of Barnsey and Benno on the radio and scroll through the despair of fellow supporters on social media. If lockdown was going to be a long and unprecedented time of stress and uncertainty, I certainly did not want the mercurially ominous addition of watching Sunderland play.
Although I harboured the feeling of relief about the men’s team having their season voided, I was upset and frustrated for Sunderland Ladies. Once again, they’ve suffered another setback by having their season prematurely curtailed, despite an absolutely spectacular run in which they would have certainly won the league and gained promotion.
However, lockdown has provided me with something unique: the ability to enjoy a football match. I’ve tried to watch as much football as possible and loved it. Without the constant nagging feeling in the back of your head that Sunderland are playing and almost certainly disappointing, football has become enjoyable.
Since the restart, I’ve had the strained pleasure of watching my housemate (a die-hard Leeds fan) see his side earn promotion to the Premier League and win the Championship. Although he is a Leeds fan (which isn’t ideal) seeing the emotion on his face watching every game made me realise that I’m not missing Sunderland play in the slightest.
The feeling was replicated last week, which saw a dramatic final day in the Championship. Up until the very last kick of every game, no one knew for definite who was to be automatically promoted, reach the play-offs or get relegated. From a neutral standpoint, it was utterly thrilling to watch and try and keep track of. My housemate and I were shouting scores at each other through the walls, “Swansea have scored another!”, “Barnsley have bloody got one!”
I have a mate who is a Luton fan who was torn with nerves in the build-up to their final game. He was ecstatic when Luton pulled it out the bag last minute to dodge relegation. Similarly, a friend who is a Stoke fan was more confused than anything when Stoke suddenly started hammering goals in against play-off hopefuls Nottingham Forest.
Watching these matches and feeling that excitement was thrilling, and to be honest I haven’t felt the same watching Sunderland in the past season. It became a bit of a running joke when mates would ask how Sunderland had done and how they had embarrassed themselves this time. I haven’t felt raw emotion watching Sunderland play since the play-off final last season.
When Charlton scored that last-minute decider, I was completely dumbfounded. I sat in a silence that was only broken once my dad said, “What did you expect?”
It felt as though I’d been misled to believe that we were capable, and that we would do it. A year later, it feels silly to admit that at that moment, I had genuinely believed that we could get promoted.
It was announced on Friday that the start of the season would commence on September 12 this year and honestly, I’m struggling to care too much about it. Maybe I’ve become desensitised to Sunderland’s consistent mundane football; perhaps as soon as I see it again I’ll re-emerge as that fan who will follow Sunderland in blind faith and hope, only to be let down once again.
As you’re reading this you’re probably thinking I’m being far too negative and I’m moping incessantly, but at the time of writing I’m currently struggling to think of any reasons to be cheerful about next season. Stewart Donald is still at the helm, academy assets have been sold off and the likelihood of any decent signings seems unlikely. To top it all off, a chap called William Storey has alleged he’s made an offer for Sunderland.
There’s a reason why other football fans hope that their club ‘Don’t do a Sunderland’.
I feel similarly about Sunderland Ladies, a side who have been hard done by over the past few years - I’m worried about them. Whilst they’ve proven time and time again that they are a strong, competent and winning machine, a few vital cogs have departed over recent weeks. Players like Bridget Galloway, Charlotte Potts and Mollie Lambert have gone elsewhere, and although I have no doubt that Melanie Reay will have a few ideas up her sleeve, these departures are disheartening.
As the Premier League season winds down and every football fan looks forward to the start of the 2020/21 season, I’m struggling to at the moment. Lockdown has showed me that football is enjoyable and isn’t the miserable affair that I’m used to at the Stadium of Light at 3 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon. As far as I’m concerned, September 12 can wait a little bit longer.