When Saturday came around I was actually quite positive about what lay ahead for Sunderland that day. The sun was shining, the sea was glistening down at Seaburn beach, and there was just a good feeling amongst the fans I had spoken to that we could get off to the best possible start to the season when Bristol Rovers rolled into town.
I should have known better, really.
Three minutes after the ref blew his whistle we did ‘a Sunderland’ and our keeper clattered into a Rovers' player in the box, who rather theatrically tumbled to the ground and earned his side a penalty kick. Job done as far as they were concerned, and with a one-nil lead so early in the game they came and done what so many other teams have done to Sunderland since we dropped into the third tier - they wasted time, used every single trick in the book to frustrate us, and scuttled back to the west country with a point in the bag.
It’s irritating, but so often when it comes to Sunderland you feel as though you could have written the script yourself. For whatever reason - and I imagine it has something to do with our reputation and the relative size of our club, which for a team in this division makes us stick out like a sore thumb - teams treat us differently.
You don’t see the likes of Rovers turning up at Ipswich or Peterborough behaving the way they do yet, week after week, Sunderland find themselves playing up against teams who only come here to piss us off, and not play football.
We’re a soft touch and everyone in this godforsaken league knows it.
There are only really two ways you can go about trying to come out the better of that exchange - you either toughen up the core of your side, or you simply out-perform and out-play these teams across the ninety minutes, rendering their tactics useless.
Unfortunately for Sunderland, the team we fielded on Saturday was almost identical to the side that struggled to impart itself on games last season. The addition of O’Brien up top aside, that same starting eleven failed to get promoted last time out. So what’s changed?
I guess you could say that we’ve got a better team than most sides we come up against, but where we aren’t better than the majority of them is at being clever.
Bristol Rovers understand their limitations and, as such, they came to Sunderland knowing their best chance of escaping with points in tow was to come here and frustrate us.
Basically giving them a 1-0 head start helped their cause, of course, but they were smart with it. Their keeper time-wasted from virtually the first minute. They repeatedly lashed the ball way into the empty stands, away from ball boys and spectators, maximising every single second that the ball wasn’t in play. They play-acted and dove their way through the ninety minutes, and the official bought it hook, line and sinker.
Fair play to them, because it has been proven time and time again that it’s the most effective way of coming to Sunderland, crowd or no crowd, and taking something away with you. For as long as we fail to address the most glaring problems in our side, teams will continue to take the piss out of us, and Sunderland will continue to languish in League One.
We’re too soft. We’re too easy to wind up. We’re too easy to play against.
We’re one-paced. In fact, we have no pace!
We have no real height or aggression through the spine of the team.
We aren’t what you’d call a ‘strong’ side.
Can you remember the last time you watched Sunderland bully another team that wasn’t the U21s side of a Premier League club in the EFL Trophy?
We have a manager with no faith in youth, even when your best youth players have proven that they’re worth persisting with.
Until we see a real drive to improve in those areas, I’m afraid to say that we’ll see the same old shit from Sunderland, and Phil Parkinson.
We’ll labour through for the most part, and the players we do have that possess quality - like Chris Maguire - will pull us out of the mire, just like he did on Saturday, but we’ll still be a soft touch and a club that other League One sides refuse to fear. And that, as a fan who has seen this club play in the top flight for most of my years as a supporter, is hard to take.
I’m sorry to be so negative, especially after only one league game, but I really hoped that we’d see a different side to Sunderland on Saturday. I should have known better.