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What makes Sunderland a club with pedigree?

Is it the size and passion of the fanbase, a track record at the top of the game, trophies, or a certain je ne sais quoi that gives a football club its prestige?

Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images

All Sunderland fans agree that we have had a very convincing start to the season. There is an irrepressible confidence running through the team; a young, hungry and talented squad of players has been assembled in a methodical fashion by Kristjaan Speakman, Lee Johnson and the backroom staff. The signals sent out are positive and it appears to everyone now that we are already being run like a Championship club, with higher ambitions.

The Black Cats’ 100% home record is the basis on which our success so far has been built, and to me it is no coincidence that our fans are back in the stadium. A crowd of 32,368 for the narrow win against Bolton Wanderers on 25 September tells its own story.

The 5-0 pounding we gave to Cheltenham a few days later shows the confidence running through the whole squad. The Portsmouth reverse, under ridiculous pitch conditions, will turn out to be a blip, I am sure.

Sunderland v Cheltenham Town - Sky Bet League One Photo by Will Matthews/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

I firmly believe that there is no pleasure without pain; some of the disappointment and suffering of the past few seasons makes the current position close to the top of League One seem even more satisfying.

As a very long-term fan and observer of this remarkable football club, I take nothing for granted - this is not an easy league to get out of as we have discovered over the past 4 years, despite competing in the lottery of the play-offs for 3 of those seasons. We have a better chance of automatic promotion this season than for some years.

The Sunday Times of 12 September informed the British public that, after our win over the lively Accrington Stanley with excellent goals from Dan Neil and Carl Winchester, we have had our best start since 1925.

That is great, of course – there is a real, palpable momentum behind the team at present – but I am very happy to support a team that has such a strong history. We have spent 86 of the years since 1879 in the top division of English football, and 30 years in the second tier, where we want to be back as soon as possible.

Sunderland Team & trophy Photo by Paul Barker - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images

I have been pondering recently which clubs have “pedigree”, and which do not, and how that term is defined outside the animal world. Clearly, Sunderland AFC does have that quality, a form of ancestry that we as supporters can be proud of, and not just because we have spent so many years in the top league.

We have an amazing history; Manchester City finally joined us on a total of six top league titles after they won the Premier League in 2020-21. Although the trophy record does play a part in a club having a certain pedigree, it is more than just that.

I may prove be very opinionated on this topic but would suggest that the following factors are important...

Having spent significant time in the English top tier

This is where I would argue that many of our opposing teams in League One do not have much of a pedigree. The ones that do clearly have this quality include Bolton, Charlton, Ipswich, Portsmouth and Sheffield Wednesday.

There are ongoing debates about which club are the true spiritual descendants of the 1988 F.A. Cup winning Wimbledon “Crazy Gang” outfit, but I reckon that the current Plough Lane incumbents have the best claim to that genetic line.

The memorable time “The Wombles” spent in the top-flight from 1986 - 2000 definitely conferred a certain pedigree; that team had an inimitable team spirit and style of play which yielded an F.A. Cup win.

Away fans who experienced the toilets in the original Plough Lane may be tempted to disagree with the label, but Wimbledon managed to prosper in that period despite the local Wimbledon Council not really wanting them to be there.

Soccer - Sunderland v Wimbledon
Kevin Ball and Vinnie Jones challenge for the ball in a top-flight match between the original Wimbledon and SAFC
Photo by David Hewitson/EMPICS via Getty Images

Winning the league or major trophies

This is where sides like Wigan, Sheffield United, Ipswich and Portsmouth have good claims to have top-class pedigree.

Championship teams like Huddersfield are a surprise inclusion as they won the League three times and an FA Cup the 1920s, twice under the legendary Bert Chapman. Oxford United won the League Cup in 1986, so they would qualify.

But for this reason, I would struggle to include Bournemouth or Reading in the high pedigree category; the latter joined the Football League in 1920 but despite beating Sunderland’s record Championship points haul of 105 in 2006, they did not establish themselves in the top league.

It would be snobbish to call such teams pretenders or upstarts, but you get my gist.

Soccer - FA Cup - Semi Final - Sunderland v Huddersfield Town
Raich Carter of Sunderland during the 1938 FA Cup Semi Final at Ewood Park, Blackburn
Photo by Barratts/PA Images via Getty Images

The fanbase, the ground, and matchday experience

Some teams do have a really passionate set of fans; the Red and White Army does set an amazing example in any league and we currently play before home crowds that are bigger than any of the present Championship clubs.

This is one reason why Glasgow Celtic are such popular visitors for pre-season friendlies; the club brings massed hordes of supporters to away games - there are apparently 160 Celtic supporters clubs in over 20 countries.

In 2003, an estimated 80,000 Celtic fans travelled to Seville for the UEFA Cup Final, and their “extraordinarily loyal and sporting behaviour” in spite of defeat earned the club Fair Play awards from FIFA and UEFA. Away fans were well-represented in at the SSoL in July 2017 when we lost 0-5 to Celtic, just ahead of the disastrous Championship campaign when Ellis Short effectively pulled the plug on our club.

01/10/09 EUROPA LEAGUE.CELTIC v RAPID VIENNA (1-1).CELTIC PARK - GLASGOW.Aiden McGeady in action for Celtic (Photo by Steve Welsh\SNS Group via Getty Images) Photo by Steve Welsh\SNS Group via Getty Images

We are isolated in some ways being so far north, so cannot expect too many visiting fans from, say Plymouth or Gillingham. But when Sheffield Wednesday come to the SoL, the atmosphere will be different, with a good representation of away fans.

To me, it makes a difference when Sunderland fans visit a team that has a history, a decent ground, fans that care, and a good atmosphere - if the town or city is buzzing, and there is a good, friendly rivalry, it makes the day.

The contrast can be seen, though, when we play away at say, Accrington Stanley, Fleetwood Town or other clubs which have grounds that cannot accommodate our away following. The “my garden shed is bigger than this” chant is completely appropriate in these circumstances, but of course we are where are for a whole range of reasons, and such clubs love to try to turn us over, as we found to our cost in the 2-2 draw at Fleetwood in mid-September.

[Ed’s note (Rich) - Many of us love away days at Accrington, Crewe, Shrewsbury, etc, and find the “garden shed” stuff mildly embarrassing... a proper little ground with a few thousand die-hards is better than visiting an industrial estate on the edge of Bolton or Milton Keynes, IMO]

Fleetwood Town v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Fan Participation

I am pleased to support a club that has managed a difficult feat – that of getting closer to its fans. The International Fans’ Day in February 2020, the vision of SAFSCA North America member John Ellington, both illustrated how big our overseas following is, but also their commitment, especially after the Netflix documentary “Sunderland ‘til I Die” aired.

We have the re-kindled Supporters Collective Meeting with published minutes, where topics are dealt with honestly and issues, for example with the ticket office, are acknowledged and fan opinions canvassed.

This club is not simply a juggernaut that moves forward without input from supporters. We have a vibrant and vigorous fan media, with plenty of choices for fans of different tastes and opinions.

Sunderland AFC is a club with footballing principles: fair play on the field, doing things the right way off the field. We may not be in the Premiership at present but are part of the DNA of English football, with an amazing history and some great rivalries built up over the years.

My formative years as a Black Cats fan were the ones leading up to the 1973 FA Cup final; history was made that day and at times in the game, we toyed with one of the country’s top teams.

I take encouragement from the fact that Manchester City, Southampton, Wolves and Aston Villa have found themselves in the third-tier predicament that we currently experience. With pedigree, as defined above, there comes a certain expectation that we will get it right on the field, and with 8 wins from 11 league games, the signs are positive.

Gillingham v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images


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