The 2017-18 season was the worst I can remember in my 35 years of actively supporting Sunderland.
The 1986-87 campaign was my first, and while I remember the disappointment of relegation I wasn’t that aware of the context. And, to be fair, a number of the players in that team – Hesford, Gray, Bennett, Agboola, Doyle, Armstrong, Gates, Lemon and Bertschin, to name a few, played a big part in getting us up the following season. And then some.
The 2005-06 season was a shocker, however, the players were simply out of their depth. We only had a handful of people capable of playing in the top flight – as their careers subsequently showed. Mick McCarthy was badly let down by Bob Murray and wasted whatever money he had to spend anyway. When Andy Gray is your leading striker you’re in for a season of trouble. Sprinkle on top a gutless Anthony Le Tallec and you get what you deserve.
But the 2017-18 season was worse. Far worse.
There was nothing redeeming about it at all. From the faded pink seats to James Vaughan’s inflated ego; Simon Grayson’s mixed-up metaphors to Jason Steele’s f**ked-up goalkeeper impersonations, it was a catastrophe from start to finish.
The squad of players we had should have been good enough to compete for a play-off place at least. But off the field unrest, combined with pathetically poor management from Simon Grayson and then Chris Coleman, saw an abject group of individuals be drained of all confidence. And we suffered.
One glimmer of hope in a sea of absolute shit, of course, came at Ashton Gate against a Bristol City side managed by Lee Johnson and captained by Bailey Wright.
Going into the game on the back of three wins, one draw and eight defeats since Chris Coleman took over, the game was still one we went into thinking ‘is today our day?’ A win could set us back on the right track – three points here could set us up for a strong run to save the season. After all, we were only two points off safety – still plenty of time, and plenty of games, to go.
Of course, after 37 minutes, that seemed the stuff of fantasy.
3-0 down – and we were lucky to get nil, as they say.
First up, our defence stood still as a long free-kick was floated into the box. The Hapless Lee Camp watched on as centre back Aden Flint was allowed to take approximately 7,322 touches, leave Ashton Gate to pay a visit to his elderly aunt in a nearby care home, return and stab the ball home. 1-0, five minutes on the clock.
Just after the half-hour, Famara Diedhiou made it two. A flowing move through the centre of the pitch set him free inside the box. The Hapless Lee Camp raced out of goal, Diedhiou sidestepped him and fired high into the net over The Hapless Clark-Salter.
Minutes later he almost made it three – he was inches away from connecting with Reid’s ball across the box. Not to be deterred, seconds later he did net. A quick City counter caught the defence all over the shop, and the ball in from the right fell to the feet of Diedhiou, who sidefooted past The Hapless Lee Camp.
3-0, and cries of ‘You’re Not Fit To Wear The Shirt’ belted down from the away end. Breaking point? You bet.
City came out in the second half intent on adding to the scoreline – indeed Diedhiou did, completing his hat-trick, however, he’d – perhaps needlessly – used his hand, so the scoreline remained the same.
With 20 minutes left we’d ‘hung on’ and not conceded – Cattermole firing our best chance over from a half-decent position.
Then, we grabbed a consolation – Jones’ cross from the right was headed against the crossbar by Lee Cattermole, only for it to rebound off the onrushing Brownhill. 3-1. And just over ten minutes later it was Cattermole who was influential again. His rehearsed free kick routine found McGeady, who slotted it home for a second.
And then in injury time, it happened. Asoro burst through on the right and fired across a ball which deflected off Pack and into the net. 3-3 and delirium in the away end.
It could, and should, have been four. Deep, deep into injury time, Ethan Robson’s effort was parried away and The Hapless Ashley Fletcher contrived to fire the loose ball back at the keeper.
Hope. We could smell it, taste it, touch it. Albeit briefly.
Sunderland: Camp, Jones, Browning, O’Shea, Clarke-Salter, Oviedo (Lua Lua 59), Honeyman (McGeady 71), Cattermole, Ejaria (Robson 83), Fletcher, Asoro. Subs not used: Steele, Love, Gooch, Maja.
After the game, Lee Johnson told the BBC:
It’s probably poor decision-making by me. I have to hold my hands up and say, tactically, I got it wrong in the second half.
I should have settled for 3-0. I probably got excited and felt they were there for the taking.
We had chances but we crumbled. I should have given the lads a bit more help and put another midfielder on at 3-1, and changed it up a bit.
So, my fault, and apologies. To lose those two points is very, very frustrating.
Chris Coleman said:
I didn’t see the first 45 minutes coming. I thought we would have learned our lesson from the last couple of games but we clearly hadn’t.
The fight-back was fantastic. We got booed off at half-time - and rightly so - but the players earned the three points themselves.
It is a matter of mentality and you must never give up, no matter how bad it is. It is about responsibility and accountability and they showed some courage.
No-one else is going to help us. There are enough games and enough points to take care of ourselves.