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Soccer - Nationwide League Division One - Play-Off Final - Charlton Athletic v Sunderland

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Reader’s Corner: It’s the hope I *can* stand!

Regardless of how this season ends up, the future most definitely looks bright, believes Roker Report reader Matt Smith. Fancy writing something? - send us an email!

Photo by Michael Steele/EMPICS via Getty Images

As dusk begins to descend on yet another League One season, and with Sunderland well placed to secure an automatic promotion place, there are high hopes that the dawn of a new season will see us awake, badly hungover and squinting, into the glare of the sunlit uplands of the Championship (with even higher hopes of renewing Tyne-Wear derby hostilities).

After a grim, punishing few years at this level it would be perverse to hope for anything less.

The fact that such hopes seem palpably attainable only makes it more difficult to resist indulging them.

Indeed, at the time of writing, speculation is already emerging of how much money KLD is willing to commit to compete in the second tier that remains tantalisingly near yet, definitively, so far.

We’ve been here, or places like it, many times before but this time feels different. It’s not the buoyancy of the hope that’s different or even the likelihood of it being fulfilled.

Hope, in defiance of all logic, tends to flourish to the same extent in both the most fertile and most barren of situations in which we’ve found ourselves.

No, what’s different is that there isn’t the usual accompanying dread of despair if said hopes fail to materialise.

The prospect of another year in League One, the wooden spoon of dashed hopes, holds far fewer fears now. It’s not what I’d choose but, with the 1998-99 season in mind, it may actually be the best possible outcome, in the long term.

With what currently looks like a three-way fight for two automatic promotion slots, the current season looks similar to that of 1997-98.

Soccer - Nationwide League Division One - Play-Off Second Leg - Sunderland v Sheffield United
1997-98: So close...
Photo by Michael Steele/EMPICS via Getty Images

Then, as now, we were competing with a ‘Boro’ (albeit a far posher one today) for the top two.

Today the club is under new ownership, back then it had a new home.

Most importantly though, in both seasons Sunderland was embarking upon an attempt to redefine and cement its identity.

In the aftermath of that play-off final the comforting reassurance of the direction of this wider arc of history wasn’t immediately apparent but, as Quinn himself has since said, the defeat was a blessing in disguise.

At the time, admittedly, as I only just caught the last train back to Finsbury Park after a sorrow-drowning night in Covent Garden and spent many an hour on the Seven Sisters Road looking for my mate’s flat (which wasn’t on Seven Sisters Road), the disguise had me well and truly fooled.

However, if I was aware of the film that had only just been released, the sliding doors of the tube through which I managed to somehow squeeze my ample frame should’ve given me pause for thought on the often indistinguishable fine line between triumph and disaster.

I don’t mean between me catching and not catching that last train: unlike Gwyneth Paltrow’s parallel life experiences in the film the only difference for me would’ve been a lighter wallet due to being fleeced by a cabbie yet still having no idea where my mate lived.

Instead, it may have made me reflect on the challenges awaiting us if we had won that day as well as the possibilities offered by continuing our renaissance away from the goldfish bowl pressures of the Premier League.

Michael Gray of Sunderland
...yet so far. But in hindsight did it do us a favour?

The contrasting fortunes of both Charlton and Sunderland in the 1998-99 season raise the question of who really ‘won’ the play-off final. Yes, I know Charlton did but what I mean is who ‘really’ won it? OK, yes, it was still Charlton but I stand by the point I’m labouring to make.

Obviously I’m not arguing that we should forget about promotion this year. Worrying about competing in the Championship is very different from surviving in the Premier League where both finances and fan patience are more quickly exhausted.

Instead I’m merely commenting on the comforting thought that failure this year shouldn’t dampen enthusiasm for the direction in which the club is hopefully headed.

The KLD vision, justified but definitely not ancient, needs time and patience to enable it to be realised.

Promotion may, counterintuitively, harm the project by unreasonably raising expectations of instant success.

I’m confident that such welcome storms can be weathered but it’s an uncharacteristically comfortable position to be in as a Sunderland fan when disaster, for so long a permanent lodger, can be so easily dismissed as the imposter it is.


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