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Sunderland v Lincoln City - Sky Bet League One Play-off Semi Final 2nd Leg

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Editorial: It hurts like hell, Sunderland fans, but we can’t let disappointment consume us

We all want success. We all yearn for it. We want our club back where it belongs. Nothing more, nothing less. But keeping this faith means keeping our heads.

Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

It just hurts so much. As this strangest of Sunderland seasons ends, a lingering mixture of disappointment and frustration swirls around; amorphous but potent, and when it crystallises it does so as depression or anger. And what a state we’ve found ourselves in.

We invest our hopes and dreams, and put a large chunk of our free time, money and emotional energy into this club, and it never fails to find new ways to kick us for the privilege.

A decade of decay resulting in a fourth season in the wilderness of League One.

As the fanbase emerged on Sunday, bleary-eyed and morose, after an evening that many of us switched off from football and found short-lived conciliation at the bottom of a bottle, it was difficult to comprehend what we’d witnessed the previous afternoon.

Reality has now dawned on us, and how we react is important.

Sunderland v Lincoln City - Sky Bet League One Play-off Semi Final 2nd Leg Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

It is natural and right that we fans ask tough questions about the performance of both the Head Coach and the players; we know that Sunderland should have been good enough to go up this season – we have by far the largest playing budget of any League One side, Lincoln rank in the bottom half on those terms.

We also know that we are where we are not, primarily, because of Lee Johnson, Max Power or Charlie Wyke. It is due to the chronic and scandalous mismanagement of our club on and off the pitch for over a decade, and I remain confident that Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and the new board, working with the fans and the community, will be able to take the club a long way forward over the medium and long term.

Johnson certainly needs to reflect on his own mistakes and failings, and it’s down to Kristjaan Speakman to ensure that the Head Coach’s performance is evaluated fully and that potential improvements are identified and implemented.

The primary goal for this season has not been achieved, but the mitigating factors – including inheriting a poorly-recruited and ageing squad coming to the end of their contracts, the club being kept on life-support before taken over during the transfer window, the fact we ended the season with just two half-fit defenders – cannot be discounted lightly.

Nevertheless, we were, ultimately and despite the talents and experience we could still put on the pitch, simply not good enough to go up.

That needs to be put right and fast, but I am not calling for Johnson out.

I remain open to being convinced, over this summer and into next season, that Johnson - with his famous philosophy - is indeed the right coach to take up into the Championship and perhaps beyond.

It would, in my view, be counter-productive and destabilising to the plan to change the manager again. It would be to go against what Louis-Dreyfus and Speakman have both said publicly.

But then you and I are not the owner or Sporting Director of Sunderland AFC.

Sunderland v Lincoln City - Sky Bet League One Play-off Semi Final 2nd Leg Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

We have, collectively as a fanbase, through our live streams, seen more minutes of Sunderland AFC games this season than ever before; we know the shortcomings of our playing squad more thoroughly than perhaps we ever have and maybe ever will.

This group of players have grown on us; we’d already taken Luke O’Nien to our hearts and we fell in love with the classy Dion Sanderson. Will Grigg never did ignite but, Sí Senõr, Charlie Wyke briefly lived up to the promise of what were, for a long time, mildly ironic lyrics to the adopted chant. His 31 goals, the reintroduction of Aiden McGeady, and the passion, resilience and commitment of Grant Leadbitter, will be fondly remembered in years to come, no doubt.

But this is absolutely the end of a chapter, perhaps the real end of the Stewart Donald era, and we should expect a very different Sunderland side to emerge to challenge once more when August comes. It could be a very interesting and exciting summer of comings and goings at the Academy of Light.

We all have a role to play in the future of our club too; if we want to be an active partner with Louis-Dreyfus through the new Trust and other fan groups, we need to stand strong together and stay calm in the face of this still raw and painful setback.

Fans have the opportunity to lead the reshaping of our game, and we need to ready ourselves to engage ever closer in the club if we want to play an active role in rebuilding it and the rest of English and European football.

On Saturday we witnessed the power that can be generated by thousands of Sunderland supporters inside the Stadium of Light; the fans fired up the team to the point that, for a short while, we all thought that we would win through to Wembley. For the players to be unable to keep it up for 95 minutes was no fault of the crowd, who sang ‘til their throats were sore and clapped ‘til their palms were bruised.

Sunderland v Lincoln City - Sky Bet League One Play-off Semi Final 2nd Leg Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

Unfortunately, we have also seen how the behaviour of a small but vocal minority outside the ground and online can overshadow what was, despite everything, a momentous day.

We’ve all watched those videos and - blinking in almost disbelief - those tweets, verbally abusing Johnson and Wyke, and comparing our loyal club captain to Hitler; they bring shame on our club and it’s heartening to see the near-universal condemnation amongst the real Sunderland faithful.

Given what we’ve all been through over the last 14 months, let alone the decade of decline and failure that preceded it, this conduct has only added a level of disgust and divisiveness to the already gloomy post-season hangover.

How we conduct ourselves individually and collectively, online and offline, is really important. We rightly ridicule our dear neighbours for their irrational and overblown reactions to setbacks, their sense of entitlement and delusions of grandeur, their vile abuse of their half-decent manager, not to mention their willingness to become the backdrop for the sports-washing brand of a murderous dictatorship.

Yet we’re kidding ourselves if we can’t see the same small-minded, ignorant, petty, mentality amongst some of those around us as fans, physically and virtually.

And when we see and hear it, we have to continue to call it out. Vitriol cannot sustain us, and it certainly can’t help produce positive change at the club or results on the pitch.

We should go into next season with hope and expectation, and we’ve the Euros to distract us in the meantime. Nil Desperandum!


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