There’s a tradition, to which I don’t subscribe, that treats the last game of the season as a kind of carnival, fancy-dress sort of affair. Where Sunderland’s concerned, and this year was definitely no exception, this puts me in mind of my favourite Viz Top Tip: ‘Mourners. Read the dress code on funeral invitations very carefully. Sombre, whilst being only two letters away from sombrero, is a world apart in tone.’
For Sunderland fans, the curtain that draws the season to a close is more akin to that which shields coffins in crematoriums rather than a celebratory closure to a well-received entertainment extravaganza.
These last few years, the final match of the season typically falls into one of two categories: loaded, nerve-shredding affairs with too much riding on the outcome or a sadistic prolonging of the pain after yet another disappointing season. (A special mention should go to the 2017-18 season for being the exception that proves the rule by showcasing a third category, the deceptive ‘false dawn’, in an impressive 3-0 win against the runaway champions.)
Mexican cultural appropriation is a frivolous luxury we can ill-afford on such solemn occasions. Any fans attired in this manner after the play-off second leg against Lincoln would be exhibit A in the cast-iron case refuting the assertion from the irrepressibly upbeat Vince Noir, out of the Mighty Boosh, that ‘it’s impossible to be unhappy in a poncho’.
Yet the post-season period, before the harsh light of pre-season fixtures ruins the undeveloped film of our hopes, is arguably the best time to be a Sunderland fan, what with no actual football to ruin the experience and all that. This year, the cathartic, comforting thought that somehow things will be different next season has a lot more going for it. A new ‘ownership team’ with a plan for doing things differently, already demonstrated by a purgative cleanse of the current playing staff as well as through seemingly astute appointments to aid the club’s future development, encourages the feeling that the usual post-season optimism is more than just a mirage.
So with everything looking so peachy, now is possibly the opportune time to steel ourselves against future disappointment by considering ‘what could possibly go wrong’?
There’s always a honeymoon period under new ownership so, barring any disastrous decisions out of character with their approach so far, next season will be too early to judge whether the KLD-era is destined to succeed or doomed to fail. The root-and-branch foundational rebuild that will continue long into next season also points towards judgement being deferred. For managers, however, the honeymoon period can be as short as a sordid weekend city break in a budget hotel chain. That certainly seems to be the case with Lee Johnson, who must be looking back wistfully to his honeymoon period of only two or three months ago now that some supporters have started prematurely filing for divorce.
As a manager of a League One club, there’d be huge questions about his ambition if there were absolutely no questions about his ability. He can be infuriatingly cautious in his approach when things aren’t going well and he risks acquiring a reputation as a flat-track bully.
Importantly though, the new regime clearly has confidence in him for the long term.
It’s critical that Johnson continues his learning curve in an environment in which he can take a few risks. He certainly attempted that in his team selection for the play-off second leg. We’ll prosper if Johnson is able to further his development by becoming more fluent in reading game situations and in striking the right balance, at the right time, between exercising caution and throwing it to the wind.
It’s a fine line between having the courage of your convictions and persevering with a failing plan. If he’s able to learn how to accurately identify when to stick and when to twist, something that only comes with experience, then it will greatly enhance his reputation over the coming season.
With so many players released by the club, next season will offer some insight into the effectiveness of the new regime’s data-driven recruitment strategy. It will be too early to judge some of the new recruits, especially those brought in with an eye on future development, but fans will be expecting to see certain glaring deficiencies addressed. Height and pace count for little if the technical ability is lacking but these are attributes that we’ve been missing in a League where such qualities can make the difference. The January signings of Stewart and Jones seem to acknowledge this but the real test will come in this summer’s recruitment drive. With practically an entire midfield incoming it would be progress of sorts if the new recruits were chosen for reasons beyond being available and ‘able to plug a gap’.
It’s been a while since a Sunderland side, whether successful or not, had a clear identity and style of play. In fact, seeing Bridcutt reprising his pivot role (if not his pivotal one) for Lincoln, made me wonder whether the Poyet-era was the last such example. The talk from on high suggests a long-overdue attempt to instil a clearly defined footballing philosophy throughout the club. Such ambition is to be applauded but it will take time and canny recruitment. The social contract between club and fans involves patience, on our part, being conditional not on instant success but upon clear evidence of an emerging identity and style of play that fans can buy into. It shouldn’t take long, following the summer’s recruitment, to discern whether the club’s impressive words look capable of being translated into tangible deeds.
Finally, a key part of our success or failure this year will be in the hands of our long-suffering supporters. After years of failure, it’s a perfectly natural instinct to guard against such failure becoming the norm and readily accepted.
However, this can all too easily swing to the extreme of seeing every defeat as unacceptable and accompanying it with rash demands for change. Such an atmosphere isn’t conducive to a long-term experiment in reshaping the culture of the club yet that is what’s being embarked upon. League One defeats hurt more than most but we’ll, unfortunately, have to get used to a few.
Given the early stages of the club’s experiment, some of these are likely to be in the early games of the season. Promoted clubs lose a lot of games at this level. Just look at Lincoln and Blackpool who have each lost over a quarter of their games in the regular season yet one of them is still going up. The willingness and ability of fans to embrace delayed gratification, and to reject the temptation of a change of personnel at the first signs of difficulty (always tempting until you consider the viable replacements at this level), will most likely determine the success or failure of the KLD revolution.