Post-Plymouth, having shaken the winless monkey off our backs, the ever-growing, all-consuming despair that fed off that dire set of results has retreated a little.
A little but not much. It rarely departs far from such promising prey.
It could be seen readying itself for a renewed onslaught when Plymouth equalised. It refused to be completely chastened even after Maguire’s penalty, confident that the sending off had tempered hopes that a corner had been turned. And it’s still there now, bowed but not beaten, salivating at the prospect of rearing its ugly head where the pickings are at their richest and where it has prospered so often before: the play-offs.
Of course, despair is a familiar foe to Sunderland, so much so that the city encourages people to guard against it through its motto... but in Latin, presumably out of fear that mentioning the word may have the opposite effect.
Yet there have been times when we’ve lived without this oppressive tyrant. Even times when the irrationality of despair has been replaced with the equally irrational yet, when fulfilled, immeasurably more intoxicating permanence of hope.
I’m thinking of the glory years under Reid and, briefly, under Keane when, like the replicants in Bladerunner, the light that burned twice as bright burned half as long. It’s strange to think that sheer force of personality, even one as volatile as Keane’s, could bring about such belief and banish despair. It’s just as reassuring to know how suddenly, swiftly and completely this kind of change can be brought about.
Much has already been written about the grounds for feeling hopeful under KLD’s tenure. Yet rational reasons for long-term hope struggle to gain traction when threatened by the immediacy of short-term despair.
As such, it’s the card that trumps all others.
Long-term progress needs to be built on solid foundations, but if these are at constant risk of being razed to the ground then hope remains a delusion. To prevent this self-fulfilling prophecy from being realised, it’s worth evaluating the basis for despair in order to deprive it of its excessive and wholly unearned potency.
Firstly, it comes from within.
A threadbare defence (true), pedestrian midfield (as true for us as for any other League One side), predictable attacking outlet (jury’s out but, regardless, we could only dream of so predictably successful an outlet these past few seasons) and an untried ‘streaky’ manager (where do you even start?) offer many opportunities for despair to creep in.
Any opposition goal, however fortuitous and against the run of play, becomes the prelude to an inevitable defeat rather than a mere setback to be overcome on the path to victory.
Every promising move that breaks down through an over-hit cross elicits the knowing shake of the head and the frustrated certainty that our only chance has been blown.
In Francis Spufford’s latest novel, Light Perpetual, there’s a great description of the emotion emitted by faltering attacks: “An enormous deep disappointed ooooooo comes up out of every throat... like they’ve all, together, turned into one big animal, angry or sad. Angry about being sad.”
My memory’s not what it used to be, as far as I can remember, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t sound like that against Sheffield Utd in the 1998 play-offs.
So, do we have any grounds for transmitting belief and positivity?
At any given League One club you don’t have to look too closely to find cause for concern. It doesn’t feel too long ago that Honeyman fulfilled that role for some, yet he’s been one of the standout players in the team of the league champion.
Yes, we could bemoan the weakened defence or we could see the return of Hume, Wright and McLaughlin as a huge boost to a defence that has shown signs of regaining its earlier organisation. Further upfield Stewart, Diamond and Jones offer a dynamic alternative if the predictable McGeady-Wyke partnership is nullified. And there’s always the riddle (or is it just a burger) wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma that is Maguire.
The external threat offers even less convincing grounds for despair.
Do two narrow defeats against Blackpool make a 3rd (and maybe a 4th) a nailed on certainty? We more than matched them in those games and can approach any potential rematch with confidence. Compared to our last dalliance with the play-offs neither Portsmouth nor Charlton, despite Tuesday’s impressive win, seem as threatening an opponent.
We’ve also dealt with Lincoln comfortably already this season. Oxford could be the underestimated dark horses, full of righteous indignation over the tunnel incident, but I’d still fancy our chances.
Purely on football terms, ignoring supposed psychological advantages that the likes of Charlton and Blackpool may have over us, we should and can be a match for any of these.
That’s not to complacently say we’ll win.
There’ll be difficulties in the coming games whichever way they eventually fall.
Yet within games, in the short-term, and beyond this season, in the long term, it would be worth remembering the words of Franklin D Roosevelt, presumably a lads fan anticipating the 1937 cup run, ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself’.