The close season always leaves a bittersweet taste. Gone is the nail-biting tension and, more often than not, the gut-wrenching despair of the regular season. In its place are the more tranquil emotions generated by a languid Test cricket series (unless England’s top order are batting) and the endless theoretical possibilities, aided by the necessary temporary suspension of disbelief, that accompanies the annual grinding of the transfer rumour mill.
Essentially it feels like prolonged exposure to the uncomfortable truth of the season just gone has led us all to seek solace in the blue pill of delusional bliss. Yet for all the essential escapism this provides, it feels like something critical is missing. It’s a strange longing that craves the shattering of comforting delusions and the amplification of daily anxiety but it’s a yearning for a genuine, pulse-racing reality however awful it may, and probably will, prove to be.
Even in the even years in which we’re treated to a major international football tournament in the form of either the World Cup or Euros (though, oddly, this year we get one in an odd, in every sense of the word, year) the summer international match day experience feels like an ersatz version of the bona fide SAFC-supporting original. Like a Hollywood remake of a low budget cult classic, everything feels slicker and glossier but, ultimately, a little bit soulless.
No matter the focus or cause of your own particular patriotism, be it accident of birth, fond holiday memories or a holy grail-esque quest to find the country’s shiny badge from a Panini sticker-album of yesteryear, it’s no match for parochialism in the endless club v country debate.
That’s not, by any means, to disparage or diminish the experience. These tournaments provide a sugar-rush of excitement where your own particular nation’s fortunes are concerned, with the added bonus of football-drenched TV-coverage for the duration. Like taking a page-turning thriller on holiday, it serves the essential purpose of being a leisurely, enjoyable simulacrum of something more demanding and meaningful.
So it’s never really a case of club v country where these tournaments are concerned. Even if loyalties were torn, the nature of the competition rarely throws up a situation in which you’re forced to choose. The closest I can think of was mixed emotions when Sørensen uncharacteristically made a meal out of clearing Rio Ferdinand’s header in the 2002 World Cup, or maybe secretly hoping for a tournament-ending injury for Shearer, just a mild one obviously, to give Phillips some game-time in Euro 2000.
I’m expecting nothing remotely conflicting in my loyalties with the upcoming Euros though. The gulf between the level of the tournament and our own level is wider than I’ve ever known it to be. With no Sunderland representatives among the competing nations, barring some spectacular late transfer activity, it may prove a challenge to muster genuine interest (at least we had Oviedo at the 2018 World Cup). For, typically, I’m used to watching these tournaments through red and white (rosé?) tinted glasses. It’s much more a case of countries through club rather than club v country.
The epitome of this, for me, was the aforementioned 2002 World Cup. Not only were Sunderland players well represented but, in those heady days, transfer gossip of varying degrees of credence provided SAFC interest beyond currently contracted players. Furthermore, Reid’s presence as a pundit made everyone a potential summer transfer target. None more so than Gerardo Torrado, pronounced in impeccable Scouse, who was a particular target of Reid’s gushing praise. Being the closet hipster he is, Reid was also reportedly casting covetous glances towards a pair of Belgians, Bart Goor and Gert Verheyen, long before it became boringly fashionable to do so.
Watching games through an SAFC filter didn’t always stimulate interest. Watching Denmark, it quickly dawned on me that a game struggles to hold your attention when your only interest is in one of the keepers (unless you happened to take the Job Dahl Tomasson rumours seriously).
- Jordan Henderson of England Photo by Patrick Elmont - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images
- Jordan Pickford of England Photo by Patrick Elmont - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images
- Jonny Williams of Wales Photo by Jan Kruger - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images
- John McLaughlin of Scotland Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group
- Craig Gordon of Scotland Photo by Fran Santiago/Getty Images
- Seb Larsson of Sweden Photo by Michael Campanella - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images
- Jason Denayer of Belgium Photo by Alexander Scheuber - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images
There’s a lesson here for any Sunderland fans watching England in the Euros this summer when Henderson isn’t playing. You can’t rely on Pickford to generate interest, so ambivalence towards England is a luxury you can’t afford: if you haven’t got a dog in their particular fights then you’ll need to pick one I’m afraid.
There’s always a Sunderland connection, however tenuous, whenever the Republic of Ireland are involved. As such, their absence will be keenly felt this year but in 2002 their squad included McAteer, Kilbane and Quinn. Despite this interest, and the Gary Kelly rumours, it was only Kilbane who got significant game time. Now, I probably warmed to Kilbane more than the average Sunderland fan did, but there’s only so long that you can dine out on that overhead kick at Southampton.
Instead, notwithstanding Patrick M’Boma’s appearances and goal for Cameroon, it was Reyna’s USA that held the biggest draw from a SAFC perspective. This provided the only real club v country dilemma.
On the one hand the USA administration at the time, fronted by Dubya but with the likes of Rumsfeld and Karl Rove pulling the strings, were pursuing a dangerously neo-conservative foreign policy. On the other hand, Sunderland’s finest was bossing things in the middle of the park. I drew the line at Bud for breakfast but, other than that, I temporarily hitched a ride on the irony-free ‘land of the free’ bandwagon.
So, beyond your particular patriotic pull and the opportunity to enjoy football in a less tense atmosphere, what attraction do the coming Euros hold for Sunderland fans? There’s the English Jordans, obviously, but this may offer some conflict of interest for those of a more Celtic persuasion and/or those with an ongoing Brexit beef.
There’s the wider Sunderland alumni interest in the likes of Craig Gordon, McLaughlin and Mignolet, whilst bearing in mind that there’s little entertainment in keeper-watching, as well as van Aanholt, Jonny Williams and the evergreen Seb Larsson.
Overall, though, the Euros offers a welcome opportunity to watch a standard of football that has been denied to us for many a year. And, who knows, maybe there’ll be a decent, marauding North Macedonian full-back, a pacey and assured Slovakian centre-half or a tenacious, towering Hungarian midfield enforcer who could be making their way to Wearside if the price and data stats are right.