When it comes to opinions in football, hindsight is of little use as an independent arbiter of right and wrong. Viewed through the eyes of the opinion-holder, with all the speculative ‘what ifs’ factored in, hindsight is all too often used to subjectively serve, rather than to objectively judge, hard-wired opinions.
Even on the occasions where hindsight seems to offer irrefutable proof of the error of our own earlier opinions, myopia invariably kicks in. I remember being delighted with the signing of Rodwell and fully expected the fee to be a price well worth paying. Cards on the table, I probably clung to this view long after it became obvious that the signing was destined to go down as one of the worst in our history.
Even with the benefit of a sizeable chunk of hindsight, it became difficult to shift my earlier residual optimism. ‘Maybe we’ll see the best of Rodwell in the Championship’ were thoughts that I’d be embarrassed to express publicly but, privately, I’m sure they were never far from the surface. Both the club’s investment and my own emotional investment made it imperative that some good would come from that deal. Who knows, there may even be some Rodwell-revisionists out there (*cough* Liam Bridcutt *cough*) whose own particular, sympathetic hindsight is directed towards managerial instability and, more speculatively, a divided dressing room and toxic fanbase as being the key factors preventing Rodwell from being the success he would otherwise be destined to be.
Using hindsight to judge my own amateur clairvoyant track record, an overly generous interpretation would be that it’s been a bit of a mixed bag.
Things I got right: Keane, Wilkinson/Cotterill, Bent etc…
Things I got wrong (including, belatedly, Rodwell): McMenemy, Quinn, Flo, O’Neill, Moyes etc...
Things more equivocal and in the middle: Wickham, Drumaville, Poyet etc...
So, pretty much the same as most people. Some things surprise us, some don’t. Yet our opinions can differ quite wildly, obviously, based on our own particular outlook. On the eve of a new season, under relatively new ownership, the current differences of opinion about our prospects make this truer than ever.
An optimistic starting point
My own outlook tends towards the hopeful or, to be less complimentary, the delusional. As a result, the rear-view mirror of my hindsight leaves a landscape littered with far more bitter disappointments than pleasant surprises.
More recently though, as things have objectively and undoubtedly been worse, the supposed benefit of hindsight, and therefore our ability to better understand the limitations of our own perspectives, has decreased in proportion with the club’s demise. It’s not so much the lack of time that has passed but more the instability and fast rate of change that seems to have contributed to this.
Was I wrong to doubt the wisdom of Ross’s sacking?
Was I right to think we may regret Honeyman’s departure to Hull?
I was originally sceptical of the benefits of being run by a 20-something trust-fund baby but I’ve been impressed by his priorities and a strategy that looks refreshingly built to last. Have I been won over by genuine progress or is this just my knee-jerk optimism/delusion belatedly kicking in?
The lack of time afforded to managers, players and possibly owners means the hopeful/delusional fan is never vindicated but also never forced to confront the possible fallacy of their views.
On the other hand, the club’s general demise has reinforced the opinions of both those who seem to expect the worst and those who, depending on your opinion, are either passionately aspirational or refuse to accept the reality that Sunderland is currently a League One club, and are in dismay that the club appears to have lower expectations.
As a result, none of us faces any sort of reckoning for the opinions we hold: it’s either ‘far too early to judge’ or ‘we’re still in League One so they clearly failed’. All of which leads to a divided fan base and a frankly depressing mood around the club.
Looking forward, not back?
So, with a new season upon us, let’s ditch the hindsight and, instead, look ahead to potential scenarios that may emerge over the coming weeks. How might you react and, more crucially, how will you cope if the following transpired:
It’s the first game of the season and we haven’t added any more players to our squad, losing out to rival League One Clubs with a few of our reported targets. Do you…
A. Reflect on the fact that there are still a few weeks to go before the transfer window closes and that there’s a world of difference between reported and actual targets.
B. Find it infuriating and humiliating that clubs of smaller stature than Sunderland appear to be outbidding us and that we’re still reduced to using the square pegs of midfielders to plug the round holes of our fullback positions.
C. See this as further proof that the club still hasn’t reached rock-bottom and that the coming season will see the spiral of decline continue apace.
After Sunderland’s first 3 games, we’ve managed only 1 point and are out of the League Cup. Do you…
A. Remind yourself that Peterborough were in a similar position at this stage last season and prefer to focus on the promising performances that have seen players steadily adapting to a more fluid, less predictable style of play.
B. Fear that promotion, the bare minimum achievement for the season, is already at risk, that time is of the essence and urgent remedial action is needed to set the club on its right path.
C. Thank your lucky stars that you didn’t renew your season ticket and that at least you won’t be there to suffer what is destined to be yet another season of failure.
The transfer window shuts with Sunderland’s business mainly consisting of future prospects for the Academy and a few Premier league youngsters brought in on loan deals. No ‘marquee signing’ up front but defensive cover is brought in. Do you…
A. Feel reassured that the focus on youth development appears to be more than just empty words and that the foundations are being laid for a genuine long-term revival.
B. Feel that the squad is far too lightweight and inexperienced to compete for automatic promotion this season and that the new KLD regime has clearly reneged on its promises.
C. Despair at the gullibility of those who expected anything other than ‘more of the same’ from the new ownership.
It’s late October and Sunderland sit just outside the playoff places. Performances have been better than results and Johnson appears to be stubbornly reluctant to change the team’s style of play. Do you…
A. Take comfort in the fact that Blackpool were in a far worse position at the same stage last year (they were 18th) and that the club’s ‘faith in the project’ makes a refreshing change from the knee-jerk reaction to pressure that’s characterised the club in recent years.
B. Consider this to be unacceptable for a club of Sunderland’s supposed ambition and proof of Johnson being out of his depth.
C. Remind everyone that you saw this coming and that it’s only going to get worse before it gets better.
So what’s your outlook and what do you need to be wary of?
If you answered all or mostly ‘A’: You’re the ‘hopeful and pragmatic’ fan. You’re certain that Sunderland are going to turn the corner at some point and this appears to be as convincing a re-set moment as any in recent times. However, you’re all-too-aware of the limitations of being a League One club, whatever its history and size, and you recognise that the task isn’t just about getting out of the league but ensuring that we stay out of it and progress further. This will take time.
Be wary of being taken for a ride though. The Soviet Union lasted the best part of 75 years by promising that the country was on the road to a future socialist utopia. Make sure you can spot the snake oil salesman from the genuine article.
If you answered all or mostly ‘B’: You’re the ‘passionate and aspirational’ fan. You wear your heart on your sleeve and expect to see a team that stands head and shoulders above its rivals at this insultingly low level. You expect the highest standards from all at the club and failure is not an option. You’ve had your fingers burned by too many empty promises in the past and you’ll judge managers and owners by their actions rather than cheap talk.
Be wary of making perfect the enemy of good though. It can be necessary to accept League One realities in order to better escape from it. Yet in order to fulfil your high expectations, you’ll need foundations in place to make it more than just a temporary escape. Some patience, as long as there’s evidence of foundational progress, will be needed for this part.
If you answered all or mostly ‘C’: You’re the ‘lovelorn and battle-scarred’ fan. You’ve spent a load of emotional capital in the club over the years with so little reward in return. To avoid further heartbreak you’ve developed an essential survival strategy of cynicism towards suggestions of a new dawn since you’ve heard it, and seen it go to the wall, many times before. For you, it really is the hope that kills you so far better to kill off the hope from the start.
Be wary of denying yourself a stake in the glory days, whenever they may return. A huge part of the joy of being a supporter is in recognising when you’re on the cusp of something better, if only because we’ve no idea how long any improvement will last. Whether that cusp is beginning now, or at some unspecified time in the future, you don’t deserve to miss out by rejecting the early shoots as just another false dawn.
We ARE Sunderland
None of this is insightful advice to be taken particularly seriously, especially when delivered in the manner of a patronising Agony Aunt (or a more offensive, less familial, typo version of one). It’s merely a reminder of two self-evident facts about our fan base: we’re divided in our opinions but united in our goals.
Years of serial under-achievement, to put it mildly, have amplified and distorted our own innate outlook as fans. Hope, anger and despair are emotions that we all experience as fans. In fact, they’re the very essence of being a supporter. Hope is needed to provide support to the club, anger is needed to hold the club to account and despair has to be endured to reap the benefits when times change. We need a bit of all of this but in more harmonious quantities.
Whatever the coming season holds we, and all our differences of opinion, are still Sunderland.