Club identity is a strange thing in football.
Is it externally imposed upon clubs via lazy media-labelling or is it an organic reality that grows from within, intrinsically connected to the club’s heritage, local area and the values of its supporters?
Does it evolve and change to reflect the image presented by the club’s ownership, management and style of play at a particular point in time or is it a fixed constant, impossible to shake off no matter how much the present reality departs from historic identity?
As a Sunderland fan, such questions have rarely prompted any serious soul-searching on my part. For me, the club’s image has always been rooted in its locality and history in a way that makes it impervious to change.
It’s perverse to take pride in an accident of birth and the various alignment of planets that result in us becoming destined to be fans of a specific club, but I’ve always been proud of what I perceive to be Sunderland’s club identity.
My perception is of a club at the heart of its largely working-class, whatever that now means, community. Of a club that inspires a level of dedication and passion significantly above the average yet is never considered a ‘glamour’ club. I’ve felt fortunate to never feel any sense of embarrassment, no matter how low we’ve fallen, in admitting I’m a Sunderland fan: it has never in my lifetime had ‘glory supporter’ connotations but, equally, it is a club that seems to transmit tradition and respect.
However, although this has always been comforting it can also place boundaries to the feasible scope of our ambition. I’ve always been conscious of the other, possibly more media-manufactured, aspect to Sunderland’s identity which places us in the company of clubs (of which the likes of Burnley and Stoke are life-time members) to which flash, and often Southern-based, teams don’t fancy visiting on a cold midweek night in winter. Behind such common clichés lie a range of assumptions that go beyond the merely meteorological differences between the apparent balmy climes of, say, North London and the harsh, Arctic-like conditions of Sunderland.
They betray a range of pre-conceptions, particularly geographic and socio-economic ones, framing the contrast in identity and priorities as being between the supposedly more flamboyant, eye-catching metropolitan clubs against the more confrontational, dour provincial clubs. Between the ones who prioritise style and panache on the one hand and those that prioritise pragmatism and physicality on the other.
I get the impression that the image of our identity as a footballing side has always been more Kevin Ball than Allan Johnston, more Lee Cattermole than Steed Malbranque. Maybe it’s a legacy of the civil war from nigh on 500 years ago that leads to such simplistic stereotyping of English football clubs but Sunderland seem destined to be eternally cast as the Roundheads rather than the Cavaliers. Essentially, the flip side of our authentic, down-to-earth identity in which we rightly take pride and which the likes of Ball and Cattermole brilliantly epitomised, is being pigeon-holed as a team that has grit but little flair. A team that has commitment in abundance but is lacking in technical ability.
We frequently hear pundits informing us that such and such a manager/player would be welcomed by Sunderland because we possess a fanbase that wants to see players give their all for the shirt.
Conversely, as with Allardyce at West Ham, commentary abounds with premonitions of managerial failure at other clubs due to the new appointment failing to live up to the fans’ expectations that their teams play good football.
Apart from the implication in such lazy punditry that there are fans of some clubs who would happily welcome a player who treats the shirt with disdain and who like nothing better than to see their teams play ‘bad’ football, the implied suggestion is that the means justify the end and that success is determined by the extent to which the style of play conforms to the club’s identity rather than the extent of football matches won.
My inclination is to dismiss such simplistic portrayals of the supposed primacy of a club’s identity. West Ham, despite their buccaneering image, seem perfectly happy with the results that Moyes is somehow grinding out. I’ve also yet to hear of Leeds United fans complaining that the free-flowing football they currently play is an insult to the memory of Norman Hunter and Billy Bremner.
Furthermore, the idea that a club can be indelibly associated with a particular style of play has been most comprehensively refuted by Arsenal whose ‘boring, boring’ tag seems a distant memory after Wenger so successfully reinvented the club’s image.
Yet I can’t help feeling that maybe there’s a smidgen of truth to fans’ attachment to their traditional identity.
Sunderland are currently at an identity crossroads, looking longingly down the path of a possible, unfamiliar future as a forward-thinking club that plays exciting, progressive football yet not quite ready to surrender those more familiar facets of our traditional image.
We’ve played some of our best football in years this season, but have also suffered some of our biggest defeats since dropping into League One.
We’ve undoubtedly gained in creativity, vision and pace but we’ve possibly lost a bit in strength, aggression and general shithousery. Pritchard, Embleton and Neil are a joy to watch but you wouldn’t necessarily have them as first pick alongside you in the trenches (unless it was Christmas 1914 and that kick about with the Germans was about to start).
Seeing us crumble at Rotherham, Portsmouth and Sheff Wed earlier in the season, I’ll even admit to a pang of regret that our newfound focus on promising young talent and a progressive style of play means we no longer have the battle-scarred warriors to call upon when things get tough.
Looking further forward, I fear that our undoubted improvement in quality may still leave us short when it comes to derby games. Traditionally, the intensity of such games have played to our strengths and have often acted as a leveller, bridging any discrepancy in quality that may have existed. We may lack that particular advantage in such games in the future.
Given this, it’s understandable that a degree of scepticism remains among sections of our fanbase.
Change can be unsettling, particularly when it requires leaps of faith into unknown territory without the reassuring anchor of familiar comforts.
Yet if we’re to revel in the successes of the new-look Sunderland, acknowledging them as a refreshing change from what we’ve been used to, it would be unjust to judge their failures by the standards of more resilient sides of old.
That’s not to say that the failures should be immune from any criticism, merely that they need appraising in the light of the club’s new identity. The occasional meek surrender may be the price we pay for the entertaining, positive style of football that’s on offer on a far more regular basis than we’ve been used to.
This season we’ve been given enough tantalising glimpses of what our new identity could look like to convince me that the potential dizzy new heights in store for us all will more than make up for the occasional nostalgic longing for yesteryear.