Given the events of Friday in Dubai, I’m glad we’re finally back looking ahead to a weekend of league action for Sunderland.
Doesn’t that seem a bit strange to say?
The World Cup feels like it’s only just got going, yet the Lads will be back at the Stadium of Light in the Championship on Saturday dinnertime.
I know lots of people, like me, said prior to the tournament starting that we weren’t really looking forward to it, but I imagine the constant barrage of football we’ve endured over the last week or so has probably changed that slightly.
Even for the biggest cynic, it’s almost impossible to ignore what’s going on over in Qatar. Reports from fans over there are that the atmosphere is generally decent, that it’s still pretty easy to get a drink, and that everyone is behaving themselves - and whilst I’m not really sure what I was expecting, I wasn’t expecting it to go as smoothly as it has.
I’ve kept half an eye on the action - having to work when most of the games are on means I’ve not sat and watched every minute of every game - but being able to support our Jewi as well as watching England has been canny... but none of it is quite the same as watching Sunderland.
The game in Dubai on Friday has been described by some fans as the most bizarre Sunderland match they’ve ever watched, and whether it was the dodgy cameraman or the fact our owners entered the pitch to wade into a mild skirmish, there was plenty going on - though not much of it was easy to follow.
In a way, I’m glad it was a shitshow. I love my club to bits and will defend them sometimes when it’s almost impossible to defend them, but even I couldn’t really make sense of the decision to fly the entire squad out to Dubai and then to play a Saudi Arabian team.
I know some reading this will think “who honestly cares?” - there was certainly a healthy portion of fans on social media from what I could see who felt this way - but there are many people who do care, and I think it’s with good reason.
Whilst having absolutely anything to do with Saudi Arabian football is unpalatable enough, I’m just not really sure what message it sends when you’re spending a fortune flying the team off to one of the most expensive cities in the world whilst also preaching that the club needs to remain sustainable to operate.
Could we not have gone somewhere closer to home, somewhere cheaper, and played a club that doesn’t stir up a load of controversy?
These small things do matter whether you think people are nitpicking or not - I just don’t get the point of the trip, really. The fact we’re even still talking about this says it all about whether or not they should have gone.
The footage of the game itself was appalling.
Grainy, badly lit, and hard to follow - some have speculated that it was recorded with an iPhone, but I was thinking more Nokia 3310. Whatever the case may be, it certainly wasn’t what you’d expect when shelling out £7.50 to watch it.
The cameraman whose job it was to follow the action was hopeless and it was so bad that the commentators - Danny Collins and Frankie Francis - just ended up talking about other things aside from the game, apologised repeatedly for the absolute state of it, and acknowledged that it isn’t what you expect when you pay good money for something. Hats off to them for being honest about it and for remaining professional, because they had an almost impossible job trying to call the action of a game they couldn’t see half the time.
Then there was the scrap that almost had the game called off. It had been brewing throughout as the Saudi side kicked lumps out of the Sunderland players, but a headbutt that landed on Lynden Gooch saw him throw at least two punches which seemed to land, and then all hell broke loose. Everyone on the side of the pitch piled in to try and calm things down, including Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and Juan Sartori.
And to top things off, it seems Alex Neil was standing at the side watching the game.
It was just a really bizarre, embarrassing occasion and one I imagine the club will be keen to move past. As PR exercises go, flying off for an all-expenses stay in Dubai (welcoming Saudi opposition and charging fans to watch piss-poor live footage of it) during a cost-of-living crisis has to be chalked down as a failure.
But that was last week, and we must move forward - starting today.
The team landed back in the UK this weekend and now have five days to prepare for their return to league action against a Millwall side who have had a decent start to the season themselves, and are currently sat sixth in the table, four points ahead of Sunderland.
For me, this is where the second half of the season starts and we now have to start demanding more of certain players.
The lads coming back from injury will surely make an impact, and being able to call upon Ross Stewart, Aji Alese and Dan Ballard will have a massive influence on the way things progress from here.
Similarly, the young boys we signed at the end of August have had plenty of time to bed in and now must show their true ability. Edouard Michut, Abdoullah Ba and Jewison Bennette (once his World Cup dream is eventually over) now need to prove themselves as worthy starters in a side that is going to be hard to break into, but if they back themselves and work hard it’s inevitable that they’ll come good.
We’ve had a decent start to the season, and lots of the excuses for why certain results haven’t gone out way have been valid, but with a strong squad we should be looking to win more games - and put a place in the playoff positions in our sights.
The season won’t be defined by how we fare against Millwall, but using the fact nobody else is playing next Saturday to our advantage could be huge. Three points and a win would be massive for our chances of kicking on, and I just hope that all the time, money and effort that was ploughed into getting the Lads in shape in Dubai was worth it.
Time will tell.
P.S. - Keep an eye out for the return of the RR Sunderland Community Soup Kitchen Christmas fundraiser when we kick it off on Thursday - we’ve already recorded a Podcast with the Guardian Angel of Sunderland, Andrea Bell, which will hopefully drop on launch day. We’re going to need everyone’s help to get the fundraiser off and running this month, so please please please do your bit if you can. It will mean the world!