When Sunderland finally secured promotion with the memorable victory over Wycombe at Wembley in May, it felt like a big step towards the rebirth of the club being completed.
As well as the financial benefits of hitting the playoff jackpot, the return of Championship football to Wearside would surely mean that match days at the Stadium of Light were to be looked forward to; that we could join together, unite behind the team and drive them on during a challenging season.
Sadly the dream has not been matched by the reality, and as we reflect on a miserable day for the team on the pitch after Cardiff turned us over on Saturday, it was a litany of disgraceful off-field incidents that were the subject of as much discussion as the on-field shambles.
Two weeks ago we rightly condemned the Burnley supporters for throwing missiles down onto the Sunderland fans below them, and the club responded in kind with some stricter safety measures ahead of Cardiff’s arrival. It wasn’t ideal, but it did at least show that the club was prepared to take action when needed.
However, on Saturday it was our own supporters who sullied the name and reputation of the club, with a catalogue of wrongdoings that added an extra dimension to what was already a bad day for all concerned, and raised yet more questions about why our stadium continues to be something of a powder-keg whenever we play.
From an untimely ripple of applause during the two-minute silence to commemorate Britain’s war dead, to the launching of a variety of objects at pitchside photographers and the Cardiff goalkeeper, to the disgraceful post-match scenes as supporters’ coaches were attacked with metal barriers and their fans set upon, it was a depressing spectacle and a sorry way to conclude the day.
What exactly did the away supporters do to us that struck a nerve?
They made a long journey from South Wales and were rewarded with an excellent result. Chatting to some of them before the game was enjoyable - they were polite, friendly and eager to enjoy the day, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
On social media, many fans have expressed their disgust and dismay at what happened on Saturday, but the reputation of the ‘Roker End’- ostensibly built on vocal backing and fervent support, continues to slide. Since 1997, it’s difficult to remember a time when our once-renowned stadium has been so heavily criticised, and the solution appears no nearer.
It’s one thing for our own supporters to offer vocal backing for the Lads and try to intimidate the opposing players within fair boundaries, but when the line is crossed into criminal behaviour, we have to stand firmly against it.
In the midst of this, it’s important to stress that the vast majority of fans who attend games at home are loud, proud and law-abiding.
Of course they express frustration and annoyance when things don’t go right on the pitch, but generally, there’s a clear sense of right and wrong. We’ve all seen the team lose games and perform poorly, but that doesn’t mean we go on the rampage and smash up anything that isn’t nailed down.
We can’t lambast visiting supporters for their own behaviour and turn a blind eye to the misdeeds of our own fans. It would be hypocritical in the extreme and would not get anywhere nearer to solving the problem.
Last season, our visit to Rotherham hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons, with away fans running riot and getting involved in clashes with Millers’ supporters. Despite the fact that the hurt and the humiliation of League One football is no more, residual tensions from those seasons seem to linger, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear.
Pinpointing the cause of this behaviour isn’t easy.
Is it a reflection of the social schisms that have riven British society for many years? Unease at players taking the knee? Or is it a painfully simple manifestation of the ‘I’ve paid my money, so I’ll do what I want?’ argument?
If we want the Stadium of Light to be a welcoming place for all, all acts of thuggery must be highlighted and condemned. There’s no middle ground here. It’s not a matter of team selection or tactics, about which we often debate until the sun goes down - it’s something much more straightforward.
Above all else, parents should not be worried by the prospect of taking their children to Sunderland’s home matches.
This is where a love for the club is born: when kids see their heroes running out onto the pitch and they immerse themselves fully in the atmosphere during a game, without any fear of being caught up in incidents.
The thought of families being unwilling to attend games for fear of being caught up in violence is appalling, and only cooperation between the club, the supporters, and the authorities will prevent it. It has to change, and it has to change now.