Over the past few weeks, let’s be honest - we have seen a major drop off in form as well as confidence from the lads. As little as 6 or 7 weeks ago we battered Sheffield Wednesday 5-0 at our place.
Before that we beat Doncaster 3-0 away, Morecambe 5-0 at home, and had a decent run of general form making the future look so super bright, we squinted as we admired the league table. We could not wait for the new year and for the run to almost certain promotion.
Then, in no uncertain terms, we dropped off a cliff.
We threw away wins and replaced them with draws or losses, like the 3-3 at Wycombe away.
That particular draw was clutched from the jaws of a victory thanks to a 98th-minute equaliser, after a 93rd-minute potential winner for big Ross had gone in. We also lost at home to Lincoln, and drew with the Accy (conceding a goal when 1-0 up, against a ten-man opposition). We were suddenly dross, after being so delightful at times.
We showed small signs of a revival with a hard-fought three points at home against Pompey, but post that, the ledge on the cliff we apparently had slid down onto also collapsed, and we lost 6-0 to Bolton, a result which cost the coach his job.
Since then we have also succumbed to Cheltenham and Doncaster under (some may say pretty shoddy) temporary stewardship. Even teams who couldn’t seem to buy a win took 3 points from us. We were steadily becoming uber-dross, despite the names on the team sheet changing very little in that 7-8 weeks or so.
As I draft this item, despite all of the above I find myself preparing my family and 2 dogs for a 3-4 hour each way trip to Sunderland for the weekend, amid Storm Dudley and his sister Eunice, to watch the lads play at home against a team who have overtaken us into the top 3 during our struggles.
Fair enough, we will likely catch up with family members still rooted in the north while away from the sunny climes of Cambridgeshire, but I’m looking in the mirror wondering... why on earth do we do this?
We know before arriving that MK Dons will be relishing the chance to play us on Wearside when our form, fitness and confidence is at an all-time low.
The logic doesn’t stack up why we are considering attending. Yes, we got a point away at Wimbledon in our last outing, but fans like me and my lad (who wasn’t born by the Wear but is as passionate about the club as me, primarily through childhood influence from yours truly), why do we keep going back for more?
Part of this question has been researched in psychology circles for some time (see references). For many a year articles have debated whether this is down to long-established and very basic human wants and needs.
Are we drawn back because football is the modern substitute for war, or maybe a backfill for faded religions, supplementing us with feelings of belonging that modern society no longer services? Do we crave the hormones that rush around our body when our side play well and win? Are all those blokes in the stadium really just watching the match to demonstrate they are alpha males; warriors aligned to a team in red - a colour of power and aggression which more often than not (according to research) prevails? If the male warrior part is true, why are all these Mackem ladies and kids there, and people of retirement age who couldn’t possibly take part in a battle? They are singing the same chants and screaming for a victory just as vehemently.
Some of these theories may well be true, but for me, it is very simple.
This is my team, the same as it was “my team” for all the other 37,000 plus who watched us lose to Doncaster two weeks ago. No matter who owns the business that sits behind it, this club is ours, forever. I don’t care what fibs and foibles the owners release to show their allegedly pure and honourable intentions, stating they will look after the institution better than the last lot, and return it to good times/where it belongs… I can’t help but follow my lads. I was born on Wearside, and though I no longer live there, it is still the only place other than my family home where I truly feel I am at home. With my kin. With my tribe. Watching my army, following my own religion.
My 40 or so years of loyalty to the club have rarely been rewarded, but I have adjusted to the fact that following Sunderland isn’t about expecting us to win league titles or lots of trophies. Not for about 90+ years have we been among the best of the best. I belong to this club and this club belongs to me, and I am proud to be one of many thousands in red and white who are among the elite fanbases across the football world. I read earlier this week we are the 14th biggest supporter base in English football. Better than the bottom third of the Premier league, Two divisions above us. Better than all of the EFL Championship. In the stands at least.
A string of poor results does not alter that bond many of us have, or that commitment to being part of that incredible fan base, nor does a poorly managed news item about who owns what in terms of club equity. If a season ticket worked for my work and family commitments and I could afford it every year, I would have one, and I would renew it come what may. It wouldn’t matter which clowns come and go, they won’t alter my relationship with my club. They will come and go. We just come, and in huge numbers, come what may.
At times, like in any relationship, those feelings of dedication and loyalty are tested, but I know deep down they will never be broken. Arguably the relationship is stronger for all those trials of its durability and resilience.. as the song goes “what doesn't kill you makes you stronger”. The cycle is as predictable as it is confusing. I watch a match. We do well, I try to go back soon. We do poorly, I am bitterly disappointed, but I quickly get over it.
Season after season the (at times inexplicable) ingrained loyalty coursing through my red and white veins forces me to suffer bouts of amnesia, perfectly timed to occur a few days after some of the poorest performances of the season. Emotions and passions are revived midweek, despite the last sh*t show we paid hard-earned cash to witness after hours of travel, home and away.
The amnesia allows my gut instinct as a supporter to relight my interest, and I find myself dipping into the wallet, getting tickets and fuel, and going again as soon as I can.
Apart from a slice of utter madness we all possess, I think there is a deeply embedded sense of hope behind this, a feeling that I can’t ignore. That the next game I go to is potentially the one where we turn it around and begin our ascent back to the top of the global football tree (well, at least to the top-level… let’s not get too carried away).
For reasons I really cannot fathom at times, and often despite the last outing’s performance and result, I foolishly expect us to bond as a team greater than its parts and defeat all comers to our battleground. Can that new dawn begin in this next game? We have to be there to witness it, there is no other way.
I banish the typical League One mistakes and recent poor results to the arse end of my memory banks, and I commit to giving our city reason to be proud of our sporting heritage, even though I don’t live there anymore.
If our region getting admiration isn’t possible from the performance of the team, it will be through thousands of us all being part of this huge and committed fan base, turning out in all weather’s home and away, proud to wear our tribal colours.
The journey this weekend will be long, but that belly-deep hope for a decent result and a shot at promotion this season almost puts the car keys in my hand and the fuel in the tank to get there.
Let’s hope the hope is enough, as this tribe deserves a few battles they win, even if the warriors at the front are having a wobble. Let's go again - as we know we will - to support yet another attempt at effective leadership, till we no longer can.
Keep the faith. It’s what makes SAFC what it is. It’s us.