In the four years that we have languished in League One, there have been countless quirks and oddities that have become an integral part of life as a Sunderland supporter.
Since losing our Championship status during the turbulent summer of 2018, we’ve had to find joy and amusement wherever we can, sometimes via the absurd and sometimes via the outright humorous.
You know the kind of thing. The sound of The Prodigy’s ‘Invaders Must Die’ blaring out as the players enter the field of play, the endless debates about candidates for ‘Worst player ever to wear the Sunderland shirt’, of which we have had many since 2018, and the sight of seeing delivery drivers & plumbers masquerading as referees during the weekend.
One thing that continues to intrigue, however, is the seemingly endless queue of ex-players-turned managers and TV pundits who seem to take a peculiar kind of pleasure in lobbing barbed soundbites over their garden fence and towards the Stadium of Light.
Whether through newspaper interviews, appearances on radio, or on the current failing incarnation of Soccer Saturday, bashing Sunderland seems to have become as fashionable as the fetishizing of XG stats and the use of ‘he’s got great technical ability’ as a pretext for signing an unheralded player from Ligue 1 for £50 million.
Last week, it was Jamie Mackie’s turn to enjoy his five minutes of fame in the local press with a dig at, surprise surprise, an alleged ‘sense of entitlement’ that Sunderland and its fans are burdened by. Hardly revolutionary, to say the least, but let’s just go with it for the time being.
In the interview, he was laser-like and ruthless in his putdowns. Those annoying Mackems needed to be brought down a peg or two, and he was going to be the man to do it. The fact that he is an ex-Oxford striker was doubtless purely coincidental as well.
“I get a little bit fed up with it all at Sunderland,” harrumphed Mackie, giddy at the chance to have a dig at us on a broad platform, and possibly curry favour with some Newcastle fans into the bargain.
“All I hear is that they are a ‘big club’, and they have a defined right to get out of this league.”
Ouch, Jamie. Talk about twisting the knife. Did you give that interview whilst doing ‘The Shearer’ celebration, as well?
And so, Mackie joined a long list of luminaries, including Joey ‘Little Old Fleetwood’ Barton, Darius ‘This Is Our House’ Charles, and his former Oxford gaffer Karl Robinson, who’ve tried to stir the pot and peddle the myth that, for four years, Sunderland AFC has swaggered around League One, looking down its nose at other teams and trumpeting our higher-tier credentials to anyone who’ll listen.
The idea that these plucky underdog clubs are putting up resistance against the goliath that is Sunderland has been one of the most well-worn narratives of League One since 2018. This theory also happens to overlook the fact that established Premier League teams including Manchester City, Leicester, and Wolves have all spent time at this level over the years, but for some reason, we seem to be viewed through a different lens altogether.
Of course, when you scrutinise the logic and reasoning of Mackie’s argument, it falls apart rapidly.
Everyone knows that heritage, facilities, fan base, and reputation count for little in the dogfight that is the League One promotion battle.
Get it right on the pitch & reap the rewards. Get it wrong, and you’re snookered. In four seasons, we’ve gotten it wrong on a regular basis, we’ve been humbled by so-called minnows and taken the ensuing mockery, and yet we have always come back for more. For a club like ours, it’s not a position we were accustomed to, but the history of every club is filled with light & dark periods, and this is undoubtedly the latter for us.
In the summer of 2019, as we prepared for a second season of League One football, I wrote a piece in which I argued that there never was any novelty value in Sunderland being in the third tier. Instead, I believed it was a warning that, if bad decisions were made over a long period of time, no club was immune from ending up in the same position as us.
We’ve all accepted that the path back to where we want to be will be arduous and filled with hazards, but that shouldn’t mean that we shouldn’t dream of a better future, one that sees this club elevated back into the top tier of English football. Without that, we might as well pack up, turn off the lights, and allow the club to fade away.
Four seasons in this league has been a test of dedication, morale, and exactly how much patience we can offer to those running and representing the club. Players and managers have come and gone, but the dedication of the fans has remained, something that the likes of Mackie would undoubtedly understand if he ever visited Sunderland on a matchday.
We all understand and accept that promotion has to be earned, but that does not mean we cannot set a baseline standard and expect our players to embrace the challenge. The prestige of wearing the club crest should not be diminished at all, regardless of which league we occupy.
In the light of this ongoing theme, perhaps we should embrace our role as what you might term ‘the great irritants of League One’. As we have seen when rival teams and their fans, such as Wigan, attempt to forge artificial rivalries with us, we do seem to have a remarkable capacity for getting under the skin of others. It’s not something we ever really set out to do, but it will undoubtedly linger until we finally escape this division.
Ultimately, this entire argument can be broken down into interpretation & definition.
Aspiration is not entitlement. Wanting a better future for your football club is not arrogance, and if pundits like Jamie Mackie, who have zero connection with the club, took the time to engage with our fans constructively, instead of peddling the same tired tropes for cheap likes and a sliver of publicity, they’d understand it much more clearly.