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Lincoln City v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One

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Opinion: “Substance over style - it won’t be pretty but let’s throw our weight behind the Lads!”

Malc Dugdale considers whether our footy expectations, as fans of a club that suffered such a rapid drop to League One, are impacting the levels of support we can offer as we approach the crucial final games of 2021-22.

Photo by Chris Vaughan - CameraSport via Getty Images

After the disaster of the last few months, and given the slim chance of making the playoffs that we have left, my view is it is a responsibility of all SAFC fans to reflect on the season so far and on the crumbs of hope that remain. We also need to think about what we can do to help those crumbs of hope become something positive.

As a fan of some 40 years, as is the case with so many other fans, my view is we shouldn’t be in this league in the first place. We don’t belong here. We aren’t designed to operate here. We aren’t good at this.

That is apparent from the last few seasons of us all watching Sunderland trying to get back out. But what can we do to help the club emerge from this phase? How can we mere working-class mortals in the stands, home and away in all those scary numbers, how can we do something to help? What can we do to make the difference the players and the wider squad need?

Sunderland v Crewe Alexandra - Sky Bet League One
Best fans in the world. Not negotiable.
Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

What I find myself saying is, we are not going to help the team by being overly critical, arsey and negative towards the gaffer or squad members the moment anything isn’t “beautiful football”. Players at this level have bad games from time to time, and coaches make mistakes. That happens for all clubs in this league, and especially for teams who have replaced their gaffer in the last ten games. By amplifying that poor performance and directing personal attacks at players by social media (as an example) as has been seen in recent weeks, we are doing nothing but fuelling the fire of their potential failure.

All the teams who have done well in the latter half of our past few seasons have had their fans right behind them as they got down to it. Their club and fans as one. Their team enjoying widespread fan support and belief. They were ready to take on what is thrown at them as a unit. As an army. What I have been seeing yet again this season is a notable section of our fans who are expecting football over and above the standard this league generally offers, in pretty much every game. Impeccable results are wanted more or less every weekend and every midweek match.

We need to remember we are in the third division. Is beautiful football even the grand majority of the time a reasonable expectation?

Gone are the halcyon days where we would fight back against the challenge of relegation from the best league in the world, with wins against teams far superior in terms of resources and form, against a backdrop of “Great Escape” theme tunes. We are presently in a league where we don’t belong, but with a team learning to succeed at this level, yet every error is seen as not good enough. Every draw should be a win, and every loss should be at least a draw. Our expectations are arguably out of kilter with our position in the football pyramid and the maturity of the connection between our coach and his players. We are lost in terms of the league we are in, and despite that, we think we should win every match while playing flowing attractive footy.

Chelsea v Sunderland - Premier League
The good old days.
Photo by Rob Newell - CameraSport via Getty Images

The truth is, we are in this division as we deserve to be here. For two seasons in a row, we were not good enough to stay at the level where we resided.

We failed to survive in the Premier League, and the season after that, we couldn’t even hang on to a berth in the second tier. We are where we are as we deserve nothing else based on the performance on the turf across 80 odd games over two seasons. Do that, and you deserve exactly what you get. We are still here as we haven’t been able to string together enough wins in 46 games in any one season to get out.

As fans, we have continued to turn out and support our brothers in red and white all the way through that journey of four or five years, since a certain Mr Moyes (who right now seems to be doing okay in that same top division) led us to the first step down the leagues.

People often blame him for our demise, and I don’t disagree with the fact he was the first of many poor choices the club made, but the truth is, the club was a mess.

The best coach or manager in the world would likely have struggled, such was the hand they were dealt… every card straight from a pack that was tattered and torn in every way. When we lost Sam to England, for me we lost our compass.

The fog descended and we wandered into the misty abyss.

Funeral Held For Bradley Lowery Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Here we are almost five years since relegation under the alleged “next Fergie”, and are we any better off? We’ve have had many managers since, and they have come and gone, and we continue to struggle. Are we doing our bit? Of course we are. Can we do more? My view is, yeah, maybe.

I cannot help feeling that if the city I was proud to be born in comes together as one, and supports our lads and whoever is at the helm as we get to the business end of the season, we may well have a chance in about five weeks time. It is fair to say that the leaders of the club that we cannot help love do not deserve our passion or loyalty, but the fact is, the club will get it whether they want or deserve it, or not. If we are going to be there in our thousands anyway, in fact in numbers most in our present league (and the two above) would relish, can we do something to aid the lads, rather than derail them at the first sign of issues?

In the Playoff Final against Charlton in our first season in League One, I took my teenage son to his first ever Wembley final. The truth is, we won the sing-off in Trafalgar Square the night before, but on the day, the Addicks faithful out sung SAFC, and their players wanted it more too. The only goal we scored was an own goal. The supporters' spirit wasn’t a fraction of what we had for the cup game a few weeks before, nor for the night out about 18 hours prior. We were tired. We weren’t up for it. We didn’t deserve success.

Charlton Athletic v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Play-off Final Photo by Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images

So what suggests we deserve any more this time? We play open expansive football with issues at the back impacting us, and many fans aren’t happy with the games we lose, or the tactical nonsense the gaffer spouts. We play stoic defensive football at the back, and have issues with chance conversion up front, and fans aren’t happy with the games we don’t win.

Is anything okay as an SAFC fan in the third tier?

I was born in a generation of Sunderland fans who were happy with something slightly better than average. We were not entitled, or tagged with overly positive expectations, but what we got we appreciated, and when it was good, we adored it. I had the pleasure of watching little Kev grow from a Watford misfit to an England international.

I won’t ever forget those times, but I truly hope other generations have their version of that journey, following players developing in our team now and in years to come.

Alex Neil may not be Guardiola, but if we don’t get behind him and the lads for the last handful of games for this season, he won’t even be Parky. Dan Neil won’t be our next Henderson. Broadhead won’t be the latest Bent.

My suggestion is, as a fan base that is admired by many, let’s grab this chance to get behind the gaffer and support him and his lads to do whatever he sees fit to get out of this god-awful league this time of asking. Expectations of pretty football are more relevant in the Championship or above, but we aren’t there yet. Alex Neil is good at playoffs; he has navigated them successfully several times before, and we need to hope he can do it again.

If we can get our positive energy behind the lads for 5-6 more weeks, we may well do this. If we don’t get behind every kick and header, every tackle and clearance, can really we complain that the team didn’t do their bit, without querying if we did ours?

Sunderland v Sheffield United: FA Women’s Championship Photo by Nigel Roddis - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

Let's not allow anyone to say we maybe didn’t do everything in our gift to aid our ascendency. These playoff places are still wide open, and all we can do is turn up and support as positively as we can. Let’s not leave anything in the stands, when just a tad more from us nutters in red and white may get the lads across the line.

This is the business end of the season. Let’s do our bit.

However we go up, be that wonderful flowing footy or route one bang average stuff which grinds out wins, we will all take it.

We can play pretty footy once we’re promoted. For now, let's just get behind the Lads with everything we have, and get the f**k out of this god-awful division.

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