Call it what you like: a recurring bad dream, football’s version of Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day, or a bad case of déja vu.
Whichever one you fancy, they all lead to the same conclusion. Sunderland are now three games from the end of another League One season, and are once again staring down the barrel of another playoff lottery.
This season, like so many before it, seems to have been filled with storylines that are all too familiar: start well, get your hopes up for an automatic promotion challenge, undergo and slump in form, sack the manager, make a desperate late push for a playoff spot, fall just short of the playoffs or fail within them, before rebuilding the squad and repeating the process all over again.
Familiar tales aside, the subplots don’t change much either.
Take the manager, for example. The manager’s style of play at the beginning of the season is always a refreshing contrast to what came before. Then, when form dips we realize he’s too attacking and grab a manager with more defensive prowess or he’s too defensive so we hire someone with a more attacking mindset.
The players haven’t been immune to the recurring storylines either. A rebuilt roster including one or two players with no business in this league, a handful of players with proven league one experience, and youngsters either on loan or from within (this year from our own youth setup) who bring excitement about building the future of the club alongside elder statesmen who can mentor these players to maturity.
Two-thirds into the season we face a wave of injuries, realise the elder statesmen may be league one plodders, and find the inconsistency of youth.
Fans go through the cycles of grief as we start the season in denial, claiming this year may be different. We start the HMS “Piss the League” campaign before October is out. Then become disenchanted when form drops, disgruntled when the manager refuses to change his ways, and depressed and cynical when the inevitability of another playoff experience arises.
So what’s the problem? Why are Sunderland so apt to repeat its painful history? And how does it change? Can the narrative be rewritten? Mightn’t this season be different? I’ll give my answer to each in turn.
So what’s the problem?
From my perspective, I think Sunderland have a massive culture problem. For probably a decade now, there’s been a constant issue within the backroom and boardroom surrounding who SAFC are as a club and how the club will be run and set up in order to live in that identity and be successful doing it.
Some of this comes from the fact of Sunderland’s sheer size as a footballing club. Worldly investors know the financial impact of getting one of the largest clubs in England moving back in the right direction. This has huge implications for an organization’s internal culture.
Blatant arrogance and entitlement have been the most obvious consequence. The attitude of owners who think that because they’re wealthy, their club should go up. Which makes its way down to the pitch with players who think they should win in league one because they’re “too good” for this league and don’t have to give maximum effort.
I’m not claiming to know the minds and intentions of everyone who’s been at the club since we’ve been in league one. And I certainly don’t think everyone in our current camp have this mindset. But, it wouldn’t take long for you and I to fill out a list of such individuals, from observing the club during our time in this league.
Culture is a problem.
Why are Sunderland so apt to repeat its painful history? And how does it change?
This one seems simple. If there’s a culture of arrogance, entitlement, and greed festering under the surface, results are going to be a symptom of that sickness.
The only way the pattern is broken is by cutting out the disease and rehabilitating ourselves back to full health. That’s done by wwners who care about building a football club the right way and backroom staff who work hard, use the tools at their disposal, and think long-term.
A manager and staff committed to putting together a balanced, hardworking plan together for an entire season and beyond. Players who work hard for each other, are committed to the system and aren’t showing up to work just to cash a paycheck.
Can the narrative be rewritten? Mightn’t this season be different?
Short answer. Yes and yes.
I believe we’ve seen signs that things might be changing in a way that breaks the vicious cycle of failure in league one. But, it’s going to be a team effort.
We need an owner who’s willing to be transparent about his involvement and intentions at the club. Paying whatever it takes to get the greedy, money leaching filth out of the boardroom and restarting the culture clean.
We need a backroom staff willing to admit when they get transfers wrong, make mistakes, or could’ve done more. A willingness to explain the process and plan in more detail so we the fans can get behind it. We’re not asking for perfection, just a little honesty.
We need, and I believe do have, a manager who’s willing to work hard, give an honest assessment of progress, and push players to give everything they have for the shirt. We don’t need glitz and glamour, just results.
We need players who are committed to putting in the work every single day. Players who want to be at Sunderland to win at all costs and match the desire of the fans in wanting to play at the highest level.
We need fans to rally together. Demand the best from our club, encouraging them, not berating them, to give us what we desperately want.
We have the ingredients to break the cycle of league one misery this season. No more déjà vu. It’s time to celebrate something yet unseen and new. Something I believe really is, just on the horizon - promotion.