At this stage of the season, it has become a cliché to say that it is ‘squeaky bum time’, but the phrase famously coined by Sir Alex Ferguson sums up our situation perfectly, ahead of Saturday’s crunch game at Morecambe.
In the wake of our 1-1 draw on Tuesday, there have been countless discussions about team selections and tactics, whether Alex Neil was right to take a pragmatic approach at home to Rotherham, and whether he will field a more attack-minded starting eleven at the Mazuma Stadium on Saturday.
As we go in search of the win that we need to secure a playoff place, however, I want to declare that, whatever the result, my affection for this group of players will not wane.
After four seasons in League One, most of us are fed up of the time wasting, the overly-physical style of play, and the incessant attempts to con referees, not to mention the downgrade in overall quality that we have witnessed since our days in the Premier League.
The demise of our great club has often allowed visiting teams to rule the roost at the Stadium of Light, and I’m not just talking about spoiling tactics, and managers like Joey Barton turning the simple art of ‘parking the bus’ into a pantomime.
Where travelling fans were once in awe and full of praise for our proud stadium, they have spent the last four years mocking and jeering, and reminding us in no uncertain terms that we’re not famous anymore.
But if there’s one, previously numbed part of me which has been reinvigorated since 2018, it is a reconnection and a strong affinity with Sunderland’s players.
For each of the past four campaigns, we’ve had a squad that has often competed at the top end of the division, filled with hard working, honest professionals who perhaps lacked that little bit extra that was needed to be successful.
Admittedly, there have been exceptions, with the likes of Will Grigg making it crystal clear that he never wanted to be here, and one-time fan favourite Chris Maguire blotting his copybook with an embarrassing show of discontent towards Lee Johnson after scoring a hat-trick for Lincoln.
In the previous three seasons, we’ve failed to achieve promotion, but the likes of Lynden Gooch, Luke O’Nien, Tom Flanagan, Grant Leadbitter, Aidan McGeady, Charlie Wyke, Ross Stewart, Elliot Embleton, Jon McLaughlin, Lee Burge, Denver Hume, Max Power, Dan Neil, Bailey Wright, and Carl Winchester have all been stalwarts for at least one campaign or more.
During 2021/2022, Anthony Patterson and Thorben Hoffman have both made major contributions, as have Jay Matete, Callum Doyle, Danny Batth, Dennis Cirkin, Corry Evans, Alex Pritchard, Leon Dajaku, Nathan Broadhead, Patrick Roberts, Jack Clarke, and the aforementioned Stewart, who is now established as our leading marksman.
These players are not wealthy Premier League stars. They are not world-beaters, either, but they have undoubtedly worn the red and white shirt with honour, and have slowly started to change the mindset which played a major part in our plunge into League One.
It troubles me to think about the 2016/17 season, when we sleepwalked towards relegation, and in 2017/18, when we nosedived out of the Championship and into the third tier. With the club in decline, it was painful to watch players seemingly going through the motions, and in some cases, picking up a sizeable pay packet into the bargain, as the club’s fortunes suffered.
During that period, I felt disconnected from the club, and longing for the days when players showed that they cared, not with overblown gestures of love or affection, but with good, honest hard work, and real pride in turning out for Sunderland.
I could name many of those mentioned above, but in terms of attitude, the likes of O’Nien and Gooch are prime examples of what we look for in a Sunderland player. Even if we signed a Champions League winner with all the skill in the world, I’d expect him to work and to conduct himself with pride, passion, and dedication.
As a fan, of course I am ambitious, and I want us to have genuine aspirations for the future. Back in the late 1990s, I would have expected us to be a true force in European football by 2010, never mind 2020, such was my youthful blind optimism at the time.
But although we all want the club to be successful, all we can truly ask for is a team of committed players, and that is certainly what we have right now. I just hope that, if and when we do return to the upper reaches of the game, we never lose sight of the hard working mentality that all players, from League One to the elite level, are required to adopt at Sunderland.
That is why, whatever the outcome of this season, I will always be fond of the current squad of players, and others who have contributed over the past four years.
Right now, I can honestly say that I enjoy watching us play. I like the mixture of youth and experience in our squad, and the different kinds of players we can field, from Roberts, Clarke and Pritchard, to Matete, Wright and Batth. They are all committed to the cause and clearly desperate to help the club towards promotion.
During the the days of David Moyes, Simon Grayson and Chris Coleman, I would rarely, if ever, have made a statement like that, and it does show that we are slowly starting to adopt a new mindset, which will hopefully stand us in good stead in the years to come.