Four years in League One for Sunderland has not been easy - I don’t think you’ll find anyone claiming it has.
Whilst the source of that has been overwhelmingly the hurt of the fall, there have also been plenty of irritants and annoyances along the way too, and one, in particular, is getting incredibly tiresome.
Since Sunderland dropped into this division, the rest of League One have made a veritable art-form out of passive-aggressively undermining the club whilst playing the part of the underdogs.
“Sunderland are here because they deserve to be and just any other League One side,” they sneer whilst taking it in turns to come to the Stadium of Light and treat it like a cup final.
“They think they’re so special,” opposition fans claim whilst routinely producing their biggest gates of the season when Sunderland are in town.
I am reminded of a conversation with a colleague in the sports journalism industry ahead of the final game of the season. He is an EFL enthusiast and, without any semblance of doubt, incredibly knowledgeable – a genuine expert in his field for whom I have a lot of respect.
His central thesis was that Plymouth, Wycombe, MK Dons, and Sheffield Wednesday could all be proud of their season. When I asked him if he was essentially saying all the play-off chasing teams should be proud except Sunderland, he confirmed it was.
That perception irked me, because why shouldn’t Sunderland be proud of their season? It’s not what we had hoped for back in August, but 84 points whilst outscoring all but two teams is a good return.
What really irked me, though, was the double standard. Why should Sunderland’s season be considered a failure when two teams who were playing at a higher level just last season can be ‘proud’ of similar ones? Why can’t we be proud? Just because we are Sunderland?
Certainly, that seems to be the case. We definitely aren’t allowed to be proud of that 31,426 average attendance, because every time we bring it up we’re quickly told it counts for nothing and we are being deeply arrogant to even want to mention it.
And yet, other clubs can’t wait to mention it, particularly when they want to turn it into a stick with which to beat our football club. “When you look at their support, we shouldn’t even be able to compete with them,” you often hear from opposition managers both before and after games.
Well, which one is it? “Counts for nothing” (Sunderland deserve no credit at all for it) or creates an obvious disparity and clear advantage (opposition deserve all the credit in the world)?
We win a game: “You really that happy about beating little old us?” We lose a game: ”Sunderland so arrogant they thought they’d beat us really easily.”
The fact of the matter is that the Sunderland fanbase is an almost pathologically self-disparaging collective of people who has had any football-related arrogance beaten out of them over what now amounts to a decade of struggle, hurt, and decline – and we didn’t even have any in the first place. We have pride in our club, yes, but that is the right of all football supporters, Arrogance, though? Come on.
If you want to see what football arrogance looks like, just take a look at the message to Wycombe Wanderers supporters from chairman Rob Couhig ahead of the play-off final.
“As long as Wycombe Wanderers Football Club exist,” he wrote, “people will ask each other where they were when Wycombe played at Wembley and rose for the second time in three years to the Championship.
“You will be able to tell others that you literally helped this team fulfil its destiny by standing strong with your fellow Chairboys and helped to will the lads on to VICTORY.”
Just imagine if Sunderland had spoken about winning the game in the past tense before a ball had even been kicked. Imagine if we had spoken so outwardly disrespectfully of an opposition club. Imagine if we had described our support as a “WorldWide Phenomenon” and expressed an expectation to ‘dominate’ the national stadium.
Bear in mind, at this point, that Sunderland’s average attendance is bigger than Wycombe’s maximum potential ticket allocation at Wembley and we are routinely vilified if we even get caught thinking it, much less saying it.
Remember, “don’t get ahead of yourselves” and “don’t talk up your support” is what we have been told since we have been in League One. Must be different for the rest, like everything else.
Wycombe need to pick a position here. Are they the plucky clear underdogs or, in Couhig’s own words, “the full-throated WorldWide Phenomenon (sic) who dominate the stands”?
Because let’s get real for a moment: Wycombe are certainly not the underdogs.
At Wembley, Wycombe will be the team that more recently played at a higher level. Wycombe will be the team who have been there and done it before in a Wembley play-off final. Wycombe will be the much more experienced team too, with an average age of players used of 29.4 compared to Sunderland’s 24.7 – and that figure includes a 36-year-old Aiden McGeady who has barely got his boots dirty this season.
Wycombe are only the underdogs if the one extra point Sunderland won this season is a lot more meaningful than anyone realises, or you are going off the level of fan support alone.
But, of course, they can’t possibly be doing the latter because, as we know: a) Sunderland’s attendances “count for nothing” and b) Wycombe are, in their own words, “expecting to keep pace with ticket sales, utilize their secret weapon of WorldWide Phenomenal (sic) support and dominate the stadium.”
Ultimately, you look at the two clubs who will be fighting it out at Wembley and I ask you who is truly the unfancied League One pariah? Because, from where I have been standing for the last four years, it is Sunderland and Sunderland supporters who have been (unfairly) accused of arrogance and disrespect whilst Wycombe get to do it in a literal open letter for all to see whilst trying to claim the underdog card.
Perhaps, though, this is all a good thing. I am not talking about the snipes, hypocrisy and double standards, but the fact it has actually started annoying me.
After all, it’s been going on for literally years now and it’s never especially bothered me before, so maybe, just maybe, it’s another sign that the cloud of apathy is finally lifting and better times are coming? I certainly hope that’s what it is, but then again, as we know better than anyone, it’s the hope that we ultimately can’t stand.