As someone who came of football-following age during the mid-to-late-1980s, I’m forced to confront the uncomfortable truth that Sunderland’s level has invariably been that of a top end second-tier club.
It pains me to say it, and it makes a mockery of both the club’s more esteemed traditions and its top-level fanbase, but for whatever reason, the teams wearing the shirt during this time haven’t been hitting par, based on a mean average, with where the club ought to be.
By my methodologically-suspect calculations, from the season of our Milk Cup final (1984/1985) to the season just gone, our mean average has us hovering somewhere around the playoff positions in what is now the Championship.
I may have miscalculated the number of teams in the top flight and/or second tier in some years, but statistical sloppiness aside, this pretty much tallies with my gut instinct for where Sunderland AFC has roughly sat within the English football pecking order during my years as a fan.
That’s not to say that such a position is ‘natural’- far from it, in fact.
Although this period of time includes some incredible turn-of-the-millennium highs, it also takes in the most miserable years in our history.
To determine Sunderland’s ‘natural’ position through such an arbitrary and overwhelmingly under-performing time period would be ridiculous, but that’s what makes it all the more frustrating- to have spent so many years supporting a club with such a rich history, yet experiencing so few moments of success.
And yet, if the ever-misleading law of averages suggests that we’re a second tier club, the amount of time spent in that league over the last twenty five years proves the old adage about ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’.
During this period, our combined total of only six years, covering four separate visits, includes three titles and a couple of third place finishes, and the less said about the sixth and most recent experience, the better.
So, far from it being our natural habitat, our relationship with the Championship and its earlier iterations has predominantly been more akin to that of a well-heeled tourist briefly taking in a bit of gritty realism off the beaten track before returning to the creature comforts of our all-inclusive, gated five star resort.
After beating Wycombe in last season’s playoff final, we now find ourselves in the unfamiliarly humble position of a privileged guest being invited to ‘step up’, as the Wembley hoardings weirdly worded it, rather than as a reluctant exile from the top table forced to reacquaint ourselves with those we struggle to view as our peers.
This new dynamic brings with it certain opportunities and challenges for the coming season, and hopefully subsequent seasons. These revolve around how other clubs perceive us, as well as the expectations we have of ourselves.
Firstly, as an opportunity, we’ll be starting our first season in a while where our scalp isn’t the prized possession hankered after by the majority of clubs.
Any club with a pedigree, stadium and fanbase of our stature will always be prone to finding themselves with a target on their chest, but we’ll just be one of many, as practically half of the league consists of teams relegated from the EPL since we last graced the top flight with our presence.
What might make the average Sunderland fan baulk with indignation- namely the temerity of other clubs to treat matches against us as just another game- may instead come as a welcome relief after the last few years.
With that in mind, therein lies the challenge for us as fans: to see our club as others see us.
Impatient as we are for success and a return to the top table, we are a club that fell on hard times, and are undertaking the slow but hopefully steady process of getting back to where we belong. The Championship includes many clubs at various stages, some more advanced than ourselves, of this same journey, and although we have much in our favour to make up lost ground quicker than others, we are still starting from an underprivileged position.
If Championship football begins to feel like our natural domain over the coming seasons, and if there are still signs of year-on-year progress, I’ll cherish every minute of our time in the second tier and will feel privileged to call it home.