As 40,000 red and white placards were raised high into the air at 11:55pm on Sunday morning, it was impossible to ignore the sheer sense of unity and optimism that was swirling around the Stadium of Light.
In the minutes leading up to kickoff, as ‘Dance of the Knights’ blared out, The Spirit of ‘37 group (who did a truly stunning job with this display) unfurled their flags, and little else needed to be said. This was the welcome back to the Championship that we all hoped for, and although the words may have been simple: ‘A City Built On Industry - Where These Colours Run True’, they were incredibly resonant nonetheless.
After twenty five years at the stadium, could we have marked the anniversary any more powerfully? Since 2018, our home has seen some of the most morale-sapping results in our history, and it has often been a place where genuine optimism has been in short supply.
This, however, felt like a turning point, and even touches like the return of Republica’s ‘Ready To Go’ as the choice of runout music were inspired: a nod to the past with eyes very much looking towards the future.
Ninety minutes later, after a performance that was highly encouraging and sometimes frustrating, the mood among the fans was one of calm reassurance.
After a summer of anticipation following our playoff success, it was uplifting to make the journey home not in a state of deflation, or with more concerns than reasons to be optimistic, but a sense of ‘that was very encouraging, but we can be better’.
Belief has replaced pessimism, and where once there was disunity, there is a renewed and incredibly powerful sense of people coming together around the red and white cause. There is still ample room for healthy debate, but hopefully, the days of unpleasantness, if not totally left behind, are fading into the past.
Sunderland AFC is currently in an ongoing state of evolution, one that began when Kyril Louis-Dreyfus arrived in late 2020, and there is no doubt that after so much turmoil, heartache, and mockery from others since 2018, we are stirring once again. The tag of being ‘the Netflix club’ is finally, mercifully being shaken off, and respectability is being restored to the famous crest.
The influence of Kristjaan Speakman’s recruitment model has undoubtedly yielded positive results, and in Alex Neil, we have a no-nonsense, abrasive head coach who fits this club like a glove, and who has earned more trust from the fans than any manager since Sam Allardyce.
From initially being greeted as a less-than-inspiring choice upon his arrival, the former Norwich boss is now firmly ensconced as our leader and ace card. He brooks no nonsense from the media, he shows unshakable belief in his players, and he has won the hearts of a fanbase who had seen a multitude of managers pass this way during the League One years.
At no time has Neil sought to dampen expectations or downplay our prospects for this season and beyond. Instead, he is simply showing the qualities of pragmatism and common sense that have served him well up to now.
Despite the positivity of Sunday, however, there is much work still to be done.
From a football perspective, things are looking better than they have for quite some time, but as the streams of dissatisfied #SAFC-branded tweets will attest to, things are not yet perfect.
Issues with ticketing, questionable standards of customer service, and poor levels of fan engagement are problematic, and for those who read Roker Report’s ‘Fan Letters’ on a regular basis, you will have seen some angry correspondence from supporters who do not feel that the club is providing the requisite standard of service, and thereby making lifelong fans feel as though they don’t matter.
This is a major black mark on the club’s reputation, and it must be addressed as soon as is practically possible.
Members of the Roker Report team have often been vociferous, in both articles and podcasts, about such issues, but it is certainly not a case of ‘moaning for the sake of it’ or looking to create problems where none actually exist.
Like everyone else, we love the club with everything we have, and we want to see long-term success, but that also means highlighting areas that are not currently up to standard, as well as offering praise where it is due.
If Sunderland AFC wants to reclaim a place among the elite of English football, every department must be run to the highest standard, and no corners can be cut. It will require time and investment to do so, but the results will be worthwhile. Taking pride in the stadium, ensuring that fans’ needs are met and offering a top-quality retail service aren’t fripperies: they are fundamentals.
A football club such as ours cannot run solely on algorithms and data. That certainly plays a major part in the modern era, but values such as inclusivity, and a determination to provide fans with the best possible service must be uppermost in the minds of Dreyfus and his team.
On Sunday, we got a tantalising glimpse of how things could be on matchdays if the enormous potential of Sunderland AFC can be unlocked. We are clearly in capable hands on the field, and the aim must be to ensure that the standards in every department eventually reach the same level.
It can be done, and for a brighter future, it must be done.