It is cool to be a Sunderland fan again.
All those years of following an underperforming team are at least for now behind us and we can be proud of our club again. Now that we are higher profile, highly rated players, especially young talent, want to come to Sunderland as they are attracted in part because of the high level of coaching and their opportunities to shine.
But it also the upward momentum at the club which attracts talent.
What lies behind all of this?
Clearly, there is a strategic plan which we see coming to fruition, and a number of the Roker Report regular contributors, including myself, have picked up on this. We are seeing the results of a deliberate strategy from the club’s leadership.
But it is not just the way we develop youth; it is about the way we play. Our players are clearly enjoying what they do for a living, and it shows; I have previously asserted that there are no big egos in the team, we have no passengers and no wasters just there for the money. As a result, we see true team play.
It does not matter if we have a large group of players out through injury or in the case of O’Nien, suspension: those wearing our shirt play with pride and certain swagger. We, as fans, have responded and follow Sunderland in great numbers.
This is a key to the current success; travelling from all over the country in such numbers does drive away performances and we are undefeated in 9 games, stretching back to October, on the road.
I was at my first live match for a while at the really memorable FA Cup tie at Craven Cottage. That evening the game was selected the opening game on BBC’s Match of the Day, because we played entertaining, open football and contributed to an exciting game.
The red and white army were there in numbers again, easily out-singing the home fans; the Sunday Times referred to the match as “a wild, pulsating cup tie” and I felt on a high for days afterwards.
This team is so easy to admire because as well as being able to play with ball on the ground, the lads are also capable of fighting for possession and pressing when needed.
The following day I was travelling to the US on business, and here on the other side of the pond I know that there are a large number of fans who follow Sunderland. It may have all started with the “Sunderland ‘Til I Die” Netflix series, but there is a sustainable USA following now.
There are many old industrial cities in the USA which have had their glory days, and are trying to reinvent themselves, rather like Sunderland, and the people in those cities relate to the struggles we have had.
One of those cites is Philadelphia, the home of American independence, but also an industrial city with a proud past. It is on the Delaware river, has a shipbuilding industry, with coal and steel industries nearby, and has sports teams with demanding fans.
The Philadelphia Eagles have just qualified for the Superbowl, the pinnacle of American football, and their success has been driven in part by their away following, which is remarkable in such a huge country. The fans demand effort, as well as pride in wearing the shirt in away games, as my US friend and Eagles fan, Seth Cavallari, assures me.
On The International Fans’ Day on April 15th, we will be reminded again how remarkable our worldwide following is. Seth follows Sunderland, and when I am in the US we watch Sunderland games together - including the Fulham game last night.
We have reflected that at times games are not pretty, and we have to try to grind out a result, as we did at Millwall on Saturday. The grit that our young team displayed in East London was terrific, in a game of constant niggling fouls, long balls and attritional opposition.
Fans from old industrial cities understand this, grit and determination are admired. Dennis Cirkin was brave and selfless with his headed goal from the returning Pritchard’s excellent cross.
No matter where you come from, supporting Sunderland is cool again.
This team is going places, and the journey will be fascinating.