Hasn’t this season been incredible so far?
I have to admit even as recently as late summer last year, when we made a decent start to the season under Alex Neil before he decided to leave us for the allegedly more attractive scenery of Stoke-on-Trent, I wasn’t really certain what to expect from this campaign in the EFL Championship.
Going back to the start of the season, just being out of League One after four tours of the English third tier was a huge relief, and a weight off the back of our fans wherever they reside.
The fact we were now in a division where we could try to rebuild from was so incredibly welcome, even accepting that may initially require patience. It was clear we may need a period of time for consolidating and settling down at this level, building the squad to push towards that lucrative and attractive top tier across the coming season or three.
Just staying in this league and having that on our near horizon would honestly have been more than enough for me back in the summer.
Seeing where we are now is a cut above all expectations.
At times, I find myself double taking whenever I look at the situation we are in… we are ninth in the Championship table after 34 of 46 games, and until our recent two game blip we were in the top five. We are running at an average of very close to 1.5 points a game, and we have done that at a level up from the last four seasons, with massive injury issues impacting our ability at both ends of the field. Thinking about how well may we have done with a backline that never lost Batth or Ballard makes me shudder. What if we had an attack that didn't lose their star striker Stewart and his mates for weeks on end? We can only speculate.
Away from the field of play, we are owned by a wealthy young man who comes from a family with a deep footballing history. He has a clear vision and long-term strategy, and has created a structure to execute it. He has appointed a Sporting Director and a supporting team who are delivering the early stages of that strategy very well, the grand majority of the time. Both the majority shareholder, the Sporting Director and all their supporting colleagues have the same hopes for the future of this club.
On the edge of the paddock, we are managed and coached by a fella very knowledgeable about and local to the north east region, who has hundreds of games coaching teams just like ours under his belt. He has assistants and a team around him that includes people who have shaped young footballers into England international diamonds.
I honestly cannot recall the last time my club was in this strong a position in terms of ownership, leadership and supporting structure. Having our stall set out to grow and improve both in football terms and as a sporting business entity is a massive breath of fresh air after so many years of comparative fog and confusion. Even if the football wasn’t going as well as it is (and we have had a mini-dip these last two or three games), being where we are is something to be very happy about as a Sunderland supporter.
All that said, it hasn't been easy for fans, neither those living local and getting stick from fans of the Mags or the Smoggies they work alongside, nor for people like me living among people who don’t really understand what football means to anyone who grew up in the north east.
Emerging from the darkness of League One last May and taking on the Championship from August has triggered a new wave of positivity for me, though. We are now in a league more akin to where we belong, arguably the lowest level a club of our stature and fanbase should operate within. How the club has both operated and performed has really impacted my mindset as a result of that.
Gone are the days where I wander around my little village or the local city of Peterborough in my striking red and white stripes on a weekend to see locals bearing sympathetic smiles.
Fans around the country have known that our huge behemoth of a club has been at a low ebb for some time. The looks of local football fans historically carried a sense of comradeship rather than opposition. It has almost seemed that people naturally felt they should offer an arm around our shoulders after experiencing a lens on our lives through things like Sunderland ‘Til I Die. Most agreed that one day we would get back where we are better suited, but like us, they saw us try and fail more often than anyone hoped.
Wearing my home team’s colours in Cambridgeshire across those four seasons did trigger discussion about football with other local fans, but it was always about how far we have fallen and how mad we are to still pull more than 30,000 fans into our stadium every week despite that. Admiration for our passion and persistence was in there, but an underlying “poor you” was always threaded through the discussions.
That was a mindset that eventually discouraged me from wearing my footy tops as much when out and about where I now live, I have to ashamedly confess. In the first year or two in the third tier, less so, as we could respond with an expectation of a quick return to the next level, but we didn’t achieve that. After those first couple of seasons, it became a real slog putting up with all the dross that donning the shirt attracted. The sledging from the areas of the north east both north and south of Sunderland must have been hell on earth for fans still in the north east too, I’m sure of that.
Now, I have to say my other half can hardly get the Sunderland shirts off my back.
Since we started to get attention from the wider footballing community as we have proceeded to climb the EFL Championship, those conversations both locally and with my workmates have taken a huge swing in a positive direction.
The comments in the last six months have flipped 180 degrees, now starting with smiles and verbal back-patting rather than compassion and sympathy. The conversations are enthusiastic, optimistic chats, dripping with neutral but wholehearted recognition that we have turned a corner and are on our way back up the pyramid.
Our football is discussed as being entertaining and at times beautiful to watch; our team is acknowledged as young and carrying bags of potential for at least the next four to five years; our owner is seen to be in total control, happy to invest where the strategy is supported and enhanced, and not being taken advantage of by players that don’t fit the model but want a fat paycheck till they check out.
Football fans can be incredibly knowledgeable, and those who are well-informed know as much as I do how far we fell and where we now are, along with the vector we are following.
It is evident even to a well-read outsider that Kyril Louis-Dreyfus cares about the long-term future of his club and ours, and will not allow our club to border on financial ruin again, as it was just a handful of years ago.
So, yeah, when I go to the supermarket at the weekend, or the pub, or out for a walk with the dog, the pride with which I wear the colours of the red and white army is now right back where it should be. We have lost and will continue to lose the odd game as we have this last couple of weeks, but we have won more than we have lost or drawn, which is a great output with the team approaching the final quarter of the campaign.
Arguably, my passion for showing my football allegiance around Cambridgeshire should never have waned, but life as a Sunderland fan is a trial for all of us. As the signs of us turning firmly in the right direction grow, I get a very strong feeling that despite a long and arduous trial, we are approaching a very favourable verdict.