Texas doesn’t have much in common with Tayside. But supporting Sunderland is a truly bizarre rollercoaster, and it does best not to spend too much time trying to second guess where it is going next.
This time in 2022, there was no glamor trip to America for our players and a hardcore of massive Lads fans. That said, the excitement of the boys on my LNER train, who were reminding the taxpaying public just who and what Lee Howey’s brother is, means you could be forgiven for forgetting that we were in fact going to Dundee rather than Dallas.
The sun was shining and Alex Neil’s newly promoted Sunderland were off to see the first man who failed where Neil had succeeded as we faced Dundee United at Tannadice, then managed by Jack Ross. Ross would go on to lose a European tie 7-1 on aggregate having won the first leg 1-0, then lose 9-0 to Celtic before being sacked. Maybe those 1-1 draws weren’t so bad after all, eh?
But enough about him. As we crossed the mighty Tay and pulled into the land of desperate Dan, I felt a healthy dose of optimism mixed with the natural uncertainty that accompanies almost every pre-season for a natural pessimist like myself (albeit experience might prove me more of a realist). Nonetheless, after a couple of al fresco lagers in sunny squares, I was as cheerful as if we’d been in Austin after all. I was soaking up the sun; Sunderland were no longer in League One. Whether we beat a Scottish side in a pre-season dead rubber was of little consequence.
To be honest, I don’t remember huge amounts about the game. I had a nice Scottish pie, we won (2-0 according to Google), and I was a bit surprised to see a tyro by the name of Trai Hume looking quite so assertive. So maybe you can learn something from pre-season after all. Searching images for this piece also reminds me that their keeper made an absolutely hilarious howler, the exact nature of which evades me. So maybe it wasn’t all Jack’s fault things went pear shaped up there.
Anyway, as I scampered back into town to make my early train home, I bumped into some rather familiar figures. At this juncture I experienced the strange feeling that accompanies meeting people you’ve seen on TV or YouTube but never in real life. It’s a bit like bumping into an old school teacher in your local pub years later - you know who they are, but still aren’t sure if it’s alright to speak to them in public.
As it happened, it was instead the figures of Kristjaan Speakman and Steve Davison. Being the friendly sort, or just a bit annoying, I went up to them and said they must be happy with the way the summer transfer business was going so far, and the win we’d just witnessed. Speakman said something slightly defensive, if probably true, about never being truly happy in football. Davison, for all the stick he’s had for the way the club is floundering commercially at the moment, seemed a nice bloke.
After the momentary rush of meeting some vaguely D-list celebrities had been shared with the Roker Report groupchat, I never gave the encounter much thought again. Being the prematurely nostalgic person I am, though, our trip to the US this pre-season has led me to reflect on the parallels between now and then.
While I had a lovely day out back then, I don’t remember being hugely convinced by our win. Partly, that’s just pre-season; beating Shields 4-3 is hardly any more encouraging. It is also the fact that our impending, and long overdue, return to a respectable level of competition for a club like Sunderland was quite fear-inducing, as well as exciting.
It was a bit like going back to a slightly sketchy nightclub in your hometown for the first time in yonks, one in which you had increasingly distant fond memories. Only once you get there, you remember your last visit ended with you watching helplessly as your mate was thrown out by the bouncer. Again. Maybe the sea of new fresh faced new teenage revellers wouldn’t remember, but maybe it had also ended up going viral on social media. Or been turned into a weirdly successful Netflix documentary.
Such was my main, almost inexplicably dreadful, experience of Championship football, in 2017-18. Teams were beating us despite themselves by the end, so gutless and lacking quality or organisation was our side. We finished beneath Burton, for heavens sake. No measure of victory in pre-season was going to reassure me that this time wouldn’t be another horror show, no matter how many tears of joy I had shed at our promotion. We may have displayed sterner stuff in that playoff push, but we’d also lost 6-0 to Bolton the same season. Given the step up in standard we were about to face, I think a bit of trepidation was warranted.
By comparison, this year I’m quite relaxed. As I’ve said previously, I’ll rock up to Hartlepool for the day out. Other than that, pre-season will probably pass me by. Maybe that’s simply because I have a job now whereas the languor of my final summer as a student last year induced an unnecessary amount of thought about how we would go about beating Roma (hello, anyone else who could be bothered to pay actual money to watch the leonine Luke O’Nien two foot some equally beautiful Italian men).
In all seriousness, though, last year proved that we can have ambitions at this level above thoughts of mere survival (although of course that’s once again a bare minimum). That’s reflected in the fact that Speakman, rather on the defensive last summer even after our promotion under Alex Neil, is now getting the plaudits he deserves.
We don’t know, and a star-spangled trip to America won’t show, if Hemir will prove to be the new Niall Quinn, or if Jobe Bellingham will end up making his brother look like Liam Bridcutt. What we do know is that Speakman now has a solid track record of signing upgrades in every position (remember when Charlie Wyke was our best striker?). That he overcame the departure of a manager with enormous clout after finally dragging us kicking and screaming out of League One so well that said manager now looks like a bit of a busted flush gives him even more credit in the bank.
As such, I’m happy to let pre-season drift by and wait for the pudding to start actually baking before I start looking for the proof. I hope the players and fans out Stateside have a rare time, because we’ve all earned it, but I won’t be watching too closely. Even if I did, I’ll not be making any predictions about where this exciting young side will go next. I’m just happy that for the first time in years (maybe ever?) I have that something approaching that rarest of thing in Sunderland AFC: Trust.