Football-wise, it’s hard to argue that Saturday was anything other than a perfect storm of frustration if you’re of a red and white persuasion.
After we stumbled to a messy defeat at Deepdale on the back of a failed ‘false nine’ experiment, Newcastle kicked off their Premier League campaign with an emphatic 5-1 victory over Unai Emery’s new-look Aston Villa, with two debutants on the scoresheet.
Given the poor start we’ve endured and the fact that there’s no indication of Kyril Louis-Dreyfus diving into his trust fund and spending freely (a favourite demand in Sunderland circles) combined with Newcastle splashing a bit of cash this summer, is there now a fear factor at play within our fan base?
Is there an increasing concern that Howe’s side, with their riches and the prospect of Champions League football to come, will simply disappear over the horizon and take a new generation of as-yet unaffiliated regional football supporters with them?
We’re all familiar with the long-running debates about the split between black and white & red and white supporters depending on where you’re located in the region, but sometimes, it feels as though we jump straight to the worst case scenario, bypassing all logic and reason in the process.
There’s no doubt that as Sunderland supporters, we often tread a fine line between elation and despair, with the mood changing from match to match, and sometimes from minute to minute during games, but in the current climate, it seems to be even more pronounced.
With every game we don’t win, combined with every positive result Newcastle pick up, it seems to set nerves jangling and heart rates soaring.
The fact that their takeover was ratified at the start of our ultimately successful 2021/2022 campaign meant even more pressure to get promoted, and you wonder what a fifth season in L1 would’ve done for morale, particularly as they proceeded to break into the top four.
Indeed, God knows how fraught things would’ve been if Twitter had existed back in the 1990s, when Newcastle were flirting with Premiership success and we were fighting for promotion from Division One. With that in mind, thank God for Peter Reid and his ability to block out external noise and keep everyone focused on the task in hand.
In response to any doubts about Dreyfus’ ownership of the club and exactly what his ‘vision’ is, we’re often guilty of seeing things through tunnel vision and equating spending with ambition at the expense of context and nuance.
Spending smartly, and not necessarily substantially, is clearly a cornerstone of his entire ethos, and as Championship clubs continually overstretch themselves in an attempt to chase the Premier League dream, putting a high premium on efficient spending doesn’t sound like the worst idea in the world.
The unspoken message is clearly, ‘Yes, we can spend X amount on a player if the deal is right for us, but it’ll be done on the back of player sales in order to balance the books’.
Isaac Lihadji has completed a permanent transfer to Al-Duhail SC for an undisclosed fee.— Sunderland AFC (@SunderlandAFC) August 5, 2023
All the best, Isaac! #SAFC
The reality is that any football club with aspirations of future success has to be run as a business as well as a sporting organisation, no matter how much we’d like to think otherwise.
We’d doubtless all like Sunderland to be owned by an individual or a conglomerate with unlimited resources, a vision for domestic and European domination, and the nerve to carry it out. After the chaos of the Ellis Short era and the grinding austerity of Madrox, the change has been radical, and that’s not always easily accepted.
In their newly-released documentary, a Newcastle executive apparently makes reference to their aim of wanting to be ‘a Real Madrid’, which doubtless went down brilliantly, despite the fact that they’re only sixty or so trophies shy of what the Bernabéu aristocrats can boast, not to mention the status of ‘Los Blancos’ as an extension of Spanish national identity.
Dreyfus and Kristjaan Speakman, in contrast, have made no such promises in the three years since their arrival. Their stated ambition is top flight football, and that’s as far as it’s gone.
We were never lured in by golden tickets, fantasy points totals, quick fixes and promises of magical days ahead.
Instead, there’s been a process followed and a structure implemented. An imperfect process, yes, but realistically, one that our club should’ve signed up to years ago.
Much has been made of Speakman’s reference to a top-two finish, particularly in light of our poor start, but we all know that he’s walking a fine line and trying to keep the various factions of our fan base united.
This is an arduous task at the best of times, but arguably even trickier now that our nearest and dearest are competing at the sharp end of the top flight.
Some of our fans want us to take the quickest path back to the Premier League and others are happier to play a long game and back the policy of showing faith in youth. Trying to unite the two camps is nigh on impossible, so is it even worth trying?
With that in mind, perhaps Speakman’s stock reply to such questions should be simply, ‘We want Sunderland AFC to be the best version of itself that it can be, come what may’. That’s about as close to keeping everyone happy as he can get at this stage, and it might ensure that his every word isn’t scrutinised for hidden meanings.
The reality is that we’re on one path and our neighbours are on another.
We’re doing it organically and they’re throwing the blood money at it by the sackful. Yes, they’ll enjoy plenty of eye-catching results and continental trips, but that doesn’t mean that we’re doomed to drift through the Championship forever, with no hope of ever dining at the top table again.
The idea that you simply keep changing owners every three years if they don’t fulfil certain demands just isn’t feasible, and we can’t let the scars of the past or envy of Newcastle rob us of the patience that’s needed if this club is to find its way back to the top again- which it will do at some stage in the future.