We’ve had a bit of a close relationship with Manchester City in recent years, beginning with 1997’s first league game at the Stadium of Light. How times have changes for both clubs since…
Our recent history is tightly woven with Manchester City’s, despite our polar opposite Premier League positions. A second 4-1 home defeat in two seasons, after four years of successive 1-0 victories, came in the League Cup the other night, a competition we were of course valiantly beaten in the final of by the same opposition less than two years ago.
That day at Wembley feels like a life time ago now. Our travails show no sign of abating and we are no closer to regaining the sort of identity we had when we met the same Manchester club for the Stadium of Light’s first ever league home game in 1997.
Although we’d just been relegated from the Premier League with a record high number of points, we said goodbye to Roker Park and hello to our brand new stadium with a friendly against Ajax. Then the important stuff got going and we kicked our season off at Bramall Lane, losing to Sheffield Utd 2-0, before City came to town.
I can’t remember if there was a feeling of optimism in the air on the night of August 15th, as I entered the new ground for the first time. For whatever reason, my 11 year old self didn’t bother with the ceremonial Ajax game, possibly because my dad wasn’t bothered about it, so this was to be my first experience of our shiny new arena.
If the stadium itself wasn’t thrilling enough, and as a kid, it was an awe inspiring place, Niall Quinn only went and put us one ahead in the first half. What a moment. Everything seemed to be slotting into place, almost too easily. Added to that, Quinn had spent a significant part of his career at Maine Road, not only another link between the two clubs, but probably the most pivotal from our perspective.
It wasn’t all plain sailing on the night, with Georgiou Kinkladze levelling things from the spot, before a pair of new signings lifted the roof off the place. Former Newcastle man Lee Clark and then little known Kevin Phillips put the result beyond doubt with strikes in the last 10 minutes.
What a start to life at the Stadium of Light. We couldn’t have asked for much more, though things would take a dip before they really took off. By the time we met our old friends again in January, winning again with a Phillips second half goal, we were fourth in the league and flying. At this point, we were making a mark on the league and so was our up until then, unknown striker.
Obviously we were to miss out on promotion that season in typically heart breaking fashion before obliterating the competition the following year. Still, they were happy days, despite the Wembley blip. City meanwhile, were relegated to League 1, at least in part thanks to our double over them; just one more point would have kept them up. If they had survived, maybe they wouldn’t be where they are today.
Eventually they would return and now in their own new stadium, are unrecognisable from the shambles that plummeted to the third tier of English football 17 years ago. Conversely, although we are on our longest unbroken run of season in the top flight for decades, the experience of supporting Sunderland has become emotionally draining for all the wrong reasons.
The excitement, the passion, the expectation, the soul have all been sucked out of the club and the stadium too. It’s taken years of suffering, disappointment, record low points’ totals, mismanagement, terrible signings and just as bad managerial appointment to get where we are today, but it’s not been a lifetime. Most of us are old enough to have lived through the transition and aside from a couple of high points, it’s not been a pleasant one.
It’s not just Sunderland that has changed in 17 years, the world of football has too. Ticket prices are higher than ever, players are paid weekly wages most of us would be lucky to see in a year, while TV deals that consistently ruin weekend schedules put cash first and fans second. Can we get back to where we were, if not in terms of league position, then passion and enjoyment? Or is it too late? A bit of passion on the pitch wouldn’t go amiss, but even that seems like a pipe dream.