Sometimes you can kid yourself into thinking you’ve had enough of Sunderland, or football in general, but look deep enough and that seed of love for your club is always there, writes Craig Clark.
Words can be extremely powerful. All it took was a handful of them to help reignite my fading love for Sunderland AFC. Describing his appearance during Sunderland’s last ever game at Roker Park at our live podcast, David Preece spoke emotively about the sadness he felt not only leaving the old ground behind, but the club too, having agreed to move to Darlington that summer.
A bittersweet memory, playing in such an historic game so soon after the club had been relegated from the Premier League and with new pastures around the corner. It was painful enough as a supporter, though it would mark the beginning of the best four years I’ve had in my Sunderland supporting life. There’s often some truth in the old adage that the night is darkest just before the dawn, something I’ve found myself reflecting on of late in relation to our current state of affairs.
Up until Gus Poyet lost his way as manager, I’d remained vaguely positive about Sunderland. It’s hard to explain why, given the amount of times we’ve been kicked while we’re down, but once his tenure came to an end, my eroding patience began to crack.
With the shambles seemingly never ending, Ellis Short became the target of many, myself included, and with good reason. It reached the point where my disdain, anger and frustration had slowly twisted themselves into the worst feeling of all; apathy. When does your love for an entity that has essentially become a business, of which you are one of its many customers, evaporate?
As the farce worsened and the crises showed no end of ceasing, logic and reason started to win the battle over passion and commitment. Even my long suffering dad, a supporter and season ticket holder for many a year more than me, who spent the summer trying to convince me and my sisters to keep the faith, sounded like a man resigned to packing it all in. Prior to the West Ham match, we both felt like we probably wouldn’t have been there if it wasn’t for our season tickets, only for the team to put in a performance that reminded us why we do keep returning through thin and thinner.
Defeats I can take, but the sheer number of them and the lack of wins against poorer sides at home begin to take their toll. I’ve written about an existential crisis at Sunderland before and I was facing my own as a supporter, wondering why I spent so much time and money supporting the club. The sport as a whole was becoming tiresome with the endless analysis, overabundance of statistics, the pretentious language, the use of video game data to judge player and the hideous pantomime that is transfer deadline day all contributing to my increasing ennui.
Fellow podcaster and renowned misery guts Gareth Barker often tells me that “winning helps”. I guess he has a point. Would these things matter to me if we were just going home from the Stadium of Light happy on a semi regular basis? If we could just win fairly consistently against sides like Norwich City and Bournemouth, would I really bemoan the customer treatment as much as I do?
Don’t get me wrong, these are serious issues that need addressing within the game, but my attitude towards them would undoubtedly soften if we weren’t so unutterably dreadful. In fact, as shown by recent reports, we support one of the better value for money clubs in the division. Well, it would be if we were served something up that didn’t have the air of rotten eggs about it, which sort of proves Gareth’s point.
Just as I was reaching breaking point, along came Sam Allardyce. Who would have thought that a man famed for his defensive minded, long ball football would stoke a fire inside. Regardless of the clichés surrounding Big Sam, he’s a manager I like and without a doubt the best candidate available to a club in our predicament. As for the criticisms of his style of play, they are at least partly unwarranted and frankly, things can’t get much worse than they are now can they? The up and at them attitude of his teams will go down well at the Stadium of Light and for the first time in a while, I’m looking forward to seeing us play.
Putting thoughts about Allardyce’s philosophy to one side, when Dick Advocaat departed I thought we’d be lucky to get anyone but the most desperate of managers. In that context, he’s quite a coup. You could argue that we’ve been here before with Martin O’Neill, and it could well be the case that things don’t work out, but by attracting Allardyce the club have made a statement of sorts. Despite the poor handling of the managerial situation at the club, we’re not some tin pot outfit. Despite being winless in the league we’re still big enough to hook in a man with a strong reputation.
The loving feeling was already returning with his arrival before David’s passionate reminiscence of that final game at Roker hit home. I switched off my mind and let my heart rule again; regardless of who owns the “business” and whatever mistakes they may make, its soul is still ours. These days, players may earn an obscene amount of money, paid to them by owners with an even larger amassment of riches, but listening to David and Michael Proctor recount their experiences as young lads coming through at Sunderland brought the human side of the game back to me.
Perhaps I’ve allowed myself to be overcome with sentiment, but I can’t help basking in the memories of those first four years at the Stadium of Light, and more recently of celebrating wildly at Old Trafford in the League Cup semi-final and the phenomenal support at Wembley as we lost valiantly to Manchester City in the final. It would be remiss of me to omit the five derby wins in a row we’re in the midst of enjoying, and how could I not care when that black white cloud is back on our horizon?
Of course, there are battles to be fought over the soul of football, what it’s become and where it’s heading, but no matter how illogical spending hundreds of pounds following the Lads around the country is, it’s part of who we are. Sometimes, you have to give in to your heart, the irrational bastard that it is. I did just that the other night and like a relapsing junkie with a needle, I’ve found the vein and given over to addiction again.