“Typical Sunlun” is a phrase uttered by thousands on Wearside on an almost weekly basis.
In a season where the Premier League hierarchy is being threatened by upstarts such as Leicester and West Ham, Sunderland are doing their best to maintain the status quo by continuing to be a bit shit and battle against relegation.
As usual, we find ourselves anxiously checking other results and working out their significance to Sunderland’s annual quest to avoid the drop.
But this time, something feels different, very different. I’m not sure I understand why, but I quite like it. I think.
For years now supporting the lads has been something of a chore. Yes, there have been amazing highs such as our great escapes, derby day victories and our run to the Capital One cup final. But these moments have been all too rare and the majority of the last few seasons have been pretty soul destroying.
In many ways I am fortunate to have witnessed our longest top-flight run since our maiden relegation in 1958. But quoting Jonathan Wilson at a talk-in Dublin recently, “We are going through a silver age in our history….and it feels fucking terrible.”
But it hasn’t always about results, I just got sick, sick of watching Stephen Fletcher flicking the ball aimlessly instead of holding it up. I got sick of watching Danny Graham meandering after the ball as though he had concrete strapped to his boots. It got to the stage where I actually disliked certain players.
After a particularly depressing goalless draw last season, I asked my dad who kids are meant to idolise in this team. I’d hate to have the minging selection they’ve had recently. Alright, as a 20 year old, my childhood isn’t that much of a distant memory, and my early years of following Sunderland generally resulted in relegation or Championship football. At least there were characters though, at least there were heroes.
Whether it was Julio Arca with his seemingly never ending drag-backs, putting defenders on their arses, Marcus Stewart firing in goals in our promotion season, or Nyron Nosworthy doing Cruyff turns on the edge of his own penalty area, there were something to really love. I knew we were terrible, but I still had genuine affection for some of the players.
Obviously, my love for the club’s never died, despite my frustrations I’ve not missed a home league game since 2010 and have travelled all over the country to watch an eternity’s worth of inept performances. To be fair, this has been more out of an irrational sense of duty and a prospect of a day on the piss with my mates.
But in recent months, despite an all too familiar league table, something has clicked and it’s completely changed how I view match days.
Man City at home was the first time I felt this in a while, yes we got beat 1-0 and our position looked bleak, but I remember leaving the match with a genuine smile on my face and feeling overwhelmed with pride.
We had just played City off the park for large spells of the game and the new signings had breathed some new life back into the club. After cutting a comical figure on his debut at White Hart Lane, Jan Kirchhoff dictated the tempo of the midfield pinging diagonal balls about for fun. Kone became an instant crowd favourite by flattening Yaya Toure and Khazri looked lively when he came on as sub. We created a number of chances and clearly deserved more.
That was the night the connection between the players and the fans seemed to be reborn. At full-time defiant chants of “Oh Sunlun we love you” rang around the ground.
Despite just one win since that night, the good will has continued. There’s an obvious sense that the players are trying and fighting for each other. Whilst some may argue this is the bare minimum you should expect, it’s something that sadly has not been evident in previous campaigns.
You can see it when we score.
Away at Southampton, almost the entire team were bouncing up and down in front of a jubilant away end, at Newcastle Jermain Defoe ran the whole length of the pitch to celebrate in front of the travelling fans. Contrast this to Stephen Fletcher cupping his ears to the fans after scoring his first goals in over six months, and it’s easy to see why there’s an increasing feeling of togetherness at the club.
It’s not all good news; sometimes I find myself pining for the days of blissful apathy. There was something peaceful about forgetting about the game as soon as you trudged over the bridge, your main worry being what pub to meet a mate in.
Now it hurts again. After conceding these last gasp equalizers, I’m taking it badly. I’m waking up with a sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach the morning after.
It also hurts because for once we’ve nailed the transfer window, making quality signings (N’Doye still up for debate), who look privileged to be playing for the club. After years of scraping survival with squads appearing to get more depressingly average as each window passes, suddenly we face a prospect of being relegated with a side which has the makings of a solid mid-table Premier League side.
This produces another problem, I’ve become attached again. Like a heartbroken teenage girl I swore this would never happen. If we had been relegated last season would I have pined after Sebastian Coates, or Jordi Gomez? (as beautiful as he is). Would I have been gutted when Fletcher left on a free to join Celtic? You know the answer.
But now I think of a world without Yann M’Villa dictating the play from the center circle. I try to imagine the horror of never seeing another surging Khazri run or even never seeing another crunching tackle from Kone. I’m not sure my heart could take it.
Then I shudder as I think of the functional Championship plodders we would inevitably replace them with and suddenly life doesn’t seem quite as worthwhile.
It’ll hurt because we’ve been so close, if only we’d converted our last three 1-0 leads into victories we’d be sitting pretty and laughing at Newcastle’s plight below us. But alas (or lalas) we are Sunderland and this is how we do things.
To end with a cheesy cultural reference, Paloma Faith once released a song entitled “Only Love Can Hurt Like This”. This describes Sunderland AFC very well; You convince yourself you don’t need them and you can cope just fine on your own. But then something happens which reminds you of why you bother and you realise that you love them, and to be quite honest, I hate them for it.