Boxing Day 2019.
A day that lives, despite it being the festive season, long in the memory of many Sunderland fans for all the wrong reasons.
For anyone who doesn’t know, or has forcefully blanked this cursed day from their memory, it was of course the day Phil Parkinson’s Sunderland drew 0-0 at the Stadium of Light with tomorrow’s opponents Bolton Wanderers. The most recent, and certainly most cursed, visit the Trotters have made to Wearside.
This day is also known in some circles I believe, as De Bock day. But more on that later.
Let me set the scene for you, a Sunderland side on an absolutely terrible run of form limped into this fixture in front of a bumper Boxing Day crowd to face a Bolton side comprised of youth teamers and journeymen signed on frees following a lifting of their transfer embargo. This Bolton side were rooted to the bottom of the League One table and would go on to be relegated at the end of that season – in fairness they did also get a points deduction, but lets not pretend they were actually any good.
It has to be, and this is no exaggeration, the most boring game of football I have ever attended, and lets be honest I, as any Sunderland fan, have had more than my fair share. The identity was non-existent, the pace was slow and the quality was turgid. We could have played on until New Years Day and wouldn’t have scored. I distinctly remember the atmosphere in the ground slowly turning from intial festive buoyancy via sleepy dissatisfaction to outright dissent. This was the time of the Super Kev managerial rumours, and his name rang out in loud bursts around the ground, mingling with various anti-Parkinson songs and the most vocal dissent to the ownership to that point I can remember.
A nadir of sorts was reached in the 73rd minute when Tom Flanagan, playing on the left of a back three I believe, was withdrawn; only to be replaced by none other than Laurens De Bock, the perennial joke figure inexplicably signed on a free and universally (and accurately) written off as shite by fans of his previous club Leeds. It was a substitution as laughable as it was pointless, and it neatly summed up the state of the club, the team and the manager at that point in time. The whole thing was, in short, an absolute joke.
Of the starting XI that day, only three players (Gooch, O’Nien and Flanagan) are likely to feature tomorrow, indeed there is only Jordan Willis and Lee Burge (who was on the bench that day as he likely will be tomorrow too) remaining at the club in addition to them. The manager and ownership have changed, and it’s no exaggeration to say our entire outlook is totally different too. We can now approach games against any side in this division the way we always should, with a confidence and professional arrogance that we can and should get the job done if we perform how we know that we can. That feeling could not be further away from the feeling we had before games in the dark days of 2019.
We can go back to the top of the table tomorrow, and if we do it would be impossible to say that we do not deserve to be there. It is still early days and there’s a long way to go, but as starts to the season go – even with disappointments like last Saturday taken into account – the one we have made this time around is incredibly impressive. Consistency, identity and momentum are the keys to successful promotion seasons, and no side should be feared.
I can’t wait for tomorrow – I’m not sure there’s a better way to highlight how things have changed since the last time we faced Bolton at home than actually looking forward to playing them, and everybody else too.
Bring it on. Let’s do this.