Wembley and Safe (6): Sunderland fans – long term lovers of pain

Jake is sleeping soundly
Jake is sleeping soundly

Malcolm Dawson writes…..Fans of the radio show “I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue” will know that one of the long term favourite rounds, inevitably at the end of the programme, is the “Late arrivals at the …….ball.” Panellists are given a theme and come up with terrible puns based on it. For example if the topic was “Late arrivals at the Publicans’ ball” someone, probably Tim Brooke Taylor would say “Will you welcome please, Mr and Mrs Bitter-Shandy and their son…Arfur Bitter-Shandy. Graeme Garden’s running gag was always along the lines of “All the way from Sweden, Mr and Mrs Orders at the bar please, aven’t you all got homes to go to and their son Lars Orders at the bar etc., which is a very long winded way of welcoming, all the way from Sweden, regular contributor Lars Knutsen with his take on the season just gone.

We are football fans. We understand the pain and suffering of following that Sunderland football club can entail, experiencing the highs that are very high and the lows that are almost indescribably low. I was at most of the games for the amazing high 1973 FA Cup run, but also in attendance at Vicarage Road in September 1982 when we lost 8-0 at Watford in the top League, then Division 1.

If fans are defined by the people whose mood is affected by the fortunes of their club, we have had ups and downs to a bipolar level this season. As a BBC Radio 5Live commentator put it: “There are the makings of a good side in there somewhere”…and happily the players found that chemistry in a dynamic fashion at the right time to get the team out of trouble.

Fortunately we will indeed all remember the end of the season in sharpest focus. As Monsieur Salut will confirm, I had completely given up hope after the defeats at Spurs and at home to Everton. I sent in a piece of writing in which I was resigned to the drop, with trips to Millwall, Charlton and Blackpool (Yeovil and Doncaster were relegated!) on the horizon for next season, wondering whether Gus Poyet would keep his job. Fortunately, our editor was too busy with preparations ahead of the Chelsea game…I revised my contribution, and the team ensured that the rest is history.

I heard from a fellow fan from my home town of Boldon that the senior players, presumably galvanised by O’Shea and Cattermole, got together after the defeat at Spurs, and said, we will give this a real go, we are better than this. I credit Wes Brown for being psychologically robust enough after that tragic own goal against Everton, to put in cracking performances from then on. The same must be said of Mannone after his desperate efforts to keep the ball out of the net in City’s late equaliser at the Etihad. Even the commentator said that our keeper would not sleep that night.

We need to remember though that this season has served some truly horrible performances, many of those in the 11 home league defeats, as well as those terrific highs. Notably that truly dominant win at Newcastle, after which I was sure we would pull away from the bottom and move into mid-table obscurity, a pretty good outcome after the desperate start we had under Di Canio.

Lars Knutsen touching base
Lars Knutsen touching base

I know that Swansea were party-poopers on the final day, but miracle was almost too mild a word for what had happened at Sunderland over the preceding 4 weeks. A totally amazing series of results, which show what stringing a few good performances together will do for confidence. The side will look quite different next season, with Borini likely to return to Liverpool, Jack Colback possibly going to Newcastle and the club perhaps not renewing Phil Bardsley’s or Seb Larsson’s contracts.

Fans cannot blame the players for keeping their options open while we looked certainties for relegation. We signed Larsson, Gardner, Vaughan and Fletcher from relegated clubs, and to be honest, it must have taken them time to get over the losing mentality. I reckon though that the backbone of the team will be unchanged, with Connor Wickham staking his claim. The late season revival was based on having Wickham to put the goals away, but also on a solid defence, notably at Chelsea and Man. United. The centre backs performed well, but they are getting older.

Work needs to be done though in the close season to clear out underperforming players, who have been inconsistent and dropped below the levels of effort and professionalism demanded by fans of Sunderland Football Club. I would like us to keep Larson though, he may be scoring less but his deliveries into the box are excellent.

According to the Daily Telegraph, Poyet is the 4th best manager of the year, with Steve Bruce in 6th spot. I obviously hope and expect to see an improvement in that placing next year, if Poyet is allowed to rebuild the side and if we do as well teams that should be our peers, such as Everton and Southampton. We should definitely be finishing above teams like Stoke City.

In November 2013 I wrote in my column as a response to “Brucie’s” version of his time at Sunderland: “So we are happy to let Bruce manage a club in a Rugby League town, struggling to get over 22,000 for a home game, and to provide a home to our former players and have his deluded view of his time at the SSOL. I predict now that we will finish above Hull City Tigers or whatever they are called today”.

One prediction at least came true, we did finish above Hull City. But I am delighted that my late Spring expectation of relegation, shared by many, did not come true.

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This is the latest contribution to our Wembley and Safe series of end-of-season reviews. To see all postings in the series, click anywhere on this paragraph.

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