Sunderland’s headlong fall and the unconditional love that makes us keep faith

In the commentary box up with Barnes and Benno high up in the West stand

Monsieur Salut, aka Colin Randall, writes: in my brief time in Abu Dhabi, I saw more of Sunderland live than at any time since Pete Sixsmith and I would make our way every other Saturday to home games at Roker Park, and rather less often to away matches. That’s because every Premier League match is shown on TV there. I suspect it would have been hard if not impossible in the season just ending, and will simply be unthinkable once our return to League One gets under way.

But my links with The National newspaper, the launch of which drew me to the UAE in 2007, remain strong and the sports editor, Graham Caygill, a Watford supporter, was happy to indulge my willingness to write about our decline. He has a soft spot for SAFC even though his dad was a Boro man.

See the article at the newspaper’s site – just click on this link – and see it here, with Graham and the editor-in-chief’s consent …

As a second successive relegation dispatches Sunderland to League One, a flattering title for English football’s third tier, supporters are left to reflect on what has become of their proud old club.

A history of great escapes, without which Sunderland’s most recent spell in the Premier League – 10 years – would have been shorter, was rudely interrupted by last season’s bottom-place drop from the top flight.

Yet another failure on Saturday, defeat to relegation rivals Burton Albion, combined with results elsewhere, ensured their fate and has left them with only pride to play for, and trying to avoid finishing last, in the final two games.

Since those matches are against the champions Wolverhampton Wanderers and promotion-chasing Fulham, even that is a tall order.

Almost inevitably, the rot began when Burton sent on a former Sunderland striker, Darren Bent, as a late substitute with the home team winning 1-0. He soon equalised and a winner followed in stoppage time.

A year ago, facing a similar fate in the Premier League, fans consoled themselves with the thought that at least they would see goals and wins in the Championship, maybe a push for promotion. I should know; I was among them.

Instead, the club I have supported since my father took me to watch Brian Clough score a winner at Middlesbrough 56 years ago, has been as much of a disgrace in the second tier as it was in the Premier.

Bad luck plays no part in this staggering decline. The football has been wretched and the latest relegation is richly deserved.

It beggars belief that Peter Reid led the same club to seventh-top Premier finishes in 2000 and 2001. His team was competitive and sometimes fun to watch, Kevin Phillips and Niall Quinn scoring the goals and a fine goalkeeper, Thomas Sorensen, stopping them at the other end.

This season? The top scorer, Lewis Grabban, left in January and the three keepers used by manager Chris Coleman have been uniformly abysmal [though well done Jason Steele on what Sixer called his best game for the team].

Repeated managerial changes and a lack of investment – the American owner Ellis Short is desperate to find a buyer and long ago stopped venturing from his Florida retreat to attend games – have had their logical outcome.

Each new manager has had to cope with overpaid, couldn’t-care-less dross recruited by those before him. The players frequently perform as if they met for the first time in the dressing room.

It is perhaps fitting that Short’s hopes of collecting a good price from anyone bold or foolish enough to buy Sunderland have been dealt a massive blow by his own decision, perhaps understandable given how badly his money has been spent, to starve managers of funds that might have altered the club’s calamitous course.

But are the supporters deluding themselves in thinking they follow a big club?

The impressive size of the fan base – sixth best supported Premier League club while struggling at the bottom, Championship attendances of 25-30,000 at a stadium that has seen only two home wins since December 2016 – is unimportant.

Sunderland’s last meaningful trophy came 45 years ago, when Ian Porterfield’s goal and Jimmy Montgomery’s saves overcame then-mighty Leeds United in the 1973 FA Cup final.

Yes, there is a haul of six top flight titles, bettered only by Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Everton and Aston Villa.

But Queen Victoria was on the English throne when half of them were won and Edward VIII was still a few months away from abdication in 1936 when it last happened.

The first relegation in club history had occurred four years before I stood on tiptoes at Ayresome Park to see that Clough goal in my debut as a fan.

In the decades that have followed, I have witnessed nine promotions. Sadly, taking account of the weekend’s events, that means 10 relegations.

Supporting Sunderland is a generally thankless mission. I have manipulated work schedules, tested a wife’s patience and, doubtless, irritated friends and colleagues in pursuit of my passion.

How much I have spent, and how many miles I have travelled, is a subject best overlooked.

Few follow the team without having a close connection with the city or wider northeastern region. There are no gloryseekers.

The club effectively chooses us as supporters. Niall Quinn understood that and so does Coleman, who could have done so much better for himself after his sterling efforts as manager of Wales.

Do we regret the duty of unconditional love imposed on us?

Probably not. In my own case, there is no such concept as “a second club”; there is affection for a few others – Celtic and Liverpool spring to mind – but I look out for their results without trace of passion. A win or defeat for Sunderland determines my mood for days.

Now that visits to the footballing hotbeds of Accrington Stanley, Luton Town and Wycombe Wanderers loom, I shall avoid predicting a romp to immediate promotion.

Only once have I seen my club descend to such depths. Wolves, Leeds, Southampton and Aston Villa have all been there so there should be no reason why Sunderland cannot bounce back too.

But back in the old Third Division of 1987-88, when Sunderland went up as champions at the first attempt, Marco Gabbiadini and Eric Gates formed a sparkling goalscoring duo and the defence included the athletic, intuitive Gary Bennett and the dependable John MacPhail, also a penalty specialist.

­­­­­Coleman – or someone else if Short or new owners want yet another change – must rid the club of players with little commitment or limited ability.

They must be replaced by men as talented as Gabbiadini and Gates, and as willing to embrace the cause.

If that happens, crowds will soon creep back above 30,000. And if not, the Sunderland of this time next year could be wondering what life is like in League Two.

* Colin Randall writes regularly for The National and edits the fan


8 thoughts on “Sunderland’s headlong fall and the unconditional love that makes us keep faith”

  1. Agree entirely , never a dull moment following The Lads ,wouldn’t have it any other way, we’ll rise again and soon.

  2. Weather Report. A deep depression has settled over Wearside – although the dark clouds first appeared in August and never really went away. The outlook for the future is no less gloomy. However, in contrast, Tyneside is experiencing vast quantities of hot air and bluster – as per.

  3. The club has been technically insolvent for a long time with only personal guarantees by Ellis Short keeping it afloat. I am waiting to see how Bain has re-jigged the finances, although the accounts, to be published soon, will not give the up to date position.

    The PL parachute payments will allow the club to meander along probably without any investment in players very much like this season. I doubt administration is an option which would probably see us locked out of the stadium and Academy much like the Boro pre-Steve Gibson That’s due to colossal loans using our bricks and mortar as collateral.

    I cannot see any prospective buyer taking on a such a huge debt or paying off Ellis Short even on a long term basis.

    Councils have in the past helped out by buying football grounds and leasing them back to the club but that would be highly unlikely in their current parlous position.

    This year the playing side has taken a back seat to this financial uncertainty and there is no reason to assume that things will improve next season.

    Perhaps the best to hope for is that people are willing to invest alongside Short and that he is willing to dilute his shareholding. Not a Buy-out but a Buy-in.

  4. The only positive from this horrific mess is the galvanising effect it may have on the fans . We must do everything in our power to turn this around, on but we need a catalyst first . Whether that’s new ownership , total or partial, or winning the first few games of next season . We just need a spark and these flames will rise again.

    • When I pitched a piece to The National, I did invite them to send me packing if the second best SAFC-supporting writer on Sunderland (Jonathan Wilson – Sixer shading it)- was still working for the paper. I don’t think he is, so they made do with me.

  5. Can’t say I disagree,whats worrying me more the prospect of bankruptcy,according to the BBC, we have 13th highest debt in Europe(more than Newcastle, Paris St Germain and Porto),

    Short keeps dropping the asking price and Bain is cutting costs left and right.Next stop is in the courts for defaulting on tax payments.

    We have two battle on now,getting promoted and staying solvent.

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