Just before the start of the 2012-2013 season, Dom Raynor, then editor of ESPN FC, invited me to contribute regular articles on Sunderland to the club-by-club section of the site. These days, I am so used to being asked to work for nothing that I was surprised to discover they proposed to pay for these services. It wasn’t much, but there was demand for sufficient items each month to make it seem like gainful employment.
When I have been absent, Pete Sixsmith has stepped in, as admirably as you’d expect from him, and I owe him one last payment for his excellent report from a game we actually won, at Hull City.
The ESPN FC’s interest in English football is naturally concentrated on the Premier League. When teams go down, so do the writers of blog reports on those clubs’ pages. Seats may or may not be kept warm, but the gig necessarily comes to an end.
After five seasons, and with grateful thanks to Dom’s totally professional successor Alexander Shaw, it feels like a a bit of a wrench though Mme Salut will be pleased to reclaim weekends (little does she know I intend to attend every home and away match, all Under 23 games and the entire SAFC Ladies programme while still finding time for non-Sunderland football on all other days). She always said I promised to rattle off pieces in half an hour; they may sometimes look that way, but always take a little longer.
Here is my preview of the final game of the season, and therefore my final preview for ESPN FC at least for now. My brief report and marks out of 10 will appear as soon as possible after the Chelsea game on Sunday, there will then be a bit of mopping up, end-of-season assessment sort of stuff and then that will be that …
Sunderland’s farewell to the Premier League on Sunday takes them ominously to Stamford Bridge, en fete after Chelsea’s emphatic title success but also the scene of two rare highlights of their 10-year stay.
Ten seasons, nine different managers and frequent brushes with relegation have reduced the Wearsiders to an existence plagued by insecurity and disappointment.
But past battles for survival have at least produced moments of great excitement, few more enthralling than a sensational 2-1 win under Chelsea’s floodlights in April 2014.
It was Jose Mourinho’s first taste of losing at home in charge of Chelsea. Gus Poyet’s Sunderland started and ended the game in bottom place but sustained the revival to reach the heady heights of 14th as Chelsea’s title bid faltered and Mourinho had to settle for third place.
Three-and-a-half years earlier, Steve Bruce had led Sunderland to an even more impressive victory at Stamford Bridge, the 3-0 scoreline justified by perhaps the club’s finest team display in living memory. Bruce’s detractors should note that Sunderland ended that season 10th, their only top-half finish since Peter Reid’s took the club to seventh place in 2000 and 2001.
At no point of the horrendous season now drawing mercifully to a close has the perpetually downbeat David Moyes looked capable of inspiring his players to emulate such feats.
Relegation has not even followed another frantic end-of-season clamour for points but was confirmed by the home defeat to Bournemouth on April 29, with four games still to play.
The season has duly reinforced the feeling that supporting Sunderland is not a recommended pursuit for the squeamish. If this is a club with a grand history, history is the appropriate term.
Only five teams — Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Everton and Aston Villa — have won the top flight championship more often. But Villa’s presence in the list shows how the mighty can fall and three of Sunderland’s titles date from the reign of Queen Victoria. The sixth and last was won in 1936 since when the only major trophy has been the FA Cup final victory against Leeds United, then the cream of English football, in 1973.
So embarrassing did the long wait for further glory become that exiled supporters in the London branch of the Sunderland AFC Supporters’ Association voted several year s ago to change the name of their magazine from 5573 — signifying the date of that remarkable 1-0 victory over Leeds — to Wear Down South.
Optimists may point to nine promotions, some of them exhilarating, but realists would incoveniently counter that this season’s humiliation necessarily means there have been 10 relegations.
And relegation is contagious. Sunderland will, of course, feature no more among the club-by-club blogs on the pages of ESPN FC until — unless, cynics might say — they return to the Premier League.
It has been an enjoyable if challenging five seasons, recording the occasional ups and repeated downs of Sunderland’s fortunes. Occasional banter with readers, many far from the North East of England or even the UK, produces smiles rather than frowns. It is refreshing to make electronic acquaintance with people who may live thousands of miles away but feel the same love for the game, often enough for the clubs under discussion.
The result of Sunday’s finale is relatively unimportant, however encouraging an unexpected win — and a parting goal or two from Jermain Defoe — would be for away fans. Come what may, Sunderland are down, Chelsea are champions and both outcomes to the season are richly deserved.
Since no one knows for sure who will be playing for Sunderland in August, or even who will be the manager, it is impossible to talk with confidence of a swift return.
Newcastle United did it under Rafa Benitez, not least because they were able to hang on to key men. From goalkeeper Jordan Pickford to the admirable Defoe, any Sunderland player with a hint of Premier League ability is likely to be on the move.
One aspect of the Sunderland AFC experience will undoubtedly triumph over adversity. The level and emotional commitment of the support will remain high.
There were plenty of empty seats for the final home game against Swansea City but the official attendance, more than 38,000, illustrates just how many fans had signed up to season tickets. The season’s average, 41,000+, is beyond belief given the awfulness of the play and a measly total of three home wins.
Two predictions seem safe. Sunderland will not spoil Chelsea’s party on Sunday. And the the Stadium of Light has not seen its last big crowd. Sunderland passions may have been dimmed by this season’s wretched surrender, but will quickly be restored if there is a fighting, winning start to life below.