Monsieur Salut writes: today’s post – snail mail and electronic – brought two messages from people called Bill. By proper post, from Sunderland, came a new album, Wonderful Fairy Tale, by one Bill – short for Belinda – Jones to which I am hugely looking forward to listening, not least because it cost her £2.60 to send it. Then came an uplifting piece on Sunderland AFC and how the playoffs look to a long-exiled Mackem with solid Wearside roots and a Bishop Auckland youth. Bill/Belinda is for another time and place, the somewhat neglected Salut! Live site. Here, conjured up on a flight home to Toronto (not the one near Bishop) from Seville is Bill Taylor’s slice of optimism …
As the American baseball legend Yogi Berra once wisely if a trifle obscurely observed: “It ain’t over till it’s over.”
No gainsaying that. And it certainly ain’t over yet for The Lads as they move through a punishing coda to a punishing season. Their April fixture list bordered on inhuman. And they are, no matter how we may wish them to be, only human.
So who knows how this will finally play out? I’m not in the prediction business.
Whichever way it goes, moving up or staying put, there are those who think this has been a lame end to the season. I dunno… maybe if you’re in the stands week in, week out that’s how it seems. But from where I’m sitting, on the other side of the Atlantic scouring the internet for whatever footage I can find of our games, these last few months have seemed like a breath of fresh air.
I’ve been supporting Sunderland for well over half a century. With the exception of 1973 – and there was, of course, a 24-carat reason for that – I can’t remember a season I’ve enjoyed more than this one. It’s like watching a blockbuster TV series – thrills, chills, excitement, heartbreak, cliffhanging climaxes… couldn’t wait for the next installment.
It was compelling, it was obsessive, it was sometimes frustrating but above all it was… INTERESTING.
If that seems like a wishy-washy word, I make no apology for it. For the first time in years, it WAS interesting. Especially on Boxing Day: third-highest gate in whole country. Not too shabby.
When I saw friends here who support Liverpool and West Ham, the first thing they would say was, “How’s Sunderland doing?” They were interested, too. I hadn’t seen that in a while.
From week to week, what would this unknown quantity called Jack Ross do with the equally unknown quantities in his squad? I include the veteran Cattermole in that. Who knew, as the season got underway, how this volatile man would react to finding himself playing third-tier football? We know the answer now. He played first-tier football. He turned from what could sometimes be a bull-in-a-china-shop liability into a reliable asset. And he scored goals!
Ross has been criticized in comments here for not being up to the job – for being afraid to play to win, hence the number of drawn games. I saw it as playing not to lose and in that he was very successful. We lost fewer games than anyone else in the league. He’s still finding his feet but he’s on increasingly solid ground. He’s proved to be an audacious, imaginative strategist, frequently catching the other team literally on the wrong foot with his tactical maneouvres. I think he has a big future in management and I hope a good deal of that is spent at the SoL.
Times have changed at Sunderland. The deadwood, the waste, the nightclub culture have gone, the work ethic is back. I hope that the old managerial revolving door has gone, too. Ross and his squad deserve the time to consolidate and build. A new manager would mean yet another fresh (if that’s the word) start and quite possibly yet another disaster. That was what made watching Sunderland in the Premiership such an ordeal sometimes. The Championship, too, though we dropped through that so quickly I hardly noticed through my half-closed eyes.
Ross has had a lot contend with – injuries, postponed matches that had to be slotted into a schedule that wasn’t giving players much rest, a lengthy run for a trophy that no one really gives a damn about. But he got us into the final. He got us to Wembley, even though the extra time The Lads had to play was the last thing they needed. Small wonder, as they slogged through eight league games last month, that they came up short. They had to have been running on empty by then.
And now, cruelty upon cruelty, they find themselves with even more games to play to decide whether or not they move up a notch. Cruel, but fascinating. Win or lose.
Am I looking at all this through transatlantically rose-tinted spectacles? Maybe. But I don’t care. All I really know is that, Championship or League One, I’m already looking forward to next season.
It’s been a long time – too long – since I could say that.