31 October ~ Five years ago, Sunderland scuttled up to St James’ Park and lost. Six months later they were relegated with a humiliating 15 points. Newcastle qualified for Europe. Today's derby takes place with Sunderland stronger than their rivals financially, structurally and on the pitch. Yet, to the concern of chairman Niall Quinn, there are 10,000 regularly unfilled seats at the Stadium of Light. The damage of that 15-point season, following on from the 19 gained in 2003, has not been fully repaired.
The team are doing their bit, with a solid seven-match unbeaten run. Players are earning favourable notices: Jordan Henderson is considered, with tabloid prematurity, one of England’s finest young prospects; Titus Bramble’s £1 million fee looks the deal of the summer; Al Muhammadi and Simon Mignolet are proof of a rejuvenated scouting network; and the bench for last weekend’s game against Villa included a £9m keeper and a £13m striker.
What the club needs now is a symbolic moment to ignite genuine enthusiasm amongst still scarred supporters. The derby could not have come at a better time. Quinn, a sentimentalist, understands the impact of symbolism. He trades in words, which are both his strength and his weakness. His clarion calls ("I learned my trade at Arsenal, became a footballer at Manchester City, but Sunderland got under my skin”) stir the spirit, while making many wince at the mythologising. Teams that gain 15 points in a season rarely belong in myths.
Quinn’s words had an impact on Ellis Short when they first met at the Ryder Cup in 2006. Short bought into the vision and bought the club. But it was witnessing the nature of the rivalry with Newcastle that gave his commitment a visceral quality. Quinn recounts driving Short through the city on the night Newcastle were relegated in 2009. “People were literally dancing in the streets because we’d stayed up and Newcastle had been relegated. We drove around and Ellis said: ‘This Sunderland is one crazy, son-of-a-bitch club.’”
At a time when American owners are in the firing line, Short has shown how a genuine personal involvement in a club and its city can inspire foreign hedge-fund managers as much as hometown industrialists. Getting one over on Newcastle again today might convince the club’s edgy, oft-humiliated supporters that they can now forget recent embarrassments and feel the inspiration too. Joe Boyle