In the first of two features on record-breaking top-flight relegation seasons, Joe Boyle struggles to find any positive signs amid the despair at Sunderland

There are internet addresses that snare you and reel you in, even as you sense something unwholesome. Like this: www.freud.org.uk/archiegemmill.html.

Freud and Archie Gemmill? No matter how per­ilous you know this will be, in you go. Seconds later, you’re nodding your head at claims that football is “sublimated masturbation”. From what I understand, we divert the energy we’d like to spend on sex by doing something useful. Like watching football. Sex and football share two key impulses. One, memory (of your last good shag, for example, or, if you’re Fergie, win­ning the Champions League). Two, desire (for your next good shag or, if you’re Mick McCarthy, getting a point). And that’s when I realised what it’s been like to support Sunderland this year. Sexless. Because this was a season virtually devoid of memory and desire.

Let’s start with memories. Nope, sorry. How about desire? None from the players, of course. As for the fans, we knew we were down from New Year’s Day onwards, when Man Utd stole the points in the last ten minutes at Old Trafford. Our only subsequent desire was that relegation would not be sealed by Newcastle in April’s Wear-Tyne derby. We needn’t have worried. Remember, this was the worst team in top-flight history, ever. We were relegated three games before the derby.

There you go, that’s a memory. The relief when we were relegated by Birmingham and not Newcastle. Going down at home to Newcastle would have been a story, would have meant fuss and noise. Relegation at St Andrews was anonymous. We could drown in peace.

Actually, they say that drowning isn’t a bad way to go. Initially there’s the panic, the urge to break free, until a calm acceptance and desire not be disturbed sets in. Losing game after game after game was like that too. By the end, dealing with defeat was easy. Had we gone on one of those ridiculous winning runs that relegated clubs are prone to, I would have been furious.

Luckily, Arsenal were our final opponents and pre-vented any last-minute reconciliation between players and fans. They tonked us, quashing any thoughts the players might have had of hanging around at the final whistle to applaud the crowd. There had already been embarrassment enough before kick-off as Arsenal yawned while our reserves received the Premiership Reserve League North trophy.

Arsenal’s scoffing aside, this was the most mem­orable moment of our season. As the first team’s pointless run meandered by and Kevin Phillips, Thomas Sorensen and Gavin McCann were adding “Key mem­ber of worst ever side” to their CVs, the reserves were helping to reawaken the first twangs of desire. In a refreshing return to football obsessiveness, I found myself scouring the internet one morning to discover whether Man Utd’s reserves had managed to take a point from Middlesbrough’s in the final game of the season. They had. The title was ours.

The flicker of optimism generated by the reserves’ spring-time success was like noticing the days getting longer after the dank winter months. The Nationwide’s not so bad, some optimists began to suggest. We’ll win games. We’ll have title-winning kids to watch. No more 30-second clips on The Premiership of us scoring own goals. Besides, the last time we were there was a blast: the emergence of Super Kev, “Cheer Up Peter Reid”, two wingers who could cross the ball. Great memories.

And perhaps we’ll start to care once more. If things go well, desire will return. If things go wrong, at least there will be the thrilling heat of real fury. Whatever, we’ll be able to wave goodbye to the damp apathy that has accompanied two and a half passionless years.

From WSC 197 July 2003. What was happening this month

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