Four years ago this month, Sunderland were second in the Premiership – and as Harry Pearson writes, some fans are still struggling to come to terms with the spectacular collapse since
It’s probably the fact that it is 70 or so years since one of the region’s teams could justifiably lay claim to being the best in the country that leads football fans in the north-east of England to spend their lives permanently teetering on the brink of exasperation. It doesn’t take much to tip them over the edge. Santa hats may predominate at the Sunderland Stadium of Light, but the mood is as much restive as festive. When yet another pass is pinged out of midfield and across the touchline a bloke sitting in the row behind me in the East Stand groans loudly: “I’ve paid £23 for a bucket of shite,” he says. The big scoreboard above the North Stand shows that six minutes and 28 seconds have been played.
The Black Cats are third in the Coca Cola Championship, but that doesn’t seem to have convinced anyone. The first time I came here was five years ago. Sunderland were on the verge of returning to the Premiership and the roar that greeted the team was so loud it reverberated inside my head like static. Today the vast stadium is half full, the air so cold you feel as if your face is shrinking. When the Lancastrians behind the goal give a rendition of “Shall we sing a song for you” nobody even bothers to ridicule them.
Fifty years ago this would have been the match of the day. Sunderland, still trailing the “Bank of England club” tag, had Billy Bingham, Don Revie and Len Shackleton, while Burnley were on the way to building a team that would win the championship in 1959-60. Things have moved on dramatically since then. Burnley ceased to punch above their weight a couple of decades ago and after their endless fiscal troubles Sunderland look more like the “Bank of Credit and Commerce International club”.
Their recent fall could hardly have been more dramatic if it had been presided over by Asil Nadir and Nick Leeson. One minute they were riding high in the Premiership and held up as an exemplar of fiscal management, the next they were struggling to win a match and hurtling towards bankruptcy.
What precipitated this tumble is still a subject for heart-searching among fans travelling to the game. On the Metro from Heworth a middle-aged man in a Timberland jacket says: “When we were second in the Premiership that was the time to strengthen. We should have bought big then, instead of waiting.”
A woman with red tinsel in her hair wonders whether it would have made any difference, given Sunderland’s ill fortune with players, “Look at that Stewart Downing,” she says. “We had him on loan and he was all right, but never a world beater. Now he’s on the verge of England.” “Kevin Kilbane,” a lad standing nearby adds. It is a name that a few years ago was rarely heard from anyone in red-and-white stripes without an expletive attached to the front of it. Kilbane was reckoned by many to have been the worst player ever to have worn a Sunderland shirt, his place in the side proof positive that Peter Reid was a total idiot. Now he is a regular with Everton, third in the Premiership. It is a mystery.
A pity too, because as the bigger English clubs have rushed to embrace the globalised culture of the shopping centre, Sunderland – who three years ago had the third highest average attendance in the country – have moved in the opposite direction. They have done their best to tap into the old-fashioned parochialism that was once the well-spring of the professional game. Though there are mocked-up flags on the upper tier of the North Stand advertising various worldwide Sunderland supporters’ clubs, there is no attempt to distance the team from the local community or the region it serves, or to identify it as a worldwide brand. While up the road Freddy Shepherd’s every use of the term Geordie serves only to illustrate the truth of Dr Johnson’s observation that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, there is something genuine and heartfelt about Sunderland’s efforts to connect.
Unlike at some other new stadiums, there is a genuine attempt here to link the modern with the past. The snack bars in the concourse are named after players from the 1973 FA Cup-winning team. You can get chips at Monty’s Magic, or a drink at The Little General’s (that’s Bobby Kerr). Panels on the walls are illustrated with photos and memorabilia relating to the player along with their career stats. Another panel explains the symbolism of the club crest. The supporters’ association shop under the East Stand has framed photos of Charlie Hurley and cigarette cards of Raich Carter, Charlie Buchan, Bobby Gurney and Patsy Gallacher.
The name of the stadium was subject to much mockery, but at least there is some imagination behind it. It’s not bland and – unlike the Riverside Stadium – it’s way too long to have a corporate tag stuck in front of it. Whatever you may think of the concept, it’s surely better than the Emirates Stadium.
The announcer tells us that the City of Sunderland Education Directorate is sponsoring today’s game. He then lists all the things you may not do in The Sunderland Stadium of Light – smoke, drink, or indulge in “persistent standing”. “Racist abuse and racist chanting is not tolerated in The Sunderland Stadium of Light,” he says, “If you wish to report incidents of racist abuse call the hotline.”
“What if I haven’t got a phone?” the bloke behind me croaks forlornly. The assumption is that everyone brings a mobile to football these days. It is the modern equivalent of the bobble hat and the rattle. Later it is announced that you can text in your votes for man of the match and every goal is the cue for people all around me to punch keys and hold the phone in the air so somebody somewhere can watch the players celebrating, or listen to the sound of the crowd, most of whom are actually far too busy buggering about with mobiles to make much noise.
“Five minutes to kick-off. Five minutes to kick-off,” the announcer says in an attempt to drum up some urgency, before the strains of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet announce the imminent arrival of the players. The crowd settle down in mute acceptance. Well, almost mute. The man behind me describes and explains every incident as if to a blind man or somebody who has never seen a football match before. “The referee had to reach for a yellow card there,” he says, “because though there was no malice in the tackle it was plainly a deliberate attempt to stop a promising breakaway”. He continues like this throughout the match. He is like those members of the crowd in a Roy of the Rovers comic strip who bring us up to date with events with flurries of exposition. I half expect that at some point he will say: “And at 3-0 down with just five minutes to play Melchester need a miracle and Roy Race is just the man to provide it.” Instead he says: “Bridges’ first touch lets him down once again.”
Michael Bridges is on loan from Bolton. He stands peculiarly erect and stiff-backed even when in full flight. A white polo neck worn under his jersey looks like a cravat, adding further to the impression of an aristocrat imperiously surveying his estate. Bridges was once the young local hero, but four years of Elland Road and injuries have dulled his athleticism and his skill shows only in flashes. “Nice touch and vision to set up Julio Arca’s goal but otherwise Bridges’ performance has done little to vindicate making the move from the Reebok Stadium a permanent one,” the man behind me opines accurately and to nobody in particular.
The Burnley coach is Steve Cotterill. Cotterill was at Sunderland as assistant to Howard Wilkinson for five months during the 2002-03 season. Like Wilkinson he has hundreds of coaching badges (if he wore them all his tracksuit top would look like something rejected by Elton John as way too busy), but that didn’t help much. Sunderland played 20 games under their tutelage and won just two of them.
You have to wonder what they teach them at the Football Association. The last team of Cotterill’s I saw was Cheltenham. The incisive and previously unknown tactic he employed with them was to have a centre-forward the size of a small house and get the defence to bang balls up to him in the hope of getting a knockdown. At Burnley they have only the diminutive Robbie Blake up front, so Cotterill seems to have borrowed from Sir Clive Woodward and instructed his men to kick for touch in a bid to gain territorial advantage. They equalise inside two minutes.
The goals emerge as if by accident from the random pattern of the game. Normally the furious pace of second division football might be blamed for the woeful inaccuracy of the passing, but the tempo of the match is decidedly sluggish. Only Arca – sturdy, scurrying, the sort of man you know would play with his socks rolled down round his ankles if he was allowed – seems to want to increase the tempo, getting the ball and darting forward, looking to play wall passes with his team-mates.
It is the Argentine who starts the move that leads to Sunderland’s winner, Bridges nudging in a cross from the left. After that Mick McCarthy’s team back off, allowing Burnley so much space in midfield that Micah Hyde starts to look vaguely like Michel Platini. He sprays the ball from left to right and back again, elegantly but with little real purpose. Blake is neat and tidy but falls over too much for the crowd’s liking. Sunderland occasionally break away through the energetic Liam Lawrence, but nothing comes of it.
“I still reckon we’ll go up,” a man in a Schott jacket says as the Metro pulls into Pelaw station. The doors open and he steps out.“Aye,” says his mate from inside the train, “and come straight back down again,” and the doors close.
From WSC 216 February 2005. What was happening this month