I thought that the smattering of boos that could clearly be heard at the Stadium of Light on Saturday beggared belief. It seems that a sizeable minority of our fans have simply got into the habit of booing any negative result against any team they feel we should be beating, regardless of levels of commitment, or overall performance. This is one of the newest and most unappealing of traits of modern football. In the overall scheme of things, it really isn’t very long ago at all that we were in the same Stadium, cheering a far poorer side to the rafters against the same opposition, and so the two Fulham home matches of the 2005-6 season – and the responses of the crowd - came to mind as I left the Stadium on Saturday.
When we are going through a bad run of form, results, or both, I always find it really difficult to explain to my 8 year old son who started coming to matches in the Steve Bruce era just how bad we have been in the recent past. I try to explain to him that there was a season a few years ago when we only won one home league game all season – the last one – and it’s clearly difficult to take in. It wasn’t particularly easy at the time for those of us who sat through it!
I think we all knew, three years after the scarring 2002-3 relegation, that we were up against it in the 2005-6 season. I liked Mick McCarthy as manager in the Championship and certainly didn’t foresee how out of his depth he would be in that season. By the time Fulham came visiting on 8 April 2006, McCarthy had departed, Kevin Ball had been appointed caretaker manager (a popular, if desperate move, to try and at least restore some pride, if not Premiership status), and we had 11 points from 32 games. The cover of the programme for the fixture showed main striker Jon Stead’s first goal for the club – in his 26th game (!) – with a headline of ‘Steady on now’.
I don’t actually remember the weather for that mid-April fixture being bad before kick-off. But throughout the first 20 minutes, the snow that day fell more heavily than anything I can remember, before or since. No-one could see a thing, other than vague silhouettes of players sliding around, and apparently 20 minutes of play was all it took for Fulham – in the bottom six - to take the lead through Brian McBride. Mike Riley called the game off, which provoked a mixture of relief that we had to endure no more and frustration that in that darkest of seasons, we would have to come back to watch it all again. I do remember that shortly afterwards, it was a glorious spring day.
The match was rescheduled for a Thursday night in May, in the last week of the season. We had long since been relegated (bizarrely, after a brilliant performance in a goalless draw at Old Trafford), and there had still been no home wins when 28,226 of met for the rematch. Our side for that fixture tells its own story about the quality we didn’t have in our side: Kelvin Davis, Nyron Nosworthy, Gary Breen, Steven Caldwell, George McCartney, Justin Hoyte, Dean Whitehead, Tommy Miller, Andy Welsh, Chris Brown, Anthony Le Tallec. The stuff of nightmares.
There was a gallows humour about the whole evening. But released from the pressure of the relegation battle, we actually started to play. Andy Welsh got to the bye-line, got his cross in, and Anthony Le Tallec, the Liverpool flop who had become a disinterested Sunderland flop that season, became our joint top league scorer (okay, with three league goals), with an excellent diving header. The crowd latched onto this and got behind the team. We nearly got a second, when Nosworthy, who was superb that night, got a cross in (but Justin Hoyte trod on the ball!). Shortly afterwards, Nosworthy (the free transfer from Gillingham) shot and Chris Brown latched onto the rebound to make it 2-0, in the second half. The BBC report on the game reported that ‘the novelty of being in control of the match seemed to lessen Sunderland's concentration and it nearly proved costly’. Indeed Tomasz Radzinski got a superb goal back for Fulham.
Then came one of those random images, at the end of nine months of footballing hell, that I vividly remember, because it encapsulated what I love about Sunderland fans. The ball went out of play for a throw in, Nosworthy came to collect it for a throw. In a half empty Stadium, after a season without a single league victory at home, having not only been relegated with weeks to spare, but broken our own record as the worst Premiership team in history, the fans who were closest to Nosworthy (in the East Stand) started to roar encouragement for the way he and the team were playing. Soon the whole Stadium were joining in. Our home support at its best – and, as in my view is often the case – in a backs to the wall scenario when only the hardcore were there. Nosworthy caught the ball, looked puzzled, looked around him to see if somehow this was a joke – whether we were being sarcastic or taking the mick. We weren’t. We were supporting. In the most testing of circumstances, we were doing our job in supporting the team, when players, whatever limitations they had, were giving their best. That’s all we used to ask.
We held on for the win (reaching 15 points for the season), rejoiced, and Kevin Ball’s post-match comments were all about the fans that night: "From a selfish point of view, it's nice but what's most important is our fans, players and everyone connected with the club. Beforehand, I said 'Let's send people home with smiles on their faces'. I'm pleased to be able to report they did. The supporters were magnificent and got behind us when we needed them to."
Similar numbers came back the following season, when a mix of Niall Quinn, Drumaville, and Roy Keane put us on the path to becoming the established Premiership side we now are.
Having endured seasons like 2005-6, I certainly wasn’t going to start booing after an encouraging performance and disappointing 1-0 defeat against Fulham on Saturday. I just skulked off home, explaining again to my son how things used to be very much worse, reminiscing about the previous Fulham encounters I have mentioned in this piece, and wishing that less of the fans there on Saturday were so fickle.