So it’s really happening. After 10 years in the top flight, today Sunderland are preparing to embark upon life a rung down ladder.
With the bookies offering better odds on Sunderland getting relegated than winning the title, it’s likely to be tougher than a lot of us are expecting. But for the past few years, supporting Sunderland hasn’t exactly been an enjoyable pursuit – in fact it’s been more like a sadist act to be endured – so I think we’ve proved our mettle. Let’s face it, we’ve skirted around the drop for a few years and finally, this year, our “luck” ran out.
But what can we expect from life in the lower league? If football has taught us anything, it’s that no club is too big to get relegated. Look no further than our black and white “friends” up the road who were relegated from the Premier League twice in seven years. A quick glance at the list of teams who we are due to face this year shows several old adversaries who have experienced their own falls from grace and struggled to bounce back. Clubs such as Villa, Derby, Fulham, Sheffield Wednesday, Nottingham Forest, Wolves – all teams that had their time in the sun but have failed to reach those dizzy heights again.
I can’t be the only one to remember the shock of watching Leeds United implode as their financial woes ultimately sealed their fate. In fact the phrase “doing a Leeds” has become synonymous with clubs who can’t manage their finances, and who suffer the harsh reality of what this means in a game that is saturated – not to mention completely governed by – money. Leeds were once a club to be feared but they had another disappointing season last year and just missed out on the play-offs. Without a doubt a cautionary tale for us and our somewhat precarious financial status.
Other clubs have suffered similar fortunes. Clubs similar to Sunderland with huge fan bases watching as their teams fail to emulate the successes of years gone by. Sheffield Wednesday are such a club that spring to mind – one of the oldest clubs in the world, spending the majority of their time in the top flight until their relegation in 2000. Aston Villa aren’t dissimilar, although their prognosis for the upcoming season is looking remarkably rosier than ours (not difficult, admittedly).
In fact there are a fair few old faces that Sunderland can look forward to reconnecting with. Steve Bruce is aiming a lot higher than last season’s midtable mediocrity with Villa and is sure to cause Sunderland a headache when the two meet. Mick McCarthy, who got us promoted in a fantastic season before being unceremoniously dumped like last night’s kebab when the following year didn’t live up to expectations. The man with the magic eyebrows is now the longest-serving manager in the Championship and will not doubt provide his usual one-liners and brutal honesty in the approaching campaign. Managers like Flash ‘Arry, Neil Warnock and Ian Holloway are also familiar opponents from our days in the Premier League. All will be hoping to return there as soon as possible, with Sunderland-spurning Garry Monk leading the charge, after a Steve Gibson funded summer shopping spree has made them favourites to take the title.
A quick glance also throws up a fair few Sunderland old boys who have enjoyed varying degrees of success since leaving our club. Grant Leadbitter will no doubt be sharpening his studs just for Lee Cattermole when Sunderland take on Boro with the old grudge match ready to be reignited. Liam Bridcutt, who can only be described as Lionel Messi in a Leeds shirt, now boasts the captaincy at Elland Road while former style icon Paul McShane sports the armband down at Reading. Ahmed Elmohamady is back under the wing of Steve Bruce after seemingly spending more time with Stevie babes in the last decade than Mrs Bruce has. The lucky old devil!
Lining up against Hull sees us come up against not just Frazier Campbell but David Meyler, who will forever be remembered for being the man on the receiving end of Alan Pardew’s touchline headbutt. Fun times indeed. We’re also in for a special treat when we play Forest, with Daryl Murphy’s wonder goal against Wigan being the footballing equivalent of a one-hit wonder – the Chesney Hawkes of the footballing world, if you will.
Less welcome at the Stadium of Light will be Derby’s Darren Bent, the man with heavy pockets and the morals of a pole cat – no doubt he would have scored a screamer in front of the South Stand had he not been injured. In competition for least popular visitor to the SR5 postcode is John Terry, a truly odious little man with a sense of self-importance a mile wide. To think we thought we’d seen the back of him after his farcical guard of honour in what we had been promised was his final swan-song. No such luck! Here he is again, joining Steve Bruce at Villa Park. What joy.
One positive of our demise to the Championship is the proximity of the other clubs. 16 of the 24 teams play in the Midlands or the north which is a welcome change for Sunderland fans, who are once again the most northern team in the league they play in. Every cloud eh? Something that I’m looking forward to is visiting grounds with a bit of character. Some of my favourite grounds are in the Championship – Elland Road, Hillsbrough, Craven Cottage and the City Ground. Not the same old vacuous modern-day stadiums that are carbon copies of each other. I’m sure The Den will be a spicy day out and Burton’s Pirelli stadium is sure to be top of most people’s go-to list . . . although with less than a 7’000 capacity tickets will be harder to come by than a Mancunian in Old Trafford. Loftus Road has a certain rustic charm and Brentford’s Griffin Park also holds a certain appeal.
Hopefully this season watching Sunderland will see more full-blooded tackles and (dare I say it) goals, with less diving prima donnas and showboating referees. The talk will no doubt be of promotion and success, but it’s time to be realistic with a less-than dazzling squad and a club that is quite clearly in disarray behind the scenes. All I’m hoping for is some enjoyable football, a few wins and no catastrophic club embarrassments. I’d say I didn’t think that was too much to ask, but this is Sunderland we’re talking about here and who knows what we’ll be reading about in the weeks to come!
My guess for the season – a sluggish start with a steadier pace after Christmas and I doubt we’ll make the playoffs much less anything else. I’m going to predict 10th and I think even that’s optimistic. Expecting next to nothing from this season will hopefully avoid the inevitable, all-too-familiar disappointment that comes with being a Sunderland fan.