Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.
In the days leading up to the first Tyne-Wear derby of the season, those words would be more suited to being printed over the entrance to the Stadium of Light, as opposed the gates of hell.
That may be hyperbolic, but it’s also symbolic of just how bad a state Sunderland are in at present, so much so it’s easy to forget it was only April when the Black Cats won 3-0 at the home of their rivals.
Back then things were the same, but different. Sitting dangerously close to the relegation zone, the incumbent manager had just been sacked, and a new one – young, inexperienced but talented and passionate – was in charge.
The right things were being said, the players looked sharper, and fans had hope once again. It proved to be justified.
Fast forward six months, and now it’s the old tired lines being trotted out by old tired players, and a flirtation with the relegation zone has become a marriage.
There’s a new man in charge, albeit a bit like the old one, Di Canio Lite as it were, who will be given time to prove himself regardless of the result on Sunday, but the problems run deeper than those that Gus Poyet can resolve.
I read – well, saw the headline, skimmed it, and saw a general outpouring of rage on Twitter (which is basically how the internet works) – an article earlier in the week the seemingly suggested the fans were at least partly to blame for the current state of affairs.
Every other week, around 40,000 supporters flock to the Stadium of Light, spending far too much of their hard-earned money (despite high unemployment rates, you could say signing-on takes more effort than that expended by Sunderland players this season) to watch their team not only lose, but barely put up a fight doing so.
The Daily Mirror, after the Swansea defeat, labelled the players gutless. They missed out brainless, spineless, talentless and so on. There’s the odd exception (Lee Cattermole, Steven Fletcher), of course, but generally the players don’t seem good enough and, perhaps worse, don’t really seem to care.
This is highlighted most of all by a return to first team action for Phil Bardsley. This is a player who, infamously, was photographed, mid-season. in a casino on the floor covered in £50 notes, who mocked the supporters (or Di Canio, depending on how you look at it; mostly it was both) on Instagram and, even take that away, is a bloody useless defender. The Battle of Helm’s Deep would’ve ended far differently had ‘Bardo’ been amongst the riders of Rohan: “*picture of broken battlements* GREAT BATTLE TODAY HAHAHAHAHA.”
That he replaced Jack Colback, who for narrative sake fulfills the role of Eomer, is even worse. Colback is hard-working, professional and actually a decent player, all qualities Bardsley lacks. It was written in the script that he’d score, though few predicted it’d be at the wrong end.
There are problems higher-up, too. Problems with Roberto Di Fanti, the Director of Football who recruited both Di Canio and most of players. Three managers thus far have seemingly overlooked the majority of those new signings, with only Emanuele Giaccherini, Jozy Altidore (the two most high-profile) and Ondrej Celustka (a loanee) becoming anything approaching regulars.
It might be an unfair criticism, and it would be nice to see some of those other options – the likes of David Moberg Karlsson and El-Hadji Ba – given a chance. They impressed in pre-season, and can’t really be any worse than the likes of Adam Johnson and Seb Larsson at the moment. Until then, however, question marks will remain over the Director of Football – before this an agent, with connections to Short through his father – and his suitability for the role, especially now his ‘chosen’ manager has gone.
Continuing to move up the hierarchy, there’s also problems with Ellis Short and Margaret Byrne, the people running the club. The Texan is a businessman and runs the club as such, but even in the world of business it must be unusual to change managers at such a rate.
He’s put a lot of money in, and you can’t blame him for wanting to balance the books – indeed, it’s now a necessity for most football clubs outside of PSG, Monaco etc – but to give the go-ahead for a total change in structure and style at the club, only to then half-back the new manager and sack him six months later, is a strange and, let’s face it, poor decision both football-wise and business-wise.
There have also been PR disasters, as evidenced by the appointment of Di Canio, and less mentioned disputes with small, local businesses. Although that doesn’t matter when you can boast of having your own African airline partner!
Reflecting on the past few months at the club, you can’t help but feel that a football man, a link not only between the board and the manager, but also the board and the fans and city, i.e. Niall Quinn, is being missed.
And yet, despite all of this, on Saturday night the nerves will begin to jangle. On Sunday morning the butterflies will be floating around. Fans will make their way to pubs, to discuss line-ups and formations, and ‘well, you never know…’ or ‘if we get behind them, get an early goal…’ etc.
The fans are not what’s wrong with the club. Sure, every team has its fair share of idiot supporters, those who boo or make ridiculous comments, and that number seems multiplied when things aren’t going well. They may be hurt, or disappointed, or angry, but they have every right to be. By-and-large, the fans – the aforementioned 40,000, and the insane away following – are the only thing right with the club at the moment. There may not be any expectations, and there may be lots of spoken pessimism, but – even if it goes unvoiced – there’ll be hope.
There are hundreds of quotes, from the likes of Martin Luther King Jr to Friedrich Nietzche, that discuss hope, but I think the old Sunderland fanzine said it best:
“It’s the hope I can’t stand.”