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The agony of being a 'small club' fan

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Jonathan Wilson

Jonathan Wilson is the editor of the football quarterly The Blizzard and writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Cricinfo. He is the author of six books on football, including Inverting the Pyramid, which was named Football Book of the Year in both the UK and Italy. His latest book is The Outsider: A History of the Goalkeeper.

   
 

LONDON, ENGLAND

Sunderland hasn’t been behind in any of the four games they’ve played this season but, as a fan, I’m worried. Because Sunderland hasn’t won yet this season either.

But then worry is the natural state of the fan.

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Now, there are those who suggest journalists should make a pretense of neutrality and disguise who they support; for me, that would be both impossible and ridiculous. I’ll try to be objective, of course, but it would be impossible for me to disguise the fact I’m a Sunderland fan. And ridiculous – it wouldn’t take much effort to find my first job in journalism was on the Sunderland fanzine A Love Supreme.

I was born in Sunderland, my dad was a fan, his father was a fan; I went to my first game aged six and was pretty much a regular until I went to India for a few months aged eighteen. It was only when I got to university that the notion that people could “choose” their club ever occurred to me. There was no choice for me: Sunderland was as much a part of my identity as having freckled arms or not liking eggs. So I prefer full disclosure: here’s what I think and here’s where I’m coming from.

I sat in the press box silently fearing the worst for most of the 80 minutes after Steven Fletcher had put Sunderland ahead. The truth is that I hate being ahead: there’s too much to lose. A former girlfriend, who was a Boca Juniors fan, mocked me for that, saying it was the sign of a small-club mentality. Maybe she was right – although I still find it hard to accept Sunderland is a small club.

In isolation, each of the four draws looks quite laudable: 0-0 at Arsenal, definitely; 2-2 at Swansea was fine given its start to the season; 1-1 at home to Liverpool might not look great in terms of where Brendan Rodgers’s side is in the table but it will rise and, given how the game went with Liverpool piling on late pressure, a draw was more than satisfactory.

And so, to West Ham United on Saturday. West Ham had won five in a row at home, stretching back into last season, so again a draw is a perfectly decent result. Had Sunderland’s home game against Reading not been postponed and had it won that, and if it beats Wigan on Saturday, 10 points from six games would represent an excellent start. But that’s all ifs. The fact is that at the moment, set against the equivalent games last season, Sunderland are three points behind. And the way it got deeper and deeper before conceding the equalizer at Upton Park on Saturday was worrying.

Since the first, crushing relegation in 1958 – at which point no other side had such a long unbroken run in the top flight of any league anywhere in the world – only once has Sunderland had a run of six successive seasons in the top flight. If it can avoid relegation this season and stretch that run to seven, it will be its longest run in the top flight in half a century.

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This, in a sense, is the modern golden age – but it doesn’t feel much like it. What, after all, is the best Sunderland can hope for? It’s not going to win the league or qualify for the Champions League. It’s just about conceivable it could win a Cup – although the feeling is that it used up all its luck in 1973 when it won the FA Cup from the Second Division. This is the reality of the modern game: avoiding relegation early and a relaxing final few weeks is as good as it gets. Even qualifying for the Europa League seems an impossibly distant prospect.

Sunderland’s history only enhances the vague sense of dissatisfaction. When it went down for the first time only one team had won more league titles. It remains the seventh most successful team in English history even though it hasn’t won the league since 1936. It had the seventh highest average attendance in England last season. No team in Europe that has failed to qualify for continental competition for two decades or more has a higher average rate. There is an enduring feeling about the club that things should be better than they are, even if the number of fans who can actually remember the days of success is tiny.

It’s not just the club that exists always in the shadow of its own past. Sunderland itself was one of the leading centers of culture and learning in the seventh century and went on to become an industrial dynamo through mining and, particularly, shipbuilding. In 1871 it produced a greater tonnage of ship than anywhere else in the world; even as late as 1936 it produced a greater tonnage than the entire eastern seaboard of the United States. The monasteries ceased to be relevant years ago and St Peter’s church, the first building in England to have stained glass windows, is a neglected heritage site. The mines have closed and so too have the shipyards. Sunderland now is heavily reliant on the Nissan plant just to the south of the city.

Perhaps that sense of decline is why Sunderland seems always to be fighting its own pessimism; this, after all, is a city whose motto is 'Nil desperandum, auspice deo'; 'Don’t despair, trust in God.' When things go wrong, they tend to keep going wrong: no other side has suffered so many runs of such awful form over the past decade.

Sunderland won one of its last nine games in 2001-02, lost its last 15 matches on its way to a record low of 19 points and relegation in 2002-03, won only three games all season in breaking that record and being relegated with 15 points in 2005-06, had a run of one win in 13 matches in 2007-08, won only one of its last 13 matches in 2008-09, had a run of 14 games without a win lasting three-and-a-half-months in 2009-10, and had a run in which it took one point from nine games in 2010-11.

The psychological scars of those two record-breaking relegations still remain. Sunderland fans know just how bad things can get. That pessimism, that assumption things will go wrong if they possibly can, tends to transmit itself to the team, inducing anxiety. Last season looked to be heading along familiar lines after a start that brought 11 points from 12 games. Steve Bruce was sacked and, after another defeat, Martin O'Neill was appointed.

Sunderland took 22 points from the 10 games that followed. Yet in none of the statistics usually employed to gauge how well a team is playing - pass completion, cross completion, chances created, tackles made – was its performance better than under Bruce. All that had changed was that chance conversion, particularly from long range. As soon as that reverted to the mean, Sunderland’s form collapsed.

Saturday’s draw means that Sunderland has now gone 12 games without a win. There are mitigating factors: once relegation had been avoided last season – much more quickly than had seemed likely when O’Neill took over - there was a general relaxation. And nine of those 12 games have been drawn. So while it’s not that bad, next Saturday’s game against Wigan takes on huge significance.

As usual, I’m worried.

Jonathan Wilson is editor of the football quarterly The Blizzard and a columnist for World Soccer. He is the author of five books, including a history of tactics, Inverting the Pyramid, and a biography of Brian Clough, Nobody Ever Says Thank You.

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