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Why Sunderland summed up all that was wrong with football in Premier League era

4 years ago

Whether it’s a good, bad or indifferent set of results for Newcastle United each matchday this season, we always seem to have one solace.

A guaranteed cheer up method.

Checking the Sunderland score.

Apparently, they have won five games this season, but I for one cannot remember any. I’ll take the Football League’s word for it. It seems the Mackems are destined for relegation unless Chris Coleman can muster a miracle. They do have a track record for outrageous survival bids but this time, even for that lot, it would be a remarkable feat.

To be truthful, like I suspect 99% of other Newcastle fans, I was extremely pleased to see Sunderland relegated last season.

Even without the local rivalry, my contempt grew in recent years as I believe Sunderland were one of the clubs summing up all that was wrong with football in the Premier League era. The way survival was celebrated and glorified every season, after the inevitable managerial change. It felt like they were making up the numbers even more than we were. Neither side showed any ambition beyond staying in the top flight.

To be fair to them, at least they managed to reach a cup final in 2014. We couldn’t even manage that, a little light relief from often dreadful league seasons, at least that lot got a day out at Wembley.

The longer the Sunderland wretched run goes on though, the harder it becomes to enjoy seeing them lose. Don’t get me wrong, I was delighted to see them go down last season, but if honest with myself, that was more down to a personal fear of derby matches and what they had become. Our record in recent seasons has been an embarrassment considering the standard of the Sunderland sides we have faced. Now it has all become slightly sad, and more crucially a bit too close to home.

It is easy for us to get sucked into thinking we would be able to bounce straight back at the first attempt, once again, if necessary. In both of our promotion campaigns of recent years, whilst thoroughly deserving to be champions, we have also found ourselves in fortunate circumstances.

In 2009/10, we essentially had a Premier League XI, few injuries, and dressing room character and determination as good as it’s ever been. In 2016/17 we had Rafa Benitez, a world-class European Cup-winning manage, in the second tier.

It’s hard to imagine that scenario being repeated and it is easy to imagine a very different campaign panning out had Benitez not stayed.

As bad as they have been, Sunderland this season are a more accurate projection of what can happen to clubs when relegated from the top-flight. They have players on high wages who are not performing, with little motivation to get back to the top, and far too much deadwood to shift momentum in the right direction. At the time of appointment for both managers that have occupied the SOL dugout this season, they could appear shrewd appointments.

Simon Grayson is an experienced Championship operator and the move demonstrated they were seeking stability in the hotseat (at least it seemed that way in the summer).

Chris Coleman’s reputation had rocketed after Wales’ Euro 2016 run and I suspect he may have got a Premier League job had he held out a few months longer. It seemed another good appointment. Yet neither have proved able to stop the rot. Now the Mackems are facing oblivion.

How easily could that have been us rather than them, particularly in the Mike Ashley era? Very.

How easily could that still be us if Rafa Benitez left? Again, very.

It shows just why Premier League status is so vital. It also shows how it might be third time unlucky if we are relegated again under Mike Ashley’s stewardship in the future. It could be us facing the Championship trapdoor, ‘doing a Leeds’.

Maybe I should be enjoying the demise of our closest rivals a lot more but I have a nagging feeling it may have gone too far. I know others are loving it and rightly so but it’s becoming too much for me. When does it end? When the Mackems are in the National League North with a derby against Spennymoor? I know that might be what some want but we might need each other.

At the time of our relegation we needed a break from the derbies after the six-in-a-row debacle, it felt like light relief. Looking at the current situation however, it could be quite some time before we have another Tyne-Wear derby. Like it or not we need them for those games, even when they are painful.

Bobby Robson articulated this better than I ever could, in his post-match interview after a 1-0 win over the Mackems in 2003. “I’m a North-East lad and I… I want all the clubs to do well in the North-East, and these are great games for the region. Lots of rivalry, lot of keenness.”

He knew how important it was to the region. Wanting all the North-Eastern clubs to do well may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it does show the differing views between supporters on this issue. Robson himself was often regularly seen at the SOL, as well as SJP, in his retirement. At one time it was not uncommon to go to each ground on alternating weekends. My grandfather, also a lifelong mag, was always phoned by his friend Kenny a Sunderland fan, before every derby, to discuss the match and situation despite the fact they lived at opposite ends of the country. Respect can still be part of rivalry, if you want it to be.

It shouldn’t make you any less of a fan if you aren’t taking absolute delight in every Sunderland defeat and doesn’t mean a derby day win feels any less sweet. Likewise, if you are enjoying the Mackems debacle, why should you not? No guilty feelings for wanting to be top dogs in the region and hating the red and whites with a passion. For me though, I am finally starting to get to not wanting them to lose heavily every week and it is strange.

It may be that I need a cheer up after the Huddersfield game, and must cling onto the fact that Sunderland could be heading for the third tier, but by then the laughter may be hollow. All the best television comedies also have a hint of tragedy in them lurking in the background. It feels like the Mackem roadshow may have just jumped the shark.

You can follow the author on Twitter @JackLaceyHatton


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