|Posted on 4 August, 2017 at 9:45|
Wear The People’s Mal Robinson looks ahead to the new season, by looking back at an important season for the Lads and wonders if history will repeat itself?
The talk of the summer may be focussed on 20 years since leaving Roker Park and 20 since the opening of the Stadium of Light, but if you cast your mind back another decade, then it will be 30 years since the start of Sunderland’s only season in the third tier of English football.
30 years ago, it was also my first full season watching Sunderland. My Dad had taken me to the season previous, where I had the delight of watching us succumb to West Brom, Sheffield United, even surrender a 2-0 lead at home to Barnsley on the last day of the season to ensure we had the pleasure of Gillingham in the play-offs (what a game that was), and 30 years ago, May gone.
And so 30 years ago this August, we trundled in the light drizzle to Roker Park to see Denis Smith’s Sunderland take on Bristol Rovers in a drab 1-1 draw, the club’s first home game in Division 3 in our history.
The campaign itself was a glorious one, even if in Division 3. The team swept all before them (eventually) and the arrival of a young gun named Marco Gabbiadini, meant there was fresh enthusiasm once more on Wearside. Sunderland were big news in this Division at that time, and red and white away followings drowned towns and cities up and down England from Aldershot to York.
You could close your eyes and envisage a similar trend for this season. It can be argued, Sunderland are the biggest name in the league (perhaps Villa now with John Terry can rival this) and teams will be looking for a scalp, as red and white hoards bombard vicinities from Burton to Sheffield this time around.
Yet, I fear for the club and the team.
At the moment, the club feels like damaged goods. I do believe in the manager, Simon Grayson, and think he speaks common sense, with a can do, no nonsense attitude. But as many before him in the SOL hot seat, it is money and the players that talks.
Travel 30 miles or so down the A19 and its Middlesbrough who are the perfect example of how to combat relegation during pre season and re-align themselves with the fans. Garry Monk has held talk ins with the fans and backed up promises with head turning signings. They look like a club ready to take the league by storm, the fans, players and club all as one.
Sunderland in comparison look like a non-league outfit, actually that’s insulting to the likes of South Shields and Gateshead, who seem to have their PR in check.
The lack of major signings and funding from up above has been aggravated by a pre season “friendly” arranged with Celtic, to which I can only surmise as appeasing our sponsors. A game which cost in policing, brawls and bad press across the board. My option would have been to play Everton for the Bradley Lowery Cup – a club that has done so much for Bradley.
It was supposed to be a game to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the SOL, yet it was Celtic who took the limelight. Even at 0-2 within the first half, the sight of a pathetic by-plane with 20th anniversary message from the club, just smacked of ill timing as ever.
Throw in Darron Gibson, not so much the somewhat staged video by fans, but the club’s response! They couldn’t even spell his name correctly in a media statement. And to be honest, Gibson was bang on the mark.
Then there is the strip which goes away from the traditions of thick stripes of red and white for something resembling a butcher’s apron, or throwaway plastic bag. The fans don’t like it and it looks hideous.
So just like the international tournaments with England, we go into the club season with no expectations of the side...I think that would be for the best. Sunderland’s promotion and relegation odds are similar; it’s that tough to call.
A good start is crucial. Win against Derby and we’re off the mark. Lose and the pre season negativity is reignited and questions over anyone and everyone with the club will resurface.
The club is not in a healthy state, lose the first few and we are playing catch up with desperation already, which could prove terminal.
So which part of history will be repeating itself come May 2018? The 30 years since I had to watch drivel and dross en route to the third tier, or the beginning of the revival under Denis Smith?
Personally, I don’t see neither.
Sadly, Sunderland are not strong enough this year in terms of depth and skill and we lag behind the likes of Boro and Villa. We do have people on the day that can perform (McGeady, Cattermole) will one be consistent enough and will the other stay off the injury list? A mid table finish could be in the offing.
I’d happily snap the hands off anyone offering us a play-off position now.
Wearside at Wembley - Mercantile Credit Trophy Special
If you thought the Sherpa Van Trophy was bad it was the Champions? League compared to the living death which was 1988?s Mercantile Credit Trophy.
If you?re a younger reader and therefore thinking ?WTF? as I believe you hipsters say, think yourself lucky. If you are old enough to have been actively supporting Sunderland 25 years ago, you are probably experiencing flashbacks which would shame a Summer of Love acid survivor.
I should start by saying that, in theory at least, I have free will, and I had a choice: I had the option of not going for God?s sake. However, this is Sunderland and the prospect of missing any ?competitive? game is anathema so duty called and Wembley beckoned. After all, there was a whole week between the tournament and a short trip to Southend: easy.
This abomination of a ?tournament? was conceived as the Football League Centenary Tournament and, obviously, brought to you by sponsors Mercantile Credit finance. How productive a sponsorship in terms of business growth this proved to be remains unknown. I?m sure profits slumped in its aftermath.
Qualification was based on clubs? records over a certain number of games during the season and, unfortunately, our march towards promotion meant we were duly invited to participate. Enthusiasm was not rampant on the streets of Hendon.
The League was hopeful, or na´ve, in thinking that holding it at Wembley would create interest and spectators: they were wrong. The Saturday saw around 41,000 attending and the Sunday, Finals Day, about 17,000. It seems not having Chelsea, Spurs, Arsenal and West Ham playing may have been a tactical error.
The teams unlucky enough to qualify were: Aston Villa; Blackburn; Palace; Everton; Luton; Man Utd; the Mags; Forest; Sheff Wed; Sunderland; Tranmere; Wigan; Wimbledon and Wolves.
For the record, if anyone cares, the tournament was won by Nottingham Forest whose iconic leader, Brian Clough, wisely decided to give the whole weekend a miss. Forest won on penalties in the end, massively eclipsing their paltry two European Cup triumphs.
The method of victory was appropriate in as much as the League had failed to consider that the duration of games on Day One, twenty minutes each way, would inevitably lead to goalless draws and hence penalty shoot-outs. Mind you, the League would probably argue that the lottery of a shoot-out only added to the excitement of what was billed as the inevitable ?family fun day out?.
The games on the Sunday were of thirty minutes each way duration but it is not insignificant that two of the quarter-finals, one of the semis and the final itself were decided on penalties.
The biggest winners that weekend were Tranmere Rovers, firstly because they beat the Mags 2-0 in the Quarter-Finals but mainly because it was only a year since they had come very close to going out of the League entirely. Tranmere would see more of Wembley in subsequent years, of course.
Never mind all that, I hear you cry: what fate befell our beloved Sunderland in the white-hot cauldron of the national stadium that day? Unsurprisingly, 1973 apart, it was at Wembley so naturally we lost. Following the pattern of the entire pointless spectacle, forty minutes of will-sapping, brain-numbing inertia against glamorous Wigan Athletic produced a goalless draw followed by a defeat on penalties: I can?t remember the score so meaningless was it.
What I do remember, for the only time in my life, was praying that we would lose on penalties so I could have an excuse to leave and either spend the rest of the day more productively drinking in the capital or catch an early train back north: I chose the latter option as I recall.
The League, in its wisdom, had somehow overlooked the logistical challenges posed to travelling fans by a tournament whose duration involving your side was unknown. We had catered for this by the obvious expedient of having open rail tickets and arranging to stay over with London Branch members in the unlikely event of qualifying for the Sunday: no chance. As it turned out, I remember being back in Sunderland in time for the highlights on that night?s Match of the Day. When I say highlights, I am sure it was a short programme.
Looking back, why I bothered at all is hard to fathom. We got to Wembley late due to dallying in a rather hospitable London hostelry near Kings Cross. We did not, however, get there late enough to miss our game with Wigan but had missed the twin treats of Tranmere beating Wimbledon 1-0 and the Mags drawing 0-0 with Liverpool then beating them on penalties.
Leaving Wembley that Saturday, however, I had my revenge, taking it all out on an unfortunate Wolves supporter. Violence I hear you ask? No, worse than that: I gave him my ticket for the Sunday. His team having already been eliminated by Everton (yes, on penalties) he was reluctant but he was staying over anyway and the offer of money and free beer to take it off my hands clinched the deal.
You?re envious now, I can tell. You just wish they would arrange another such tournament soon, don?t you? It was terrible. I must add that those who criticise the new Wembley can have spent little time in the crumbling wreck which the old one was even then and certainly was ten years later for the Charlton play-off game.
Looking back, given the Metropolitan Police?s notoriously cautious approach to games in the capital, it?s a wonder the event took place. The Met could have saved everyone the time and trouble, not to mention cost, by simply banning the whole fiasco on public order grounds.
Given that one of one?s priorities for a long time when in London with Sunderland is checking fixtures and tube routes to estimate the likelihood of running into rival fans en route to or from other grounds, one might imagine that London on Mercantile weekend resembled modern day Syria.
After all, we were there as well as the Mags, their traditional allies in all things anti Sunderland Forest and, of course, Leeds United with whom we share a certain history going back to the sixties, one might say.
I stand to be corrected but this was not the impression I got, at least on the Saturday. It seemed that such was the stupefying dullness of the entire event that even the most dedicated adherent of ?bother? was lulled into a soporific state of pacifism, deeming the triviality of the contest and lack of kudos attendant on its whole proceedings unworthy of lifting a hand or launching a boot. There can be no greater shame, surely, than a football tournament even hooligans cannot be bothered to fight at.
The last word on the accursed Mercantile Credit trophy belongs to a certain Sunderland magazine of the era called Wise Men Say which, in one of its not uncommon satirical moments, suggested that the Football League Centenary would have been better served as a commemoration by an It?s a Knock-Out style drinking contest in which diehard drinkers from leading clubs gathered in a suitable London hostelry, the winner being the last man standing.
Knowing our luck, of course, it would still have gone to penalties or, in this case, pints of Whitbread Trophy the pint, as the slogan says ?that thinks it?s a quart? but you wish was a half!