Soccer Magazine

Nil Desperandum: Why Sunderland’s Relegation Would Still Not Lead Me to Despair

By Colin Randall @salutsunderland
Nil desperandum: why Sunderland’s relegation would still not lead me to despair

A younger, slimmer Malcolm Dawson with SuperKev.

This article by our deputy editor Malcolm Dawson appeared two years ago next Monday. Change the names and other details and it is as relevant now as it was then. Pete Sixsmith always threatens to jump ship, without – except in the 1997-1998 playoff season – actually getting wet; in fact, he will probably see a season or two, provided it is no more than that, in the Championship as a pleasant change from enduring life at the bottom of the Premier League. Malcolm suggested re-running the article so presumably feels the same as he did in March 2015, just after he’d watched Aston Villa thrash us 4-0 at the SoL; maybe a few tweaks would bring us up to date, but the article and its sentiments stand the test of two years rather well, so there has been almost no editing …

Introduction: Malcolm is of pre-Premier League, pre-Sky vintage. He remembers a time when teams like Aston Villa, Nottingham Forest and Derby County could actually win the league. When teams like Northampton Town and Carlisle United could reach the top tier of English football and for a time actually threaten to go top of the league. Of course he wants Sunderland to do well and be as successful as possible but, as a fan, is he wrong to contend that there should be more to life as a Sunderland fan than top-flight survival?

Jake: 'do you reckon it'll produce a brighter wash next season?' ..'

Jake: ‘do you reckon it’ll produce a brighter wash next season?’
..’

< Driving over Wearmouth Bridge after the debacle that was Gus Poyet’s last game in charge, I glanced at one of the escutcheons bearing the coat of arms and heraldic motto of the City of Sunderland.

The words nil desperandum, roughly translated as “don’t despair” leapt out at me. Had I been on foot I may well have been more focused on the stickers placed there by the local branch of the Samaritans but I wasn’t. I was in the car and the journey home had been made much easier by the early departure of half the crowd. I should have been depressed but I wasn’t.

I tuned the radio to Jazz Record Requests and planned my evening meal – a comforting pot of home-made chicken and chorizo cassoulet made with cannellini beans, cherry tomatoes, Italian herbs, served with a crusty loaf. The world seemed OK. You see I was disappointed but not downhearted by the Aston Villa defeat and an increased probability of relegation.

I admit I had gone along hoping for the three points that would lift us up the table but in all honesty what I expected was another abject performance and what I had expected was for us to lose. I expected to lose because that’s what this current Sunderland team unerringly does when faced with a crucial game.

Thankfully I missed QPR being exiled in deepest west Lancashire, but my brother had gone along for free and complained that “even that was too much to pay”.

The story of too many home games over the past few seasons against sides we should be beating comfortably, has been one of continual disappointment and I wasn’t falling into that trap again. Hull City, West Ham, West Brom, and QPR, together with the majority of games at the SOL last season, just reinforced my expectation that we would get nothing from Villa.

We actually started quite brightly, just as we had against Hull City, then capitulated just as we had against Hull City. While those around me got increasingly animated I sat with a wry smile as the next episode of the SAFC soap opera unfolded. This was the Sunderland we have come to know and still somehow love, in the same way that Dot Cotton loved her son Nick. We keep coming back for more in the same way that Gail Tilsley (Potter, Platt, Hillman, McIntyre, Rodwell) is repeatedly attracted to homicidal psychopaths, career criminals and men with dark secrets. And she still loves her son Nick. Not to mention David!

So Gus has gone. No real surprise there but should we lay the blame solely at his door? Who should carry the can for years of abject failure?

When I was about seven or eight I was given a book by one of my older cousins from Fence Houses. That book was Len Shackleton’s autobiography Clown Prince of Soccer – a publication which recent comments leads me to believe never graced the bookshelves of Murton Library, but which I remember well. Especially the Chapter headed “The Average Director’s Knowledge of Football” and the footnote which read “this page has been left blank in accordance with the author’s wishes”.

Shack had a low opinion of the men (and it was exclusively men back in the 50s) who ran the clubs, but at least those types tended to be local businessmen with some understanding of the people who supported the club, what their club meant to them and accepted the premise that the aim of a football club was to win trophies.

From Len Shackleton's autobiography (with David Jack), Clown Prince of Soccer?

From Len Shackleton’s autobiography (with David Jack), Clown Prince of Soccer?

Updated the chapter would be re-titled “The Average Owner’s Knowledge of Football” but the content would remain the same. But nowadays the hyper rich owners of clubs in and around the Premier League are more concerned with balance sheets than trophy cabinets. Ellis Short may be pumping money into the club but he has achieved absolutely nothing. As fans we want more than a healthy balance sheet – at least I do. I want to see a side that plays entertaining football and is at least competitive every time it steps out onto the field.

To be honest I’m not bothered about Premier League status. I am rapidly approaching my 61st birthday (am I really?) and in my lifetime all we have won is the F.A. Cup and a few promotions.

We still harp on about 73 because it’s the only significant trophy that the club has lifted in living memory unless you happen to be an octogenarian, nonagenarian or had a telegram from the Queen. If you have yet to reach your mid-forties you have seen us win nowt except a few promotions.

Last season’s trip to Wembley will live long in the memories of those of us who were there because it is such a rare event. I’d rather we had beaten Hull in the FA Cup last season and gone back to North London for the final than enjoy “The Great Escape.” Enjoy that I did – but look where it has got us.

Another year of miserable underachievement, the tearing of hair and the gnashing of teeth. This season I wish we had beaten Bradford, then Reading and had another crack at Cup success even at the expense of relegation which still looks probable unless Dick can turn things around in nine games.

I’ve actually enjoyed our time in the second division or The Championship as it is confusingly named – the winners of the Championship being only the 21st best team in the country – more than our Premiership campaigns.

I’ll qualify that by saying the two 7th place finish seasons were an exception but generally we see more positive attacking football at the lower level, the pre-match build up is much more optimistic and the whole day is much more fun. Add to that you get to go to other places and mix with fans of clubs who are realistic about their clubs’ prospects and it makes for a good day out.

We played at Gillingham a few years back and the banter in the pub before and after the game was so good that a group of us decided to go back.

Sure enough half a dozen of us turned up in our Sunderland shirts one Saturday when they were playing Walsall. We had a great day and as it was their last home game of the season (we had Arsenal next day) they were having a party, ordered in pizza and asked us to join in.

Unfortunately we had a train to catch so had to give it a miss.

Invariably my best memories of following SAFC have been at so called smaller clubs. Lincoln City, Grimsby. Bury, Stockport etc. A few pints, good craic and decent footy.

I don’t really get this obsession with preferring the avoidance of relegation to actually watching competitive games that we have a chance of winning. The reality is we can’t aspire to be anything other than a mid-table side at best unless we get a takeover of the Abramovich variety.

I know survival guarantees a big television payout and relegation results in a huge loss of revenue but that’s not my problem. The lure of the lucre is what drives the business model of the owners of our clubs and any on field success is viewed solely in terms of European qualification and more TV money.

Roy Keane did well when we were in danger of dropping into League 1 (the old 3rd Division) but it appears he was frustrated by the club’s inability to push on in the Premier League. Not the most patient of men I believe the situation at the club gradually wore the Irishman down.

Steve Bruce did OK for a while even though his tactical thinking seemed limited but was unable to take us forward. Was that purely down to his ability as a manager or were his hands tied to an extent by the policy of the board?

Martin O’Neill we all hailed as a savour when he was appointed but like Bruce he apparently ran out of ideas. How much was his ambition supported by those in charge of finances? Di Canio’s appointment was naïve but in his brief and tempestuous time he hinted that the culture of the club needed an overhaul.

Poyet too pointed the finger at off the field issues and eventually, like Keane appeared to lose the plot and resign himself to leaving the club. Towards the end a huge disquiet about team selection and tactics lost him the support of the crowd and there were at least three games I went to where the “Gustavo Poyet” song, which had been one of the South Stand’s favourites was never heard, but since Niall Quinn was relieved of the Chairmanship and latterly Kevin Ball’s reduced role in the club I look at Short, Margaret Byrne and the rest of the board and ask myself if it is them rather than the players and coaching staff who are the root cause of the problem.

But going back to my main point, my feeling is that should we escape relegation again we will have another season of disappointment and frustration looming. The reality is we will not be competing with Arsenal or Spurs, never mind Chelsea, Man City and Manchester United. When the height of our ambition is to finish 12th or thereabouts and if achieving that comes at the expense of entertaining football I question whether it is worth it. Go down though and I can see some great days out and some enjoyable matches. Should we go down and Sixer’s seat is filled by someone other than he, it could easily be myself.


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