Blimey o’reilly where’s it gone? The season some of us dreaded and some of us were merely interested in to see how we’d do (I can’t imagine any of us were actually looking forward to it), has almost finished. Two more games and the season will be done….except it won’t. Hopefully.
Back at the beginning of this season, fresh from the gut-wrenching horribleness of being relegated, I think a lot of us would’ve taken a play-off place with open arms. There was talk after the initial couple of games that we mightn’t even cope in this division, and simple survival would’ve done some people – hells bells, a play-off place would’ve been a bonus. Storming this division, a la 98/99, seemed a million to one chance.
But the Lads actually went on to do rather well – all things being relative. Obviously not to the dizzying heights that saw them put four past Chelsea before half time a few years back, but an improvement on the near-miss of almost equalling the record for the number of successive defeats. All of a sudden something ‘clicked’ and this squad who’d seen their numbers cut by half, remembered how to win. Everything picked up and, barring a wobble that saw us drop back to mid-table at one point, Sunderland have spent the majority of the season in the top few places of the table, occasionally in the automatic promotion places, the wins have been regular and for the most part deserved. Certainly they’ve done better than I dared hope last August.
Then came something probably few of us expected or even dared hope for: a bloody good cup run. Scarily we struggled against Hartlepool, then beat Ipswich, but the fifth round draw gave us Premiership Birmingham City. I wasn’t in absolute dread because Birmingham are inconsistent at the best of times – I was looking forward to it because I thought it’d be a good benchmark of how far we’d come. There was genuine optimism amongst supporters for the first time in months and months, and genuine pleasure at the manner of the team’s progress and performances; a game against Brum would be a mark in the sand to show how well (or not) Sunderland could cope against a mid-range Premiership team. I don’t know about anyone else but the Lads impressed way beyond anything I could’ve expected; Sunderland, a team who’d arguably become a national joke, relegated on a record low points tally and rumoured to be on the verge of administration, made a mid-table Premiership team look very average. The only fly in the proverbial Anusol was that there had to be a replay. Could the Lads do it all over again? A league performance in the meantime suggested that they couldn’t, but the replay was a great affair, they made Brum look very average again, and it was great for morale all round.
In the meantime the draw for the sixth round had been made with Sheffield United the oppo, and Neil Warnock saying how he’d quite like to play Birmingham. Up yours, ‘Colin’, you got another team in red and white and more to the point we then beat you; what goes around, and all that…. On the day of the semi final draw I got bog all done at work that morning, fretting about the draw and talking about it with the other football supporters around the office (if my footy-aetheist boss or his Watford-supporting boss or my Gooner-supporting director are reading this, I’m kidding – I did tons of work that morning and met all my deadlines. Honest.) I disappeared to a quiet part of the office with my radio at 1.30pm and felt sick as David Davis did his build-up….please don’t give us Arsenal pleeeeeease…..MILLWALL!!! YEEEESSSSSS!!! I know they’d done us twice already this season but First Division vs First Division seemed a much more even playing field than facing up to the likes of the Wengerboys.
But as we all know, Wisey’s boys got the rub of the green for the third time on April 4th; Sunderland weren’t dismal, it wasn’t the worst Sunderland performance I’ve seen by any means, they weren’t hopeless – they just looked tired. Millwall knew what to do to keep our ‘danger men’ quiet and we had no answer for it. A cup run’s all well and good but the combination of the extra matches and postponed matches looked like they’d taken their toll and – in my honest opinion – I wonder if that’s still the case now, given some of our recent results. Yes, we were all gutted, “so near and yet so far” and all that. But again, think of it this way: last summer, some of us would’ve accepted survival, plain and simple, play-offs would be nice, promotion would be brilliant: a cup run as well seemed out of the question. Who would’ve predicted THAT last August? I’m not saying we should accept that semi defeat meekly – but given where we were twelve months ago, maybe we should be “grateful for small mercies” and be happy the team has made good progress.
Which is why the behaviour of some so-called supporters still puzzles me – and, if I’m honest, irritiates the life out of me. I was at our home match against Crewe at the weekend and the bloke sitting behind me did nothing but criticise– almost exclusively Oster – all game. Not once did I hear him encourage, cheer, shout, clap or join in the singing. For 90minutes, if he piped up at all it was only to berate and belittle. I bet he’s got a wax doll with John Oster’s name on it at home, and sticks pins in it while “Soccer Sunday” is on. Now granted, Oster is no Beckham or Scholes, but bloody hell – give him his dues, he tries. Granted, he made the occasional stray pass or got himself dispossessed in the Crewe game but there were worse culprits than Oster. I don’t think he can could cut it in the top flight should we get there but good God he’s doing what he can to help Sunderland on their way, and he’s improved in leaps and bounds this season.
But back to the miserable git sat behind me on Saturday. Nobody can deny that our attendance figures have dropped off since last season but we’ve still got the second highest average attendance in the first division after West Ham. Yes it looks crap on telly when you see all those empty seats sometimes, yes we needs bums on seats – for the additional support as well as the revenue – but do we really need ‘pessimistas’ like him? Isn’t there an argument to say if you’re not going there to support and encourage, then feck off and stay away? Fair enough, there’s probably an argument that says if you’ve paid your money you’re entitled to voice your opinions. But why pay money just to sit there and criticise the whole time? Do you really think it’ll help the team? This isn’t an “I didn’t moan right through the match therefore I’m a better supporter than that whinging get is” argument by the way – I wouldn’t be so presumptive to assume I’m a better supporter than anyone else, and those who DO should get down off their high horses. I’m just saying why go to the match just to project all your negativity? If it’s that bad, why go? Incidentally unless I was hallucinating, the Lads were booed off the pitch on Saturday which for my money is unacceptable. Like booing’s going to fill them with confidence for the last two games, isn’t it?
The Lads have hit a wobbly patch at the moment and need ALL the support we can give them. Surely that’s why we’re called “supporters”, not “critics”? We shouldn’t be bitching amongst ourselves on internet message boards about who’s a “better” supporter than who else – it’s just an ego trip for those who indulge in that, all The Lads want is people in the stands urging them on, they don’t discriminate between who’s had a season ticket for x years and who attends match-by-match, who does a 500 mile round trip for each match and who lives locally. We’re still not guaranteed a play-off place, other teams are snapping at our heels, we face on-a-roll Norwich on Tuesday, then Burnley next Saturday and The Poominator will be watching from the stands with Arca. Then hopefully the prospect of the play-offs – our only possible route back to the Premiership and a massive financial boost. I’d like to think that there isn’t a single one amongst us who’d willingly see Sunderland stay in the first division next season playing Leeds and even, possibly, Hartlepool. So if you’d rather see the Lads back in the top flight come August, supporters can play a part: go to the matches, clap those lads onto the pitch, cheer when it’s going well, encourage when it’s not, AND GET OFF THEIR BACKS!!