By Jason McKeown (images by Mike Holdsworth)
“The fans are still living in the past.”
That was the verdict of the Sunderland manager Gus Poyet, after those same supporters booed his team off the pitch following an underwhelming 0-0 draw at home to Championship Fulham in the FA Cup fourth round. Fans also turned on the team during the game for passing the ball backwards and sideways too often. It left a frustrated Poyet promising that he would try to “find a way to bring more excitement to the stadium”.
In the event, Sunderland won the fourth round replay at Craven Cottage to set up this weekend’s FA Cup fifth round clash with Bradford City. Welcome relief from the frustrations of another underwhelming Black Cats’ league campaign. One that has seen Sunderland draw more games than any other top flight club, and win just two matches at home. They are also the Premier League’s joint third-lowest goal scorers, finding the back of the net at a rate of less than once per game.
Sunderland should be good enough to stay up this season, but as a club appear they appear to be firmly gripped by mediocrity.
Living in the past? Perhaps understandable, when your top scorer, Steve Fletcher, has netted only five goals. As Poyet reflected, “They want Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips back but I’m sorry, I can’t bring them back. You can’t live in the past. Football’s completely different today.”
Quinn and Phillips are fondly remembered on Wearside. Their devastating strike partnership coinciding with one of the most exciting periods in the club’s history (1997-2001) – one that Bradford City experienced a close up view of.
After sharing the same division for two years, in 1999 Sunderland and Bradford City were promoted to the Premier League together. A year later, City survived relegation and Sunderland finished seventh – their highest league position in almost 50 years. For both, that was as good as it got.
But during this four-year period, there were some memorable tussles between the two clubs. In September 1997, City had climbed to the top of Division One (now the Championship) and welcomed Sunderland for a Friday night tussle, unbeaten at home and having only conceded three goals all campaign. On a night that would effectively finish Aussie keeper Robert Zabica’s English football career, Sunderland ran out 4-0 winners. City’s promotion bubble was firmly burst.
18 months later Sunderland were back at Valley Parade and this time both clubs were firmly in the hunt for promotion. It was second vs first. Quinn headed Sunderland into the lead and then had to play in goal for the final 20 minutes, due to an injury to Thomas Sorenson. City could not find an equaliser.
Fast forward another year and with both sides in the Premier League, a seemingly doomed-to-relegation Bradford City pulled off a shock 1-0 Easter Monday victory at Sunderland to turn around their season. John Dreyer got the goal despite Dean Saunders attempting to claim the credit. The result put pay to Sunderland’s hopes of finishing in a European position.
Great days for both clubs. The managers, Peter Reid and Paul Jewell, were good friends off the field, finding plenty in common beyond their shared scouse backgrounds. Sunderland had just moved into their magnificent Stadium of Light, which transformed their fanbase. Kevin Phillips scored 130 goals in 235 games. Quinn netted 71 from 222. City had Peter Beargie, Stuart McCall, Jamie Lawrence and Robbie Blake in their ranks. Neither club have been able to build a team as talented and successful since.
You had to be there, Gus.
And for three years, I was there. During the summer of 2000, I swapped Yorkshire for Wearside. For the unknowns of studying at University. For the joyful independence of living in a house with five other lads (and, soon after, some rats). To grow up as a person. And to do so in a football-mad city.
And Sunderland really is football-obsessed. It’s difficult for people outside the North East to truly understand just how passionately the sport is followed within this part of the world. It’s not that your most committed Sunderland supporter is more fanatical than a Bradford City die-hard, but the greater volume of such people. Even more impressive was learning to appreciate just how much the club meant to everyone else.
Back in Bradford, there aren’t too many local people who don’t go to Valley Parade yet still care deeply about the team and possess detailed knowledge of the players. In Sunderland, it didn’t seem to matter if you went to every game or had never been to the Stadium of Light, there were thousands of both types of supporters, and all followed their team intently and passionately. There was no other sporting team in the city to compete for locals’ affections. No equivalent of the Bradford Bulls, or even Bradford Park Avenue.
Living in the city for three years, I quickly developed an understanding of just how big of an event Sunderland home games were through walking around the town on match days. Every pub was packed out, many laying on special entertainment. Red and white replica shirts were everywhere.
The Stadium of Light itself is wonderfully positioned on a hill above the banks of the River Wear. A 10-minute walk from the city centre, visible from a long way away. The Stadium of Light was built during a time when many other new football stadiums were springing up, and most would be based miles out of the town, next to a retail park. Not at Sunderland. They upgraded their home, yet remained right at the heart of the city.
And then there is the rivalry with Newcastle United. Unlike so many other football derbies, this one isn’t a one-sided affair. Geordies hate Mackems. Mackems hate Geordies. It goes beyond two sets of football supporters who despise each other, but the people from both cities.
I fondly remember going out in Sunderland on the night they defeated Newcastle at St. James Park – a game that has gone down in folklore for Alan Shearer missing a late penalty. The atmosphere was incredible that evening. Everybody was singing about beating the Geordies.
In my first year of University, Sunderland still had Quinn and Phillips, and they would repeat their previous season’s seventh-place finish. The season after they dropped to mid-table, and the season after that – the final year of my degree – they were relegated in spectacularly feeble style. Reid has been sacked as manager, Howard Wilkinson was ridiculously brought in and he did a wretched job.
Me and my friends went to a couple of games that season. The capacity crowds had dwindled; the red hot atmosphere that I had experienced on visits with Bradford City, between those golden 1997-2001 years, was gone. It was a depressing place to be, and the football was awful.
Sunderland, under the astute Mick McCarthy, returned to the Premier League two years later, went down again, and then came back up through Roy Keane. Since that 2007 promotion, Sunderland have remained a permanent fixture in the top flight. Their best final positioning was tenth in 2010/11, but other than that they have always finished in the bottom half.
Which invariably means season-upon-season of losing more games than you actually win. Despite spending large sums of money and attracting talented players like Asamoah Gyan, Darren Bent, John O’Shea and Steed Malbranque – and despite employing managers with strong track records, such as Steve Bruce and Martin O’Neill – it just hasn’t happened.
That is the reality of the Premier League these days, where merely remaining part of the elite is an achievement. Their owner, the American Ellis Short, does not have the deepest of pockets. Seventh place finishes now look well beyond their glass ceiling. Their fans must look at Southampton with envy.
Gus Poyet is the latest managerial incumbent, and the Uruguayan has impressed at times. The former Brighton manager steered Sunderland to a Wembley final last season, as they reached the League Cup Final, losing to Man City. And just as it seemed they were doomed to relegation last April, Poyet masterminded an incredible late run of results to steer Sunderland clear of relegation.
But the kick on hasn’t happened this season. And the attractive style of football that Poyet has attempted to implement isn’t taking off, or finding favour with supporters. Cue Poyet’s grumbles following the home draw with Fulham last month, as he attempted to defend his footballing principles and decreed the past unworkable. “Quinn and Phillips was kick and rush and it worked perfectly but it’s impossible now, you’d never get the ball back.”
Poyet admits there is a “missed connection at the moment with the fans” and it will be interesting to see if he can restore that. Winning football matches remains the best known cure to any supporter unrest, and another Black Cats cup run, to rival last season’s League Cup adventure, certainly wouldn’t go amiss.
Which brings us onto this weekend’s clash between Bradford City and Sunderland. After what City did to Chelsea, this is a game that will offer Sunderland some fears and worries. But a trip to the lowest-ranked team left in the competition also represents a fantastic opportunity for the Black Cats to book a place in the quarter finals.
In what is a wide open cup competition, they are only two games away from a return to Wembley via an FA Cup semi final. And, even more ambitiously, they will believe they have a chance of replicating the club’s finest hour of the 1973 FA Cup Final victory.
Sunderland have every reason to take this game against City seriously. With six days until their next Premier League outing, Poyet must surely be planning to field a strong side.
Steve Fletcher is arguably their best player, although injury-prone. Having made his name at Hibs, the Scottish international was signed by Premier League Burnley in 2009 and his first game in England was actually a pre-season friendly at Valley Parade (the Bantams team that day featured some trialist by the name of Hanson).
Jermaine Defoe is well-known to everyone after a successful career at multiple English clubs. Connor Wickham was the hero of last season’s Houdini antics, whilst Danny Graham’s career has stuttered over the last few years. A £5 million signing in January 2013, Graham has yet to score a single goal in red and white.
The midfield features similarly well-known players who have failed to have the kind of careers they once threatened to achieve. Sebastian Larsson, Adam Johnson, Lee Cattermole and Jack Rodwell – they should all be excelling on Wearside, but largely aren’t doing it. Ricardo Álvarez is on loan from Inter Milan and was part of the Argentina World Cup Squad, yet has struggled for much of the season. Liam Bridcutt – who was part of the successful Brighton team Poyet built – had a slow start to life on Wearside but has improved this season.
Sunderland look strong defensively – John O’Shea and Wes Brown had many successful years at Old Trafford, whilst Costel Pantilimon was an able understudy to Joe Hart at the Etihad. It is creating chances and scoring goals that are the problem. If City’s back four can keep the Sunderland strike-force quiet, there is every chance of an upset.
Sunderland are a bigger club than they are generally given credit for. Permanently stuck in the lower reaches of the Premier League they might be, but they have the sixth-highest average attendances in the top flight this season – bettering Chelsea, Everton, Tottenham, West Ham and Aston Villa.
Their passionate fans will make an almighty racket on Sunday. They will treat this as a hugely important game. As a club they might be restricted in what they can achieve in the Premier League, but they are bucking the trend of many other similarly-placed top flight clubs in taking the cup competitions seriously. Newcastle United fans must secretly feel jealous.
But their fragility makes them beatable too. There is little for Bradford City to fear, and a volatile opposition mood for them to pray upon. On Tuesday night Sunderland suffered the indignity of becoming the first team to lose at home to QPR this season. An abrupt end to their four-game unbeaten run. Poyet is evidently yet to restore the missing connection. He is not yet under pressure, but a cup exit to a League One team could spark even greater negativity.
City need to get the first goal on Sunday, and then see whether doing so will result in their opponents regrouping or falling apart.