The club worked hard for this one and were rewarded with the biggest crowd, if we discount all the bigger ones. I really like the work that Matt Everett is doing and he was rightly rewarded for his personal crusade.
The market is not easily tricked, though, and it was quite a slog to get over the 10,000 target. For all the success, it was still 200 less than for Luton on a Tuesday night in the Conference. To many of the less dedicated, we were just a team in the relegation zone and they were a team threatening the play-offs – like Peterborough or Doncaster. Sunderland were always going to draw more; but not sell-out more.
Some of the mythologising around Sunderland comes from their relative scale. Though rarely full, the Stadium of Light holds 16,000 more people than the next biggest stadium (Coventry) and is around ten times the size of the smallest (Wimbledon). Plus there’s also no escaping the fact they were in the Premier League less than two years ago.
It’s also helped by their Netflix documentary Sunderland Til I Die, which was supposed to track their return to the Premier League, but actually captured their calamitous fall to where they are today.
The series opens with a scene in a church as a local priest blesses their upcoming season. The first game shows a half-naked fat lad losing his shit in the street after a 5-0 friendly defeat to Celtic. It’s all ‘fabric of the local community’ stuff, though I wonder whether the Nissan factory has greater influence.
There’s also a sharp cut, fast paced sequence of their recent glories. The 1973 FA Cup win over Leeds and then a series of shots, some of which were inevitably caught during various relegation campaigns.
The documentary has been a hit; it was supposed to be filed alongside Amazon Prime’s documentary about Manchester City, but actually is more aligned to the one about Bros or the failed Fyre festival. All three defeated by their own hyperbole.
They’re filming the second series and there were cameras all over the place pointing in odd directions. One was trained on Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven, Oxford fans and saviours of Sunderland (and Oxford, if we believe Methven). Another was obviously trying to capture those close on-field shots of players’ legs they use as cutaways. Just after the start someone appeared from the tunnel with a small camera, presumably having just captured a player shouting ‘Come on lads!’ as they headed to the pitch.
You wonder what they’re hoping to get; a redemptive story of their return from hell into a step just below the promised land? More disasters? Perhaps the worse thing would be a moderate, but ultimately unsuccessful bid for promotion. That might be exactly what they get.
I’d always seen Sunderland as a big team, but in a West Brom or second to last match on Match of Day kind of way. They were never capacity crowd at the Kassam massive.
Warming up they did have that big club vibe, each player seemed to be working with about three personal sports scientists and psychologists. There were people everywhere.
When they eventually came on for the start of the game, it struck me how small they were. Like a team of Chris Maguires, but without Chris Maguire. One Chris Maguire and his unpredictable talents is great, six or seven is less easy to gel as a unit.
They were quick and tricky, but for all the movement, they lacked any real purpose. Attacks broke down as much because of them getting in a muddle, or over-hitting a pass.
In reality, we had the better chances, Jordan Graham, Josh Ruffels and Jamie Mackie all should have scored. Those chance went in against Portsmouth, they just didn’t here.
Jordan Graham, when he could stay on his feet caused problems down one flank, Gavin Whyte down the other. They had Will Grigg, whose main claim to fame is that there’s a really good song about him, but Whyte was the best Northern Ireland international on the pitch by a country mile.
Their goal, when it came, was simple. One of the Chris Maguires swung over a decent corner, and Dunne – one of their few big lads – connected. Easy. You’d think they’d learn.
As the second-half progressed, it became clear that when you scratch away at the myth, there’s a better than average League 1 team fighting to get out. Their quick, but ineffective passing, started to blow itself out. Inevitable really, and they hadn’t got the cushion of goals they needed.
We seemed better equipped for the 90 minutes. Even creeping past the 80th minute I got a sense that there would at least be a chance for us. We don’t have a big squad, but we look more capable from the bench than we did before the January transfer window.
Was there a foul? I don’t think there was, but wouldn’t have been surprised if the referee had given it. By this point he was in a bit of a mess. Some odd decisions seemed to be influenced by the narrative of a big team being bullied by their inferior opponents. Referees watch Netflix too. Once the crowd twigged that something was up and Jamie Mackie and John Mousinho started to get in his ear, he wasn’t sure what was what. We might be small, but we’re not naive.
So he let it go, Jerome Sinclair, unfairly crucified before he’d stepped on the pitched worked it brilliantly for Marcus Browne and we were level. That was the set piece Everett needed to make all his efforts work at a level beyond pounds and pence.
Afterwards Karl Robinson spoke well about Sinclair; about how academy strikers are taught to be part of a team unit now, not just a selfish goal machines. You’ve got to look at his game, not just his goals. In the past, a striker in his position may have shot, but Browne was better positioned, so he passed. Assists are as important as goals nowadays. Robinson knows his stuff, he just needs to think a little when he’s under pressure. He also talked about what he and his players were doing for ‘our’ club, it was a nice turn of phrase.
It was no less than we deserved; you’d think that we might face the Alamo in the final minutes, but it didn’t come. You can’t survive on myths and legends, or a team of Chris Maguires alone.
A good day all round, the club got the spectacle they were looking for and, for once it didn’t blow up in our face. In reality we were good enough to beat the team, and for that we might be disappointed, but we can be happy with a draw against the myth.