I make no secret of not particularly liking the start of the season. I used to love it, I’d really feel the gap between the end of one season and the beginning of another. I loved the new kits and players and, above all, the renewed sense of hope and anticipation. Now, football is everywhere, all the time, so a new season is not really anything new. It’s just, well, the continuation of football.
What I’ve learned to enjoy more is the rolling narrative as the year progresses, the sense of emerging drama, the battle through the winter and the mad dash, exhausted and battered, to some kind of conclusion in May. In that sense, I prefer my football more Scandi-drama than The Fast and the Furious.
I was a bit split about what would make a good result on Saturday. We’ve had a good final week of the summer and there are signs of optimism. A win, while capping it off nicely, might also have tipped expectations too far. Beating anyone on the opening game of the season is positive, beating Sunderland away could have created a sense that we were fixed, when we are anything but. Anyone who remembers the 4-1 win over Portsmouth, or going back 20 years, a 2-1 win at Stoke where Steve Anthrobus scored the winner on his debut will know these results are meaningless.
Even when we took the lead, you could sense the immediate optimism; Rob Dickie had become an able replacement for Curtis Nelson, Ben Woodburn was a cut above in quality. Yes, perhaps, but judge them in 15-20 games, not on the basis of the opening twenty-five minutes when minds and bodies are sharp and the weather is good. The mark of a good team is not whether you can perform, but for how long you can sustain it.
Equally, a defeat could have popped our fragile ego, if it had been mid-season, we might have shrugged it off, but seeing ourselves sitting dead last in the table, as we did last year, could have sent us into a deep depression. A defeat also would have put greater pressure on the games coming up. Last year’s opening fixtures were tricky, this year is no different.
Of course, in the moment, during the ninety minutes I desperately wanted us to win, but in the grander scheme a draw is almost a better result. We’ve taken a point in one of the most difficult fixtures of the season, we only conceded because of a penalty and one of our new signings got the goal.
In a game of cricket, it’s a bit like opening an innings with a solid forward defensive rather than slogging the ball out of the ground for six. Now, we have to build.
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.
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.
One club was a giant, still suckling off the parachute payments of the Premier League. The other, a disorganised mess still trying find a foothold in the season. A mismatch surely?
12 September 1992 – 0-1 Away
Lots to enjoy here, if not the result. Mike Ford being sent off because Andy Melville handled the ball on the line, Imre Varadi making a fleeting appearance and a couple of moments of genius ‘keeping from Paul Reece.
3 March 1973 – 0-1 Home
Up until recently, there was a much longer clip of this game. Instead, here’s 42 seconds of The Manor in 1973 looking all loverly and that.
19 September 1998 – Away 0-7
You know that something is up when you concede seven. In 1998/99 we managed to do it twice. The first one was at Sunderland. If you can bare it, there are six minutes of the game to watch here.
27 February 1999 – Home 0-0
On the face of it, nothing to write home about in this one. Being there on the night only confirmed it. But, it was the first game ever to be televised via pay-per-view in the UK. The only moment of note in this game was a frantic goal line scramble in front of the London Road; a friend was with me watching her first game. Once the ball was cleared, she turned and said ‘A think I’ve just wee’ed myself a little bit.’
We had a great week – first league win, beat Newport comfortably, drew Manchester City in the next round, then off to Sunderland. Former Premier League Sunderland. Do you know how big their ground is? Massive! They used to be in the Premier League y’know. I’ve seen them on the telly.
Then there were the Oxford connections; Stewart Donald and ‘The Saviour’ Charlie Methven. And, of course, Chris Maguire who has started his time at Sunderland ‘on fire’. Everyone knows Mags and his ability to wind everyone up and stick it to them where it hurts. He’ll just do that to us, won’t he?
By Saturday, we’d almost talked ourselves into accepting a heavy defeat, so we’d focus on having a good day out – like visiting Middlesborough in the Cup a couple of years ago. Perhaps we were preparing for the worst. As Radio Oxford repeated constantly – 20 years ago we conceded seven there. Maybe we were protecting ourselves for another defeat just as things were starting to look up. Like the Manchester City game, defeat will mean nothing, and if you say that enough, you begin to believe it.
But, for their good start, Sunderland are a League 1 team for a reason. At the end of last season they were pretty much accepted to be the biggest shambles in professional football. Some clubs under-performed, other clubs failed, but they had excuses – lack of money, poor infrastructure. Not Sunderland, they should be able to sustain themselves as a competent Championship team as a minimum.
Sunderland’s biggest problem is the culture of failure that has dogged them for years. Sure, Donald came in with a new positivity, debts were cleared, things appear to be re-setting. As was mentioned on Saturday, his plan was to replace the sun bleached pink seats at the Stadium of Light with new bright red ones. He replaced most, but not all by time the season started. It’s a big job, bigger than he’d expected. It’s almost symbolic of the challenge he faces. This is a big ship to turn around, everything that makes them big, is also a millstone – their history, a big expectant fanbase, players with Premier League experience on big wages. As we should know, you don’t hit the bottom when you’re a football club; you just keep falling.
Had Karl Robinson taken the same approach as the fans and media, we would have lost comfortably. But Robinson has always been a good disrupter. It’s why people don’t like him. Last week, he played a vital role in our win over Burton. At MK Dons he beat Manchester United 4-0. Even last year he nearly snatched points from Wigan away that nobody expected. If you can find weak spots and work on them then things can happen, and Robinson is relentless in that challenge.
When he announced Jamie Mackie up front and left Sam Smith and Jonathan Obika out, speculation was that we were going to defend front to back. But, I think he wanted Mackie’s savvy and experience. If we could cut through the growing sense of positive satisfaction amongst the Sunderland fans and expose all the old insecurities, then perhaps we could get something from the game.
Likewise, Ricky Holmes isn’t going to respect reputations, nor John Mousinho. James Henry has too much experience to be over-awed by a big ground. These players have made careers out of defying odds, about achieving more than they rightly should.
The disruption worked a treat; Shandon Baptiste is young enough to, perhaps, not think too much about where he’s playing and what he’s achieving as well. He’s surfing on the early flush of success. Hopefully he won’t take too much notice of what people are saying about him. It’s all very unconscious at the moment, the biggest challenge comes when he become conscious of the expectations surrounding him. Marcus Browne is much the same.
What it made for was an conservative looking attack actually becoming a huge proactive threat. Sunderland fans were reminded of where they’ve fallen to, the players lost their discipline, only one of their midfield five avoided a card – Max Power’s cynical red being crucial. It meant rather than defending deep, we could put pressure much further up the field, much to the disillusion of their fans.
Our biggest challenge is to keep the likes of Holmes and Mackie playing – I’ve never heard more talk about players needing injections to play than this season. The likes of Baptiste, Browne and Whyte need to keep working and ignore the hype.
More broadly, this is undoubtedly a game we’d have expected to lose. Instead, we’ve scraped back a point from the ones we lost earlier in the season. A couple more of those and with some of the biggest away days we’ll face already behind us this year, things are looking far more positive than our league position suggests. And that might also play to our advantage in the coming weeks as teams under-estimate us.