Last time I went to watch Sunderland it was March last year. Terrible match, 0-1 at Loftus Road. The mood wasn’t the best, against a very average QPR side the Black Cats could not give any joy to the usual thousands of faithful Mackems who made the trip on the day. It was difficult to see where a turning point could be found. It wasn’t. For the second straight season Sunderland ended bottom of the league. This time was different though, there were no laughs or self-deprecating songs like the ones I heard a year before at the Emirates. Relegation from the Premier League was on the cards, it was a possibility, the one from the Championship was not.
Ten months, and a Netflix series, later Sunderland AFC is a different club. In the packed away end at the Valley it was possible to breathe optimism again. Juan Sartori, one of the owners (or the real owner as someone whispers) is mixing with the fans, he smiles and chats away, posing for pictures and selfies with kids and grown-ups. The line-up seems to be made of people who actually want to be there (Maja to be confirmed), the manager seems to understand how big a chance he’s been given. Everything smells new. They say you need to touch the bottom to start rising again. It might be a cliché but it looks pretty accurate in this case.
What has not changed is the love of the people but for some reason this season it hit the headlines. Even in Italy I read comments on the 2K going to Gillingham on a Tuesday night, the 5K at Coventry, the 8K at Blackpool or the 30K+ average at home or the 46K at the SoL on Boxing day. This is nothing new, Sunderland are a huge club with a glorious past in an area previously known as the hotbed of soccer and have always had great support. I’ve been following them since 1995, I was lucky enough to attend my first game at Roker Park before the club moved to the new stadium, and except for a few seasons under Peter Reid there have not been too many reasons to get carried away. The only thing that hooked me since the very first visit to the North East was the level of support, the passion and the blind love of the fans. It was the feeling of the football club being a central part in the life of the whole city, the importance of the Saturday afternoon (at the time) in the routine of everyone’s existence. When people say that football is more than a game, well a quick trip to Wearside would certainly justify that quote.
In 2016/17, Sunderland finished 20th and they won just three home games, the average crowd at the SoL was 41,287. In Mick McCarthy’s last season in charge, 2005-06, the Black Cats won three times and only once at home, average attendance 33,904. In 2002-03, the season with three different managers and relegation, the number was 39,698. It’s nothing new. While other clubs have the reputation but can’t back it up with facts, Sunderland can actually boast some of the best fans in the country based on numbers and statistics. The Netflix series seems to have revealed it to the world and I would not be surprised to know of a few more people being attracted to the North East ironically following one of the worst moments in the club’s history.