Suffering The Heady Heights of Mid Table

Sunderland's Lee CattermoleAs a passionate Sunderland fan I normally look forward to the summer with added excitement. It’s a period that renews anticipation and this time around Martin O’Neill gets his first real chance to renovate his squad and push the club forward to the next level.

There’s a feeling that this is the club’s time to finally realise its potential but deep down I know that sentiment is more akin to a Stadium of Light PR sheet than my own expectations.

Sadly amidst all the hope that surrounds our new era, I find myself feeling an all too familiar sense of déjà vu. There’s been many a false dawn at Sunderland and as the years pass it becomes harder to assess why I would submit myself to so much pain and heartache when there’s so little my beloved club can achieve.

Like so many fans of a team stuck in the mid table pack, my best hope for a successful season is finishing in the top ten and possibly enjoying a cup run. It’s become acceptable to have these watered down ambitions and it stifles the giddy enthusiasm I once possessed.

Experts say this is the most competitive league in the world. Where else will relegation threatened Wigan Athletic overturn title chasing Manchester United? Any team can beat anyone on their day and the increasing regularity of shock results means the League has a more attractive flavour. This trend certainly helps motivate lesser teams to raise their game but just because Sunderland beat Manchester City with an epic last minute goal from Ji Dong-Won, doesn’t mean I expect them to suddenly challenge for the title.

With that in mind, what’s constitutes realistic ambition for a mid table club?

For starters the Premier League has an obvious pecking order. Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea have dominated the last decade while Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur have managed to break rank and edge ahead of Liverpool. Everton and Newcastle United have both made strides to follow but it remains to be seen if they can build on their occasional success. Still they’ve worked their way out of mid table so are perhaps the best inspiration for the teams below them.

That leaves the likes of Aston Villa, Fulham, Stoke City, Sunderland and West Bromwich Albion to battle over who finishes 9th to 14th. For the last few seasons these teams have been separated by a handful of points and often a win on the final day is the difference between them. Fans find it impossible to read anything into their final standings and any sense of achievement is soured because it’s such an underwhelming end to the campaign. These teams were good enough to avoid the relegation dogfight yet have nothing to play for.

Villa are Premier League mainstays but lately they’ve fallen from grace while the others have all managed to establish themselves since promotion. Fulham and Stoke have even tasted European football and are an excellent example for teams like Norwich City, QPR and Swansea City who will be looking to push on after survival but are happy just to remain in the league once more.

While it’s frustrating having nothing to play for, the bigger picture is your team progressively improving year on year so they can eventually break the mould. The problem is everyone is constantly improving so in order for teams to get better they must invest in superior players. This seems obvious but the best young talent is snapped up by the top sides while their ageing castoffs provide progressively deteriorating experience to the  lesser sides and end up leaving or retiring with little or no sell on value.

It’s a vicious cycle that’s tough to break and given that soon there will be no place for billionaire investors it’s hard to see how things will ever change. Newcastle showed last season it can be done but if they lose their best players this summer it will illustrate how difficult it is to sustain regular progression without peaking just outside the elite group. With a hint of jealousy I can begrudgingly admit they’ve made giant strides but if they can’t replicate this season’s success then what hope is there for the chasing pack?

As much as I would love Sunderland to be challenging for Europe, the recurring trend is we’re in small group of teams that are left with nothing to play for and end up taking pride in ruining the aspirations of others. After effectively relegating Wolves, Black Cats fans celebrated the culmination of our season by taunting heartbroken Manchester United supporters with The Poznan after City snatched the title.

Acting as rationally as possible, it’s bizarre for me to be disappointed by Sunderland establishing themselves in the top flight, enjoying a cup run and avoiding the threat of relegation. That constitutes improvement and is greatly appreciated after years of yo-yoing between the Premier League and Championship.

It’s just saddening to have to accept that the only realistic place for my team is as perennial spoilers and not as genuine challengers.

Would you be happy if your team finished mid table? Do Sunderland have realistic expectations? Will Sunderland ever challenge for Europe?

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