What to expect from Sunderland?

Sunderland fans welcome new manager Martin O'NeillAs a devoted Sunderland fan I often find myself debating the role of my beloved side and wondering how much they can realistically achieve. No doubt such behaviour can be attributed to the majority of thoughtful football lovers all equally concerned by their side’s potential aspirations thanks to the ominous nature of England’s domestic competition. Regardless, I still find myself schizophrenically debating the merits of both sides of an impossible argument due to my inability to assess my own club’s realistic ambitions.

Do I support a mid-table team who should be happy with their achievements having recently established themselves in the Premier League or a top ten side with a large stadium, passionate supporters and European expectations? Is it fair to demand European qualification when so many other teams are clearly better or am I lacking ambition by taking satisfaction in finishing in 8th place and enjoying a decent cup run?

Such concerns rattle back and forth in my red and white head but are difficult to resolve given the circumstances Sunderland find themselves in. One half of me understands that while mid-table mediocrity is not something any fan is happy to settle for, it’s a wonderful change from the days of yo-yoing between the top flight and Championship. There are far better teams above the Black Cats and finishing in the top ten is no mean feat given the competition for places. It sounds rational but then my other half retorts with the knowledge that Sunderland haven’t been relegated for five seasons and should be pushing on. They have a proud history and should look to reclaim it but then I remember there isn’t an obvious ‘next step’ in their progression that I can get behind. All any fan wants is yearly progression and for the most part the Black Cats have done that since their return to the Premier League, but given the obvious difference in quality between them and the bigger sides, at some point their improvements will peak and there will be little to play for other than taking satisfaction from being the best of the rest.

The battle inside my Sunderland-themed mindset is ultimately between the conflicting emotions of appreciation and ambition. Do I look at the last decade of struggles and enjoy the more prosperous situation my club finds itself in or do I expect more every season and demand that further improvements are made so to compete with the league’s top sides?

It’s a difficult situation that fans of mid-table clubs often suffer and it leaves me stuck in no man’s land wondering whether I should be happy with minor achievements or be disappointed that my club cannot reach the summit of their profession. While I would never expect Sunderland to be Premier League champions, the knowledge that they almost definitely won’t be is still heartbreaking and yet many will feel I am being deluded for even considering it. Sunderland have had little pedigree for success during my lifetime and as such I shouldn’t have lofty expectations, but the truth is while I would never insist they win league titles, every fan likes to believe their team is working towards some sort of target. It would be naive of me to completely write Sunderland off but in reality they cannot finish higher than 7th so what can I realistically expect in the coming seasons?

Continuous development and attractive, enjoyable football would be a good start, plus an occasional triumph over rivals Newcastle wouldn’t go amiss, but sadly despite all the hope that surrounds the latest new era under Martin O’Neill, I still find myself experiencing an all too familiar sense of déjà vu. There’s been many a false dawn at Sunderland so as the years pass I’ve become accustomed to having rather watered down ambitions and this theme looks set to continue next season. Further investments seem unlikely to drastically improve the club’s fortunes so with little transfer business completed and the big boys stretching further ahead I cannot see how progression can be maintained beyond a certain point. It’s frustrating but I remind myself that the bigger picture is the team continually improving so they can hope to one day break the established mould. That’s the determined side of me that refuses to believe there is nothing to be achieved, however foolhardy that approach may be. After all, Newcastle showed last season that so-called ‘lesser’ sides can overachieve and begrudgingly they deserved their success. While envious glares are natural given my biased loyalties I can appreciate the difficulties that befell the Geordie enemy and take heart from the knowledge that such improvements can be achieved in the face of stronger opponents.

It may seem unfair of me to feel disappointed by last season’s proceedings as Sunderland cemented their place in the top flight, enjoyed a cup run and avoided the threat of relegation, but it would also be a crime if the club rested on their threadbare laurels. Acting rationally, such achievements constitute a marked improvement and are greatly appreciated after years of lower league turmoil, but like many I would love Sunderland to be challenging for Europe and the club’s owners should be aiming as high as possible.

While my realistic expectations tell me 8th place and a cup quarter final would be a decent season; my ambitious dreams persuade me to envisage an O’Neill inspired European qualification. As long as I enjoy the ride and don’t let myself be disappointed when my greedy aspirations are not realised then perhaps I can find some peace in the war between reality and ambition.

Should Sunderland be aiming high next season or should they have more grounded expectations?

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