Pretty much everybody has a ‘second team’, a side they have no personal stake in yet secretly champion for one of a thousand different reasons. Maybe they went to university nearby. Or their dad was born there. Sometimes it boils down to just liking the kit.
Similarly everyone has a nemesis, a club they regard as a manifestation of pure evil. Often this amounts to a straightforward animosity towards a neighbour but not always. Sometimes an Evertonian might detest everything about Southampton. Just because.
Newcastle fans aside it’s hard to imagine Sunderland ever provoking such extremes. They’re just always there, languishing near the foot of the Premier League, playing their functional just-good-enough football, as innocuous and uninspiring as a veteran newsreader. Bed-blocking a dream.
This is the Mackem’s tenth season in the top flight and their contribution has largely been unremarkable: in that time they have broken the forty-point barrier on just three occasions. They have entertained neutrals three times less.
Name a Sunderland player besides Jermain Defoe. You had to think there, didn’t you, to get to four or five? Now do likewise for clubs of a similar stature. Take your pick from West Ham, Stoke, or Leicester. They trip off the tongue, usually flair players first.
In a decade of accruing a mind-boggling sum of TV money, I genuinely struggle to recall more than a handful of Sunderland players who invigorated through their individuality, who spiked interest and quickened heart-rates. Instead there has been a never-ending litany of Manchester United cast-offs, solid Championship-level players, semi-obscure foreign talent who come and go without making any significant impact, and now under David Moyes – a man who presumably considers a teaspoon of sugar on his corn flakes as an unnecessary extravagance – an attempt to recreate his Everton side from the late 2000s.
Frustratingly his unimaginative scheme will probably work too – just – and relegation will once again be staved off ensuring the following conversation takes place up and down the country next year. Just like it did last year. And the year before that.
“Who we got on Saturday?”
“Sunderland at home.”
There is an obligation that comes with all the esteem and vast riches of being a Premier League club. For the bigger clubs, through excellence or crisis, it is an obligation to enthral. For the Burnleys and Bournemouths an against-the-odds spirit is more than sufficient to warrant their place.
What have Sunderland given back? Survival, usually achieved through a last-minute jolt of desperation. Existence. A constant impression that they’re capable of so much more yet like a tile on a roof or supermarket brand chocolate they’re just…there.
Which is why, for the first time I can ever remember, I will actively be hoping a team drops this term and it’s an act of schadenfreude that doesn’t sit right with me. For one thing, as a Manchester City supporter, I’m all too familiar with enduring the gut-punch of relegation and the listless summer that follows. For another, it cannot be under-stated how little the Sunderland support would deserve such a torment. If the club has purposely made itself the personification of beige in recent times, the fans are anything but. Passionate, loyal in great numbers, spiky and brilliant. The fans are Champions League.
They deserve infinitely better than an owner in Ellis Short, with both eyes on the exit door, and a manager in Moyes who will always favour pragmatism over any other consideration.
But then again, so does everyone else.