It’s Saturday morning, a few minutes after 10 a.m. in New York, when Alice comes bounding into the living room. She stops, sees soccer on television, and has a question.
“Who’s the blue team?”
That’s Stoke City.
“I’m rooting for Stoke City. Sunderland is wearing red and white.”
This isn’t new. At first I took it as contrarianism to Daddy rooting for Sunderland, but it’s not. That kind of passive-aggressive rebellion is something I can wait several more years to face. Alice is 3, and usually she decides who she’s rooting for based on who’s winning. When Sunderland is on, she doesn’t need to ask who’s winning, just who the other team is. Three goals by Stoke City later, and she has her winner.
Welcome to life as a Sunderland fan in 2017.
I’m not upset by this because this is what I signed up for, even if I didn’t realize it at the time as a college kid. I latched onto Sunderland because, back in 2000, on my first trip to what was then the Dickens Inn in Philadelphia, back when the only way to see English soccer was to go to a bar, the Black Cats were one of the teams playing.
The opposition was Manchester United, and as a New Yorker who was tired of frontrunner Yankees fans from everywhere else, I went the other way. By the end of the League Cup fourth-round tie, a magical 2-1 win clinched on a Kevin Phillips penalty in extra time, I was in love. The Sunderland fans were loud and vivacious, singing all afternoon, buying beers for people, celebrating wildly when Julio Arca tied the game and even more so when Phillips beat Raimond van der Gouw in the 101st minute.
Sunderland lost in the next round of the League Cup, but finished seventh in the Premier League. I thought things had turned out brilliantly, that I was now a fan of a small-market team on the rise. There has been one top-10 Premier League finish since then, and it was 10th place in 2011. The experience has included the joy of seeing a couple of Americans suit up for Sunderland, quickly dissipated by Claudio Reyna blowing out his knee and Jozy Altidore being completely out of his depth.
Being thoroughly overwhelmed by Premier League competition, Altidore would have fit in quite nicely with the current Sunderland squad, better than the man he was traded across the Atlantic for, Jermain Defoe. Last season’s 15 goals by Defoe were the most for a Sunderland player since Darren Bent scored 25 times in 2009-10, and Defoe is on track to be the first player to lead Sunderland in goals in back-to-back seasons since Marcus Stewart in the playoff and promotion campaigns of 2003-04 and 2004-05.
Sitting 19th in the Premiership in mid-January, ahead of Swansea City only because of goal differential, it certainly feels like Sunderland’s run of 10 straight seasons in the top flight is a few months away from ending. That’s not a new feeling. Each of the last four years, Sunderland has had the appearance of being doomed. Martin O’Neill was fired as manager on my birthday in 2013 and Paolo Di Canio came in and pulled off a miracle rally to stave off relegation. Di Canio lasted barely a month into the following season, but Gus Poyet came along to save that season. The following year, Poyet got sacked and Dick Advocaat became a hero on Wearside. Then, after Advocaat quit, it was Sam Allardyce who not only managed to keep Sunderland up but send Newcastle down.
Now, with David Moyes at the helm, it’s the same story, trying to battle back from the brink. While that feeling might not be novel, there is something that I can’t shake about this time dancing with relegation: I don’t care.
I still want Sunderland to survive. I still will watch their games. If they do get relegated, I will remain a fan, as I have before, and be glad that some Championship games now air on American television. I just won’t have the same depths of despair, if that’s how it winds up, that I would have had with a relegation in 2013, 2014, 2015, or 2016.
I’m not going to go as far as some Sunderland fans and analysts, who get to pop up as reliably now as the groundhog in February, to say that relegation would be a good thing, that the club needs to refresh itself and come back to the Premiership on better footing next time. That position, to me, is naïve. I remember Leeds United as a powerful, established club when I linked up with Sunderland. They made the Champions League that first season. Relegated at the end of 2004, Leeds hasn’t been back since, and even spent three seasons in League One. There’s no guarantee Sunderland would wind up any different, and I’m not willingly advocating that risk.
Quite the opposite, I feel that staying up once more and going through a whole summer with Moyes guiding transfer policy, finally having a capable manager shaping his own roster, is the best way to stabilize Sunderland. It’s just that, after having survived four straight close scrapes with relegation, I don’t have it in me to get worked up if Sunderland can’t make it five.
Why should I, really? If there’s been one constant at Sunderland through all the managerial changes, it’s been a combination of the ability to overcome long odds with the ability to thoroughly capitulate at the slightest sign of trouble. It happened with alarming predictability on Saturday, with Marko Arnautovic’s goal in the 15th minute followed by a lot of head-hanging, then Arnautovic scoring again seven minutes later. When Peter Crouch made it 3-0 in the 34th minute, fans at the Stadium of Light started heading for the exits. That was my purest moment as a Sunderland fan all season, right at home with thousands more who still hope for the best, but just can’t take this anymore.