Right now in the Championship there’s a tale of two cities going on – two cities inextricably linked by one of the most notable FA Cup Finals of all time.
It’s 44 years since my team Sunderland triumphed against all the odds over Leeds United at Wembley. Back then, the Yorkshire team were the cock of the footballing walk, marmalising all who stood before them, scooping up trophies with a combination of brutality and efficiency.
But they were undone on the day by plucky Sunderland – a side languishing in the Second Division and comprising mainly of grafters but with that crucial dash of creativity.
As I write this, Leeds are on the up again after more than a decade in the doldrums. They’re sitting atop the Championship, giddy from the boost that a new owner, a forward-thinking manager and some astute signings have given them.
Scroll down the table and Sunderland are on the brink of the relegation zone, which is pretty much our default position – we just happen to be lurking there in a different league this year.
There are some terrible, terrible things happening in the world right now.
War, hurricanes, the threat of nuclear armageddon – but it could be argued that all of that pales into insignificance when compared to the downward spiral of Sunderland Association Football Club*.
If you did actually think that things had bottomed out for the Mackems after their feeble relegation from the Premier League, you obviously aren’t familiar with the DNA of the club. In spite of a decade in the top flight (albeit mainly spent dodging the drop at the last minute), the club has been mismanaged almost since the moment billionaire Texan owner Ellis Short pitched up, promising us a bright future but going on to shit it all up instead.
There are some scary parallels to be drawn between the recent histories of Leeds and Sunderland. In the early part of this decade, Leeds tried to replicate that 1970s success, and almost made it, reaching a Champions League semi-final as David O’Leary assembled an expensive but young and exciting squad.
There’s been no recruitment parallel though. Sunderland have also invested heavily in recent years, but big money signings such as Steven Fletcher, Jack Rodwell and Didier Ndong have all flopped. Chuck in a string of underachieving managers who needed to be paid off once their destructive tenures ended and my club now finds itself financially crippled.
The debt has grown and grown and new manager (and ex-Leeds boss) Simon Grayson has been able to spend less than £2m in the summer. Four consecutive defeats over the past month are proving that such a paltry amount isn’t enough to allow a team to compete in the fierce environs of the Championship, let alone push for promotion.
If Grayson’s brief was to get Sunderland out of the second tier at the first attempt, he might well succeed, although not at the end of the table that was hoped for.
For years now, managers have arrived at the Stadium of Light, failed, and left again, and most of them have spoken cryptically of something that is afoot at the club – some kind of dark force that holds the entire operation back.
Maybe they’ve all looked to deflect blame from their own shortcomings but in the latest episode of the excellent Sunderland podcast ‘Wise Men Say’, former player Kieron Brady poured scorn on the ‘curse’ or whatever it might be.
Brady says that even going back to his period with the club in the late 1980’s, Sunderland was seen as somewhere fun, an easy gig for certain players who didn’t want to put a proper shift in any more.
If he’s right, Grayson needs to ensure that his primary task is to whittle out anyone on the playing staff who is there for a comfortable ride and banish them. The entire culture of the club needs to be rebooted if we’re not to follow in the footsteps of Leeds and tumble down into the third tier for an extended spell. More than one fan I know is already looking nervously at the recent fortunes of Coventry City and wondering if that’s where we’re headed.
Tomorrow’s trip to Hull City already feels like a make or break fixture for this entire season – and we’re only seven games into the season. But if Sunderland don’t turn things around sharpish, dropping out of the Premier League will only go on to be seen as one chapter in a long, horrifying story.
(*I mean, depending on your perspective that is…)