Football: Wearside's premier passion

Simon Turnbull finds the Sunderland fanatics showing just how big a club they are
THIS time last year, as Sunderland slid down the Premiership table, the prospect of playing second-class football in the club's first-class future home was too much for Bob Murray to bear. The chairman banned mention of the "R" word from all boardroom planning meetings. The Sunderland directors had to speak euphemistically, of "Scenario B". It was the nightmare scenario Murray did not want to contemplate.

In reality, though, relegation has been a far from haunting experience for the Sunderland chairman and his club. In January last year Roker Park was 1,000 short of its 22,000 capacity for a Premiership match against Arsenal. On Friday night, as icy rain lashed down, 40,014 hardy souls packed the Sunderland Stadium of Light for a First Division fixture with Queen's Park Rangers. Scenario Bust has become Scenario Boom as the passion for football, Premier-less football, has doubled on Wearside.

Friday's attendance was the third above the 40,000 mark in Sunderland's nine-month-old ground. Newcastle have not attracted home gates of such magnitude for 21 years - a fact which might be of interest to Bobby Ferguson. Five years ago, when the restless natives were pointing to the greater ambition 12 miles away on Tyneside at St James' Park and calling for heads to roll, Ferguson, Terry Butcher's managerial assistant, famously remarked: "Sunderland aren't a big club like Newcastle United." It was deemed by the long-suffering Sunderland faithful as not just a treasonable offence but also an indictment of the small-time mentality within Roker Park. Yet Sunderland have long been a club big on potential, massive on support, but low on achievement and on status, too.

That much was brought home on Friday by the return to Wearside of Ted Purdon, in a party from the Canadian branch of the Sunderland Supporters' Association. Purdon was a member of the last Sunderland team to finish a season in the top half of England's top division. Indeed, he scored two goals in the 3-2 win at Bramall Lane which secured ninth place in the old First Division table. Not that many of the Stadium of Light's Friday-night crowd would have been able to recall that heady day for Teddy and for Sunderland. It was 42 years ago: 21 April 1956.

Peter Reid was not even born then but in his 41 years he has come to accept Sunderland's traditional image as a sleeping giant - albeit surely the longest-sleeping giant on record. "You are always going to have six or eight clubs in the elite and we have the potential to join them," he has asserted. And nobody could have argued with the Sunderland manager on Friday night. The only empty seats in the house were in the visitors' enclosure. The rest of the 40,500 tickets had been bought 10 days before the match.

"It is incredible, when you think about it," Billy Simmons said. "There can't have been many League matches shown live on television and 40,000 tickets still sold." Simmons was one of the 40,000 purchasers. For all but the first five of his 80 years he has followed Sunderland home and away. "The level of support this season has surprised me," he said, "but I'm not surprised the team have done so well. We might be second in the table but there are a lot of bad teams below us, believe me. It's not cut and dried by any means that we'll get out of this League and back into the Premiership, but if we do we'll get cut adrift if we keep the same team."

Such scepticism amid the Wearside footy fever is not difficult to understand. Sunderland, and their supporters, have been this way before. On the last two occasions they won promotion, in 1990 and in 1996, they failed to survive a season in the top flight. They chose not to speculate to accumulate a first class side. Last season, pounds 7m in transfer money was left unspent as Sunderland bowed meekly out of the Premiership for the want of a midfield playmaker like Lee Clark, whom they have since acquired from Newcastle for pounds 2.5m, and a striker capable of striking, like Kevin Phillips, who has brought an abundance of goals to Sunderland since his pounds 325,000 transfer from Watford in the summer.

Sunderland's top scorer last season had four goals. Phillips lines up at the Hawthorns tomorrow with 28 to his credit. Only injury, it seems, will prevent him becoming the first Sunderland player to score 30 goals in a season since times BC at Roker Park: Brian Clough in 1961-62, that is. Phillips is not the only evidence of Reid's canny eye for a bargain. Jody Craddock, bought for pounds 300,000 from Cambridge United, has been a rock of dependability at the heart of the Sunderland defence. He was certainly missed on Friday night as Sunderland fell apart in the final 15 minutes, gifting two goals to Mike Sheron and dropping two points in a 2-2 draw.

Reid's team remain in an automatic promotion place, on course to stir Premiership passions on Wearside again next season. But it will take investment in premier playing stock to convince the fevered footy folk of Sunderland that Scenario D does not lie ahead: scenario deja-vu, that is.