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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Solicitor - Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: EXETER - A great new opportunity with real pot...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Private Client Solicitor - Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: EXETER - An outstanding senior opportunity for...

Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower