Football is often said to reflect society usually with reference to hooliganism, dissent and wild Christmas parties but it is not just in behavioural traits that it is indicative of national trends. The game's economic situation also mirrors the national picture. Sunderland's first top-flight visit to Reading on Saturday was a case in point.
Sunderland were once known as the Bank of England club and have won six league titles. Reading are a traditional lower-league club and only made their top-flight bow last season. On that basis, one would assume Sunderland have the brighter Premier League future. That may come to pass. They have a 49,000-seat stadium and ambitious and wealthy Irish backers. But investment has to be external too.
Wearside is a footballing heartland but there is not enough wealth there to fill the Stadium of Light with 50 tickets. The area has suffered with the decline in traditional industries, such as shipbuilding and mining, and its footballing successes are mostly in sepia. Sunderland last won a major trophy in 1973.
Reading, on the other hand, are situated in a booming region. This month the Centre for Cities, an urban policy research unit, surveyed 59 mainland British cities. Reading came third in the earnings table, had the fourth-highest employment rate and the third-highest ratio of residents with qualifications. The club believe the area has the potential to support a Premier League team long-term and are planning to expand their stadium to 38,000. "We are now aiming to establish ourselves as a serious power within English football," said the chairman and owner, John Madejski, on Saturday.
In those Centre for Cities indices Sunderland finished 53rd, 52nd and 53rd. It also had the largest percentage fall in population. There are, however, some signs the decline is being reversed. Sunderland has the highest earnings growth. A cynic might suggest this is because Roy Keane, in order to attract players, has paid wages and fees well over the odds. He is about to do so again. In the wake of this defeat he said: "We do need a few more players, without a doubt. Some quality players to help out the players we've got."
Kenwyne Jones apart, Sunderland looked desperately short of quality Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole have the class, but not the legs and it was no surprise when Ivar Ingimarsson tapped Reading in front. But Jones is a menace and after Ibrahima Sonko brought him down "I took the gamble; I get the ball, or it's a penalty," he said Michael Chopra levelled with his first goal since August. Sunderland should then have won but Marcus Hahnemann denied Jones and Chopra and then Stephen Hunt stabbed Shane Long's cross goalwards. The linesman, Steve Rubery, decided the ball had crossed the line before Craig Gordon clawed it away.
Keane complained that too many such decisions were going against his team, but he also recognised their inadequacies. He struggled to attract players in the summer and the current league position will not help him in January. But, he insisted: "I feel that with any player the attraction of coming to Sunderland will always be there.
"We're in the bottom three but hopefully players will see the potential, like myself. I didn't take the club when they were flying high in the Premiership, they were second from bottom of the Championship. You see the potential there and it hasn't changed."
There is potential there, but for all Sunderland's support and heritage Keane and his backers are trying to reverse the tide of history, not ride it.
Goals: Ingimarsson (69) 1-0; Chopra pen (81) 1-1; Hunt (90) 2-1.
Reading (4-4-2): Hahnemann; Murty, Sonko, Ingimarsson, Shorey; Hunt, Gunnarsson, Harper, Convey (Long, 82); Kitson, Doyle. Substitutes not used: Federici (gk) Ciss, Lita, Long, Bikey.
Sunderland: Gordon; Whitehead, McShane, Higginbottom, Collins; Chopra (Stokes, 87), Leadbitter, Yorke Murphy (Etuhu, 63); Cole (Wallace, 63), Jones. Substitutes not used: Harte, Ward (gk).
Referee: S Tanner (Somerset).
Booked: Sunderland Leadbitter, Murphy, Jones, Yorke.
Man of the match: Hunt.