Smells like team spirit as Sunderland slowly stir back into life

After 10 years in the Premier League, Sunderland find themselves back in the Championship - but the club are ready to prove a point as they bid to make a swift return to England's top tier

Martin Hardy
Saturday 26 August 2017 10:18
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It's early days but Sunderland have started to play with pride again
It's early days but Sunderland have started to play with pride again

The barrier in the car park at Oakwell was stuck so Niall Quinn got out of his car. Sometimes fate enjoys a laugh so Roy Keane was in the car directly behind him. It was the Sunderland chairman and the Sunderland manager and it was 2007.

Three players had been late for the Sunderland bus on the morning of the game so Keane, a stickler for time keeping so much that he drove behind a taxi to his first day at the training ground as a Manchester United player so as not to be late, told the driver to leave without them.

Marton Fulop, Toby Hysen and Anthony Stokes have probably had better days in their lives. They even followed the coach to Sunderland’s hotel, but were still told to go home.

The window of Keane’s car went down as the six foot four inch Quinn peered down to talk. “Well done,” said Quinn, following the 2-0 win.

Roy Keane as Sunderland manager with then chairman Niall Quinn in 2006

“We needed a bit of discipline,” replied Keane.

The barrier went up and Keane drove off.

Sunderland’s support had filled the North Stand at Barnsley and had been allowed just under half of the West Stand, around 8,000 supporters. Sunderland were in the middle of a 17-game unbeaten run in the league (the first divisional loss of the year would not come until the end of April).

Quinn, many years later in a hotel in Manchester, would call it Keane’s “best day at the club”.

Saturday is Sunderland’s first return to Barnsley since, and there is little of the magic carpet ride feel that the most unlikely pairings of superheroes in Quinn and Keane produced.

Simon Grayson is not Roy Keane and the support will be around half of what it was that day. Sunderland are back in the Championship for the first time in a decade and there is a worrying debt, the seemingly standard legacy for any club who falls out of the casino that is the Premier league.

And yet, something stirs - even if it is something so simple as about putting a bit of pride back into a football club. Surviving year after year in the Premier League is a draining experience. Sunderland are winning games of football again (three on their travels by August is as many as the entirety of last season’s football brought). Beating Carlisle with a bit of spirit on Tuesday brought genuine delight for the 1900 there.

Something is beginning to stir again at Sunderland 

The players are not stepping down to Sunderland. There is something to prove, and this potentially harks back to the time when Peter Reid was in charge and the club produced its two best top-flight finishes in more than half a century. That is a way off, but altering the hunger of those joining has been a start.

Grayson has stepped up from Preston. His career moves up. David Moyes, who he replaced, remains unsure still why he moved to the Stadium of Light. James Vaughan, Aidan McGeady and Lewis Grabban have something to prove.

Grayson has admitted he has no problem looking in the bargain basement. Sunderland needed a sharp change of trajectory in the disastrous recruitment policy that was adding to their debt (a quarter of a billion pounds was spent on players between 2008 and 2015).

Grayson began repairing a damaged squad in Austria after his arrival. He joined in with training. Glynn Snodin got the players laughing. Then they went to Scotland. A football club has to heal pretty quickly after relegation.

Grayson has helped heal Sunderland's relegation wounds 

“I kept looking at the next manager’s odds throughput the summer,” said Lee Cattermole. “Everyone gets excited about the big names, with respect to the new manager, I don’t think that’s what we needed. We needed experience in the football league and he’s got that. We need to buy into what he says because he knows the league better than most.”

Grayson added: “I told them it will be demanding, a lot of second balls and they’ll have to fight to earn the right to play. They might have been surprised at first but after a couple of games they realised what the Championship is about and they've done it.

“Hopefully come Saturday tea-time all those four thousand supporters at Barnsley are cheering on a victory for us.

“You can sense there is a bit of a unity coming back among the football club and the supporters’ affiliation with the players and hopefully we are going in the right direction.”

Sunderland drew 1-1 with Derby earlier this month

Tyias Browning had played seven Premier League games for Everton before his loan move to the Stadium of Light.

“It’s a good start,” he said. “It could have been better but it’s not the worst. Hopefully Saturday’s game can help with that.

“Everyone has gelled together. Everyone has made everyone feel welcome. It would be nice to win at Barnsley to give us some momentum.

“Aidan has made a good impact. He's exciting, he's exciting for me to watch. He gives the fans something to look forward to.”

For Sunderland’s supporters, that is a start.

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