Phil Smith: Yearly grind will test any Sunderland fan’s faith, but the rise then fall is becoming exhausting

David Moyes face a race against time to move Sunderland clear of the relegation zone.
David Moyes face a race against time to move Sunderland clear of the relegation zone.
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A taxi journey in Sunderland like any other.

An exchange of pleasantries, ‘Busy today?’, before inevitably, on to the serious stuff. ‘You there on Saturday?’ ‘Yep, hopeless’.

At which point the driver, a season ticket holder since the early 70s, reveals he has never been so disillusioned with life following the Black Cats.

It’s a fascinating statement, one that has been echoed by many in recent months. Aren’t these supposed to be the good times?

A record stint in the top flight of the game, Premier League football season after season.

Yet the pervading sense is that slowly but surely, this annual scrap with the drop is beginning to grind.

This was days after an insipid display at Hawthorns, leaving Sunderland without a win in seven. Not for the first time, all hope was lost.

What followed was two weeks of ups, downs, brief exhilaration punctuated by a depressing taste of reality. Sunderland’s Premier League time in microcosm, then.

After defeat to Pulis, there was an ill-fated pursuit of Leonardo Ulloa. Hours before kick-off, the white flag was raised, the Black Cats would go with what they had.

An attendance of just over 40,000, though a keen eye noted plenty of red seats where season ticket holders normally reside. Still, a remarkable effort, all things considered.

The atmosphere was flat to begin with, but Sunderland were excellent. In attack they faded, but they were dogged, committed, and concentrated, an unlikely point that showed flickers of life.

Then to Selhurst Park, a heady day in the winter sun.

The ghosts of Big Sam seemingly laid to rest, a torrid afternoon for Patrick van Aanholt drawing a line under the most hotly debated transfer story of January.

The surge in positivity was as invigorating as ever, a week of buoyancy and hope. Roy Keane famously said the Sunderland result makes or breaks the week, and for many this was the best seven days in some time.

It didn’t last.

Southampton was back to square one, an encouraging start giving way to a familiar sight of timidity on the ball, slackness in defence.

The despair that followed was all the more acute for that brief taste of something better, that week-long glimpse into what could be. This rise and fall is exhausting, perhaps why so many feel these are close to the worst of times.

Is the small end of season surge worth the nine months of purgatory that follow? For many, probably not.

It has been far worse, of course it has.

There remains hope of safety, something there never was when Mick McCarthy’s earnest but ill-equipped squad dropped to the second tier. It is better, surely, than those ghastly months under the charge of Howard Wilkinson. Alongside Steve Cotterill, fans were promised a winning blend of experience and fresh ideas, instead they got a painful fade into nothingness.

Plenty, too, for the faithful to cling on to in this current crop.

Perhaps the best striker ever to pull on the Red and White jersey, and in goal one of the most exciting talents ever to break through from Wearside.

This typical fortnight in Sunderland’s Premier League struggle ended with an uplifting afternoon, with legions of young fans delighted just to see their heroes train at the Stadium.

Another great escape will raise smiles and spirits once again, but surely the time is approaching for a new approach. To recruitment, to the on-field style. Can a team be built around and in the image of the crop of hard-running, talented youngsters that emerged this season?

If Sunderland go down, can that be used as a springboard to rip it up and start again? If they stay up, can they build on rare stability to sign well, sign early and be ready to compete come August?

All hypothetical questions, but ones that need to be properly answered in the coming months.

The club simply can’t sustain the implosions like the Southampton second half performance. They have become wearingly familiar, rather than an occasional aberration.

At the end of the journey, a shaking of hands, and a muttering of those reverential three words, ‘Keep the Faith’.

Thousands upon thousands will, no matter what.

It can’t be taken for granted too much longer, though. This annual grind is starting to wear thin.