Happy 20th anniversary, everyone! Well, it would have been a happy one if it wasn’t for the fixture being hijacked by far-right antagoniser Tommy Robinson and visiting Celtic fans, the 5-0 defeat and then the ensuing fall-out from the Darron Gibson video that materialised from that evening’s festivities.
If you’d like to picture me writing this, I’m wearing a small party hat at a jaunty angle and blowing a party horn sarcastically. Forgive me, it’s been one of those weeks.
Against the backdrop of all that, it’s a real shame that such a landmark occasion was swamped in such negativity. Of course the club has little control over what happens outside of the stadium but when what happens on the pitch goes so badly too, there’s no amount of wallpaper that can cover the cracks that have opened.
The fixture was never going to go off without incident, even without the presence of the pint-sized preacher of piffle. Celtic are a big draw with the following they bring, but the arrival of Old Firm sides always brings unnecessary aggravation.
You take the game, you accept what comes with it, but with the situation that surrounds the club in the aftermath, it’s a weekend the club clearly could have done without.
The Darron Gibson incident is professional self-harming. He might feel he was doing right by being honest and may well have been saying exactly what had been on the lips of many fans but there’s a line of trust that has been crossed with his team-mates that could prove irreparable should they need to continue a professional relationship.
Regardless of any truth in his remarks, I’d be surprised if there wasn’t confrontation in the dressing room on Monday morning. And if there wasn’t, it would be an even more damning indictment of the commitment of those players he mentioned.
After the Celtic game, Simon Grayson will have that same feeling that engulfed David Moyes after the first home game against Middlesbrough last season, looking up towards the peak of the mountain that stood before him, only to see it lay well beyond the clouds. It will look unsurmountable right now but the most important step is the first one and we’re yet to take it.
As for us, the Pollyanna attitude of “It’ll be alright on the night” has become harder to hold than ever this season and whilst I never want to seem too reactive and over the top, it’s difficult to see the season’s start going well.
On Grayson’s appointment, I said it was a case of things getting worse before they got better and it looks as if that’s the way it’s going to be.
What is key now is how the manager and his players react in the face of adversity. Whatever has gone on this week, all that matters is the reaction of the side tomorrow and that’s where the hope lies.
Getting knocked down is acceptable but not climbing to your feet with your gloves up isn’t.
There’s a difference between being realistic and merely accepting defeat and evidence of the latter was too apparent early on last season. That cannot be tolerated this season and the calamity has to come to an end. The off-the-field controversies, the ruinous transfer dealings of star players leaving for free and paying eight-figure sums for players we don’t want, the lack of commitment and fight ... it has to stop now.
What’s worrying for me is in the irony of this being the 20th anniversary of the move to the Stadium of Light and club having a very Roker Park/pre-Peter Reid feel to it.
Sunderland had moved on to the next level and became a 21st century football club in almost every way but now it risks being dragged back in time, which is hardly a great testimony to the people who worked so hard to move Sunderland forward and out of the dark ages.
Violence outside football grounds, players embroiled in drunken controversies, six-figure transfer fees; all very last century, aren’t they?
If there was a rehab clinic for football clubs, we’d be in desperate need of a stint in there; cold turkey. To be rid of the toxicity that seems to ravage the club from one season to the next, not just patched up and allowed to relapse back to the destructive behaviour.
At this moment in time, there seems no sign of the squad looking as settled as you’d like. The futures of players whistling The Clash’s “Should I stay or should I go?” and those to still arrive permanently have meant there has been little or no cohesion to the play in pre-season and little chance of anything resembling a distinctive pattern of play.
One much-needed bright spot has been the performances of Robbin Ruiter. I watched on at Scunthorpe last week paying special attention to him and was impressed by what I saw. It’s always difficult to adapt to new surroundings, especially when you’re effectively on trial, so it was great to see how calm and assured he has looked in the games he’s played.
It’s easy to try too hard to impress and take risks when you only have a limited time to win a deal.
You try to get involved in situations where you aren’t needed or try things that have too much risk attached to them.
The Dutchman looks sound technically and dealt with everything that was thrown at him in a calm manner which will be needed in the coming weeks.
Jason Steele’s debut is now out of the way and he’ll be keen to leave it where exactly where it is. He isn’t alone in having a difficult debut, we’ve all had them, and the good news is it’s out of the way and he has to concentrate on working hard to reverse the first impressions made on Saturday.
So, what now then?
Well, because of the distractions and the uncertainty, it’s been difficult to gauge what will happen tomorrow night. We can only hope it’s one of those years where pre-season performances are no indication of how this season is going to pan out.