There was always going to be days like these.
Just as everyone was surprised to be three goals up away at Norwich, nobody will have expected to go three goals down away to Barnsley, but the manner in which Saturday’s game was handed over will be a worry.
The performance was bereft of the base requirement of a Simon Grayson side being difficult to beat, and despite a turnaround from past games in having the advantage in possession, it just went to prove it’s not about how much of the ball you have, it’s what you do with it that counts.
The flimsiness of the side as a defensive unit made for uncomfortable watching and not the debut Robbin Ruiter will have dreamed of. He shouldn’t be judged on this game. Just as clean sheets aren’t solely down to keepers, neither is conceding three goals.
I wasn’t there on Saturday and had to settle for watching the game back on my laptop the next day. Not exactly the way I wanted to enjoy the game but fate had conspired against me.
This was the one fixture I was looking forward to the most after last season’s drop. Sunderland and Barnsley are two clubs I hold similar affection for, despite a dearth of first-team appearances for both, yet as far as English football goes, this was my own personal derby.
So it seemed appropriate that, of all days, this game should be played on my birthday, but my as soon as I looked at the fixture list, I realised I was going to be out of the country that weekend.
Misfortune then turned to fortune as a lost passport in the post meant that trip was knocked on the head and once again I thought I could actually make the game - but it just wasn’t meant to be. A phone call that would put me in London for radio work and the Spurs v Burnley game at Wembley that weekend scuppered any chance of me making it. And I was gutted.
Sunderland are like my family, a club I had no part in choosing as my own, and Barnsley, a club that felt like home the moment I walked through the doors of Oakwell. And that’s the real link between the two. Home. Aberdeen, Denmark and now Lincoln became my home and places I learned to love; but under different circumstances Sunderland and Barnsley felt like natural nesting places me.
As a town, Barnsley always seemed to be like the Sunderland I remembered as a kid. Familiar, where everything was taken at face value. When you move to some places, it’s as if there’s a process to be gone through before you’re accepted. That you have to prove yourself to people before they let you in. Barnsley and Sunderland are opposite to that. You’re a mate until you prove otherwise.
One of the reasons I fell for Barnsley was it returned the joy of football back to me that had been jaded over the years by injury, bad luck and a failure to reach unrealistic expectations I placed on myself.
I loved the day-to-day of football life, the simpleness of routine and the company of my team-mates, but through times of personal and professional turmoil, there were rare days when driving to training was a fight against throwing the car into a handbrake turn and going back to bed. Not at Barnsley. Oakwell became a place of solace and comfort.
I can’t remember enjoying training sessions and performing so consistently well at any club as I did there. Games at St James’s Park and Loftus Road were black spots, as was breaking my arm in the warm-up at St Mary’s before playing Southampton but compared to the luck I’d suffered at other clubs these were more mishaps than tragedies.
So this was one of those games where I couldn’t really lose. Not just because of my relationship with both clubs but also because of Barnsley’s manager, Paul Heckingbottom.
I understand the reaction to the defeat. Beaten by a side packed with kids plucked from Under 23 sides and players from lower leagues, by a side with a tiny budget compared to most others, by a side that has had to be rebuilt by their manager in the last two summers because of a mix of loan signings returning to their clubs and the best players being poached by wealthier clubs.
The performance by that side might not have been acceptable but that’s only half the story. The flip side to that is Barnsley’s manager.
It’s been a difficult summer for him. After basically performing miracles in taking the club from the brink of relegation to League Two, to mid-table security of the Championship, he’s spent a summer of frustration trying to form a side not only to give him the chance of doing the same, but to take the club on again.
And the frustration comes from knowing that he can. I’ve sung Heckie’s praises here before and it doesn’t come out of friendship. I’ve seen first-hand how he works and his methods produce the one thing every owner wants from a manager; he makes the team greater than the sum of its parts. The holy grail of football.
There are circumstances behind the club’s grasping hold of the packet of sweets and not allowing Heckie to help himself. The club is subject to a takeover bid from a consortium headed by Chien Lee and until that is completed, restrictions are in place. Sound familiar?
It’s not the only familiar feeling. That jealousy of Manchester City last week has come back again. Soon Barnsley will be in a healthier financial position than they have ever been, with the brightest English managerial prospect in charge of them.
Now, if Heckie wasn’t on a shortlist of candidates for the Sunderland job in the summer, then questions need to be asked as to why not. We should also ask why a Chinese-led consortium, who also own a controlling stake in Champions League participants OGC Nice of France’s Ligue 1 and have the capacity to buy clubs that are far bigger, look at Barnsley and think they are a better option as an acquisition than Sunderland?