New season. New seats. New hope. And, for 31,000 Sunderland fans, a long-awaited glimpse of brighter times. Back-to-back relegations sent the Black Cats into the third tier of English football for only the second time in the club’s history, but somehow there’s a feel-good factor on Wearside that belies the legacy of years of battling at the wrong end of the table.
Those new seats, oddly, are part of it. In isolation, the fact that the bright red plastic fittings installed in the Stadium of Light 20 years ago had faded to a washed-out pink is pretty meaningless. Seats don’t score goals, nor are they to blame for last season’s on-going inability to defend a set piece. But it all contributed to the feeling that the club’s home was tired, past its sell-by date and sliding into neglect. The team duly delivered performances to match, the departing chairman unwilling to rearrange the deckchairs on this particular Titanic.
So when Stewart Donald, incoming owner and – for the moment – toast of Wearside, decided to start replacing the old seats it offered a statement of intent. Suddenly, the ground had a ‘cared for’ feel again. By extension, so did the rest of the club. Little details, like reopening the pre-game fanzone, added to the sense that things were changing. A bumper home crowd in the August sunshine was the immediate return on Donald’s investment. Maybe, just maybe, this would be the start of a journey like the one commemorated by the Bob Stokoe statue outside the ground.
Not everything changes, though. The supporters club still huddles into its nook on the concourse. For those who insist that only non-league can generate a sense of community, 10 minutes catching up on the gossip in there might prompt a change of heart. Maybe if Sunderland were chasing the Champions League every season, it would be different. But they’re not, and instead there’s an identifiable sense of community among the fans.
But not all traditions are welcome – especially those on the pitch. Less than 10 minutes gone, a clumsy challenge and a stonewall penalty. Charlton took the lead through Lyle Taylor, a player who turned down a move to Sunderland in the summer. For the rest of the first half, the team was hobbled. Sluggish in midfield, prone to making poor decisions all over the park. In defence, a lack of pace meant the most innocuous of attacks carried the potential for disaster. Up front, Josh Maja was isolated and ineffective. Set pieces, culled from manager Jack Ross’s playbook, were horribly fluffed. The away fans sang about being top of the league; the home crowd contemplated the familiar view from the basement. New faces, old news.
Half-time brought changes. On came a second striker, Jerome Sinclair, on loan from Watford. Suddenly, Sunderland had an attacking presence. The crowd, once subdued, started to believe again. Maja beat Dillon Phillips at his near post, a nightmare for the goalie but a dream for the young striker. 1-1, game on, the belief was back.
In truth, a draw would have been fair. But Charlton paid the price for not really trying to press home their first half advantage. Time-wasting caught up with the visitor. Six minutes of stoppage time, and after four of them, Lyndon Gooch headed the winner off a fine move. For a moment, the crowd was ecstatic, the noise cacophonous. It was hardly the sloughing of years of despair but, at least, it was a moment that allowed the Sunderland faithful to hope that the dream was still alive.
Stadium of Light, Sunderland, England
Aug. 4, 2018. League One
Sunderland 2 (Maja, Gooch) Charlton Athletic 1 (Taylor pen)