The joys of a 12:30 kickoff on Wearside await the travelling Yellow Army tomorrow, the first time we’ve played Sunderland since April 2018. In true Norwich City fashion, we took just a point off them that season over the two games despite them ending up getting relegated.
So, without further ado…
Gary G: It’s been a while ol’ friend. We’re glad you’re back and well done on returning to the land of the living before that chirpy lot from down the A140. Good always prevails. Feels good to be back? Or are you saving the celebrations for when/if you make it back to the Premier League?
Stephen G: I think initially it’s just nice to be back at a level we are used to being at. Our decline happened so quickly there was almost no time to process it.
Between the years 1996 and 2017 Sunderland had never finished lower than 23rd in the football pyramid and had never spent more than two consecutive seasons in the second tier.
I think I’m right in saying no EFL side has spent more seasons in the top flight (as well as the Premier League specifically) than Sunderland and nobody in the EFL gets bigger crowds than us, so naturally there will come a point when the fans will start to get itchy feet at this level.
For now though, it’s just nice to be out of the League One swamp. I think expectations are reasonable and a drama-free season in the middle of the table is what people are hoping for.
GG: Sounds like a sensible stance to me, although we all know how the Championship works and how almost anything is possible.
We’ll get into the actual footie in a bit, but so much has happened since we last spoke, we can’t not touch on the off-field stuff. After watching the Netflix documentary, I feel I know as much about your club as I do my own. So… from Ellis Short to Kyril Louis-Dreyfus via Stewart Donald. Discuss.
SG: Ellis Short came and spent a lot of money, had a go at it initially but was never surrounded by football people, and as a result, made some very expensive mistakes. By the end, he was an absent owner and the club was rotting and in serious debt.
Donald came in with his mate Charlie Methven and threw everything at a big PR push. They made themselves accessible and said all the right things to a fanbase that had been scarred, damaged and traumatised by years of neglect on and off the field (you saw Sunderland Til I Die).
I could write a book on where things went wrong for them, so will try to summarise.
After nearly a full season of back-slapping the fanbase and making rallying calls to break attendance records in random league games against the likes of Wycombe Wanderers, Sunderland reached the play-off semi-finals and suddenly the communications seemed to stop.
There were no more rallying calls to pack the ground out, there were no inspirational social media campaigns, nothing. We thought it was odd so got together with other fan groups to try and lift a dejected fanbase after what looked like an inevitable automatic promotion had somehow slipped away.
Then when we lost the final to Charlton, one of the protagonists, Methven, came out (after whipping the fans up into a frenzy for the full season remember) and criticised the supporters, said they were cr@p during the game, said they needed to be realistic and accept their place, that Charlton were a bigger club.
The key change was incredible and raised suspicion. Then more and more evidence surfaced of him being derogatory about the fans and the geographical area, and so the relationship spiralled.
What’s more, it was revealed during that entire charm offensive that they were trying to flip the club at the earliest opportunity. They were publicly talking of their long term plans while seemingly having different ideas privately.
It was revealed they had used the club’s own parachute payments to purchase it in the first place, then written off their obligation to pay the club its money back, and were clearly out of their financial depth.
I could go on and on about that side of things – I have been very kind on them here, but essentially their little plan backfired and the club’s progress suffered as a result.
GG: Blimey, that’s even grimmer and more dodgy than it first appeared. Even in the very early days, Methven came across as a slimy bugger. That it turns out he’s a shyster too is no huge surprise.
Is it just a coincidence that you made it out of League One when you finally landed yourselves what appears, on the surface at least, to be a semi-competent (if not very young) owner?
SG: KLD came as the majority shareholder, a young guy whose billionaire family used to own Marseille. Except it turned out he wasn’t actually the majority shareholder after all and we had been misled about that too. Methven and Donald were still around too much for most people’s liking.
Some of that has been resolved in that he has now bought Methven out and is finally, actually, the majority shareholder, and my good God this is a long story. The jury is still out regarding how much he’s willing to invest, but at least he has added an off-the-field structure that ensures they aren’t just making things up as they go along.
While I’m not sure that he directly helped us get promoted (we finished in a similar position to every other season down there), it has clearly left us in a much better structural position now we are back at a higher level. The reason we were eventually promoted, unequivocally so, is because of Alex Neil.
GG: At least the waters appear less choppy now, mate, which can only be a good thing.
Are the fans happy again after those turbulent few seasons? Ultimately, that’s the real barometer.
SG: It’s nice not to be everyone’s big day out. We celebrated winning a game in that league and we were “small time”. We complained about losing a game and we were “arrogant”.
We had to put up with opposition fans and players acting like it was their biggest game in years, with Newcastle tops in the opposition crowd and teams time-wasting from the fifth minute of the game.
It was Hell and I feel for Derby and Sheffield Wednesday fans. The current mood amongst the fanbase is good; crowds are up and people are smiling and chanting.
GG: Smiles on faces is what it’s all about. While you can’t guarantee that supporting your team is fun all of the time (unless you cherry pick Man City), when it is completely joyless it really is grim, especially so when there’s an expectation from outside that you should win every game you play.
So, I can sense your relief.
How good is this squad? I know you said that mid-table nothingness would be fine this season, but deep down do you believe it’s good enough to have a sly crack at top six?
SG: Before the season started I’d have said no chance! We are only a handful of games in, granted, but I haven’t seen anything as of yet that frightens the living daylights out of me. Even in a 2-1 defeat with ten men against the current league leaders, we could have taken a point.
I still think we are a bit short to seriously threaten the playoffs, there’s not much at all below the first choice 12 or 13 players. If we don’t bring more in, and we get some injuries to key players, we’ll be looking over our shoulders rather than upwards.
GG: I haven’t seen any of your games so far, so it’s hard to comment, but I sense that momentum alone will drive you into the top half. And when you’re in that position when the run-in starts, nothing is impossible.
And it sounds like you guys are pretty happy with Alex Neil. He loves a 2-0 win in a Wembley Playoff Final!
SG: We absolutely love him. Not since Sam Allardyce have we had someone who appears to be so tactically switched on. His game management and ability to get the best out of what he has is remarkable at times.
Again, it’s early days but you look at his career and wonder how he hasn’t been picked up by a side that can back him at the top end of the league. He has the right sort of personality for this fanbase too, straight talking and tough.
GG: Yep, he’s definitely no-nonsense. He doesn’t need to speak to know what he’s thinking!
He did well for us for a while but, looking back, was still a rookie manager serving his apprenticeship. Sounds like he’s now the finished article.
So, who do we need to be afraid of on Saturday?
The front three. Ross Stewart, while obviously talking in relative terms here, has everything a striker needs. He presses defenders, runs the channels, holds the ball up and brings players in, he’s quick, strong, can head it and can finish. He got 26 goals last season and I would expect him to start getting Premier League interest if he continues as he is.
His strike partner Eris Simms has been brought in on loan from Everton and while most thought they’d be competing for the one spot, Alex Neil has found a system to get them both in. They’ve got three goals each already and have really clicked.
Alex Pritchard, who you know all too well, has been sensational since Neil came in. He links the midfield and attack so well and his speed of thought is really crucial to the way we’ve been getting in behind teams. Probably our most important player.
GG: Pritchard was popular here, and a really good player on his day, but decided the Championship wasn’t for him and so went to Huddersfield (when they were good). I’m not sure he really took to Norfolk in the way that Norfolk took to him.
Changing the subject briefly … we’ve taken pelters from all four corners over the last 12 months (basically because we were so cr@p and were perceived to have not “given it a go” in the Premier League). We even borrowed Millwall’s song. What is the general perception of Norwich City on Wearside? (Be gentle).
SG: Norwich have always been a very inoffensive club to me, I’m not sure if that’s a compliment or an insult, apologies if you take it as the latter, it isn’t meant to be. (No offence taken, mate – compared to some of the names we were being called by TalkSPORT’s finest, we’ll take ‘inoffensive’ all day long – GG).
I know previously we’ve joked about the Friendly Cup (it was a real physical thing, look it up, kids) and while that was slightly before my time, I remember the two sets of fans getting on well in the FA Cup semi-final in 1992. The only bit of needle between us was when we stayed up at your place and Newcastle’s expense that time and Sam Allardyce appeared to fight your whole bench.
I certainly feel your pain from the last couple of Premier League campaigns, we have had plenty of those soul-destroying experiences! Historically, I associate the Canaries with attacking football so maybe that’s where some of the criticism has come from if you were deemed to be too unadventurous.
Before Sunderland’s last Premier League stint, a spell that lasted ten consecutive seasons, we were known nationwide as *the* yo-yo team between the top two divisions. I think it’s a pretty universal opinion that Norwich now have that reputation.
Maybe if you go up again and Fulham come back down we’ll be saying that about them. I’m expecting you to be comfortably top six and probably in the mix for the automatics. Great kit by the way.
GG: Cheers, we’ll take that. It was a bruising experience from start to finish last season but we’d still like to know how TalkSPORT et al expected us to “give it a go” when we simply didn’t have the money to give it a go with. But anyway…
So, finally, standard, a prediction for tomorrow?
SG: This is a real yardstick for us. If we win I think the fans will suddenly start to feel excited and wonder if there’s any reason why we can’t be in the playoff mix. If we lose comfortably we’ll probably accept that, while we should be okay, we are still a way bit off the promotion hopefuls.
So with that in mind, it won’t surprise you I’m going for a draw, and who knows what that will tell us! I feel like I’m being a bit optimistic by saying it will be 1-1.
GG: Given how rubbish our away results have been so far this season, we’d take a 1-1 to be honest. While the performance at Hull was okay, we still lost the game, and in Cardiff on opening day we absolutely stunk the place out. So, a point from what’s bound to be a really tricky game would be okay.
Thanks to Goldy for his time. In whose hands will the Friendly Cup be at 2:30pm tomorrow?