The Black Cat is a symbol within many cultures held as a superstitious omen. It can mean good luck or bad luck, depending to which old wives tale to listen to, or what verbal diarrhoea Aunty Agnes was spouting last Christmas after two thirds of a bottle of Croft Original. I was surprised to learn therefore, that the term is also the nickname of Sunderland AFC, but as I will explain it’s probably the most appropriate colloquial name given to any football club in human history.
Sunderland AFC are one of those clubs that should be light years ahead of where they actually are. They hail from one of the most passionate and loyal footballing regions in our country, have very stable and fine resources, but continually flatter to deceive. This is the crux of the Black Cats problem – with a mountain of expectation on your shoulders, I seriously do believe the Mackams want more from their club than any Real Madrid or Barcelona fan requires from theirs. A fair amount of this over ambitious optimism relates to the club’s age old history, particularly the seasons pre-Second World War. Sunderland were back then, the North East side, Newcastle United and Middlesbrough were more also-rans than anything else. They obviously have very long memories on Wearside.
Throughout my life, Sunderland have been the ultimate ‘Yo-Yo’ side – too good for the Second Division/Championship, not quite got what it takes for the ‘Top Flight’. It wouldn’t be too far from the truth to say the club from Wearside has been up and down more so than Rod Stewart’s trousers. I have a soft spot for this North East club, mainly as a retort to my brother-in-law, who by family tradition and heritage supports their fierce local rivals, Newcastle United. Every time I’ve seen Sunderland play, it’s been entertaining, full-blown attacking end-to-end stuff – football that is a joy to watch. When my own beloved Sky Blues have faced them, it’s one of those games that keeps you on the edge of your seat for the full ninety minutes, regardless of the end result.
When Ulsterman Martin O’Neill took over at the Stadium of Light in late 2011, it initially appeared as though they had found their own long, lost messiah, as Sunderland were near on impossible to beat, and raced away up the Premier League table chasing a Europa League qualification spot. This proved to be a little beyond them, but gave the loyal supporters belief the following season they could go a few steps further with the right signings added to the squad. Expectations rising once again…
The 2012-13 season was radically different, as this Black Cat’s good fortune seemed to be deserting it. Sunderland spent most of the season in the lower echelons of the Premier League, and it was only a little of this good fortune that did remain that allowed Reading, QPR and Wigan to be constantly below them in the table. O’Neill was sacked in March 2013, with relegation a very strong possibility, but the somewhat abrasive and at times quite bonkers Paulo Di Canio kept them in the division to fight another day. Expectations rose again, if the Italian could keep this momentum running into the next season, things would be very exciting indeed.
The following season – this current season – was different yet again. It was worse. Di Canio’s methods and man-management seemed to an outsider to resemble Brian Clough on steroids and then some. No wonder he faced a player revolt!! Additionally, despite the likeable Italian’s success at lower league Swindon Town, and the initial ‘honeymoon period’ with at his new employer now over, he appeared to be tactically out of his depth. Most likely, his coaching and motivational techniques had pushed a good number of noses’ out of joint, thus Sunderland played about as well as my friends and myself taking on the Brazil national team. Yes, that much of a joke.
The inevitable Di Canio departure came, and into the Stadium of Light came his replacement, Uruguayan Gus Poyet. A choice that did raise many eyebrows, as in many ways Poyet is a very similar manager in style to his predecessor. Only time will tell if the new man can motivate his troops in ways Di Canio and O’Neill could not. There is always another North East derby game to be played in the Championship against Middlesbrough to get the juices flowing, should relegation happen next May.
So, in hindsight, maybe having a nickname with such a reference to good and bad luck might be something a dark omen, a bit of a millstone around the neck, so to speak. Aside from other clubs who use the colour of their shirt colour as their nickname, Sunderland’s is oh-so appropriate. The Wearsiders experience good and bad luck, both sides of their nickname’s meaning. However, as luck does tend to run in cycles, they’ve had their bad luck for this season, the flip side will appear without warning any moment. Standby for something better. Maybe now the club can gain some stability so the level of expectation the fans are still demanding after nearly seventy years can be realised.