A City Laid Low, Its Team Even Lower

For the last few years, Sunderland has flirted with relegation almost habitually, firing and hiring managers while locked into an apparently unbreakable cycle of despair followed by last-gasp rescue. Now, as Andy Dawson, a lifelong fan and presenter of the Athletico Mince podcast, says, there is a feeling that “our luck has run out.”

“It has the feel of ‘Groundhog Day,’” he said. “It verges on emotional abuse. We have moved from one managerial catastrophe to another. The only real bright spot was the appointment of Sam Allardyce last year: By the end of the season, we felt we had some kind of platform.”

Allardyce left, though, spirited away by England’s national team. When he was fired after one game, after a newspaper sting, it rendered Sunderland’s loss of its leader somehow needless, and even more painful. “It’s so frustrating,” Dawson said. “It’s like there’s some sort of curse.”

Throughout it all, however, the fans have kept coming. Sunderland averaged more than 43,000 fans for home games last season; it is a little short of 42,000 this year, an astonishing perseverance given the results. “It is Einstein’s definition of insanity,” Dawson said. “Doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different outcome.”

Gareth Barker, a co-founder of the Sunderland supporters website Wise Men Say, bristles at the reputation the club’s fans have picked up for leaving early. That so many are there in the first place, he argued, is much more noteworthy.


Despite the team’s struggles, Sunderland averaged more than 43,000 fans for every home game last season, and is a little short of 42,000 a game this season.

Craig Brough/Reuters

“We sell out our allocation at every away match,” he said. “This is not an affluent place, but we still took 1,500 people to Southampton for a League Cup game on a Wednesday night. Most wouldn’t have got back until 5 a.m. the next day.”

On Saturday, Moyes’s team will be cheered on by 1,200 at Bournemouth, on England’s south coast. It is a round trip of 700 miles.

That dedication is proof of the other side of the bond: how much the city needs the club. Sunderland’s is still a fragile economy, as illustrated by the aftermath of Britain’s June referendum on whether to leave the European Union.

Sunderland was the first city to report its vote. Despite considerable European Union investment in the city in recent years and Nissan’s threatening to depart in the event of Brexit, 61 percent of voters chose to leave. Paul Watson, the local council leader, warned that the consequences of such a move would be seismic, not just to those employed at the plant but to the “butchers, bakers and candlestick makers” who relied on those workers’ wages for their own incomes.

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