Some years before he decided to pursue a slightly questionable career as the media’s go-to man for piping hot takes involving Adolf Hitler, Ken Livingstone was actually quite a popular chap. He was the sort of celebrity politician that people didn’t mind being associated with, and those people included popular indie band Blur. On their 1995 album The Great Escape, Damon, Graham, Dave and that bloke who makes cheese got Ken in as a guest vocalist on the song ‘Ernold Same’, a tale of a man whose day never changes, doomed to repeat the same old events, again and again.
That song, with its pseudo-circus music, downbeat tone and of course the lyrics describing the tedium of repetition, springs to mind every time Sunderland play a game. Their talent for repeating the same old season, again and again, is quite remarkable, and while their scrapes with the drop mean they’re a slightly more high-octane, nerve-shredding version of Ken’s somnambulant commuter, there’s still a recognisable pattern to each season.
It goes something like this: start the season calamitously, the manager is sacked/leaves, a new one is appointed and ultimately pulls them to safety, only for the next season to follow the same route. At some stage they will look completely doomed, they will beat Newcastle or achieve a similarly heartening victory against someone unlikely, obituaries will be written, but then torn up when they achieve safety. Again. As they now have this season.
For four consecutive seasons that path has been trod, and the only thing that seems to alter is the time the first manager leaves: Martin O’Neill went in March 2013, Paolo di Canio in September 2013, Gus Poyet in March 2015 then Dick Advocaat in October 2015. Their respective league positions at the time of those departures were 16th (one point off the bottom three), 20th (one point from five games), 17th (one point off the bottom three) and 19th (three points from eight games). From this you can split the managerial departures into two sub-categories: the late-season, last-ditch attempt at getting out of a terrible mess, and then the early realisation that the bloke who got them out of trouble last time was only a short-term solution and unsustainable beyond that. But it’s still broadly two sides of the same coin.
This isn’t Groundhog Day, because in that film Phil Connors actually learns and adapts to the repeating events, changing his behaviour accordingly. Sunderland seem unable to do that, apparently destined to be perennial relegation strugglers without actually being relegated. To go so close to the edge without falling off so many times almost makes it look like they’re doing it on purpose, like those utter lunatics who climb up massive cranes in parts of eastern Europe, film themselves hanging off them by one hand then upload it to the internet with some sort of techno soundtrack. None of them ever seem to actually fall off (although if they did those clips probably wouldn’t make it to YouTube). So to with Sunderland, clinging to the Premier League with three fingers as the rest of the world watches, horrified.
Maybe they really are the thrill-seekers of the Premier League, the BASE jumpers or fast-car drivers, adrenaline junkies who regard anyone with an office job as being dead-eyed drones. The sort of people who think you have to glimpse death in order to feel alive. The sort of people who might wear a t-shirt that says ‘If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much room’ on it.
Perhaps one of these days they’ll get it together and become a good, stable, solid, mid-table, Premier League side, like they used to be for a few years. They’ll finish 10th-13th every season, give the odd big boy a bloody nose, maybe reach the League Cup final, never really hold out much hope of troubling the European places and neither will they look like going down. They will be able to relax by March, when players will abstractly talk about having a foundation and launching pad for next season without really meaning it.
But would that be better? Would that in fact just be rather boring, a state of mere existence without actually doing anything? Theirs is a curious form of unstable stability, drifting close to the edge of the cliff without falling off, which at least gives them something to engage with, something to be excited about. When apathy sets in at a football club it’s arguably worse than failure, because sport is supposed to inspire emotions, good or bad. Blood flows, fear sets in, tension rises: a relegation struggle or a parachute jump.
Ideally of course, Sunderland will get it together and achieve a little more than mid-table nothingness, perhaps become top-half stalwarts and actually win something, but not everyone can be Leicester. At the moment their existence is at least interesting: it might not be much fun, and their fans might not have signed up to be football’s version of bungee jumpers, but it’s better than ennui.