“Ridiculous” is probably the best word to describe Sunderland’s fanbase.
They were fed a regular diet of Premier League football for a decade, and many have grown up on stories of greater past glories, but now they are slumming it in the third tier. And loving it.
It is no surprise Netflix’s new series about the Black Cats’ 2017-18 season focuses heavily on the fans, the best and most remarkable bit of the club. But according to manager Jack Ross you can only truly appreciate the passion of North East football once you are immersed in it.
Around 2,600 Sunderland fans are expected at Accrington Stanley, making up about half the attendance of a ground which has never previously held more than 4,801. Still there were not enough away tickets to go around, so the Stadium of Light will host a live beamback of the game.
It is no one-off. Every League One ground the Black Cats have been to this season has had its highest 2018-19 attendance that day. Average Stadium of Light league gates are over 30,000.
Ridiculous, but not unprecedented. Other big clubs have used falls from grace to rally around. Where earlier in the season.
“I have not been surprised, people have often asked me what the club is like. I say you don’t understand how big it is it until you are in it,” says Ross. “I think with the fanbase, you don’t appreciate how passionate they are until you are lucky to be in this job like me. I mean that across the North East.
“It’s a bit like Celtic and Rangers in Scotland, I don’t think you understand it until you are right in amongst it.
“Rangers supporters showed an unbelievable loyalty during that period (when they were demoted to the bottom division of the Scottish Football League because of financial problems), because it was not just away from home. They were getting 40-50,000 for home games in League Two in Scotland. That was probably a reflection of the defiance, that ‘this is our club’.
“It is a bit like that here at Sunderland now, people will point to us doing okay, which helps, but it is still a ridiculous show of support and loyalty for League One. That is what probably sets Sunderland apart from other clubs.”
Saturday’s away crowd will not be the Black Cats’ biggest of the campaign, but might seem like it.
“Sometimes the size of the ground can make the following feel bigger,” Ross reflects. “At Coventry we had 5,000 but in the bowels of that stadium, it probably doesn’t feel as intense as the ones who were at Walsall, the same at Accrington where they are packed in. You will feel more intensity and the players should go and enjoy it.”
Sunderland’s players are starting to really enjoy it. When they went back to Walsall’s Bescot Stadium for last week’s FA Cup tie, the stands were much sparser than for the previous Saturday’s FA Cup tie, and the game flatter as a result. The visitors, with weariness in their legs, struggled to rise to the occasion. Likewise when Wycombe Wanderers sat back and took the sting out of the game at the Stadium of Light, it hurt the hosts.
“Earlier in the season although we got results we didn’t get spooked by it but it was ‘Woah, this is different, maybe not we expected’ – me included,” Ross says of the ferocity of those matches.
“I think we’ve become accustomed to it now, understanding it’s going to be a bit like that so how do we try and maximise what we’re good at within those types of games? Hopefully we’ve shown we’re capable of doing so.”
As a Football League manager, whenever you get on top of one challenge, a new one emerges. In August it was dealing with 100mph games, now it is performing in more subdued ones.
“I think it’s just a snapshot of what it’s like for a manager,” says Ross. “Because of the use of squads and because a lot more managers and coaches are a lot more flexible in their approach tactically it’s a constant evolution. You think you’ve cracked it in terms of what you’re going to face and something different comes up again. But it does settle a little bit in terms of getting used to the league and we’re definitely in more of a pattern.
“It’s not just me managing in England for the first time, a lot of these players are playing in this division for the first time so there was always going to be a period of adjustment and the good thing was that during it we still managed to get decent results.”
Where Sunderland’s autumnal form was based on a settled side, their pre- (and post-) Christmas matches might be about making the most of their squad to get through an overloaded fixture list.
“I think we showed that during the week when we played a back three against Notts County,” says Ross. “I’m lucky that every time we’ve done that this season the players have responded and they’ve taken on information quite quickly. I think they trust what we’re asking them to do.
“That flexibility is important both during the game and with the number of games we face in the coming weeks.”
The good thing for Ross is he can expect the kind of game his team thrive on at the weekend – on and off the pitch. Accrington are not a team to park the bus.
“They play nice football,” comments Ross. “It will be a really competitive game because they are very good side.
“By and large I’ve felt most teams in this league have taken that approach with us. They’ve been willing to have a crack, which has been good – it makes for some exciting games, but it makes it tough as well. I expect Saturday to be no different.”
Expect the ridiculous – and expect Sunderland to revel in it.