Sam Allardyce reported for duty at the Stadium of Light this week, apparently with an autobiography to plug. Here's something I wrote when Martin O'Neill did the same thing four years and - was it? - three managers ago.
After lasts week's sojourn in leafy North Yorkshire where I watched Old Malton St Mary's thrash 'Naughty' Nunthorpe Athletic in the North Riding Cup, I think I'll restore my equilibrium by going to RCA v Washington
When it comes to giving hope to the desperate football fan there is an advantage in the Irish manager, who can always be imagined to have slept with a poster of some club stalwart gazing down at him from the wall. "Supported Sunderland as a boy," a bloke said to me on Sunday. "Hurley was his hero." And then he did that gesture that involves screwing up one eye, keeping the other wide open and turning your head slowly to the side as if scanning the horizon through an invisible telescope. I was pleased to see this gesture again as it was the one my grandfather used to make back in the 60s when we were sitting in the Bob End at Ayresome Park and he had just said: "There's 28,000 in here today, but they'll announce 22,000."
It is the gesture of somebody who is on the inside track, the possessor of secret knowledge. In truth,Martin O'Neill's support of Sunderland was hardly fresh news. It's a matter of public record that the Northern Irishman has a soft spot for them, one that began back in the days when they were "the Bank of England Club" and Len Shackleton (of blessed memory) was entertaining kids outside Roker Park by tossing a coin in the air, catching it on his instep and then flipping it up into the breast pocket of his jacket. The former Celtic manager has talked about it in interviews. I didn't say anything to the bloke though, because, to be honest, it was a relief to see a bit of the old I-know-something-you-don't swagger returning.
At one time you could barely cross the threshold of your house without somebody assailing you with a gaudy football rumour, usually one picked up on an intelligence network that apparently included everyone from the cousin of the Catholic bishop of Middlesbrough to the bloke who fitted Faustino Asprilla's satellite dish. Naturally, then, when Darren Bent was transferred from Sunderland to Aston Villa last season I expected something juicy to come my way. Possibly even an allegation so salacious that it might top the byzantine nonsense that inevitably followed a dozen or so years ago whenever anyone from the region said: "Well, you know the real reason the Toon sold Andy Cole, don't you?"
When nothing whatsoever emerged, I approached a longtime Sunderland supporter of six decades' service and asked him what lay behind the deal. His answer was in many ways more shocking than anything I could possibly have imagined. The man simply frowned and said: "Good business. And, at the end of the day, you can't keep a player if he wants away."
Behind this bald statement lay something even more worrying for Sunderland's then manager, Steve Bruce, than events involving performing snakes and a cabinet minister's daughter. Because when fans in the north-east don't react to the selling of a star by concocting a justification for it involving a trio of Brazilian lap dancers, an industrial quantity of baby oil and a trained parrot, then whoever is responsible for the sale is on wobbly ground.
And so it has proved, with Sunderland's poor finish to last season and shaky start to this one rapidly bringing unrest at the Stadium of Light. The explanation advanced in some quarters for the behaviour of those fans who shouted for Bruce's removal last weekend is that they are fickle, forgetting the progress the club made under his guidance 18 months ago when they threatened a top-six finish. This is to misread the situation. At any club that has struggled to fulfil its potential for as long as Sunderland the attitude to the management is always likely to mirror that at a Boilermakers rally. Fans were not reacting to 12 months of frustration, but to six decades of it. It is not that they have short memories, but long ones.
Back when Martin O'Neill was a boy, Sunderland were one of England's best-supported clubs. In the 1949-50 season, for example, the aggregate attendance at Roker Park topped the million mark. Sunderland and its supporters didn't experience relegation until 1958. Widely, though perhaps unjustly, held responsible for that debacle was the manager, Alan Brown from Corbridge. Brown was a strict disciplinarian who once said that the invention of football was 'one of the momentous things that happed in Creation'. He eventually got Sunderland promoted back to the top flight but promptly left for Sheffield Wednesday claiming they were more ambitious than the Wearsiders. .As a consequence Brown's name is so commonly prefixed by older Rokerites that a visitor might go away with the impression that the club was once coached by a bloke called Thatclown Alan‑Brown. Since Brown's reign it has been an uphill struggle for anyone taking charge. And as the years of underachievement have gone by the gradient has got ever steeper.
The captain of Sunderland during the club's last truly successful era was Raich Carter. Carter was a tough man, as anybody who grew up round Hendon docks with the name Horatio would be. Recalling the crowds at Roker Park during the 30s, however, he softened. "They sacrificed so much to come and see us," he told an interviewer late in his life. "We were their only hope" – and tears rolled down his cheeks. Nowadays people talk of the pressure created by the vast amounts of foreign cash that has flooded into the game and the media attention. Yet there are old‑fashioned burdens that are less tangible, but just as heavy, as Martin O'Neill may soon find out.