Wembley pilgrimage serves as rebirth for Sunderland


London (AFP) - In a vivid display of English football's ability to inspire devotion throughout the darkest days, over 40,000 Sunderland fans will make a pilgrimage to Wembley on Sunday to celebrate their troubled club's rebirth.

For many supporters, the much-maligned Checkatrade Trophy -- featuring teams from Leagues One and Two as well as several Premier League and Championship academy squads -- is an unwanted blight on an already crowded and costly fixture list.

But for devotees of third tier Sunderland, this weekend's final against Portsmouth stands as a cathartic moment for one of English football's old guard after a turbulent period that threatened to cast them into oblivion.

Sunderland are a proud relic of English football's sepia-tinted golden age, a period long before the egocentric Premier League when players and fans had roots embedded deep in the local community.

Founded in 1879, Sunderland have been champions of England six times, but the last of those titles came in 1936.

The intervening decades have been spent mired in chaos.

After several years of narrowly avoiding Premier League relegation, Sunderland crashed into the Championship in 2017.

By the time their 10-year stay in the top-flight was over, Sunderland had amassed debts of £110 million ($144 million) on a squad of overpaid mercenaries.

In a move that showed how disconnected Sunderland had become, then manager David Moyes took his players for a 'team-bonding' trip to New York while at the same time several members of the club's backroom staff were being made redundant.

The club's self-immolation was memorably captured in Netflix's 'Sunderland 'Til I Die' documentary, a series which recorded their inexorable slide towards relegation from the Championship last season.

Hamstrung by controversial owner Ellis Short's attempts to sell up, chief executive Martin Bain and manager Chris Coleman laboured to rescue a club rocked when Darron Gibson was axed after the midfielder drunkenly crashed his car at the training ground.

- Betrayed -

Yet as relegation to League One was confirmed, it wasn't the frustration of those employed by Sunderland that tugged at the heart-strings.

Instead, it was pain-filled voices of their embittered fans that underlined exactly how much Sunderland's steep decline hurt a working-class community fallen on hard times.

In a decaying industrial region where employment rates are higher than the national average, the chance to escape by following Sunderland's fortunes has been a valuable birthright for Wearsiders.

"We felt betrayed. This club has been a lifeline for people in some dark times, but it was all going up in smoke," Bill Rice, a Sunderland fan for over 30 years, told AFP.

Condemned to play in the third tier for only the second time in their history, Sunderland's future looked bleak despite the passion of their supporters.

The turning point came when former Eastleigh chairman Stewart Donald bought out Short in a £40 million deal last May.

Revived by Donald's level-headed guidance and the appointment of St Mirren's Jack Ross as manager, Sunderland have started on the long road back to relevance.

"It's baby steps, but we can see some progress. It's about time." Rice added.

Reflecting the sense of optimism, Sunderland have averaged crowds of 32,720 for home league games this season, while 46,000 packed the Stadium of Light for the Boxing Day win against Bradford.

That average crowd is bigger than the average total for the top-flight leagues in Spain, Italy and France.

"I don't think you understand it properly until you're in the job," Ross said.

"There's probably only a few clubs that are similar, just by the nature of the club, the size and how much it dominates the city it plays in."

The fans' faith is being rewarded, with fourth-placed Sunderland firmly in the promotion race.

Sunderland haven't won a knockout trophy since their famous 1973 FA Cup final upset of Leeds, so lifting the silverware against Portsmouth would be a sweet moment.

But regardless of the result, Sunderland's renaissance is already under way -- as the red and white clad legions heading south will demonstrate loudly and proudly.