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Can Sunderland’s squad retain unity after this off-field incident?

Sunderland

Can Sunderland’s squad retain unity after this off-field incident?

The departure of Margaret Byrne was not met with much upset on Wearside. To many, the move came too late and after it was revealed that Byrne was aware of Johnson kissing his 15 year old victim. From a legal standpoint, it could be argued that suspending a man who intended to plead not guilty would have looked judgmental. She had a moral duty to young supporters, which she failed miserably in. Of course, the resignation of Byrne, along with the accompanying club statement which confesses to having let the victim and the supporters of the club down, will not be enough to satisfy everyone. A number of supporters are now keen to draw a line under the issue and concentrate on the daunting relegation battle.

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All in all, it has been a tough few weeks for Sunderland supporters. For a start, parents of young fans will be appalled that Johnson was able to continue to meet young fans after games despite the Chief Executive’s knowledge of his guilt. Fans have also been placed in a difficult position having broadly declared their support for Johnson on the assumption that he was pleading not guilty to all charges. Over the past year, they have sang his name, celebrated his goals and revelled in his continued excellent record against Newcastle. Supporters cannot be blamed for this, after all they had no knowledge of the winger’s confession and it was presumed that legal experts within the club must deem there to be enough evidence to prove his innocence. Instead, his guilt was known within the walls of the Stadium of Light and this has let the club down. However, this does not mean the Johnson affair has not left a bitter taste in the mouths of fans who now are tinged with guilt at their support for him.

Even tougher to take is the almost enforced guilt by association. Every time Sunderland play, there are now unpleasant chants directed towards the club and supporters. With all of these circulating off-field activities, criticism from fans of other clubs and both national and local journalists it could be inferred that this will impact upon the togetherness of the squad. However, this has not been the case, despite the club’s relegation fight. At 2.59 on Saturday (March 5th) if someone had offered Sunderland fans a point at St Mary’s with Norwich and Newcastle both losing, they would have been delighted. However, the 94th minute Virgil Van Dijk equaliser left Sunderland fans feeling despondent. A victory would have opened up a four point gap over relegation rivals Norwich and Newcastle, but as is the Sunderland way they squandered that chance, meaning Wearside now faces an anxious two week wait before what looks set to be the biggest Tyne-Wear derby in living memory. Victory for either side would provide great momentum and hope where as a loss could prove a fatal blow.

Despite the nature of the last minute goal being tough to swallow, there is something of a feel good factor around the club. The new signings have rejuvenated the club. After a largely positive transfer window, Allardyce spoke of getting rid of players who were “down in the dumps” including the unfancied or out of form players such as Stephen Fletcher and Danny Graham. Instead, they have been replaced with signings such as Lamine Kone, Wahbi Khazri and Jan Kirchhoff who have breathed life back into the club. Despite results continuing to be fairly moderate, there have been signs of progress including excellent performances against the two Manchester clubs, including a vital win over United. Khazri’s energy, direct approach and pace has encouraged fans which is well combined with the level headed assured style of Kirchhoff and powerful defensive capabilities of Kone, who became an instant crowd favourite after flattering Yaya Touré with a robust challenge on his debut.

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Not only this, but Sunderland have shown great character in recent weeks. After being 2-0 down at Liverpool, a late Defoe equalizer snatched a point, which was followed up by reacting well to a Manchester United leveller in the next game, before eventually going on to win in a commanding display. Even though the draw against Crystal Palace was frustrating, the late goal from Fabio Borini followed by an outpouring of raw emotion demonstrated the fighting spirit within the squad. Similar scenes came after taking the lead at St Mary’s with almost all the outfield players celebrating wildly in front of the travelling support. After the match, there were openly remorseful tweets from players apologising to fans for not holding onto the lead and dropping two points. For so long, Sunderland fans have been used to seeing teams meekly surrendering once falling behind, but the comebacks in recent weeks coupled with the fighting spirit on show have given Sunderland fans hope that the current crop of players do have the stomach for the fight. Most hearteningly, the impact of the signings has given fans hope that under the guidance of the pragmatic Sam Allardyce, if survival can be achieved there is hope that finally this cycle of relegation struggle can be broken.


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