The Designated Player: Sunderland, L.A. Galaxy, and ‘The Way’ Teams Play

Mark Thompson/Getty Images Martin O'Neil

Happy New Year? Just checking. According to Bruce Arena, 2011 didn’t end until June 2012, at least if we’re to believe the epic MLS Cup postgame press conference, which itself finished sometime around January 3, 2013, some 32 days after the final whistle. While most of the L.A. Galaxy players were still on the field cavorting after their win, and as David Beckham’s brand conducted a complicated transatlantic farewell merger with itself in front of the L.A. fans, in a shower of confetti and symbolic multiple-flag donning (with a side order of fruit of loins), elsewhere, deep in the bowels of the Home Depot Center, a press conference that stretched into Samuel Beckett territory was getting under way. (“It’s been a long season. Is it over? Yes. Well? Shall we go? Yes, Let’s go.” They do not move.) Sometime during the third hour, a weary Bruce Arena was asked about the two halves of his side’s Hyde-and-Jekyll season and he volunteered the idea that after their MLS Cup victory the previous year, the 2011 season never ended, what with postseason tours, injury-prompted reshuffles, CONCACAF Champions League preparations, and so on. Only the MLS champions’ visit to the White House in May (at which point the Galaxy were woefully out of form) finally gave a sense of closure and started the turnaround that led to another Cup.

In footballing terms you can have sympathy with Arena’s position, but on the other hand, one of the perils of following MLS in tandem with other leagues — which is the general lot of all but the most parochial of American soccer fans — is that there is no such thing as an offseason. No sooner had I turned the key in my rental car, leaving the Home Depot Center to the more diligent cleaners a few hours after the final whistle of MLS Cup, than I found myself checking my phone and thinking idly, I wonder what the mood’s like in Sunderland right now.

The answer was “grim,” of course. And not just because I was in L.A. and it was 4 a.m. on a Sunday in Sunderland at that moment — a time when downtown Fawcett Street is traditionally a mosaic of bodily fluids, broken glass, and Lycra. I knew it would be grim before I checked, for that is the Sunderland way. Yet I sort of thought that with my not paying full attention in recent months, maybe it wouldn’t be that bad. Instead, of course, it was worse — and as a conditioned victim of what that team has put me through over the years, within seconds of looking at the first message board howl glowing angrily up at me from the phone screen, I was convinced that it was my fault — if only I’d been paying attention, this wouldn’t have happened. For that, in turn, is the supporter’s way: eternal, superstitious vigilance.

It’s not that I hadn’t been following just how uninspiring Sunderland have been this season (a dreary desert of footballing imagination punctuated by the occasional mirage of a Steven Fletcher goal — any questions?), it’s just that with a fairly full-time gig covering another league, and living in another country, I’ve been able to treat my relationship with Sunderland rather more like casual stalking of an ex on Facebook, rather than a 37-year marriage sustained only by the promise of release at death. “I’m Sun’lun till I die,” bellow the fans at every game. They are as well, the poor fools.

So now, staring at the phone as the car idled and various Galaxy players made their way to their celebration party, any thought of my enjoying the MLS offseason as a healthy expat was sucked into a vortex of despair eight time zones away, as Sunderland had their way with me. The screen’s little rectangle of light made me think of Christian Bale’s Batman dumped into that deep foreign prison with the tantalizing skylight that it seems so simple to climb out of (just beat Fulham at home and steal a point on the road at a hit-or-miss Liverpool … ). I pulled out of the Home Depot Center car park wondering if Wes Brown would ever be healthy. And that can’t be healthy.

The next morning I did a radio interview with TalkSport in the U.K. They wanted to know about David Beckham’s time in MLS. Sitting in the same rental car, on a Long Beach side street, on hold with the producer, I looked up at palm trees as the phone’s speaker pumped out the feed from the station: traffic reports from Knutsford and Keele. Suddenly, I was jerked out of the Proustian reverie these familiar English motorway waypoints evoked with the news that we were going over to Carrow Road and Norwich vs. Sunderland: “With 20 minutes to go, Norwich still lead …. ” Some other words, then: “Joining me now from Los Angeles, Graham Parker is a …. ” I instantly wanted the idiot with the weird accent to stop talking about Beckham (in fairness, so did the presenter) so we could get back to the updates from Sunderland’s game, but I also thought that if we went back too soon, there wouldn’t be enough time for the ball to squirt off the back of John O’Shea’s knee for an equalizer. So I kept talking. Eventually the presenter cut across me and the interview ended. We went back to Norwich. Sunderland had not scored. This is their way. I call it simply “grim doggedness.”

Many teams have “a way” — though such expressions of a team ethos tend to be evoked around the more pleasurable aesthetic end of the spectrum (with due respect to 1980’s Wimbledon). Speak with Tottenham fans of a certain vintage — say, those who are two family generations at most removed from the double-winning side of the early 1960s — and they will talk idealistically about the “Tottenham way.” Their way, apparently, is a simple one founded on the principles of attractive wing play and swashbuckling attacking, though observers over the years may note that their way also includes such elements as “chronic underachievement.” Ways are not tactics or systems as such; they’re an overarching stylistic philosophy, which oftentimes provide their romantic advocates with a puritanical code for support as they judge which players are spiritually fit to wear the shirt.

To this end, Spurs fans love a free spirit like a Glenn Hoddle, or of course a marauding wing back like Gareth Bale (swashbuckles as fiercely as any pirate; dives as though he’s walked the plank). They’ll even purr admiringly when crowd favorite Ossie Ardiles briefly returns as manager and plays with something like nine forwards. Given the fact that “ways” mythologize over time, arguably it is the team “coached” by Ardiles that was the acme of the Spurs way, in that Bill Nicholson’s team that won the League and Cup double and gave birth to “the Tottenham way” were just playing what they thought would be effective football, whereas Ardiles’s version of Spurs played like they’d spent hours in seminaries studying the holy scriptures written in praise of those ideals. And since the fans are the high priests and custodians of “the way,” initially they were delighted at the impression of the Ardiles team (“look at that majestic line of advancing white shirts”) — until they got stuffed something like 9-4 every week and the novelty and the idealism wore off pretty quick (“they look like a First World War surrender, innit?”).

Spurs fans of course are not unique in this — in the Premier league alone, there are many teams with notable “ways”: Liverpool (the continuity of the boot room [er … ]; pass and move; chronic underachievement), Newcastle United (fast attacks; weeping, topless, fat men in sleet; chronic underachievement), Manchester United (romantic youth; experimental timekeeping), Manchester City (the construction of ever-grander stages in the search for jaw-dropping failure — Aguero winning the title for them with the last kick of the 2012 season was not, the sniffy purists would argue, the City way).

And as I have noted, Sunderland, too, have a way. And it is a way you will recognize if you are a hardened fan of Burnley, Colorado Rapids, or Stenhousemuir. The purest expression of an aesthetic ideal I ever saw at a stadium was when Sunderland’s Gavin McCann attempted a back heel (against the stylish Arsenal, natch) and an old man near me shed decades to leap to his feet and howl, “STOP IT MAN, McCANN — YOU’RE DOGGED!” before slumping back in his seat in wounded outrage. He did rally briefly, to grimace encouragingly when McCann later had the grace to lie lifeless on the turf for five minutes after going for a 10-90 ball with Patrick Vieira. And there was a further bizarre coda of affectation/mental instability five minutes from the end of the game, when he witheringly assessed those looking to beat the traffic as being “off to their nice warm baths” (bathing apparently being the height of bourgeois decadence for this most Spartan of Mackems). But nothing quite matched the intensity of his initial scream of betrayal that McCann had somehow forsaken his way. And perhaps, by extension, the Sunderland “way.”

Now Sunderland fans, and I number among them, will point out that Peter Reid’s turn-of-the-century teams were promoted from the Championship with a record points total, then finished seventh, twice in succession (including a heady moment of playing Manchester United for first place at New Year) — and that those teams were founded on a basis of attacking wing play that might reasonably be called the ideal of what their fans love to see. Mightn’t that be the Sunderland way? Personally I think those fans, bruised by disappointment (ask them what followed those two seventh-place finishes), like their attacking wingers only as much as their runs give them a nice distance to make up when they’re charging back desperately to retrieve lost causes. And while these supporters appreciate style and flair as much as the next fan, they’re just as happy to see it smothered by an honest red-and-white yeoman. Witness the fan I overheard waxing lyrical at a different Sunderland-Arsenal game, during the Londoners’ period of unaccountably poor results against the Mackems (an honor now bestowed on Manchester City): “Oh, they’re a lovely team; try to play the game the right way; joy to watch; man-for-man more skill than us all over the park; and they always get fuck all up here.”

Don’t take my word for it, though. You know how, watching that Being Liverpool series, you had the feeling that someone was assigned by the club to stand off-camera and make a throat-cutting gesture anytime anything vaguely contentious looked like it might be raised in the dressing room? There was a reason for that. In the mid-’90s Peter Reid’s Sunderland team allowed BBC cameras to follow them throughout the season, giving a rare and cheerfully unguarded insight into their motivational techniques, tactical subtleties, and preaching of the “Sunderland way.” The result was Premier Passions, which you owe yourself an afternoon’s YouTube fun with, if only to marvel at the people who are the linchpins of multimillion-dollar sporting operations as they go about their business. It’s stood as a cautionary tale ever since.

Anyway, I recently stumbled across a montage of Peter Reid’s team talks from the show, which I’d like to share with you, so that you, too, can appreciate the creative foundations of Sunderland’s greatest postwar team. Head to the 3:17 mark for the musings of Peter Reid’s assistant Bobby Saxton (warning: NSFW — indeed, NSF-anything) as he gently explains that the answer to solving a persistent problem caused by Aston Villa’s attack is to “get up their arses.”

This is perhaps the essence of the way.

I suggest you watch the whole thing, though. Reid’s OPTA-fueled analysis of one display as “weak as piss” is also a highlight, yet there is, if not method to the madness, at least madness, as the clip also documents wins over Arsenal and Manchester United. Needless to say, Sunderland were relegated that year.

And since that casual reconnection in a Home Depot Center car park last month, I’ve watched them contrive to beat Manchester City, then get hammered at Liverpool; give up a two-goal head start to Bolton, then retrieve it, to set up what will doubtless be a defeat at home in the FA Cup replay; etc. My face in repose has morphed back to the stoical set jaw reserved for shipyard closures and last-minute losses at Reading. This team elevate hope only to send it tumbling back down the well, while Martin O’Neill grimaces (and Tom Conti looks faintly disappointed in a cowl).

So don’t talk to me about seasons never ending — my particular footballing life is endless and relentless. That’s the way of things. Thank God the soccer will be back soon. See you at the Superdraft.

Graham Parker (@kidweil) leads the U.S. and MLS soccer coverage for The Guardian. He also writes for Howler.

Filed Under: Graham Parker, MLS, Soccer