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, of course, Martin O'Neill's support of Sunderland is genuine and 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 the north-east crackled with football gossip. You could barely cross the threshold of your house without somebody assailing you with a gaudy 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 eighteen 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 TUC 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 held responsible for that debacle was the manager, Alan Brown. A man whose name is still so commonly prefixed on Wearside that a visitor might go away with the impression that the club was once coached by someone with the unusual rhyming name of Thatclown Alan-Brown. Since then 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 situation is aggravated by the close proximity of bitter rivals Newcastle. Newcastle has a comparable population to Sunderland but somehow always appears bigger to the outside world. The same is true of the football clubs. The Magpies attract publicity, whether good or bad, almost effortlessly. The other clubs in the region meanwhile feel they have to do the sporting equivalent of jumping up and down naked yelling "Me! Me! Me!" to merit even the most cursory of attention. And just when Sunderland had enjoyed one of their best seasons for years off went Darren Bent, and along came Alan Pardew and a spell that has seen two home wins since New Year's Day.
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 in a Durham pit village 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, or may not, soon find out.