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For Sunderland, relegation might be best thing to break cycle of mediocrity

SUNDERLAND, England -- Under a small green awning on a street outside the Stadium of Light, a middle-aged man scowls as he casts his eye over racks of bright, bold Sunderland-themed T-shirts. The merchandise of the popular club fanzine "A Love Supreme," they celebrate men like Jermain Defoe. They celebrate the club's history and their heritage. But the man finds nothing here to his liking.

"If you had one that says, 'David Moyes is a w---er,'" he grunts, "I'd buy that." And then he strides away. Joe McFadden, working the stall, smiles politely and continues to lay out his wares.

This is the mood in Sunderland. This has been the mood in Sunderland for several months. In fact, with the exception of sporadic, unexpected bursts of timely form, this has been the mood in Sunderland since 2008.

One year in the Premier League usually proves to be transformative for a football club. Burnley's cameo appearance in 2014-15 financed an expansion of their training ground. Sunderland have had a decade in the top flight, and as the end draws inexorably nearer with every defeat, they have little to show for it. In those 10 seasons, including this one, they've broken the 40-point barrier on just three occasions, have never reached 50, have enjoyed only one cup run of any note (their defeat to Manchester City in the 2014 League Cup final) and are reported to be approximately £171 million in debt.

Off the pitch, the club has looked even worse. Last week's incident in which David Moyes had been filmed joking about assaulting a female reporter, was only the most recent of Sunderland's scandals. Last year, chief executive Margaret Byrne resigned after admitting "a serious error of judgment" in the handling of the Adam Johnson child sex abuse case. Johnson, currently serving a six-year prison sentence, was allowed to continue to play for Sunderland even after he had privately admitted to grooming and kissing a 15-year-old girl.

The appointment of Paolo di Canio as manager in 2013, thus forcing the resignation of director and former Foreign Secretary David Miliband, seems barely noteworthy.

But in spite of so much disappointment on and off the pitch, the people of Sunderland continue to pay their money and take their increasingly slim chances in their tens of thousands. Sunday's 0-3 defeat to Manchester United was watched by over 43,000 people. Even the record-breaking-for-all-the-wrong-reasons 15-point relegation season of 2005-06 still drew regular attendances of over 30,000.

"It's strange, you know. You think, 'should I go to the game?' but of course you're going to go to the game," says 50-year veteran supporter Paul "Sobs" Dobson. "It's a given. You don't not go. It doesn't happen. Most football fans will say the same. You're with your mates, you have a drink and you have a chat. It's the camaraderie.

"It'll be the same faces next season [if Sunderland are relegated], too. There will be a few who will drop off and I can understand that. People who will say, 'I've done this for 30 years and it's too much,' but the majority will say, 'It doesn't matter. It's my team."

Dobson is not alone in his grudging acceptance of inevitable relegation. While Moyes continued to stress after the game that the fight will continue until demotion is mathematically certain, a search for a Sunderland fan confident of survival proved fruitless even before kick-off. The most positive verdict available was, "You never know." And indeed you never do. But you can certainly suspect. Especially at a club where so much goes wrong so often.

"You know those Stephen King novels where there's this dark presence and no-one wants to talk about it?" A Love Supreme's Chris Thompson told ESPN FC. "That's like Sunderland. Where do you start?"

Many will start with Moyes, and Thompson certainly has no compunction in laying some of the blame at his door. "A lot of fans are willing to give Moyes the benefit of the doubt because we've gone through so many managers. It's all very well sticking with the manger, but if it's the wrong manager, that's counter-productive as well, isn't it?"

"It's difficult with Moyes," he continues. "He's just so unpopular now. I don't think there's been a manager as unpopular since Steve Bruce when we had those two long runs without wins, but even then we were picking up the odd point. With Moyes, it's like, we haven't scored a goal, let alone won a game. You could listen to every studio album by the Beatles back to back in the time since we last scored."

"A Love Supreme" has been in business since 1989. Its founder, Martyn McFadden, aghast at the media coverage of the Hillsborough disaster, wanted to create a voice for Sunderland fans, a rare thing in the pre-Internet era. Based in a vibrantly decorated building outside the stadium, their office is a treasure trove of memorabilia including a bench from the old Roker Park stadium, demolished in 1998, 101 years after it was first opened.

Dobson is a little more forgiving of Moyes. For him, the problem is instability. Since returning to the Premier League in 2007, Sunderland have worked their way through nine managers, with Roy Keane's 100 games proving the longest tenure.

"We're battered into submission," he says. "It's the perpetual cycle of having the manager changed, the new one works for three months and then turns to complete cabbage or goes mad or gets poached by England and then it all starts again. We're getting a bit weary. We're too knackered to be angry.

"People are starting to dislike Moyes because it's become a thing. But it's not really his fault. He's come into the middle of a big, big mess and he's not used to it. He's fighting to put it right, but people have just got tired of being tired."

So whose fault is it?

"Well, it's partially Moyes' fault: He picks the team, he's bought a good proportion of the players on the teamsheet," said Dobson. "Ellis Short: I've met him, he's a nice man. His heart is in the right place, but he's been so badly advised."

It is a curiosity of this miserable season that there have been far worse Sunderland teams than this one. Moyes has offered more structure than Gus Poyet and more order than Paolo di Canio, but paradoxically, those teams always seemed to have an incongruously heroic performance in them somewhere. Moyes' Sunderland rarely deviate from a steady low standard. They are almost always in sight of competence, consistently pushing at the wheel but forever bound for the harbour walls.

It would perhaps be easier on the supporters if they were just utterly wretched. But they continue to toil. There's nothing to hate here. They're just not very good at football.

As the clash with United slipped away from them, the result of an inspired Zlatan Ibrahimovic goal and then a contentious Seb Larsson dismissal before half-time, fury is fleeting and isolated. There is just a subdued acceptance of their fate. A group of children in the main stand broke up the tedium of a dull second half by challenging each other to shout encouragement at ever louder volumes. There's no tension, no rage, no sense of desperation. Emotionally, Sunderland were relegated some time ago.

"Purely from an experience perspective, I think it might be awesome being back in the Championship," says Thompson. "I mean, I don't think we'll do what Newcastle have done because we don't have the resources. But after a while, if we win a few games, we'll be OK."

"It'll slow things down temporarily," says McFadden. "People will think, 'what's the point?' But then we'll win a few games and everyone will say, yeah, we're the best! And it will all start again."

And perhaps it will. Perhaps that's been the problem all along. Sunderland should have been relegated several times already, but their survival only ensures that the short-term cycle repeats itself. Perhaps this is what they need. They need to be cleansed by the fire of relegation. After seven games without a goal let alone a win, it's as positive a theory as you'll find on Wearside.