Ross Stewart has left Sunderland - but I cannot bring myself to begrudge him

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The Scotland international left the Black Cats for Southampton on Deadline Day.

The date is Saturday, May 21st 2022. I am sat in a pub somewhere in the hinterlands between Milton Keynes and Bletchley, acutely aware of the vitriolic glare that the landlord is burrowing into the back of my head like a laser drill.

My reason for wandering these dystopian wilds of concrete cows and doddering self-driving delivery robots is quite simple; My Chemical Romance - a sad band who have given me much happiness - are in the midst of a string of reunion shows, and have chosen Stadium MK as the venue for this gathering of the elder emos. To this day, I still have no idea why.

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By an unfortunate cosmic coincidence, however, Saturday, May 21st 2022 also happens to be the day that Sunderland are playing against Wycombe Wanderers in a League One play-off final. As such, my body may be marooned in Buckinghamshire, but my heart, thoughts, and nerves are all fixed solely on Wembley Way. Hence the pub. And the disgruntled landlord.

My first clue that he might not be a dyed-in-the-wool Mackem came when I strolled into his fine establishment, asked if he was showing the football, and was met with the blunt response, ‘What football?’. The second came when I noticed his Mercedes AMG shirt, and the F1 qualifiers playing on the only television in the place behind him.

Nevertheless, here I am - one vocal intervention from his wife later - not just the only Sunderland fan in the building, but the only football fan, full stop.

Former Sunderland striker Ross Stewart scoring in the 2022 League One play-off final. The Scotland international left the Black Cats to sign for Southampton on transfer Deadline Day.Former Sunderland striker Ross Stewart scoring in the 2022 League One play-off final. The Scotland international left the Black Cats to sign for Southampton on transfer Deadline Day.
Former Sunderland striker Ross Stewart scoring in the 2022 League One play-off final. The Scotland international left the Black Cats to sign for Southampton on transfer Deadline Day. | Getty Images

For the next 79 minutes or so, I think I blink and draw breath maybe twelve times in total. And then it happens; Paddy Roberts feeds a modest pass into the path of Alex Pritchard, who scampers into possession, delves inside and slots a similarly ordinary ball into the feet of his waiting striker. The forward takes three touches in total - one to set himself, another to shift it out of his feet, and a final stroke to lash his shot beyond a woebegone goalkeeper and into the bottom corner.

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The rest is a blur; the crashing deluge of red and white, the heavenly roar of ecstatic relief, the epiphanic humiliation of being the only person in a room to have just rung every last molecule of air from their throat and lungs in one unhinged bellow... the slow sit back down, punctuated by apologetic nods to my new bestie behind the bar.

After four years in the doldrums, Alex Neil’s side would hang on to win 2-0. Sunderland were promoted.

And so it came to be that I was the cheeriest person at a My Chemical Romance gig - which admittedly is a bit like being the tallest man at a Snow White pantomime audition - bounding around Stadium MK bastardising Belinda Carlisle songs while everybody else was singing Helena.

You see, during that otherworldly run, prior to the injuries that brought his world - and ultimately the Black Cats’ Championship play-off hopes - crashing down like a matchstick model before a leaf blower some months after, it really did feel as if Ross Stewart was the best on earth.

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There was nothing this beaming Scot, with his sinewy frame and ravenous stride, could not do. He held up play, he ran in behind, he headed any ball that had the gall to fly anywhere remotely close to his field of consciousness. More than anything though, he scored goals. Lots and lots of goals.

I say this without hyperbole or melodrama, but he was, in my mind, the best striker Sunderland had since Jermain Defoe. (The first time around, that is.) He certainly had the potential to be the most beloved since the days of Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips.

But you know how this ends. It has, after all, already ended. Contract turmoil, exasperated speculation, a Deadline Day transfer to Southampton to play for another club in red and white stripes who could never love him quite as much as the Mackems did. It is perhaps fitting that the one they call the Loch Ness Drogba could build such a mythical personal lore before swiftly vanishing beneath the black, choppy waters of tangibility to a chorus of near-ubiquitous bemusement. More fitting still, if you had told Sunderland fans back in the January of 2021 that their new six-figure signing from Ross County would go on to score a goal every other game and be sold for the better part of £10 million, most would have immediately dismissed it as some kind of hoax.

Over the past few days, emotions have peaked and frothed on Wearside. There is a real sense of indignation that Stewart could just walk away from the Black Cats - that he might not be fully subscribed to the chocolate-munching, dog-CPRing kindergarten wizardry that has reignited the passions of a fanbase who have been soundly downtrodden for far too long.

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And I get it. I really do. But at the same time, I just can’t bring myself to begrudge him. Do I wish he had signed that new contract and stayed at the Stadium of Light, returning from injury in the autumn to the kind of hysterically raucous reception usually reserved for homecoming astronauts and ‘90s boybands? Of course I do. Is there a little part of me that is hoping things don’t entirely work out for him at Southampton and he comes to realise that, in a footballing sense, the grass is not always greener on the other side? I’d be lying if I said no.

Do I blame him, however, for wanting to test himself at a club who, on paper at least, have a much greater chance of being promoted to the Premier League this season - Saturday afternoon’s 5-0 drubbing aside? Look, I’m not exactly thrilled, but I understand.

And beyond all of that, there are simply too many fondly-recollected moments for me to ever properly resent Stewart. Wembley, for all of its emblematic worth, was always just the tip of a proverbial iceberg. At the end of the day, football is football; players come and players go, and all we have left of them is what they gave us in the time between. In that regard, there haven’t too many names in Sunderland’s contemporary history who provided quite as much hope or joy or sustained wonder as the Loch Ness Drogba.

So instead of calling him all the swine under the sun, as others have in recent days, allow me to finish this piece that I started with a tale about My Chemical Romance by quoting another band who were an angst-ridden cornerstone in my adolescence, Fall Out Boy; thanks for memories, Rossco.

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