Sunderland (United Kingdom) (AFP) – Rows of empty red seats in the upper tiers of Sunderland’s Stadium of Light offer a persistent and painful reminder that one of English football’s sleeping giants remain mired in the third tier.

There has been no bounce in the Black Cats since back-to-back relegations sent them down to League One in 2018.

Sitting seventh in the table and facing a fight just to make the end-of-season playoffs, there is a serious risk that Sunderland could spend a fifth straight year facing Lincoln City and Morecambe rather than Manchester City and Liverpool.

Despite prolonged spells in the doldrums, the northeastern club remain one of the best supported in England — as witnessed by the 30,000 fans who recently braved the winter chill to watch their side battle to an uninspiring 1-1 draw against Burton Albion.

Average attendances remain the envy of the other clubs in the division but much of the atmosphere gets lost in a 49,000-capacity stadium built to host glitzy Premier League games and England internationals.

“It’s weird,” said James Lowson of Sunderland fan site and podcast the Roker Report. “Home games haven’t been fun since we left the Premier League really.”

The club’s fall from grace gained a wider audience thanks to the “Sunderland ‘Til I Die” documentary that aired on Netflix, detailing the internal dysfunction at the club.

But it also highlighted the importance of football to a former shipbuilding city that often feels ignored by the political elite.

Hopes were high for a new beginning when last year Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, son of late Marseille owner and billionaire Robert Louis-Dreyfus, bought a stake in the club and became the youngest chairman in English football at just 23.

– Fan passion –

It was the famous Sunderland support that attracted him to England’s northeast.

“The fervour of the people is reminiscent of that of Marseille,” Louis-Dreyfus told L’Equipe. “In the third tier, before the health crisis, there were more spectators on average than in half of the Premier League clubs.

“You can’t buy this. In cities like Zurich, Monaco, nobody is interested in football. It limits the possibilities of expansion.”

A year on he has been credited with some major structural improvements to the club’s academy and women’s team, but there has been little sign of improvement for the men’s senior side.

Fans also felt misled when it was revealed in February that the “controlling stake” he was understood to have purchased turned out to be just 41 percent.

Unpopular former owners Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven retain a combined 39 percent, with Uruguayan senator Juan Sartori holding the remaining 20 percent.

A change of manager following an embarrassing 6-0 defeat to Bolton in January has only made a marginal impact on the club’s fortunes.

Alex Neil is unbeaten in his past six games, but three of those have been draws — against Burton, Charlton Athletic and Lincoln.

“It’s like getting a new car, it looks lovely until you lift up the hood,” Neil told AFP, speaking about the challenges that lie ahead. “There’s a few things that certainly need fixing. It’s my problem now but I need to find the solution and fix it.”

However, the Scotsman is just the latest in a long list of managers believing they can turn Sunderland around.

Only six clubs have more top-flight English titles than Sunderland, but the sixth and last of those came in 1936. Their last major trophy was the 1973 FA Cup.

To make matters even worse for the Sunderland fans, arch-rivals Newcastle now have Saudi financial backing and could soon be challenging for major honours.

Yet 30,000 die-hard fans still trundle through the turnstiles at the Stadium of Light, clinging to the hope of a brighter future.

There was an air of resignation rather than bitterness after their draw against Burton — tinged with some lingering optimism.

“As bad as we’ve been there is always that light at the end of the tunnel if you can sneak in as the sixth-best team,” Lawson said on making a run to the play-offs, which involve the teams that finish between third and sixth.

“At the moment we don’t really look like a contending team but no matter how bad things get at Sunderland, because of the general level of talent we can attract, we’ll always be in the game against these League One teams.”