Former Sunderland defender Pascal Chimbonda believes that the Black Cats’ supporters can help the club get back on track.
The once-capped former France international made a shock return to the North East last week, signing for Ebac Northern League side Washington.
He made his debut for the Mechanics in Saturday’s 2-1 home defeat to Penrith.
Despite leaving the Stadium of Light almost nine years ago, Chimbonda still admires the support he received in his time on Wearside.
And he saw enough during his short stay with the Black Cats to know that the supporters cannot underestimate the role they can play in revitalising Sunderland’s fortunes.
“They are great supporters,” said the 38-year-old.
“The Stadium of Light is not the biggest, or the best stadium, but the supporters make it what it so much better.
“They are always behind the team, they are also encouraging you – even if you are losing.
“Their fight never goes, even now when they aren’t doing so well and that means that the players should always try to give more and more.
“The players know that the supporters are right behind them and they can help bring the club back to where it should be.”
Chimbonda made just 16 appearances for the Black Cats after joining from Tottenham Hotspur in July 2008.
He joined a dressing room led by then-Black Cats boss Roy Keane and containing the likes of Djibril Cisse, El-Hadji Diouf and Steed Malbranque.
The Guadeloupe-born defender insisted that the current dressing room cannot match the spirit shown under Keane and, as a result, believes that a Premier League return would be “very hard”.
“I think they have good players, but maybe the chemistry is not the same,” said Chimbonda, who also played for Bastia, Wigan, Blackburn, Doncaster and Carlisle.
“When I was playing, when things weren’t going well, we kept fighting, we kept pushing forwards, trying to make something happen.
“The players stayed together, we went out for food together, we spoke about everything.
“We were a solid group, but I don’t think this happens at Sunderland now.
“Some players don’t speak, they don’t go out together.
“That means to get back into the Premier League is very hard, and I am not sure how quickly they can get back.”
Sunderland’s relegation from the top flight, and Newcastle’s elevation from the Championship, means that there is no Wear-Tyne derby.
Chimbonda knows all about the rivalry and revealed that it was one of the first things brought to his attention after putting pen to paper to join the Black Cats.
“When I joined, it was made clear to me just how big the rivalry is between Sunderland and Newcastle,” he recalled.
“The rivalry isn’t really taking place on the pitch right now because they are in two different leagues.
“But when I was at Sunderland, we were in the same league.
“We knew how much it meant to the supporters and we knew that, if we lose to Newcastle, we can’t go out in town.”
Chimbonda only managed to play in one Wear-Tyne derby during his time on Wearside, but managed to play his part in making a little bit of derby history.
Djibril Cisse and Kieran Richardson, with a sensational late free-kick, were the goalscorers as the Black Cats beat the Magpies on home soil for the first time in 28 years – a memory that still stays with the 38-year-old.
“We beat Newcastle at the Stadium of Light, when Kieran Richardson scored, and the supporters were unbelievable,” he added.
“It felt like we could lose every other game, but winning this one game meant everything to them.
“The noise when Kieran scored that free-kick, it still stays with me.
“It was so loud.
“I played a lot of derbies, with Tottenham and Blackburn Rovers, but there was nothing like this derby.”
Now he has returned to the North East and will ply his trade with Northern League Division One strugglers Washington.
Chimbonda could be in the side away to high-flying Marske United on Saturday, while Sunderland host Queens Park Rangers in the Championship.
“Of course I will be focused on Washington and getting a win, but I will still look out for Sunderland’s result when we have finished our game,” he said.