IT has become something of a transfer-window cliché.

Whenever a player moves to a new club, it has become traditional for them to claim they were a ‘boyhood supporter’ of their new employers, even if it quickly becomes apparent they’ve barely even heard of the team in question.

Some even go the whole hog and brag about the poster that was once on their bedroom wall.

Tom Flanagan wasn’t a boyhood Sunderland fan, and he doesn’t pretend to have been. However, he can justifiably claim to have been the next best thing.

His three closest friends were red-and-white mad, so while he might have been born and raised in London, his earliest footballing-watching days revolved around the Black Cats. Prior to moving to Wearside this summer, he had barely even been the North-East. In a funny sort of way, though, his free transfer from Burton Albion felt a bit like coming home.

“I used to go to quite a few Sunderland away games with my friends,” said Flanagan, a versatile defender who can play in any position across the back four. “They’re mad Sunderland fans. They were born in London, but for some reason that I’ve never quite got to the bottom of, they started supporting Sunderland from a really young age.

“We used to play football on a Sunday, and you’d all wear your kits. It would be Chelsea, Fulham, teams like that from where we were, and the odd Manchester United one that was frowned upon. Then my three mates would rock up in every Sunderland kit that came out.

“I can remember pretty much every Sunderland kit because they were my three best friends. It was good. We used to go to the London games. I remember one game in particular at Luton. Sunderland got beat, and we were in the Sunderland end. We went with one of the lads’ dads, and he went, ‘Right, let’s stop talking now because everyone will know that we’re from round here’.

“I got the tail end of the (Kevin) Phillips era, but the main time that I was watching, Roy Keane was the manager. I remember them in the Championship for one season under Keane, but most of the games I watched would definitely have been in the Premier League. They blitzed the league under Keane and we went to a lot of games that season.”

Flanagan remains close to his childhood friends, and when news of Sunderland’s interest first emerged this summer, it did not take long for his phone to ring.

“My phone has been going mental all summer,” he said. “I didn’t play at the Stadium of Light last season when Sunderland beat us, but I played in the game down at Burton.

“They came to the game. They were all saying, ‘Yeah, you could have won’, but secretly I know they would all have gone into the car to go home delighted that Sunderland won. They didn’t care what I was like as long as Sunderland won. I know where their loyalty lies!”

Flanagan’s loyalties are now firmly in the same position, and while a number of Championship clubs expressed an interest after Nigel Clough made him surplus to requirements at the Pirelli Stadium, his head was turned the moment Sunderland made their move.

These are topsy-turvy times at the Stadium of Light, with last season’s relegation to League One heralding a chaotic summer that saw a change of ownership, the appointment of a new manager and the arrival of a host of new signings.

Sunderland have been on a downward spiral for a number of years, but they remain one of the biggest draws in the Football League and Flanagan leapt at the opportunity to help kick-start their rebuilding job.

“It’s a juggernaut,” he said. “It just needs to be turned around. My phone has not stopped all summer. People I’ve not spoken to for ten years have suddenly started calling again and texting me congratulations.

“When I signed for Burton, I didn’t get any of that. During the medical, I was talking to the physio and I was talking about the Championship. It had completely slipped my mind that we were actually in League One.

“Obviously, I wanted to stay in the Championship, and I actually turned down two offers in the Championship. But not once have I sat here and thought, ‘I shouldn’t have done that’.

“I’ve signed a two-year contract, and hopefully I’ll be here for the two years and we’ll be in the Championship next year. It’s just about turning it round, and a fresh start might be the right thing. We’ll know by the end of this season.”

With more than 20,000 season tickets having been sold, pre-season expectations are high. The three sides to win promotion from League One last season were the three sides that were relegated in the previous campaign, and there are plenty of examples of big clubs using a spell in League One as a springboard to future success.

“It’s no use any of us thinking about what’s happened before,” said Flanagan, who will be part of the Sunderland side that kicks off the campaign against Charlton tomorrow. “There’s nothing I can do about that, and there’s nothing that any of us in the dressing room can change. So why worry about it?

“I’ve played in League One a lot, and I remember playing against Southampton when they won the league. They won back-to-back titles and were straight back playing in the Premier League. I remember watching them in the Premier League, knowing that I played against nine of the players in League One.

“It can happen. Norwich did it, and so did Wolves. The club has taken a step back, but maybe it’s a step back to go forward.”