Black Cats adopt open-door policy in fight to lift gloom
Published 14/10/2016 | 02:30
Sunderland's training ground might be called the Academy of Light, a state-of-the-art, five-star facility with all the luxurious fixtures and fittings a Premier League footballer desires, but it can be a bleak place.
The wind, even on a tame autumn day, blows in off the North Sea and makes you shiver. The flags flying outside have, like the team, taken a battering. The Union Flag is shredded around the edges. So is the one with the club crest emblazoned on it.
Crucially they are still there, clinging on to the pole - no matter how bad the storm, no matter how harshly the wind howls, they will not be removed.
This is a club that could have been in tatters, yet it just about remains intact. For five years they have wrestled against relegation and for five years they have just about managed to stay on top. It has been a hard place to play football. It still is, but where some shrivel, others thrive.
Jermain Defoe, who wraps up warm to shield himself from the cold before every training session, is someone who understands what it takes to make this unique corner of the country a happy home. Without his 15 goals last season, Sunderland would be in the Championship now.
"It's cold, that's it," said Defoe after a training session manager David Moyes ordered to be open to the media to show what is being done to end another dreadful start to the season. "Everything else, it's just an excuse. It's like going to an away game at Stoke this weekend. It's going to be cold, it's a tough place to go. . . you lose the game, you make excuses.
"If you want to play in front of amazing fans, a big stadium, with fantastic training facilities, then put some tracksuit bottoms on and come and play for Sunderland. It's a soft way out to make excuses about the weather. I'm a real London boy, but I've loved it, I've enjoyed it and embraced it.
"I've moved to a nice house in a quiet area. London's so busy, in a way it's nice to come away. There's not so many distractions. For my football, for my career, it's better. I had a different perception in the past, but this is the ideal place to play football."
Not many people would agree with him, given Sunderland's league position, but there is a tough core to this squad which Defoe has bonded with.
"It's difficult," he added. "But, the lads, they've been through some tough times so it's not like this is something we've not experienced before. Maybe other teams would panic more than we do. We've always had a good spirit here and it's going to take the new manager some time. It takes time to build something, but that is what he wants to do.
"It's just more excuses for players to say 'there's been ups and downs, it's been tough, the manager has gone and a new one has come in'. So what?
"You're playing in the Premier League, it's something you've wanted to do since you were a kid, so if you can't motivate yourself and go out there and perform, you shouldn't be playing the game."
Sunderland's heating training pitches were opened 13 years ago, and the club are still waiting for the trees around them to grow enough to protect the players from the wind. Promoted to the Premier League in 2007, Sunderland are also still trying to put down strong roots in the top flight.
This is the challenge that Moyes accepted in July, the one Roy Keane, Steve Bruce, Martin O'Neill, Paolo di Canio, Gus Poyet and even Sam Allardyce failed to beat.
The constant struggles against relegation had made Sunderland suspicious and wary, particularly of media scrutiny. Moyes wants to change that, which is why, with the team winless and bottom, he still opened the doors for journalists. It is something he picked up from his time in Spain with Real Sociedad.
Rather than hide when things are not going well, he wants people to see what he is trying to do. It is also a useful message to send to the players - there is no hiding place - because this will not be the last time Sunderland allow the media behind normally closed doors.
So what are Sunderland doing to get out of their usual early-season slump?
The usual things: conditioning, gym work, close-control exercises, which expose the technique of some members of the first-team squad. The mood, though, is good. There are smiles as well as shivers.
Moyes clearly wants to improve Sunderland's wing play . The 15 players available to train - Sunderland are top of the Premier League injury table - are relentlessly put through drills, feeding the ball out wide for crosses to be delivered. First time, on the run, again and again.
After a largely uninspiring start, Sunderland get better. Defoe is clinical, but there are also signs that Victor Anichebe, signed as a free agent after the transfer window with no pre-season training, is getting sharper.
The quality of crossing also rises. After likening one poor effort from Patrick van Aanholt to "hitting a ball with a shovel" Moyes begins to applaud and congratulate.
He is in the middle of things, encouraging, rebuking, cajoling. If Sunderland do turn things around, it will be his hand on the tiller.
When I asked Moyes last week if he was still enjoying the challenge he took on, there was a grimace - not surprising when you have not won a league game in a new job.
It is tougher than he expected. The club did not deliver the signings he expected and there might not be enough money in January to make the upgrades he wants, but he does enjoy his time at the training ground.
It is what he relishes, getting out in his tracksuit, working with the players rather than leaving it to somebody else while he sits in his office and works on his motivational speeches.
Sunderland are in trouble, but they are trying to change under Moyes. Open training sessions are just part of that. They need more players like Defoe, who understand what it takes to succeed. The question is, like the trees designed to protect them from the wind, can they grow quickly enough? (© Daily Telegraph, London)