Tuesday 21 November 2017

The long and winding road back to the top

Sunderland's problems are many and varied. A solution to them all will be difficult to find

Sunderland manager David Moyes. Photo: PA Wire
Sunderland manager David Moyes. Photo: PA Wire

Colin Young

There is a former Sunderland board member, and a part of the team who negotiated its sale to American billionaire hedge-funder Ellis Short, who once claimed the current owner of the famous North East club could not get his head around the concept of promotion and relegation in the Premier League.

Short, who has spent a lifetime making his money from figures, could not understand why the league table was not based on attendances. How could the likes of Bournemouth and Burnley survive? They have this season and Sunderland haven't.

And so his sixth relegation battle with his sixth manager has ended with the drop. And it is the ordinary people at the football club who are the real victims. Short, David Moyes and the majority of the players, will survive.

But press officers, ticket and programme sellers, programme writers, and key office staff in every department have been made redundant. And as the reality hits, and Short prepares to see what is given by the Premier League as a parachute payment, more job losses will follow.

Had Short been allowed to work with and support his fifth manager throughout last summer and this season, Sunderland would not be relegated. But Sam Allardyce was taken out of his hands by the English FA and his messy departure from Wearside had a dramatic impact on Sunderland's owner and the club.

Allardyce's appointment as England manager could have been rubber-stamped weeks before the inevitable announcement, but while the FA quite rightly went through its lengthy interview process, Sunderland waited. Allardyce's interest waned, transfer targets were missed and players became restless.

By the time Allardyce had gone, and the obvious replacement and Short's preferred choice, David Moyes, was put in place, Short's fragile interest in football, Sunderland, survival and his new manager was at breaking point. This was a successful London City-based businessman whose name had been sullied by the Adam Johnson scandal, although it was his chief executive Margaret Byrne who took the blame and the £850,000 compensation revealed last week.

No surprise they failed miserably in the summer transfer market and missing out on midfield rock Yann M'Vila, mainly due to Allardyce's departure, was a huge blow. The signings they made were not good enough and, crucially, they did not sign a partner for Jermain Defoe. But as Short acknowledged in his statement after relegation, Sunderland have been doing that with transfers for years.

Every manager who has been employed by Short, while charmed in the initial meetings, has talked through gritted teeth when describing their relationship with an owner who preferred to attend the bigger matches and has been seen a handful of times at the Stadium of Light this season. Moyes admitted after two months that the club's brochure had changed considerably.

Although he has worked closely with new chief executive and proper football administrator Martin Bain for months now, Moyes has not helped himself with his signings. His 'best' addition was Victor Anichebe who was a free and injured most weeks. He spent a club record £13.6m on Didier Ndong and another £8m on Chelsea reserve Papy Djilobodji. They are each worth half those amounts at best. His Manchester United trio of Adnan Januzaj, Donald Love and Paddy McNair might not be good enough for the Championship. But he still desperately needed at least a striker in January and instead got Darron Gibson, Bryan Oviedo and Joleon Lescott, who have sadly contributed very little to a very poor side.

The only surprise is that Moyes, unlike many before him, survived the winter. But he was left to fight with blunt instruments, although his tactics and selections have been bewildering at times and his players lost the fight months ago. He has to be accountable for that.

Even their one lifeline, Defoe's goals, dried up. He hasn't scored in 10 games although he did score in his England recall against Lithuania on March 26. Defoe had 12 goals after the gritty 2-2 home draw with Liverpool, when the transfer window had just opened and they had a fighting chance. He has scored three since and now Sunderland must see out their miserable campaign with a disenchanted support who are threatening not to renew season tickets for the Championship.

Unlike their neighbours Newcastle United, who returned to the top flight triumphantly, if a little hesitantly, just days before Sunderland succumbed to the inevitable, relegation has not been embraced as a new beginning. Twelve months ago, Rafa Benitez agreed to stay on at St James's Park and the Rafalution started.

But the Moyes Misery is the antithesis of that. While St James's has been full to capacity for most EFL games, figures for recent home games at the Stadium of Light have betrayed the increasing number of empty red seats, unless season tickets are being added in a bid to keep Sunderland at the right end of the attendances league table which is so important to the owner.

Moyes's demeanour, and sadly his honesty from the first game of the season, have not won him many friends and a growing number want him out. He's also not Allardyce, who is still perceived as the saviour the fans had been waiting for. Since they hounded out his mate Peter Reid, then Mick McCarthy, Steve Bruce and Martin O'Neill in fact, although the familiar strains of 'Keano' have been gaining momentum among the Sunderland faithful in recent weeks.

They won't get Allardyce or Roy Keane so for the moment, despite growing unrest, they are stuck with Moyes who announced on Friday that he remains in place after talks with Short and Bain. Plans have been in place to deal with relegation for months and Bain is eager to persevere with Moyes and build a team which can cope with the demands of the Championship, and Sunderland's fans. They have also overseen the encouraging development of an under 23 squad who play Porto in the International Cup final this week and should be part of that rebuilding process. Short, meanwhile, will be eager to avoid yet another multi-million pound pay-off to another manager, but empty seats and fan power could still seal Moyes's fate.

Former captain Kevin Ball is waiting in the wings if Moyes goes. Twice a caretaker, Ball should have been given the job instead of Gus Poyet after taking care of Paolo Di Canio's tyrannical reign and no one is more qualified on the club and its supporters's basic expectations.

As Benitez and his expensively-assembled squad have discovered, the world's most sought-after promotion is also the game's most challenging, with no guarantees of victories, especially in their demanding citadel.

And Sunderland supporters only have to look at the Championship play-off contenders: Reading, Sheffield Wednesday, Fulham and Huddersfield Town to be reminded how long it can take to even have a sniff of returning to the big time before you rise from the quagmire of clubs with similar histories. Leeds United could miss out on goal difference today.

The bottom of the Championship and top of League One will not have escaped their attention either. Sheffield United and Bolton Wanderers are back in the second tier but 1995 Premier League winners Blackburn Rovers, 2011 Capital One Cup winners Birmingham City and double European Cup winners Nottingham Forest must fight to the finish to stay up.

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