The task facing Howard Wilkinson is enormous. Despite three quarters of the season remaining, the words ‘relegation’ and ‘dogfight’ are being used with increasing frequency in conjunction with ‘Sunderland’ and ‘AFC’. Such an uphill struggle would have been almost unthinkable as little as two years ago, but the decline has been steady for over a year and a half, and the board of Sunderland AFC must shoulder much of the blame.
Cast your minds back, you don’t have to go far, to January 2001. After a 2-0 win at West Ham, Sunderland were in second place in the Premiership. The fans went to matches, both at home and away, with a smile on their faces and an expectancy that the team was going to play their hearts out. Everything was wonderful and the board of Sunderland AFC knew it.
In a very short period of time, the board had seen attendances at the Stadium of Light double, then treble and then, (compared to some of the dark days of the Butcher/Buxton era) quadruple. Unfortunately, in return for our loyal support over several seasons, the fans were simply taken for granted, The board assumed that the fans would just keep on turning up regardless of how (un)successful the team was on the pitch. Investment was not forthcoming, and a horrendous complacency set in.
As Sunderland challenged for a place in the Champions’ League, the fans continued to pour their money into the coffers, expecting the club to press home their position with quality acquisitions. It was announced that Sunderland were selling more replica shirts than any other club in the Premiership and, in addition to this, the fans were turning up for home matches several hours early to plough even more of their money into the club through the consumption of pies and pints.
With the possibility of Champions’ League football on the horizon, true World-Class players could have been attracted to Sunderland. The board had it in their power to do something about this, but they sat on their hands and kept things as they were, delighted only by the fact that Sunderland were in the Premiership and failing to see that staying still at this level means you go backwards. Sunderland faded to seventh place by the end of the season and, in terms of signing top-drawer talent, the horse had bolted.
Sunderland had a squad of players that, with the right additions and replacements for the ageing staff, could break into the top six. The likes of Schwarz, Thome and Bould added vital steel and experience to the quality and exuberance of Phillips, Sørensen and McCann. Fast forward to the present, and with opportunities missed, the squad barely looks capable of breaking out of the bottom six. The previous management had been over-reliant on the ever fading Niall Quinn and, as an apparent panic measure, over £20m has been spent on players that the new manager may not rate highly.
The Academy seems to have blinded the board’s view of first team affairs, the proposed extension of the South Stand to a capacity of 55,000 was looking distinctly unfeasible as attendances dropped below the original SoL capacity of 42,000, including a sub 40,000 gate for Bolton. The plans were, unsurprisingly, shelved without fuss.
Howard Wilkinson and Steve Cotterill have been left with a squad which is larger than Mickey Quinn’s waistline. As a result, a phenomenal amount of money will be flowing out of the club each week on the wages of players who aren’t anywhere near the first team squad. Stanislav Varga and Stefan Schwarz, for instance, were both transfer listed last summer, to get their high wages off the bill. However, as nobody wants them, they continue to get paid for doing little or nothing. Not that it’s their fault.
In addition to this, in bringing in a new manager, Bob Murray has opened up the possibility that many more high earners could be allowed to draw their wages without featuring in the team. Wilkinson is not under any obligation to play any of the most recently bought players, as he didn’t buy them. Indeed, he has already demonstrated this by leaving Flo out of the picture completely against West Ham, and leaving Stewart and Piper out at Bolton and Charlton.
The board may find that their decision to allow Reid to spend the money that he did was a significant mistake. If Wilkinson decides that many of the players at the club are not the answer, then we would be unlikely to recoup the money that was paid for them. In the case of the recent signings, Matt Piper has so far struggled to justify his £3.5m price tag. Although he is a good corner winner, he has yet to put in a really convincing performance. If he was to flop at Sunderland, he would probably leave at a significantly reduced cost.
Stephen Wright will also be under scrutiny. Whilst he has established himself as the best right back at the club, it is hardly an achievement when compared to the other contenders. At Liverpool, he was rated below Carragher, Xavier and Babbel for a place in the team and Gerard Houllier allowed him to leave without much resistance. Coincidence?
It is the panic buying which has the biggest financial question mark over it. Despite spending a reported £10m on strikers a month earlier, Reid played David Bellion against Aston Villa. Add that to the fact that Wilkinson has recalled Michael Proctor from his loan spell at Bradford and we have a sudden glut of forwards. Flo and Stewart look good on paper, but the product has been unsatisfactory. With money in short supply, especially amongst the teams who are of the standard that would want to buy our surplus players, Sunderland appear to have far too many players and little chance of getting rid of them. In turn, there is little chance of Wilkinson being able to bring in the players he thinks can turn the situation around.
While the same players are achieving the same kind of results for Howard Wilkinson as they were for Peter Reid, few of the fans who voted with their wallets, as well as their feet, will be prepared to return. With the sale of season tickets having dropped dramatically, and a crowd of 35,432 for the Fulham game, a lot of people have been hurt by the recent direction of the club. Even those that remained have shown their disdain for the current crop of players, as shown by the mass walkout after Fulham went 3-0 up after 78 minutes.
People are no longer spending their money at the club. The flood of cash that the board enjoyed only a couple of years ago has been significantly reduced. It all adds up to a very difficult situation for Wilkinson and Cotterill, who must now battle against the mess created in the past eighteen months, as well as against the other teams in the Premiership.