The events of Easter weekend were arguably the most ‘typically Sunderland’ we’ve had in experienced in recent years.
Just when we were on the point of entirely giving up on them, the lads went and beat play off hopeful’s Derby 4-1. Two glorious days followed, the sense of detachment that I’ve felt for the majority of the season lifted and although Birmingham’s win over Ipswich was a kick in the teeth, at least I felt some emotion about the situation. Not only was I actively looking out for the results of other teams that would affect our ‘relegation battle’, but in the build up to the Sheffield Wednesday game I felt all the usual feelings that most football fans are lucky enough to experience on a weekly basis. I felt dread, I nervous and I felt anticipation, and most stupidly of all, I felt the tinniest bit of hope. Hope that a spark might have been ignited amongst this set of players.
Alas, I was wrong. Yes, the effort was there, and the performance was better than what we’ve served up at home recently. Yes, for a fleeting moment of madness when we equalised almost instantly after conceding, I did think to myself ‘ha’way, let’s beat these and we can stay up!’ But Sunderland being Sunderland we failed to capitalise on that momentum and we now sit 8 points adrift of safety with just six games to go.
The win at Derby was supposed to be the catalyst for another logic defying great escape. However, all it did was paper over the cracks and gave us an enjoyable Friday night. As this team has proven time and time again, they are incapable of executing moments in a game to our advantage. Of course, on another day, Lee Cattermole’s shot from the edge of the area would have struck the post and ended up in the back of the net and Lynden Gooch would have been awarded a penalty, but when you can’t defend properly this is all semantics.
If the stars had aligned for us and we had beaten Sheffield Wednesday it may have just papered over a few more cracks and delayed the inevitable for slightly longer. Naturally, Birmingham would have felt more pressure ahead of their tip to the Macron Stadium, but it’s no unreasonable to suggest that they would have gone there and won anyway, leaving us five points adrift, even if we had mustered back to back wins.
This is a microcosm of everything that’s gone wrong on Wearside, going back almost 10 years. In pursuit of solving our long-term problems, we have tried to pacify ourselves with short term bodged jobs. It’s the equivalent of trying to treat a severe flesh wound by sticking a plaster on it, now the wound has been infected to the point that the only way to relieve the poison and stop it spreading any further is to physically remove it.
There are two main areas of alarming short-termism at the club and that is the recruitment of both players and managers. From a playing staff point of view our dealings have been nothing short of woeful, time and time again we seem to have signed players based on their availability alone and nothing else. Even when we tried to implement a long-term strategy of sorts, by adopting the Director of Football model, we approached it haphazardly.
We all become experts in hindsight, but the way we went about the Director of Football role was farcical. Although, in Italy it may be common practice for a Head Coach to focus solely on tactics and coaching whilst leaving transfers to a Director of Football, having Paolo Di Canio as the man to work alongside Roberto Di Fanti was a disaster. Di Canio was an old style dictatorial figure who wanted complete control over every aspect of the club. Di Fanti, himself was hopelessly underqualified for the role and with him being a former agent, there was always going to be a conflict of interest. The result was a disaster and just over a year later, the majority of players signed that summer were deemed surplus to requirements.
We tried the system again under Lee Congerton, but this proved to be almost equally as disastrous, although we did manage to swap Defoe for Altidore. Under both Poyet and Advocaat the signings appeared to be firmly split between the Head Coaches signings and Congerton’s signings. The likes of Bridcutt, Buckley and Scocco had Poyet’s stamp all over them, whereas Advocaat brought in the likes of Lens and Toivonen and accusations such as Fabio Borini were clearly made by Congerton.
This was clearly not an effective way of doing business and it showed a chronic lack of joined up thinking. The idea of an effective Head Coach and Director of Football relationship is that they both have input on every target, or the coach surrenders control of transfers entirely to the DOF. But at Sunderland, Dick Adovcaat asked for a big target man and got Fabio Borini. This transfer demonstrates the culture of papering over the cracks. Borini was clearly signed because he had been popular with the fans the first time around, as he did not fit into the way Advocaat wanted to play and came across as a panic buy.
Away from our failed attempt at utilising a Director of Football, our transfer activity hasn’t exactly pulled up any trees. The fact that we have managed to make a profit on just three signings in recent years tells its own sorry story.
Managerial appointments haven’t been much better, I know many of you will say it’s harsh to criticise Short for this, as all of our recent appointments, bar Simon Grayson have been met with optimism. However, it could be argued that they have all been short term in their nature and we gambled far too much on simply employing the right manager and expecting results to follow. The arrival of big name managers may sound exciting at the time, but it makes you wonder what scrutiny we actually put them under. Dick Advocaat was largely popular amongst fans, but historically he has spent a lot of money everywhere he has managed previously, so if we can’t promise him that why appoint him beyond the end of the 14-15 season? Why entrust a manager who is notorious for playing almost gung-ho attacking football with a season long relegation battle? David Moyes may have seemed an obvious choice at the time, but it was obvious from very early on that his heart wasn’t in. Surely his lack of enthusiasm must have shone through at an early stage?
Even this season we have attempted these short-term fixes to get us out of trouble, initially we appointed Simon Grayson with the thought process, ‘well, he can do a job on a budget.’ The clear plan this season was to consolidate whilst attempting to sort the financial side of things out before pushing on next season. But it didn’t seem to be considered that Grayson had never taken on a team in our position and he had previously built his Championship ‘success’ after getting a team out of League One with momentum behind him. Again in the transfer window, we shopped in the ‘whoops’ section of Tesco. We didn’t buy players because we thought they were any good they were just bought simply because the were there. We assembled a team with no physicality for a manager who wanted to play direct football. The board rolled the dice again with Chris Coleman thinking that he would be the quick fix to get us over the line.
Unfortunately, though with players having to depart the club and an ever-growing injury list, Coleman has not had a fair crack at keeping us up. Although I don’t absolve the Welshman of all blame, I do think that he deserves the opportunity to turn things around next season. However, if we are to come back up at the first attempt we need to learn from our past mistakes and regardless of ownership we need to implement an actual strategy rather than attempting to patch things over and hope for the best.