Football often hangs on the smallest margins both in terms of success and failure. I was reminded of this while following a Twitter thread which referred to “what if” moments. The moment in question was “What if Yaya Toure’s worldy had cannoned off the bar instead?”. I have no doubt that fans of other clubs can list theirs too, but we do seem to have our fair share of knife edge moments at Sunderland. John Byrne’s miss in 92, David Corner not putting it out of play in 85, Big Sam taking the England job. Then there is the other side, what if Drumaville hadn’t come to save us, what if Murray didn’t have his vision for the SOL, what if Glenn Roeder hadn’t tipped a wink to the visiting scouts about a relatively unknown Kevin Phillips?
The fact is that football often comes down to the slimmest of margins which will decide the future for several years. At this very moment Sunderland are at a crossroads. This is potentially the most significant moment in the club’s history and a decision could be the difference between resurrection and ignominy. In a Mystic Mike moment, I am going to attempt to spell out the three divergent paths that sit before us and perhaps hint at which one we may go down. I am, however, as capable of telling the future as the star sign writer in any local rag so please don’t take my word for it. Ultimately the future is undecided and that’s part of the beauty of football, it’s what generates the hope that one day things will be glorious. To predict the future, you must learn lessons from history so I have decided to look at the fortunes of clubs who have been in similar positions as us in years gone by.
In 1992, after John Byrne’s miss, Simple Minds’ “Alive and kicking” was everywhere. Pictures of Colin Hendry with the hair of an angry Braveheart extra bouncing a ball in a dressing room come flooding back. Sky Sports were launching the Premier League with great fanfare. The British transfer record was broken and the stage was set for the big boys to shine on a new platform. To everyone’s surprise though, in those early days of the premier league it was not the big boys who shone brightest. Mick Quinn had dusted off his shooting boots during the close season and Coventry were flying high. They could not maintain the momentum and eventually went on to finish 15th, but in those early days everyone was talking about Coventry. Despite the promised riches of the premier league, Coventry were placed into administration 20 years later having been relegated to the third tier. Four years later they were relegated to the bottom tier of the league. They were rescued from administration in 2007 with 20 minutes to go until the deadline. You could argue that those who bought the club had the interest of keeping the club afloat and turning it around, but in 2013 the club ended up playing home games in Northampton and went into administration. Four years later they were relegated to the bottom tier. Now I have no sympathy with Coventry following the infamous draw with Bristol City, but they were a decent sized club with a good new stadium. They were taken over at their lowest ebb and have suffered since. There are parallels with what we are going through right now. Believe me, I do not envisage this future for our club; this is very much “worst case scenario” territory but there are lessons to be learned here and, whilst it is not the future I envisage, it is one which remains a possibility.
Fast forward now to 1997. With great emotion we said goodbye to Roker Park. We were moving to this great new stadium but leaving a bit of our hearts behind. On top of this we had just been relegated and it had all been caught on film in a documentary called Premier Passions. It wasn’t supposed to be like this, we were meant to move into our new stadium on the biggest domestic football stage in the world. Sadly, typical Sunderland, we opened our stadium with a friendly against Ajax and then followed it up with First division football (as I think it was called then). That season was enjoyable, for one thing I was in my first year of uni learning all about the hostelries of Stirling and the special relationship between the English and the Scots. For another thing we had a decent season. We amassed 90 points, finishing third. One point behind Boro and were sent into the play offs. We beat Sheffield Utd for a trip to Wembley where what is often described as one of the best matches of all time unfolded before our eyes. I didn’t make it to Wembley that year. I was sat in a pub at the foot of the Wallace Monument by myself with four locals. As the drama unfolded it caught the attention of the locals and when Summerbee scored in extra time one of them hugged me telling me we had done it because of the golden goal rule. In an excited, confused state I believed him. Then Charlton kicked off again. We all know what happened next and we can all probably still see Lionel Perez flapping wildly through a crowd of players as the ball bounced off Richard Rufus’ head. As Micky Gray missed his penalty my head slumped downwards. I closed my eyes for what seemed like only a few seconds, but it was long enough for the locals to stick four whiskies on the bar for me. Another “what if”moment. What happened to Charlton after that game? Well they were relegated the next season, but the club stuck with Alan Curbishley and in 03-04 you could argue a Champions League place would have been secured were it not for the sale of Scott Parker to Chelsea. They ended up finishing 7th. They never really built beyond that. After being linked with several takeovers from wealthy investors which never materialised they were relegated to League One in 2009. Owners came in, who one can assume saw Charlton as little more than a club at which players from their network of clubs could develop, and a managerial roundabout commenced. Protests ensued with matches disrupted by plastic pigs amongst other things being thrown on to the pitch. The Charlton fans marched in protest and were joined by Brighton and Blackpool fans. Charlton finished 6th this season but failed to get past Shrewsbury. We will be playing them next season. They have stagnated and remain in League One.
And so, to the positive model; in 08/09 Wolves were promoted to the Premier League. Mick McCarthy did what Mick does. He got the best out of players. Wolves survived for two seasons before Mick’s time ran out and Terry Connor was placed in charge. Wolves were relegated. A Norwegian unknown saw his time in charge of the club last just six months before the Welshman, Dean Saunders, came in. Saunders oversaw players with egos which did not match their ability who were on relatively big wages. Saunders was quite open about this in his press releases. The fans turned on those players, viewing them as mediocre players who were stealing a living. The parallels here are stark. Relegation followed as Wolves fell to League One. Saunders was sacked. Kenny Jackett followed and immediately saw the way forward. Those overpaid players were forced into the reserves as youth was given a chance to develop. In that season Wolves amassed a league record of 103 points in League One. On their promotion Wolves were acquired by the Fosun group who terminated Jackett’s contract days after taking over. Walter Zenga was appointed which raised a few eyebrows but was sacked before the midway mark. Paul Lambert came in and failed to improve things in any meaningful sense. At the end of the season he was sacked and in came Nuno Espirito Santo. We witnessed the Yam Yam party descending on our city on the last game of the season, so I don’t need to go into the details of what happened next
In all these things one constant remains; the ownership of the club is vital in setting the direction. The protests at Charlton and Coventry demonstrate what a disconnect with fans can bring. That disconnect seeps on to the pitch. Conversely, a freedom for the manager to do what he feels is right is vital. Kenny Jackett probably should have been given the opportunity to build on what he had started, but that freedom to send highly paid individuals into the wilderness and bring young talent through cannot be underestimated in its contribution to where Wolves are now. Wolves fell lucky, they found some wealthy investors and pushed on. What they had in League one was freedom for a manager to do what he saw fit, to strip out the dead wood, to build from foundations. If we can do that then we have every chance of bouncing back rather than falling down. If we rise again perhaps we will see the investment and once again we can send scouts to a little club like Watford and uncover a gem.
To celebrate being complete and utter shite once again, we’re bringing bring back this classic t-shirt from the 05/06 season. Looking back to those halcyon days under Mick McCarthy when we managed to amass an incredible 15 points to see us relegated from the Premier League.
Don’t worry we will reach those lofty heights again but until then we can take comfort in the fact that we’re all... still here when we are shit! Hardcore fans and Sunderland till we die, whichever league we are in and whoever owns the club. Players, manager and chairman come and go. Fans remain. We are the club… click here to view product