If the league position, lack of goals and indeed lack of favours from other clubs at the bottom of the Championship table weren't enough of a kick in the teeth, then Lewis Grabban scoring the opener in 3rd vs 20th was just another thing to add to Sunderland's list of woes this season. The alternate universe where Aston Villa and Sunderland would have been playing each other in the top flight seems a million miles away now, and the two teams could end up an entire league apart next season if Villa go up and Sunderland go down. The odds of Sunderland plying their trade in the third tier of English football are now at their shortest, Sunderland are 1/7 to be relegated, making it a simple cash-in rather than a bet in the bookies' eyes.
It's certainly looking like that could be an outcome too. Now at the bottom of the table, the Black Cats have had a woeful season, and it's pretty easy to see why the former Premier League club are below teams like Burton Albion, Bolton and Barnsley. The team have managed 38 goals, just over 1 per game, whilst shipping 65, and have managed a successful passing percentage of 73% and average possession of 49%. Although not the worst stats in the league (that title goes to Bolton), the point to make is that Sunderland have had a definite mixture of poor performances and poor luck.
Now that Grabban is long gone, the strikers who needed to step up just haven't materialised. Of the four first team forwards currently at Chris Coleman's disposal, only two goals have been scored from an combined 28 starts and 19 substitute appearances. The club's top scorer is now winger / attacking midfielder Aiden McGeady, who has managed 6 in the league. How Sunderland have managed to get to the point where a proven emergency striker wasn't begged, borrowed or stolen in the transfer window beggars belief, and it isn't like the defence is any better.
With an average of 17 tackles and 14 shots conceded per game, it's also easy to see how 65 goals have been conceded. The cross converted by Grabban on Tuesday saw the ball bounce in the box and go sailing past three defenders and the keeper, acting as the perfect allegory for Sunderland's defensive organisation this season. These woeful statistics aren't a new occurrence either, with shocking defensive records year on year since Sunderland were relegated from the Premier League. And for all of Sunderland's woes both up front and at the back, there's only one area for blame.
In 3 years, UEFA cup winner Dick Advocaat, disgraced former England boss Sam Allardyce, Premier League veteran David Moyes, and journeyman Simon Grayson have all been and gone, leaving long-time Wales boss and former Fulham manager Chris Coleman in charge of the dressing room. Aberdeen boss Derek McInnes even turned down Sunderland in a smart career move, proving how toxic the Sunderland hot seat currently is. Ellis Short isn't afraid to get rid of non-performing managers, but it certainly feels like problems run a lot deeper than just managerial choices.
Sunderland had an estimated $160 million in debt in 2016, the 3rd highest in England and the 13th highest in Europe , which has led to year-on-year reduction to the transfer budget. In a league where teams like Aston Villa, Middlesbrough and Wolves have paid transfer fees of well over £10 million for fellow Championship players, the £1.25 million spent on ten players in the summer and a budget of £0 handed to Chris Coleman in January just goes to show how financially stricken the club are. Even the sale of under-performer James Vaughan was snapped up for debt repayments, rather than going back into the transfer pot. If Sunderland go down, then they'd still need to pay players like Jack Rodwell, who did not agree to a relegation wage-drop clause, the same they were paying when they were riding high in the top tier. The cherry on the cake of financial despair is that the club is in such a poor financial state that Short is allegedly willing to give the club away for free.
And it seems that this uncertainty, along with severely poor decisions from the board is the black cloud that is causing such grief on the pitch as well as the stands. There's no doubt that what happens in the boardroom will definitely affect player morale and performance, and judging by the reactions from the Sunderland players at being in 20th position in the last 10 games of the season, they are certainly feeling the League One whirlpool sucking them. It''s certainly a factor in players like Vaughan, Grabban and Didier Ndong jumping ship earlier this season. Ndong even gave a message of thanks and wished fans the best in a farewell message, perhaps forgetting that he was only going to Watford on loan with performance targets standing in the way of him escaping the Stadium of Light for good..
Luckily, escape from relegation is possible with Burton, Birmingham, Barnsley and Hull only 1, 2, 4 and 5 points away respectively, and none of the other teams in the bottom 6 have an easy run to the end of the season. The big issue however is what will happen to Sunderland in the long run. The team could become the luckiest in the world on the pitch, but survival won't pay off the debts that have Sunderland tottering dangerously close to administration.