For a manager not to lament the loss of his top scorer is an oddity in football. For a fanbase to follow suit or, in some quarters, even go as far as to celebrate such a move is almost unheard of.
Yet that is the reaction which met the departure of Lewis Grabban from Sunderland last week. Grabban, on loan from Bournemouth, returned to his parent club, cutting short a season-long loan deal. A permanent move to Championship table-toppers Wolves is said to be in the offing.
Given the Black Cats’ perilous situation, propping up the second tier with over half the season gone, it would seem strange that Grabban’s return to the south coast has not been met with angst. After all, the loanee has notched twelve goals this term, a haul which constitutes over two-fifths of Sunderland’s total and places him as the joint-third highest scorer in the division.
Despite the goals, though, Grabban was unable to strike a chord with the club’s support. In one way this is understandable: fans will struggle to find much endearing about a side that has been quite so farcical as Sunderland have been this season, no matter how many goals one individual may be able to plunder.
However, Grabban’s inability to connect with those in the stands was rooted in something much simpler. To many, despite his goals and undoubted ability, Grabban was a mirror image of too many who have plied their trade on Wearside in recent years. In the eyes of plenty, he was a striker who did little to assist team-mates, be it in tracking back or closing down from the front. If he did not score, so the consensus went, he did not do much of worth.
There is an argument to be made that this is a harsh view. After all, the foremost remit of a striker is to score goals. Grabban did this in abundance. Had his team-mates done their jobs even half as well behind him, Sunderland might not once more be inhabiting a relegation spot.
But Grabban was not even named in the squad for the final three games of his Sunderland stay. A calf injury was cited as the reason for such absences, yet for Sky Sports’ Keith Downie to offer the view that Grabban’s “head was turned a couple of weeks ago” and the striker had “not wanted to risk injury” is rather damning. Whether Sunderland were paying the striker all or none of his Bournemouth wages, the fact remains that he had been enlisted to perform a job. Any hint that he looked to duck out of it should see him viewed in the poorest of lights.
This troubling tale was further underlined by a telling utterance from Chris Coleman. Far from bemoaning ill luck, Coleman was blunt in his appraisal of the situation. To hear the manager confirm that Grabban “didn’t want to be with us” was as galling as it was refreshing. So, was his next utterance: “Why should I go down on my hands and knees to convince anybody to be with us?”
In one rhetorical, straightforward question, Coleman nailed an issue that has plagued the club for much too long. Grabban constitutes yet another example of a footballer who has arrived at Sunderland and felt the club to be beneath them, or, perhaps more accurately, felt that playing for the Wearsiders did not require the standards of professionalism that would be deemed as the minimum elsewhere.
Coleman’s willingness to let Grabban go - allowing for the fact it was a matter he could have no real say in anyway - is representative of a change in the way things will be done on Wearside under the new manager. All but one of Sunderland’s most recent managers has looked to pander to squads of players that have often lacked the appetite for whatever has confronted them; Paolo Di Canio is the notable exception, but his showing in the dugout left little to suggest his successors should seek to mirror his methods in any way, shape or form.
Grabban is certainly not the first player to have failed to present the club with the respect it deserves. Indeed, the club’s recent history is littered with incidents that, had they happened in the red half of Manchester, the perpetrators would no doubt have had a tray of tea booted at their heads by an unimpressed Scotsman. Instead, on Wearside, they have been met with minimal opposition.
Over a decade ago, Alan Stubbs confirmed that he had been pleased to see his old side Everton score a last-minute winner at the Stadium of Light, despite the fact Stubbs was sat on the Sunderland bench at the time. A few years later, Pascal Chimbonda reportedly refused to head the ball in training, for fear of messing up his newly braided hair. Michael Chopra, Chimbonda’s team-mate, proclaimed upon his leaving the club that he had only joined the Black Cats to pay off his gambling debts.
Rather more recently, Jeremain Lens offered the view that he would welcome the relegation of his parent club, given that it might help him engineer a permanent move to Fenerbache, where he was currently on loan. The flagrant disregard for a club that he was still contracted to - and who were, in all likelihood, still paying a portion of his weekly wage - would have been shocking were it not accompanied by myriad examples over the last decade or so. Those listed here are just the tip of the iceberg.
Through a combination of shambolic on-field performances, weak managers, an ignorant hierarchy and too many professionals who seemingly don’t know the meaning of that word, Sunderland AFC has become a club which is held with contempt by far too many. Many scoff at the idea of there being a ‘rotten core’ at the heart of the club, but only a blind man would struggle to identify that standards have been too low for too long.
And that is why Chris Coleman’s entry has been all the more encouraging. Though he has overseen an upturn in form, the club still finds itself bottom of the division. Relegation looks more likely than survival. Yet, the club now has a manager who is unwilling to allow its name to be trampled in the process.
Upon his arrival, Coleman pulled few punches. “If [players] want to wash their hands with [the club’s situation] now,” he said, in his very first press conference, “they can go and play somewhere else for all I care.” Such an unwillingness to pamper has been a constant theme from the Welshman. Just this weekend, after the loss at Middlesbrough, he confirmed that some players “could be doing a bit more” to make themselves available for selection. Where other managers may have felt this was hanging players out to dry, Coleman has rightly realised that the attitudes of some are a disgrace.
Too many Sunderland managers have feared upsetting their playing squad. It has done them little good. Chris Coleman knows he is up against it but, more pertinently, he knows he has the fans on his side. He has, wisely, reasoned that there is no place for a lack of professionalism. Better to go down fighting with youngsters than not muster a battle at all.
Lewis Grabban’s goals will be missed on Wearside. Replacing them has become Sunderland’s top transfer priority. But his departure, for all the trouble it brings, represents a turning point for the club, and a positive one at that.
Finally, Sunderland’s manager understands what it is to represent such a club. Now it’s time for his players to follow suit.