The date was 19th August 2006. Sunderland had just lost their fourth straight Championship game and looked doomed to continue their infamous poor form which had seen us set a record for the least number of points, in the Premier League the previous season. We were all feeling pretty glum about our fortunes, but it’s fair to say not many people would have predicted the turn around which happened in the following months.
There had been a fair amount of pre-season optimism, when Niall Quinn came back to save us. And the worries of a further slide down the Football League pyramid soon evaporated once Roy Keane took control and we didn’t really look back once the points started to flow. I guess it was last time fans could go to a match and expect a win. In the second half of the season, we were unbeaten at the SOL, absolutely belting stuff.
So, after blitzing the division during the 2006/07 campaign, what is different this time around? Firstly, there has been wholesale change on Wearside. Chris Coleman is our tenth manager since Keane departed in November 2008, a remarkable number and one which shows that we’re never too keen to stick by a manager. This trigger-happy approach has meant that over the last decade many of our players have played under often two managers a season (three, if you include caretakers). Adjusting to new tactics and ideologies has proved hard for some, in many cases a change of management has resulted in players leaving - Paolo Di Canio being a front runner in this category with his ban on sauces and ice. Couldn’t make that last sentence up, could you?
The recruitment policy of some of these managers has undoubtedly contributed to our current predicament. Since promotion in 2007, we have seen some real dross come through the doors at the SOL. We have a poor history of signing players with big wage demands and little desire to fight on the pitch. Papy Djilobodji, Wahbi Khazri and Fabio Borini are three names who, at times, looked like they couldn’t care less at Sunderland but have gone on to perform superbly on the continent, whilst we’re still footing their bills. Terrific.
Under Roy Keane, we didn’t play beautiful football. However, we had a team of players who would put a shift in. Nyron Nosworthy, Grant Leadbitter, Dean Whitehead and Liam Miller were players who would scrap for every ball and we had enough goal scorers in the team to make sure we were rewarded for the hard work. Frankly, I would love to have that squad back now.
The standard of the Championship hasn’t changed a great deal since we last flirted with it. There were some strong teams battling for promotion, with the likes of Southampton and Wolves making the play offs and Preston (with the prolific David Nugent) just missing out on the top six. The eye-catching side of the top half, when you look at where they are now, were Colchester. They finished tenth and put an end to our 17-game unbeaten run when they beat us 3-1 at Layer Road. I’m still convinced their ground was too small and intimidating for visiting teams, but that might just be bitterness.
A further aspect of the Championship which hasn’t changed since this promotion season is just how brutal it can be. The early stages of the season are intense, with two matches a week. Under Keane, we could manage that. We had a big enough squad with players of ability and throughout most of the campaign we had momentum, this made it easier when the games came thick and fast. Realistically our current squad just isn’t big enough to cope with the dense fixture list. This isn’t helped by a lengthy injury list which has plagued Chris Coleman’s plans to drag us out of the mire.
One of the biggest problems at the moment is that we don’t have any money. We spent just £1.25m yet brought in 10 players last summer and the January window followed the same frugal plan and our league position is reflected by this.
This was stark contrast to the summer of 2006. July saw Niall Quinn and his Drumaville Consortium take over the club and we instantly saw players coming through the door. Roy Keane well and truly rang the changes spending £10m, which in today’s money is probably around £30m. More importantly, he shipped out the dead wood pretty damn quick. When Quinn was chairman, all of our transfers just felt more straightforward. Yes, we spent a lot, but bought and sold and recouped some cash too.
We had that same sort of clear out this year, but it feels as though we aren’t as blunt with those who depart as we once were. Then of course, there is the curious case of Jack Rodwell. This is the man who took to the national press to proclaim his love for the game and desire to leave Sunderland in a desperate attempt to be picked up by another club before the end of the window, only to find himself playing for the under-23 side a few days later. The club’s policy on this kind of time-wasting behaviour has surely changed. If this was to happen under Keane, Di Canio or Martin O’Neill, then Rodwell’s contract would surely have just been terminated. That or he could have been pushed in at the deep end and be made to prove his words. This is no criticism of Chris Coleman; it is merely an attempt to shine the light on how we as a club get walked all over by players who can’t really be bothered to play for us in the first place.
Months of soul destroying defeats have removed any joy there was left in attending matches. When we fall behind we look incapable of getting back in the game. An opposing side takes the lead and there is just a collective sigh around the SOL which suggests a united sense of ‘here we go again’. This was more understandable when we faced sides such as Manchester United, City, Arsenal etc, but when you see your side constantly rolled over by teams such as Barnsley, Ipswich, Sheffield Utd then it’s hard to criticise fans for the talk of protests.
Keane’s Championship-winning side had about a million times more bottle than the current crop. We became well known for our last-minute winners. But times have changed drastically and I just hope and pray that we pull through and survive.