I've been highly critical of the club and players for a long time now, so perhaps it's only fair to acknowledge the upturn in performances lately. Although we've only won one from the last five, I genuinely think we'd be much higher in the league – and certainly not in the bottom three – had we demonstrated the same levels of commitment throughout the previous eight months.
But we didn’t, we swanned about feeling sorry for ourselves until it was far too late, so that’s where the platitudes end from me. I'm not going to praise the players too highly for finally pulling their fingers out and giving it a bit of a go - whilst still falling short - with seven or eight games to go. Where was the effort and professional pride earlier in the season when team after team breezed past us? It almost makes me even more angry that the penny has finally dropped in April after spurning chance after chance to pull clear of relegation.
When the inevitable happens at the weekend, we’ll no doubt hear the usual bullshit from the usual suspects, but aside from Honeyman, Gooch, Asoro and Maja, I challenge any of our payers to look themselves in the mirror and ask themselves whether they’ve truly given their all throughout. They’re kidding themselves if they claim they have. They should be truly ashamed of themselves and look back on this season with embarrassment and regret that they were part of the worst team in our history, but it’s far too easy to blame dark forces and rotten cores instead.
It’s the lack of responsibility that bothers me the most, and although some outside the club are quick to criticise the fans for venting our frustrations, we’ve seen it over and over again for years now. Too many players see Sunderland as an easy ride, where they can turn up, write off large chunks of the season and still be treated as heroes as long as they perform against the Mags and in the end of season relegation run-in. The media narrative is that we’re unmanageable anyway, and the constant turnover of managers makes it far too easy to deflect blame elsewhere. There’s been a losing mentality and a culture of blame at the club for years.
The players will no doubt have you believe that they’ve given it their best all season and just couldn’t get going, and that the team that beat Derby is the ‘real’ Sunderland, but you look back on some of the goals we’ve conceded and think ‘hang on?’
I’m not claiming the players are actually anything other than rubbish as they’re not, but a team containing seasoned internationals in defence like O’Shea, Wilson and Kone does not concede the number of set piece goals we have if they’re fully committed and take pride in their performances, regardless of whether O’Shea’s legs have gone or not. The mistakes we’ve made at the back are more than just lack of ability, it’s laziness; players switching off, not following instructions and giving up too easily.
I look at someone like Ty Browning, who joined last summer following a relatively successful loan at Preston last season. Whilst his early performances were never really more than mediocre, they’re a million miles better than the led-booted liability he became later in the season. Perhaps that could be down to confidence or inexperience, but then you watch his pathetic attempts at tracking back during the Bristol City draw – his last start before being bombed out then getting injured. You’ll never convince me that was a player giving his all.
Jake Clarke-Salter is another who arrived with a glowing reputation as a composed, ball-playing centre back with rave reviews for his performances for England U20s last summer. But he has played 10 times now and I honestly couldn’t tell you the first thing about him, other than the two ridiculous red cards in successful home games. He’s not been particularly terrible, but surely knows he’ll be back playing under 23 football on a Tuesday afternoon in six months’ time, or farmed out again on loan to another middling Championship club to play in front of smaller crowds with less pressure and expectations, and it shows.
But they’re just young kids making their way in the game, it’s the senior pros who have really let us down. Cattermole – abysmal. Billy Jones – played like a frightened rabbit ever since that Liverpool game Allardyce subbed him off in over two years ago. McGeady – talented but loses the ball trying to pirouette past 3 players on the end of our own box time and time again. Ndong – phoning it in til he buggered off. And that’s without even mentioning England’s next top centre half, Jack Rodwell, or the three clowns in nets.
Callum McManaman was one of the few summer signings I felt relatively excited about, but he’s been dreadful and has the look of a player who knows his career peaked five years ago in the FA Cup final with Wigan, but still has enough of a reputation in the game to gain a similar contract elsewhere at a lower-end Championship or decent League One club on similar wages. He had a decent half 25-minute spell against Boro when he had a point to prove against Pulis, but, considering that was literally his only decent performance all season, that only proved Pulis was right not to pick him in the first place.
In the summer when we look to rip it up, start again and rebuild for the 457th time, I hope to God we learn from our mistakes and don’t recruit serial losers again. No more players with a ‘point to prove’ please, as that generally implies that they’ve proven to be crap elsewhere or have had stinking attitudes in the past. James Vaughan arrived with a point to prove and was absolutely rubbish.
We’re set to lose more than a full team’s worth of players in the summer due to loans and contracts expiring, but I won’t be sad to see the back of a single one of them. They’re all proven to be just as spineless as last season’s lot, only without a Defoe or Pickford in there to at least give the occasional moment of excitement.