So, another week without football and another Lockdown implemented. It’s pretty hard to be positive about anything at the moment. However, we gathered a three of our most eminent writers together, in a socially distanced manner, and quizzed them about the lukewarm topics of day…
With the season into its fifth month and second manager. What are our chances of promotion?
Michael Conroy: Where do you even begin with that? If everything remains as it is now then I still think we stand a chance, however, there are huge unknowns in there. We all know that we've had an outbreak of Covid at the club and that can affect people differently and for different amounts of time. We hear about people still feeling the effects of it months down the line, so we don't yet know how much of an impact that has had on the players who have had the virus. It's not entirely clear to me just how many players had symptoms but even if it's just a couple of players that could effectively make you short in key positions. Then there's the question of squeezing games into an already compacted season and then you have to think about whether there will be outbreaks at other clubs which will mean we have more games called off. If there are further outbreaks, I can honestly see them scrapping the season as it will become farcical trying to catch up all these matches. At the very least they will have to extend the season. The squad is capable of promotion, but these are odd times and it's impossible to ignore all the external factors that will have an impact. The gap between us and Charlton is only three points and we have a game in hand. The gap to Hull is 8 with a game in hand. Of course, both of those targets are entirely achievable given a fair wind, especially judging on the performance at Lincoln.
Sobs: It’s hard to believe that we’re into the season’s fifth month already, as it’s stuttered along with games coming thick and fast before “treating” us to fortnight off. I don’t think any team has settled into a rhythm because of this, least of all us, as we’ve hoyed in a very necessary managerial change as well. I think that if the season is concluded that lack of any settled team will probably mean that any team that gathers and maintains a bit of momentum at the right time will go up. That could be us, but the number of games in hand, which will change on a weekly basis as teams catch up then fall behind because of further Covid outbreaks and cup runs, will be a huge factor.
Luke Todd: I think our chances of promotion are good at the moment but can definitely be improved upon. We have a good defensive record thus far this season, conceding less than a goal a game. However, the key to our success over the latter part of the season, is definitely finding our shooting boots. We need to score a lot more goals and turn these 0-0 and 1-1 results into 1-0s, as we have the defence there, just not the goalscoring capability at the moment.
Hopefully January will bring in a new majority shareholder. Do you think Kyril Louis-Dreyfus can be a success with Stewart Donald, Charlie Methven and Juan Sartori still very much involved as well as the EFL financial restitutions in place?
Michael Conroy: I guess that depends on what constitutes success really. The financial restrictions will be a big problem in terms of bringing in new players, but everyone in League One is in the same boat. It's also tempting to look at the squad as it stands and say we would struggle in the Championship so is it better to just take a hit this season and use it as a rebuilding period, however, I would say not. If we were to get promoted, then we would not be limited by the same salary cap when contracts are due for renewal and signings are to be made. If we were to stay in League One and contracts expire, we are in a completely different state and the size of the job is enormous. If success is built on five years rather than escaping the abyss, then major youth investment is needed. If that is done, then we can probably look at League One for at least another year or so while the rebuilding job begins to bear fruit and so Kyril's success largely depends on what his aims are. Whether he is hampered by the continued involvement of the three amigos/idiots is down to him largely. If he is the majority shareholder then he can put everything he wants to a board vote and win them all. How you rein in the PR disasters and rebuild bridges with fans when they are still involved is a bit trickier. You cannot stop people saying things if they are still involved, you cannot stop them leaking things. Only he knows what the relationship is like there and who he trusts and doesn't trust, so it's difficult to say just how bothered he is by it all. I would suspect, given some of the reports I have read that claim he dug his heels in to get a majority stake, he is aware of potential issues. For now, perhaps that is enough.
Sobs: The noises coming out of the KLD camp seem to indicate that he will have the final word on what happens at the club despite the continued involvement of the Three Amigos, although in these days of clever manipulation of what finds its way into the media, who knows who is actually saying what and if his releases and quotes were even written by our current board. On the one hand, it’s fantastic to have such a financially monstrous owner/majority shareholder, but on the other, what’s the point if you can’t spend it where it’s needed? The new “model” (I hate that term) at Sunderland has seen some investment in a Sporting Director and an Academy boss, but that’s absolute peanuts in the grand scheme of KLD’s pocket money. The EFL financial regulations just make things more difficult. I fully understand that they exist to prevent another Bury situation, but if the money actually exists at a club or with its owner, why can’t it be spent on expensive players? “Sorry mate, I know you’ve just won the EuroMillions, but you can only eat Supernoodles for the rest of your life.” This means that his immediate influence, above making the fans happy by just being here, is watered down. In the short term this could be a good thing in that we won’t waste money like we have in the past on hopelessly thought-out purchases like Alvarez, Rodwell, or Lens (or Vergini, Cabral, Diakite, Roberge, how long have I got?) but in the middle- to-long term? Like I said, if the money’s there we should be able to use it.
Luke Todd: There has been a lot of controversy and dismay from fans over the last few years for the club, as we've been stuck in League One, with campaigns such as #DonaldOut surfacing. The introduction of Kyril Louis-Dreyfus must be viewed and accepted positively by fans; despite the grievances they may have with Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven. We are struggling financially, down to both Coronavirus and as a result of being in League One, so this financial takeover can only bring about positive change.
Obviously, we need to strengthen, but in what areas and what attributes are we missing?
Michael Conroy: I've said before that we need a right back and a creative midfielder and I still believe that's right. I also said we possibly do not need a goal scorer. That was before we beat Lincoln 4-0. Since then, we drew 1-1 with Wimbledon and 0-0 with Northampton. There are mitigating circumstances behind those results though. However, if you look at all the top clubs to get out of this league since we have been in they have all had individual goal scorers with bigger end of season tallies than ours. The only season we have come close was when Maja left halfway through the season and still finished our top scorer. That probably needs addressed. However, getting that goalscoring quality on a tiny relative wage in January will be a monumental task and it may well be that a loan is the best option. Just not Ched Evans please.
Sobs: The departure of yet another balsa- wood player, Morgan Feeney, shows that we have sufficient central defenders, now that we only use two at a time. At the risk of sounding like ELO on the Sportsman jukebox (a broken record), a goalscorer is one thing we desperately need. The problem is that proven ones are as rare as a Danny Graham hat-trick, and invariably end up moving up the divisions at this time of year. Now that it looks like we’ll be without Will Grigg, who actually has it in him to be that goalscorer despite what we’ve seen of him at Sunderland, for anything between three weeks and a year, there’s an option our coaches won’ t be able to work on. Other than that, a midfielder or midfielders for whom moving forward is the first thought, and if they possess a bit of genuine pace, all the better. We could also use someone in that area who has a preference for bullying opponents – a Poundland Yann M’Vila would do nicely. Basically, we’re all right at the back but need three or four further up the field, either in the form of new players or current ones stepping up to the mark.
Luke Todd: As mentioned above, in my opinion, the success of Sunderland is all in the balance of improving their goalscoring records. They already have the defence to see them climb the league and reach the Championship. Players like Charlie Wyke, who has already contributed 7 goals this season, need consistent support from players around him, as we are currently relying on winning by narrow one-goal margins, rather than burying teams, with the exception of Lincoln City a few weeks back.
Although every club has to fight against it, do you think Covid will ultimately kill the season, or will we just have to battle through it?
Michael Conroy: I don't think we have been closer yet to Covid killing this season. The first wave killed our promotion chances and even with restrictions in place there have been outbreaks this season. This second wave seems more virulent and people have massively dropped their guard. In some ways that's understandable because, let's face it, we're all bloody sick of this shit. Clubs need to work harder than ever now to protect the players. Players need to be more responsible than they have been and every single one of us can do our bit by adhering to the restrictions. If all that happens then maybe, just maybe, the season will draw to a firm conclusion, if not then I cannot see this season ending on anything other than PPG at best.
Sobs: The one certain uncertainty this season is Covid, which is noisily going about buggering up just about everything, so why should football be immune to its effects? With new outbreaks being reported at clubs on a regular basis, plus the highly-publicised aberrations by high-profile players, more games will be postponed and more players’ fitness will be compromised. Some might never recover fully, while others might fail to recover in time to contribute to the season – or next. This takes me back to the first point, with clubs having to wade through a fixture backlog just to complete the season, which will of necessity have turned into a war of attrition. The survival of the fittest, in a very real sense, in which the ability to turn out eleven players will far outweigh the ability to select the best eleven for the job. I can see this campaign stumbling along to an eventual conclusion well into the summer, meaning that next season will be messed up before it starts. Mind, if this season’s stumbling becomes serious in the next couple of months, the powers that be will have to take a deep breath and seriously consider giving up on it and playing the outstanding fixtures when it’s safe to do so. That might well mean no 21-22 season, but that would be a small price to pay for getting things right football-wise and doing something sensible towards halting the spread of the virus -and is something they should have done a year ago.
Luke Todd: Ultimately, through no fault of our own, we are in a very strenuous situation in terms of our fixtures. The season will be concluded on May 8th, meaning we have to play 29 games in 128 days. That works out to be a game every 4 or 5 days, which for any team to maintain form over, is a big ask. However, if the players want to be promoted, as bad as the fans want to be promoted, they just have to find a way. Other teams are also in similar situations, which should motivate us and help our case.