“I’m really enjoying having a bit of time off just now,” David Moyes told Sky Sports n December last year. “If the right job came up and it excited me then I’d be interested in it. I’ve been very fortunate, I’ve been offered some clubs and to go and take jobs but at the moment I’ve chosen to take a wee bit of time. But if the right opportunity comes along and I think it’s an exciting one I’m ready to go.”
If Sunderland is the “right opportunity”, it does make you wonder which job offers Moyes turned down. PR officer at FIFA? Intermediary on behalf of Donald Trump and any ethnic minority you could care to mention? Bolton?
The Sunderland job always looked difficult. They had taken 39, 38, 38 and 39 points in their previous four seasons, and nothing suggested that the slump was in any danger of coming to an end. Having been guided to safety by a combination of Sam Allardyce’s pragmatism, Jermain Defoe’s clinical finishing and Newcastle’s misery, Allardyce then left for England less than a month before the new season. As I wrote here, Sunderland had been kept in a state of suspension by the Football Association’s delay. The squad looked dangerously light; it still does.
Somehow, Moyes’ first few weeks in charge have gone worse than even the most pessimistic fortune-teller could have predicted. Seb Larsson suffered a serious ligament injury on the eve of the season, with Fabio Borini, Lee Cattermole and Jan Kirchoff also ruled out. Younes Kaboul made it clear that he wished to leave for Watford, while Lamine Kone has effectively gone on strike to force through his own departure and been banned from attending training sessions. This is a club where uncertainty reigns supreme, again. When an injury sustained by 35-year-old John O’Shea causes defensive panic, you were already in big trouble.
In place of these absentees, Moyes has been forced to turn to a band of unlikely disciples. Paddy McNair, Donald Love and Adnan Januzaj may go on to have successful Premier League careers, but all have been thrown into the deep end in their inflatable armbands and asked to pick up bricks while wearing their pyjamas. The free signing of Steven Pienaar, he of three league starts since March 2014, is deeply uninspiring. Joel Asoro became the club’s youngest ever Premier League player in the second half. It’s August, and the squad is at breaking point.
That all combines to create a team high on youth and experience, but with very little in between. The ten Sunderland outfield players who finished the first half started only 80 Premier League games last season, and Patrick van Aanholt and Defoe account for 61 of those. They were booed off at half-time having not managed a shot on target, which is not quite what Moyes meant when he asked for “ferocity” from the stands.
Sunderland had won 14% of their league points since the beginning of 2013/14 against Newcastle, but Middlesbrough were a far more troublesome local derby opponent. Aitor Karanka watched on as Cristhian Stuani and Alvaro Negredo twice combined wonderfully before the break, the former scoring two goals on his Premier League debut. Unlike their opponents, Middlesbrough look like a team.
Sunderland did rally after half-time, a now customary spill from Brad Guzan allowing them back into the match, but ended the game in the bottom three of a formative Premier League table. The last time this club tasted August league victory was in 2010. Those boos came again at the final whistle.
Things don’t promise to get easier for Sunderland on the pitch, with Southampton, Everton and Tottenham their next three league opponents. But Moyes’ more immediate task is to significantly improve this squad in the space of ten days. Fail to do so and Sunderland will be again staring down the barrel of a long, hard winter. Supporters in these parts are long used to donning their hats, scarves and gloves.