Twenty years ago this week, Sunderland won 1-0 away at Manchester City in the First Division to extend their unbeaten league run to 16 matches with a goal by – who else? – Kevin Phillips. City would go on to be relegated to the third tier at the end of that season, while Sunderland would lose in the play-off final on penalties to Charlton. The following season, they broke the record points total in winning the title. It’s fair to say a lot has changed since.
You can use such historical markers to put into focus the extraordinary decline of this club, but there are enough reminders all around Wearside. That 1997/98 season was Sunderland’s first in the Stadium of Light, where the red seats have now been badly faded by sunshine and rain. The club announced plans to replace them with shiny new red ones in 2016, but the money soon ran out and the discolouration remains. It is a pretty spectacular metaphor.
Having lost their Premier League status after ten straight campaigns in the top flight, Sunderland are sleep-walking their way to a second consecutive relegation. That would prompt a return to the third tier for only the second time in the club’s Football League history, a run stretching back to 1890. They could even be the first team since Wolverhampton Wanderers in 1985 to finish bottom of English football’s top two divisions in consecutive seasons.
At times like these, it is easy to think that despair can only breed despair, and that continued deterioration is inevitable. That was certainly the view of former managers Simon Grayson and Gus Poyet. “I can’t think of too many people in football at this moment who could do a better job than I am,” said Grayson shortly before he was sacked having won one league match in charge.
Poyet was a little more poetic and a lot more damning. “There’s something inside Sunderland, something at its very core,” he told Sid Lowe in an interview for the Guardian. “It’s hard to explain but there’s a way of life, something deep down, that makes it difficult to fulfil its potential.”
The argument of inevitability can act as an undeserved defence and allow blame to be avoided. The suggestion that a pathway is predetermined suggests that nothing could have been done to alter it. If Sunderland are indeed sliding down to new nadirs, the walls have been greased by mismanagement and neglect.
Ellis Short acquired a controlling stake in Sunderland in September 2008 and took over a team that sat eighth in the Premier League. His former business associates described him as “slick” and “hugely impressive”, and were quoted as being impressed by his sustainable plan for the club.
Short has overseen a period of vast revenue increase amongst Premier League clubs, including broadcasting deals that have risen almost exponentially, yet Sunderland’s last annual accounts revealed debts of £110.4m. That requires a level of incompetence that merits standing ovation.
Short’s party trick has been to regularly hire and fire managers, a habit made worse by a succession of unsuccessful sporting directors. The American has been at the club for less than a decade of Sunderland’s 138-year history. He has appointed 31% of their permanent managers. Perhaps permanent should be written in inverted commas.
The growth of football’s sacking culture is hardly restricted to Sunderland, but Short has turned it into an art form. It is hard to criticise many of the sacking decisions individually, but that only paints the dreadful appointment process in a worse light. Every departure brings a pay-off, every new arrival is accompanied by a list of new ideas that also require new players. Duncan Watmore signed in May 2013 from Altrincham, less than two months after Martin O’Neill had been sacked. Watmore is currently playing under his eighth coach.
The high turnover of players and managers can only end one way. When someone with a shelf life of 12 months is handing out contracts of four times that length, the squad quickly becomes bloated by a growing band of the unwanted and unseen. That is manageable to a point in the Premier League, but relegation means disaster.
There is plenty of anecdotal evidence of this scattergun approach, but two examples stand out. Last year, the Court of Arbitration for Sport decreed that Sunderland had to pay £9.4m to Inter for midfielder Ricky Alvarez. Alvarez had initially signed on loan, with Sunderland so keen to get the deal done that they agreed to pay a certain fee if they survived relegation – which they promptly did. Alvarez had remained unfit and virtually unused until joining Sampdoria in December 2015.
If Alvarez’s case is infamous, goalkeeper Mika’s is a little less known. The Portuguese almost failed to join Sunderland after they missed the deadline to register him, but eventually won an appeal to FIFA after claiming that there were issues with a fax machine. He signed for £1.35m and earned wages totalling £1.2m over his 18-month stay at the club. Mika was released last week after his contract was cancelled by mutual consent. The only two games he played were against Doncaster and Hartlepool reserve teams in the Checkatrade Trophy.
Short now wants out of Sunderland, and after committing a significant part of his fortune into this bin fire you can’t really blame him. Reports suggest that his initial hope to sell for £170m have now been downgraded so much that he may accept a price less than he paid. But why would anyone buy them now, when the well into which they are falling has an undetermined depth? And why would anyone take on the debt, when they could pick up a club in administration for a comparative song?
Short maintains that Sunderland should be challenging for seventh in the Premier League, but he must accept that it is through his own doing that the club’s glass ceiling has been lowered to basement level. There is no suggestion of any malice or wilful negligence on his part, but that only makes the incompetence look more impressive. This much mismanagement deserves punishment.
There may only be one man left who can save Sunderland from the cliff edge. Somehow, this careering train wreck of a football club persuaded Chris Coleman to put on a woolly white jumper and be the next lamb for slaughter. After a managerial hunt during which five different managers were odds-on favourites, Sunderland appointed probably the third most successful – according to expectation at least – domestic manager in British football over the last three years (after Sean Dyche and Michael O’Neill).
Coleman’s arrival has, eventually allowed some weak, milky sunlight to shine through dark storm clouds, although not strong enough to fade more seats. Sunderland have won three of his ten matches in charge and kept four clean sheets, but he is not a miracle worker. There is no money to spend in January, Coleman has already accused some players of taking a wage but not wanting to play for the club and against Cardiff City they were as inept as any home team could wish for. Sunderland have now won ten of their last 65 league matches.
In the build-up to the Cardiff match, Coleman chose to thank the 1,000 supporters who would be making a round trip that takes almost 11 hours. For all football is a welcome relief from the drudgery of Monday to Friday, nine to five, addiction and warped love can be the only thing keeping those supporters motivated. At least they could pass the time with a cheery discussion of whether this is the worst Sunderland team of all time. The rest of us are rubbernecking at the implosion.
Those fans deserve the final words, because it is always them who lose out. Players, managers and owners will come and go, but it those who love their club so ardently whose loyalty is exploited the most. There is no great mystery to Sunderland’s downfall, simply a club that has let down its support through shambolic mismanagement. If it can happen to theirs, it can happen to yours.