Whether Dick Advocaat stays or goes, something is deeply wrong at Sunderland. The fans don’t deserve yet another season of just survival
The day started with Sunderland fans still reeling from the news of Dick Advocaat’s imminent departure and, save for a promising 45 minutes, ended with similar disappointment. A 2-2 draw against a West Ham side who had conquered Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City on their travels so far this season is a decent result, but the manner in which they surrendered a two-goal lead is a bitter pill to swallow.
The post-match verdict from Advocaat was typically emotional. After being visibly brought to tears by Jeremain Lens’ excellent first-half goal, the manager could barely hold back as he spoke of his pride at finally seeing a positive performance from his players. “Today they showed what they can really do, and that’s good for the future of the club,” said the Dutchman. It’s doubtful that said future involves Advocaat at the helm.
When pressed on his future, Advocaat responded: “I don’t want to give an answer on that. I cannot say I will be the manager for the next game.” The 68-year-old added that he had made a decision on his future, but that he wouldn’t reveal it just yet. All signs are pointing to a triumphant exit he should have made in the summer.
The question is: What’s next for Sunderland? Since Steve Bruce left in November 2011, Martin O’Neill, Paolo Di Canio, Gus Poyet and now Advocaat have all tried and failed to steady the ship at the Stadium of Light – a mixture of exuberant youth, promise and experience. In an era of managerial uncertainty at Sunderland, the two constants have been their standing as relegation candidates and their long-suffering fans.
It really shouldn’t be the case. Over the past five seasons, Sunderland are the eighth highest net spenders in the Premier League with signings of over £118million. That outstrips the likes of Stoke, Everton, West Brom and Swansea, all by margins of at least £20million. Only twice since the 2011/12 season have the Black Cats finished above any of those sides. The belief that another ‘miracle’ escape from relegation represents anything close to success is borderline criminal.
This may be Sunderland’s ninth consecutive season of Premier League football, but they are still struggling to cement themselves as a top-flight side. Crystal Palace, Leicester, Southampton, Stoke, Swansea and West Ham have since been promoted and become regular finishers in the top half.
It must be galling for Sunderland fans to witness the rise and rise of Crystal Palace and Leicester this season. In Palace’s third consecutive Premier League campaign they signed Yohan Cabaye for £10million; in Sunderland’s ninth they paid the same amount for Fabio Borini. Leicester have won 11 Premier League games since April 2015, while Sunderland have notched 11 wins since April 2014.
In that same four-and-a-bit-season period since Bruce’s departure, Sunderland have procured 163 points at an average of just under 38 per season. Norwich have earned just 21 less with a relegation in between, while only Aston Villa (159) ‘boast’ a poorer record, albeit with less investment.
A season-high near-43,000 spectators turned out for the draw with West Ham, with Sunderland’s average attendance so far this season the seventh highest in the Premier League. Even amid such uncertainty off the field and incompetence on it, the fans turn out in their droves to support their side. It would be remiss of me not to mention the Stadium of Light has been only 82.2% full to its 49,000 capacity so far this season – the lowest in the league – but the Sunderland faithful can be more than forgiven for their disillusionment.
Somehow, each season, the Black Cats escape relegation. The standard of their relegation rivals has often been their saviour, with survival secured due to the ineptitude of other sides rather than by their own achievements. This season could finally be a step too far.