“2-0, to the Championship,” chanted the away support as the final whistle blew. Sunderland heroes have become villains this season, and the humour has got darker with the mood. “You’re going down with the Sunderland,” was the first-half ditty of choice, along with “We. Are. Sunderland.” It’s at times like these that you wonder if that’s closer to accuracy than boast; there’s not a lot else the club have that’s worth keeping.
And so the second reign of David Moyes at Sunderland begins. There was no official announcement that Ellis Short is sticking by his manager through attempted promotion as he has dismal relegation, but that assumption was rubber-stamped by the manager in midweek.
Joleon Lescott said last season that the confirmation of relegation had lifted a weight off Aston Villa’s players. Lescott did not even make the matchday squad on Saturday, but Sunderland did their best to prove that exact point. Marco Silva this week spoke of the priority of results over performance and points over goals, but Hull could gain neither.
There is a certain irony to it being Moyes who ends Silva’s run of 41 home league games unbeaten. Sunderland have been wretched for most of this season, and even a late rally will surely not see them rise from the bottom of the Premier League. Only Moyes, cast as the Premier League’s tragicomic clown, could produce a performance of such substance when it failed to matter.
Silva will be furious at his side’s under-performance. “In training I like to put pressure on the players,” he said in his pre-match press conference. “It’s important that they work with some pressure every day to make the transfer to the game. But I want the players calm and relaxed as well in the normal way. When they’re relaxed and calm they do better things.”
Yet Hull were anything but calm and never relaxed. Sam Clucas excelled again in midfield, but around Hull’s best actor was a supporting cast that gave the ball away too often, regularly sent crosses over Pickford’s goal and lacked communication in attack and defence. This was an afternoon to make the locals groan. The exception was the substitution of the abject Ahmed Elmohamady, met with a mix of jeers and boos.
Spend ten minutes in the company of Moyes, and it is easy to believe that Sunderland’s relegation from the Premier League was an inevitability. This is not a sudden passing but a slow suffocation, a club smothered by mismanagement at almost every level. Demotion to the Football League has not just been in the post; the final reminders are stacking up on the doormat.
That is Moyes’ bargaining chip, and presumably the reason that Ellis Short has kept faith in a manager who has still only won 10 of his last 46 league matches as a manager, a run that stretches back to March 2015 and a failed attempt at redemption in San Sebastian. His tired act is to plead that he could do little to halt the decline whilst simultaneously insisting that improvement is just around the corner.
If Moyes’ self-defence of his own performance has been staunch, a fixture against Hull City provided the perfect opportunity for the prosecution to clear their throat. The chief witness was Silva. While Moyes insists that he was asked to push water uphill, the impact of Silva undermined that argument. When the Portuguese was appointed by Hull on January 5, Sunderland were two points and two places ahead of Hull in the table. It didn’t have to be this way.
If Saturday offered evidence that Sunderland are not quite a broken club, there was more emphatic evidence that it is not a broken squad, merely a group of players disaffected and disillusioned. This week, Moyes implored Sunderland to reinvest in the playing staff this summer, claiming that he will need a new team in preparation for a season in the Championship. Again, the comparison with Silva was not flattering. The latter spent £13m and recruited seven players; the former spent almost three times as much, recruited ten players and broke Sunderland’s transfer record. Moyes can hardly claim that he was not backed.
There is also talent in this squad, a fact that will be proven this summer when clubs come calling. The best example is Jordan Pickford, the game’s best player. He produced two superb saves, commanded his area and demonstrated why he is regarded as one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League in terms of his distribution. There is talk of Everton and West Ham but, on this evidence, Pickford could skip that step up the Premier League ladder.
“We have to try and find a way to make this work quickly,” said Moyes this week about the club’s necessary response to relegation, but few predicted that response starting so soon. There are far too many rivers for Moyes to cross before he can even think of redemption, but this was still a timely victory for his wobbling ego. Yesterday’s manager will promise a brighter tomorrow.