The Twohundredpercent Pre-Season Previews: Sunderland
Well, no-one can say that he’s not ambitious. Steve Bruce’s summer in the transfer market has been one of the most interesting of all Premier League clubs, with a clutch of signings which hint at a manager that is no longer satisfied with perpetual Premier League survival and mid-table security, and would like to push on towards something a little more substantial. Last season, the team sat in the exact middle of the Premier League – a tenth place finish that saw no danger of relegation, but no serious push towards Europe. At what point, we may start to wonder, is owner Ellis Short going to start looking for a return on his investment at The Stadium Of Light, though?
It’s a question worth asking, because the Texan businessman has been putting a lot of money into the club and, in recent years, annual losses have been large. It’s not a situation that can continue indefinitely, but a windfall in the transfer market this summer has helped them out. Jordan Henderson is an obvious, definite prospect for the future, but even those that might normally oppose clubs selling their best young players to bigger clubs would have to admit that Liverpool’s £20m offer for the player was one that couldn’t be refused, and it isn’t as if this money hasn’t been reinvested back in the team. Indeed, Sunderland have been one of the Premier League’s busiest hustlers this summer.
Perhaps their most significant investment of the summer could be in the form of the £8m – set to rise to £12m – spent on Connor Wickham from Ipswich Town. Wickham has been earning fluttering eyelashes from several Premier League clubs over the last few months, and for the player to turn up at The Stadium of Light rather than, say, Anfield or Old Trafford (and it is worth remembering that both of these clubs have spent elsewhere on young British players) could be considered a definite positive move for the status of the club. As such, Sunderland are likely to start next season expecting to improve upon last season, but Henderson isn’t the only sign of life within the new blood at the club.
We don’t have the time to be able to go into all of those that have arrived at The Stadium of Light over the course of the summer or that have been linked with the club over the last couple of months or so, but two players stand out as signals of intent. John O’Shea was often cast as a fringe player at Old Trafford, but O’Shea made almost 400 appearances for Manchester United and some of the criticism of him was, to put it mildly, unfair. Wes Brown has opted to join him at Sunderland. Brown is another player for whom the critical reaction hasn’t always been positive, but this is another player with an enormous amount of experience. Brown played over 350 games for Manchester United and appeared in an England shirt twenty-three times.
This is a volume of experience that perhaps no other Premier League will have brought in over the course of a summer during which much of the emphasis in the Premier League, for the arrival of Phil Jones and David de Gea at Manchester to the arrival of Andre Villa Boas at Chelsea. This has been the summer during which several clubs have turned their back on the experience of the past and entrusted vast amounts of money in relative youngsters – Villa Boas is, let us not forget, just two years older than Wes Brown, for example – to perform important jobs for them, but this is a trend that Sunderland have, in the acquisition of these two players and the aforementioned Wickham, combined in a potentially canny manner.
A breath of fresh air is, of course, exactly what Sunderland AFC needs this summer. They have made solid, steady progress in the Premier League since returning to it in 2007 after two years of consolidating their position just above the relegation positions. It has been thirty-eight years since the club last won a major trophy and Steve Bruce may even consider that either League or the FA Cup might represent his team’s best chance of landing a place in Europe by the end of the coming season. Last season, his team demonstrated that they were capable of better on more than one occasion. Their 3-0 win at Stamford Bridge was the obvious stand-out result, but they also beat Manchester City, and managed draws away from home against Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur. These are the sort of results that Sunderland need if they are to push up the table.
At the other end of this particular scale, though, they had some terrible results last season as well. A 5-1 defeat at Newcastle United damaged more than local pride, and they were also beaten twice by Wolverhampton Wanderers as once by Blackpool and Birmingham City. If issues of consistency can be successfully addressed by Bruce, though, this is a team and a club that is capable of better than tenth place in the Premier League, and it may well be this level of potential, so often unfulfilled over the last few decades, which encourages Ellis Short to continue to put money into the club. Sales such as that of Henderson and Darren Bent last year, though, have brought a little more stability to the club’s financial position. The club’s losses, however, cannot be guaranteed to be offset by this sort of sale indefinitely and, along with almost the entire rest of the Premier League, Sunderland will find that in time they will have to move away from an over-dependence on benefaction and television money.
Perhaps the difficulty that Sunderland may have in significantly improving – and by that, an improvement of more than two places would seem a fair enough definition – their league position. Last season was, on occasion, thrilling, knockabout stuff in the Premier League, but once the dust had settled and all thirty-eight league matches had been played, there weren’t too many clubs that finished in wildly different positions to those that we might have predicted before a single ball was kicked. This stasis has a stultifying effect in a club like Sunderland, whose tenth placed finish was a reasonably successful one, but for whom the next great leap forward would come at an enormous cost. The figures aren’t precise, but Sunderland’s annual turn-over is roughly half that of Tottenham Hotspur and one-third that of Liverpool. Sadly, in modern football – to paraphrase Spinal Tap – “money talks and bullshit walks”, and unless clubs like Sunderland (who are not the only club in this possibly intractable position) can get close to bridging this sort of financial inequality without running the risk of endangering the entire existence of their club, even improving more than three places in the league table at the end of this season will be a very tall order indeed.
None of this is reason for Sunderland supporters to be pessimistic. Their relatively busy transfer window means that they are well positioned to repeat last season’s performance, and they could be a handy outside bet for an appearances in the latter stages of one of the domestic cups. This is, after all, a club that regularly attracts an average of 40,000 people to its home matches – the seventh highest in the country last season, and it had been the sixth highest the year before, being shunted down one place by the return of Newcastle United. Indeed, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that, considering this, the profile of Sunderland AFC isn’t as high as it should be, and changing this perhaps represents one of the biggest challenges that the club faces. Its revenue streams will increase with bigger television deals, but this will affect all Premier League clubs. The key to Sunderland’s future potential might be whether they can exploit the commercial opportunities that should come with such crowds and improve their financial position in relation to the clubs around them in the Premier League.
If the pre-season is a time to be optimistic, then, Sunderland supporters have as much reason to feel as if they might have a little to look forward to this season than many, and they may well breathe a sigh of relief that at least their club doesn’t seem to have the habitual predilection towards turning itself into somewhere between a parody of itself and a soap opera in the same way that its biggest rival, Newcastle United, has done so much in recent years and has taken to new levels over the last couple of weeks or so. As such, Sunderland as a club should perhaps enjoy in being, relatively speaking, out of the limelight. Not all news, after all, is good news, and the supporters of the club may wish to reflect upon the fact that the calm waters that seem to currently be washing over the club can only be regarded in a positive sense.
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