Sunderland: Another Fine Mess
Straw man building has become popular in recent times. People who control things have frequently seemed keen to blame people with no control over anything in order to deflect blame from their own shortcomings, and in an era during which social media rewards those who shout the loudest and the least coherently above anybody else, that deflection can be all that’s needed to consider a job to have been well done. Look, a squirrel. Putting a dead cat on the table. An entire lexicon is starting to sprout up around this most tawdry of behaviours.
In this spirit, it wasn’t enough for the Sunderland owner Stewart Donald to announce that he was putting the club up for sale, but this probably shouldn’t be a surprise to us in a culture which considers the phrase “it is better to keep your mouth shut and be considered a fool than to open it and remove all doubt” to be broadly redundant. Donald might have chosen a short and to the point statement, confirming that he felt that he had done his part in ending the downward spiral into which Sunderland had fallen and that now is the right time to sell up. But he didn’t.
His statement came off the back of a joint statement issued by A Love Supreme, Red and White Army, Roker Report and Wise Men Say, calling for the club to be sold with immediate effect. This in turn followed what had been described as one of the lowest points in the history of the club, a goalless draw at Bolton Wanderers on Boxing Day which dropped the club to fifteenth place in the League One table, the lowest in the club’s 130 years in the Football League. Their statement began, “For those at the Bolton match, you’ve earned some stripes. You were there when the club reached the lowest point in its entire history and it felt like it.”
It was a damning statement, but at a club which has already dropped two divisions in the last three seasons perhaps it is understandable that supporters are concerned that the club’s recent slide down football’s pecking order might not have bottomed out quite yet. When Donald arrived at The Stadium of Light, the right things seemed to be happening. The club’s legendarily overbearing debt had finally reduced from its previous nightmare-inducing levels. A new manager about whom many positive things had been sent, Jack Ross, was brought in from St Mirren, and the playing squad was refreshed.
Less than a year later, Ross was gone and Sunderland were gearing up for a second successive season in League One. Just six points from their final seven league matches of the season had torpedoed their hopes of an automatic promotion place, whilst a goal four minutes into stoppage-time from Charlton Athletic’s Patrick Bauer ended a season that had started with considerable optimism on the just about the lowest note possible. Ross paid for his involvement in it all with his job, of course.
This season started positively enough, with a 3-0 loss at Peterborough United being their only defeat from their first ten league matches. Even during this spell, though, the warning signs were present and correct. In an echo of the fortunes that caused the team to miss out on an automatic promotion place at the end of last season, a failure to kill games off seemed to be a significant problem. Sunderland may have only lost one of their first ten matches of the season, but they drew a further four of these matches, and the team’s form from the start of October was poor, with just two further league wins before Christmas.
The cups didn’t offer much succour, either. Defeat after a replay against Gillingham marked the first time that the club had been eliminated in the First Round of the FA Cup since 1925, and their interest in the League Cup -which had taken in wins at both Burnley and Sheffield United already – ended after a penalty shootout at Oxford United. Even in the Checkatrade Trophy, which no-one really gives a damn about, there was an elimination at the first hurdle after losing to Leicester City’s Under-21s and Scunthorpe United.
Phil Parkinson had been the club’s choice to replace Jack Ross, but his appointment hinted at a lack of ambition on their part, so far as supporters were concerned. But the criticism of Stewart Donald was always more structured than merely a reaction to the team having lost a bunch of matches. Sunderland’s ongoing issues seemed to many to be infrastructural. The club hasn’t had a CEO since Martin Bain, famous for his unforgettable performance during the Netflix series “Sunderland Til I Die”, was relieved of his duties, and it doesn’t have a Director of Football, either. The club’s two academy teams, the under-23s and under-18s, have won just two games in the last year, while there have been complaints about the quality of the public address system inside the stadium, the cost of tickets, and the all-round match day experience at the club.
The irony of the rising anger of Sunderland supporters over the Christmas and New Year periods has been that it had coincided with an upswing in form, on the pitch, at least. The Bolton match on Boxing Day turned out to be as bad as things got, for now. Since then, the team has won at Doncaster Rovers, drawn at Fleetwood Town, and comprehensively beaten Lincoln City. This run of results has lifted them from fifteenth place in the table ninth place in the table, just a point from a play-off place and six points from second-placed Rotherham United, with exactly half of their league season still to play and the January transfer window having only just opened.
Considering everything that happened at Sunderland during their years of decline, we might have expected the new owner of the club to understand that its recovery could well be fragile, and that the atmosphere might turn febrile should results start going against them. That is one of the inherent risks for anybody seeking to white knight a big club that has fallen on difficult times. If there’s one thing we know about the club’s recent history, it’s that many people – players, managers, agents, owners, amongst others – had a finger in the pie that marked Sunderland’s fall from grace, but to try to pin the recent round of underwhelming results on supporters is a dereliction of duty on the part of the owners of the club.
How else can comments such as, “the timing of the demand was not obviously conducive to the immediate improvement of the first team squad and as a result, the club’s chances of promotion” be interpreted? And even if there were an element of truth to the possibility that the fans are to blame rather than, say, the people who play the matches every week, the man who decides which players will play and their tactical set-up, or the people who hire that man, to say so at the same time as announcing an intention to sell the club sounds like extremely bad decision making on the part of the club. What message does it send to potential buyers? “Football club for sale: the fans groups are malignant” doesn’t sound like a very strong sales pitch from here, whether it’s true or not. And an owner who issues divisive statements such as this certainly shouldn’t be carping on the importance of “unity” elsewhere in the very same statement.
Sunderland’s place in our football landscape is pretty much unique. Having joined the Football League in 1890, when there was only one division, it took 68 years for them to be relegated for the first time, only a few years after having earned themselves the nickname “The Bank of England Club” on account of their grandiosity in the transfer market. Since that 1958 relegation, however, the club has spent 33 out of the 62 intervening years below the top flight. Sunderland have reached two FA Cup finals since then, both times as a Second Division club. Sure enough, attendances have remained high and The Stadium of Light remains a venue plenty capable of holding whatever level of football is expected of it, but this doesn’t alter the fact that there is a gap between Sunderland’s size and their history within living memory. There is no template for what the ultimate “success” of a Sunderland team might look like. The two seventh placed finishes following promotion into the Premier League in 1999 remain the club’s highest league finishes since the middle of the 1950s, but they were followed by relegation not long afterwards.
Anybody can talk in broad, sweeping terms about “moving the club forward”, but it can be enormously beneficial to know what that might actually look like and what will be required to get there. But this drifting nature can best be summed up by the construction of the Stadium of Light itself. With a 49,000 capacity (after extensions were finished in 2000), it opened in 1997 to fanfares in the media about its very existence would usher in a new era for the club. This all, however, followed relegation from the Premier League and it took the club two seasons to get back. In 2003, they were relegated again, and this period sums up the way that the club has so often seemed to be run – good intentions, a considerable amount of attention being given to its potential, but nothing that has resulted in the sustained period of success in the top flight that the supporters crave.
This season, as can be seen from the current League One table, is far from over. This division is tight this time around, and with half of it left to play and the team starting to pick up some points again, the biggest obstacle to Sunderland moving back in the direction that they wish to be heading may well be Sunderland themselves. The burden of expectation is one of the inherent costs of running a club of this size that has fallen on fallow times, and of Stewart Donald isn’t up to the job to bottling that potential, then so be it. It’s not easy. Issuing public statements that only seem likely to raise tensions, however, only seems likely to distract from a fragile recovery, and it’s difficult to see who benefits from unguarded comments of the type made by this official statement.