Sunderland: When The Lights Go Out
This season marks the sixtieth anniversary of a very significant event in the history of Sunderland AFC. Sixty-eight years earlier, in 1890, the club had joined the Football League and in the intervening seven decades the club had become the only club to be an ever-present member of the First Division. The previous season had issued the club with a warning, when it finished in twentieth place in the table, just one place above the relegation zone. This time around, though, there was no such luck. Despite winning its final two matches of the league season and with just two points separating the bottom five in the table, Sunderland were relegated for the first time in the club’s history. Although the club had not won the league title for twenty-two years, Sunderland was still regarded at that time as A Big Club, whose relegation marked the end of an era.
The club has only spent twenty-eight of the subsequent sixty years in the rarefied air of the top flight, but the last ten of those came consecutively and only came to a conclusion with relegation at the end of last season. This time, however, there was no great surprise involved. Sunderland’s ten straight years of Premier League football had been characterised primarily by a lack of achievement on the pitch. The club only finished in the top half of the table once over the course of that decade, and even that was only a tenth placed finish at the end of the 2010/11 season. The slide of Sunderland never really felt like a football club crashing and burning. This always felt like more of a slow decay, interrupted only by the club doing the absolute bare minimum required to remain at the golden teat of Premier League and little more.
Warning signs the year before last, when only an unlikely six match unbeaten run at the very end of the season was enough to keep the club up at the expense of local rivals Newcastle United. With manager Sam Allardyce having – briefly, as it turned out – accepted the England job shortly before the start of the new season, David Moyes was brought in as a replacement, but Sunderland couldn’t win a league match until the start of November, managed just six wins all season and were mathematically relegated on the last weekend of April after a home defeat at the hands of Bournemouth. Moyes had by this stage already acknowledged that he would be leaving the club at the end of the season. He’d received more than his fair share of criticism over the course of the previous nine months over unimaginative tactics and selections, lacklustre recruitment and a seemingly hangdog expression which seemed unlikely to instill a great deal of confidence in his players, but there remained a suspicion that Moyes was a symptom of the broader malaise within the club, that on this occasion at least supporters solely directing their ire at the manager were missing the mark somewhat.
Ellis Short took a majority shareholding in the club in September 2008, assuming full ownership the following May. Since then, there doesn’t seem to have been a single positive story to come out of the club, from a succession of ill-fated managerial choices to persistent rumours of an out of control drinking culture amongst the club’s players. Short has stopped dipping into his own pocket in order to finance the club’s wage bill and has been looking to sell the club for several years now with no luck, and the size of the club’s wage bill during this period hints at a reason as to why buyers for the club have proved to be thin on the ground, even though there has been plenty of initial interest from different groups.
Overall, though, the impression that has come to characterise Short’s time in charge of the club has been rudderlessness. This is perhaps best exemplified by the rumours that have been emerging regarding goings on behind the scenes at the club’s academy. Sunderland’s set-up for young players developed players such as the Jordans Henderson and Pickford, but this damning article from the excellent Sunderland website Roker Report alleges “loan moves being blocked for players ready to develop beyond the tepid Under-23 set-up, a self-serving culture which rewards staff for getting results in Premier League 2 above allowing youngsters the chance to flourish at Football League clubs, and individuals risking the wrath of the Sunderland hierarchy by taking their career development into their own hands.”
If true, these allegations are not only indicative of a degree of moral bankruptcy within the club – “whilst there are good people working with these lads within the academy, corporate Sunderland AFC is either oblivious or unaware of the impact that business decisions and the current cold, hard-nosed financial-driven fervour may have on the lives of the young people within its system” – but also contribute towards the alienating culture that has driven many thousands away from the club over the last couple of years or so. What is clear, from reading anything about the condition of Sunderland AFC over the last two or three years or so, is that there has been an almost complete breakdown in trust between the supporters and just about anybody directly connected with the club, from the directors, through to the office staff and even the players themselves.
Into this fug of resentment walked Simon Grayson during the summer, taking over from David Moyes as the club’s manager. On paper, Grayson looked like he might be a reasonable choice to try and steady the ship at the Stadium of Light. He spent a considerable amount of time managing a big name at this level of the game at Leeds United – albeit without a great deal of success, although whether he could have been held responsible for the omnishambles that Leeds were across the board at the time – although cynics did comment that the club might have been looking at his success in getting Blackpool, Huddersfield Town and Preston North End promoted from League One to the Championship via the play-offs as a hint at the future direction that the club might be expected to take.
For some clubs, relegation after years of attritional battle against such an outcome can feel like cleansing the palette. Winning a few more games and visiting new grounds can feel like a welcome break after years of clinging on by the fingernails, even if these new experiences are at a lower level than one is used to. Things don’t always take this course, though. Sunderland actually started this season reasonably well, with draws against Derby County and Sheffield Wednesday and a highly creditable win away to Norwich City, but since travelling to Hillsborough in the middle of August the team’s league form has fallen off a cliff, with four draws and seven defeats to show for their last eleven matches, a run of results which has seen the team slump to twenty-third place in the table, with only newly-promoted Bolton Wanderers (another club which proves that relegation from the Premier League isn’t always the refreshing clean slate that many supporters would like it to be) below them.
Unsurprisingly, Grayson doesn’t have many fans at the Stadium of Light at the moment, but it is probably a reflection of how low morale has sunk amongst the club’s support that opinion over whether he should stay or not seems to be somewhat divided between those who believe that he is simply out of his depth and those who believe that the club in its current condition is pretty close to unmanageable by anybody within the potential range of a club which is no longer having its playing side bankrolled by the owner and which has just received the financial shock of having annual Premier League television money replaced by substantially lower parachute payments. Which manager of a sufficient quality to be able to choose his next appointment, Sunderland supporters might well rationalise, would want to walk into the Stadium of Light at this point in time? And they may well have a point.
Strictly in terms of league position, this current predicament isn’t quite the worst that Sunderland have ever been in. Sixty years ago this season, the club was undergoing the trauma of relegation from the top flight for the first time in its history. Thirty years ago, however, Sunderland were playing out their first – and to date only – season in the third tier of English football. Relegated from the First Division in 1985, the club found itself finishing the 1986/87 season in third from bottom place in the Second Division, which required them to play in the first end of season play-offs to save themselves from another relegation.
They lost the first leg of their semi-final by three goals to two at Gillingham, but a Gary Bennett goal two minutes from time in the return leg at Roker Park gave Sunderland a three-two lead to take the tie into extra-time. A Tony Cascarino – who had scored a hat-trick for Gillingham in the first leg – goal two minutes in put the Gills ahead, and even a Keith Bertschin goal for Sunderland with twelve minutes to play couldn’t prevent them from managing the unique achievement of becoming the first Football League club to be relegated on away goals. They bounced back immediately as champions of the Third Division the following season and were then promoted again, back to the top flight, in 1990. If history could repeat itself that way around Sunderland supporters might well take the offer, but there are no guarantees that the club can pull itself from its current rut, and certainly not without significant changes to the way in which the club runs itself.