Dropping The Gloves #3 - Ahmed Bilal Of Soccerlens

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If we are hearing a lot of people not associated with Sunderland talk about our club, it usually means things are going very badly. But in Dropping The Gloves, we welcome it. This is the feature where we go out to find people with no reason to flatter us to seek out an honest indication of how our club is viewed by the wider footballing world.

This time, Ahmed Bilal is the man in the hot-seat. Ahmed is the editor and founder of the well-known and very popular soccerlens.com. So lets hand the floor over to him...

Stoke are known for a physical game and strong set pieces, Arsenal for possession football. Do you consider Sunderland to have a similar identity, and if so what?

Ahmed: Footballing identities are partially self-created, aren't they? Arsenal have a very varied history in how they've played football over the last few decades, so yes, under Wenger they have focused on possession and technical superiority, but even that has evolved over the last 15 years from a mix of mental, physical and technical quality to not being very good in all three areas.

Sunderland don't seem to have a similar identity, and that's probably down to two reasons:

1. You need a single manager playing a certain way (or consecutive managers maintaining the same philosophy) over a long period of time.

2. Almost every team looks to play either possession football, play on the counter attack or play a strong physical game (Chelsea used to be up there before Stoke but they've been trying to change for the last two years). Not every club is 'labelled' as playing a certain way.

Taking money out of it, how competitive do you think Sunderland can hope to be in the transfer market? Which clubs do you consider their natural competitors for signings?

Ahmed: If you take money out of it, then geography comes into play. Does Sunderland's geographic location hampers their attempt to attract quality players?

I don't think it's a major issue with a fish bowl like Newcastle, where they have gone out and recruited young, technical continental footballers and while they're probably not going to be at Newcastle for life, they might help them push forward for the next 2-3 years, and they can then easily 'renew' their supply line.

So it shouldn't really be an issue for Sunderland either. Competing against London and Manchester is probably a tough ask but competing against, say, the Ligue 1 or Eredivisie clubs where the money isn't as good as in the Premier League.

It's all about what type of players you target. As well as what they earn. At the end of it you can't really take money out of it, can you?

From your vantage point, what would you consider to be the iconic or most memorable Sunderland moment during your time watching football?

Ahmed: I'd love to point out something that would resonate with hardcore Sunderland fans but sadly the best I can think of is Sunderland's romp to the Championship title under Roy Keane. Then again, they haven't gone back down since then, so it's not a bad memory, is it?

Niall Quinn claims that Sunderland have dropped their 'yo-yo club' tag. Do you agree with that and consider Sunderland now an established main stay of the Premier League, or is it a club you would still not be surprised to see involved in a relegation battle?

Ahmed: Their recent form has been very worrying, everyone knows that, so the big question is if there are three other teams worse than them in the Premier League this season. They have the players to survive, although they could have done with a bit more quality (funny considering how many players Bruce has brought in).

Looking at the league table you'd think the side that's doing the worst in terms of pre-season expectations are Arsenal (just above Sunderland) at the moment but if either team has to change things around, they'll need to start winning games and that has to come with a change of mentality around the club (and not necessarily a change in manager).

So yes and no – Sunderland have been going steady in the Premier League for the last few years but given how they've performed recently (in the last six months really, since those heady days of a top 10 spot midway through last season) I would not be surprised if they're in a relegation battle.

I think all clubs like to pride themselves on quality of their support. Comparatively speaking, and as a neutral observer, how would you rate the Sunderland fans?

Ahmed: Everyone thinks they have the prettiest wife at home (really not an Arsenal fan, honest!). In reality Sunderland fans are no better and no worse than the fans of most other football clubs. Good honest people who pay a lot of money to watch their team and are usually lifelong fans as it's in their DNA to support the club.

It's interesting how one of the key things Niall Quinn used to talk about when he came in was how Sunderland needs a more active fanbase, and yet there hasn't been much change in that area. Whether he'll have more success drumming up international partnerships for Sunderland is up for debate.

Having said that, it's not only up to the fans but also up to the club on how they treat existing fans and attract new ones. Sunderland perhaps need to re-evaluate their on-pitch and off-pitch strategies and understand how they can grow their fanbase without needing to 'win' trophies – because if you're going to base success on spending money, the fans will stop coming as soon as the money stops flowing, and that's never good for long-term prospects (unless you like the new Chelsea fans).

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With that we'd like to extend our heartiest thanks to Ahmed. Be sure to check out his work at soccerlens.com. Your eyes will love you forever.

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