Sunderland's move to a new business model, and with it a new policy on transfers, was sorely needed. Since promotion to the Premier League under Roy Keane, the club have lacked a clear strategy on how to move forward, choosing to simply spend a fortune year after year in the hopes of achieving success, and this model has failed spectacularly. Despite a total spend of around 170 million pounds over the past six seasons, Sunderland ended the 2012/13 season in 17th, their lowest position since promotion in 2007, only surviving by the skin of their teeth. The club have had one top ten finish to their name during this time, and haven't managed to get past the 50 points mark.
Sunderland found themselves in a vicious circle. Squads were seemingly assembled and disassembled season after season (though this was not always our fault), only for the club, like an unhappy rich character in a novel about capitalist excess, to be stuck in a state of arrested development, never moving forward, and judging that more spending was the cure for its woes. At one point, the powers that be at the club let Roy Keane spend 8 million pounds on Anton Ferdinand, a transfer that future generations will see as entirely symbolic of this era of the club's history, one of over-spending and mediocrity.
Fortunately Ellis Short has decided to bring and end to this madness, moving to a more sustainable business model, and it should be to the relief of all on Wearside. After all, Sunderland have spent big in the past, only for it to end in disaster and scandal. The decadence of the 1950's era, and The Bank of England club, should be seen as a cautionary tale of what happens when our club tries to spend big.
That Sunderland side has already developed a reputation for splashing the cash in 1948, with the signing of Len Shackleton for the then world record fee of £20,500. Tommy Wright and Ivor Broadis joined soon after for big fees, but it was the signing of Trevor Ford in 1950 which led to the side receiving it's 'Bank of England Club' moniker, with the club again smashing the world record fee to sign the Welshman for £30,000.
After a third place finish the previous season, and with their attacking trio of Shackleton, Broadis and Ford the envy of all the other clubs in the land, supporters went in the 1950-51 season certain that the club would win the league title that had so far eluded them in the post-war years. Of course, this being Sunderland, things didn't go to plan, and an incredibly underwhelming 12th place finish was the end result. The following season, the team only managed to match this position.
Like with our current side, when things looked liked they were about to go well, the tide quickly turned. Sunderland started the 1952-53 season in superb form, and found themselves top of the table by mid-January, only to suffer a complete collapse in the second half of the season, failing to win in 12 successive games, before stumbling to a ninth place finish.
Part of the problem lay with our two big signings. While undoubtedly both extremely talented players, Len Shackleton and Trevor Ford hated each other, and the two struggled to play alongside the other successfully. Shackleton famously believed that entertaining the crowd should be the priority of a football team, and he often indulged himself, much to the annoyance of his team-mates, particularly Ford. It didn't help that Shackleton would mock Ford during matches, often playing back-spin passes to his strike partner that appeared to be the perfect ball, only for it to reverse and return to it's creator. During one pre-season game, the 'Clown Prince', as he was dubbed, took the ball passed the opposition defence and goalkeeper, and, with the goal gaping, chose to pass it back to Ford on the edge of the box. 'Don't say I never give you a pass' was Shackleton's response to the incident. It was perhaps no surprise when Ford left for Cardiff in 1953.
Sunderland responded to their failings of previous seasons by spending huge amounts again prior to the start of the 1953-54 season. £70,000 was spent on players, a quite astronomical figure for the time.
England internationals Ray Daniels and Billy Elliot arrived, as did Scottish goalkeeper Jimmy Cowan (The club also came very close to signing Newcastle legend Jackie Milburn during this time, with the Magpies striker being keen for the move, only for his clubs board to turn down Sunderland's offer). Despite this huge outlay, the club flirted with relegation all season only to survive with just a couple of games left to spare.
The club had been lucky to stay in the First Division, and the response was again to spend money to bolster the team's fragile defence. Charlie Fleming was signed from East Fife for £20,000 (plus Tommy Wright), and there was a definite improvement over the next couple of years with two successive FA Cup semi-finals and a 4th place finish in the league. It proved to be a false dawn. Indeed, Sunderland were heading towards a complete disaster.
A run of just two wins in 16 matches during the 1956-57 season left Sunderland in dire trouble around December time. The club responded in their usual fashion of going out and making an expensive signing: this time it was Don Revie, who arrived for £22,000. In the end the team finished 20th, just one place above the relegation zone. The real problems, however, were happening off the pitch as the club found themselves the subject of an inquiry, the results of which would have huge ramifications for the club.
In January 1957, a letter signed by 'Mr. Smith' (believed to be a disgruntled board member) made allegations that Sunderland had been illegally paying their players more than the maximum wage 'under the counter'. Alan Hardaker, then secretary for the Football League, opened up an enquiry in the matter and found that Sunderland had been running a scam for years to pay players under the counter.
In an age before undersoil heating, football clubs covered the pitch with straw during winter months to try and stave off snow and ice. Sunderland placed order for straw far in excess of what was needed, and the suppliers would give the club credit notes for the amounts that were returned. The board would then cash the credit notes and used the money o pay the players over the maximum wage; all without putting it in the books.
These kinds of practices were widespread, but it was Sunderland's illegal activities that were uncovered. The Football League delivered it's ruling in April 1957, and the club were fined £5,000; the highest fine issued to a football club at the time. Three directors were banned from football indefinitely, including then Chairman Bill Ditchburn. Five Sunderland players, including Billy Elliot, were also given life bans, as was former striker Trevor Ford (these bans were late retracted and replaced with lesser sanctions). Manager Bill Murray resigned from his position a month after receiving a fine for his part in the affair, bringing an end to his 18 years in charge.
A transfer policy that was intended to get Sunderland a long overdue trophy ended up leaving the club in tatters, and we were relegated for the first time in our history in the 1957/58 season. It would be six seasons before we returned, and even then we would spend the next 50 years a 'yo-yo' club, never able to maintain our status as a top division side.
Our current run in the Premier League is our longest in England's top division since that painful first relegation, but it could have very easily been different. But for Paolo Di Canio's impact late in the season, Sunderland would surely be preparing for a campaign in the Championship. A move to the new business model is needed to end the years of instability within the team, and the years of wasteful spending.
Most of Sunderland's greatest achievements in their history have come while not spending a great deal, such as the victory in 73, or the young side Johnny Cochrane built in the 1930's. The clubs greatest failure came when it ignored such things as youth development and looking for bargains, and instead went for the big, headline-grabbing signings. I for one am glad that Sunderland have stopped it's most recent policy before another disaster came its way.