The Relegation Model

Jan Kruger

If Sunderland get relegated this season, it will be the result of years of bad management, particularly in the transfer market. We've gone from dreams of the "Udinese model" to our own self styled "relegation model" of transfer business, and it has left us staring into the abyss.

Just over 12 months ago, Sunderland chief executive Margaret Byrne stated, "Of course you could be a profitable club and sell your best players, but it's a relegation model. We want to keep our assets and not sell them." She certainly got that right; selling your best players is definitely a model for relegation. Indeed, our approach in the transfer market appears to have done its level best to prove her theory correct.

We're not down yet of course, but we took a giant step closer to Championship football with Monday's defeat to West Ham Utd. That loss, coming as it did on the back of our failure to take three points off either of fellow strugglers Norwich City and Crystal Palace, was a massive blow. However, if our inexorable slide into the second tier continues unabated then it won't be these results in isolation that have taken us there. The feeling of inevitability that has started to creep in has as much to do with years of bad planning and more specifically poor transfer business as it does this season's poor form.

Our demise has been a slow and painful one, which can be traced back to a time long before Byrne gave that interview in 2013. The signs were there under Steve Bruce when first Lorik Cana and Kenwyne Jones were sold in 2010, followed by Darren Bent the following January, then Jordan Henderson and Asamoah Gyan in the summer of 2011. It'd be foolish of me to suggest all of these players were sold purely for financial gain when there were clearly a multitude of reasons for each individual sale. Their sales do however form part of a sell to buy trend, which has involved our star players leave when decent money has been put on the table for them.


Done properly, this type of transfer system can work. Make a hash of it and it can be disastrous. This being Sunderland, we've been doing the latter, with our managers littering their squads with a mixture of loan players and cheap or free signings in an attempt to flesh out threadbare squads. In doing so, they forgot to build a first team, the foundation for any side. Without a core of good quality players signed up to a long term project, it's been rebuild upon rebuild in every transfer window. If this was a house, it'd have sunk into the sand it was built on long ago.

Indeed, by the time the club decided to at least toy with the idea of some long term planning and brought in Roberto De Fanti as director of football, things were already looking bleak. Along with the Italian director of football came a support staff of scouts, some with previous association to Udinese, home to one of the greatest scouting networks in the world. Suddenly there was hope of a very different model of buying to sell, to buy again. Instead, the prize assets were sold in Simon Mignolet and Stephane Sessegnon, while a multitude of poor quality replacements came in to supplement the mass mediocrity signed by Steve Bruce a couple of seasons prior to that.

De Fanti, brought in to do a long term job, was swiftly dispensed with. One can only assume Gus Poyet took charge of transfers in January and the results have been mixed thus far. Perhaps Ignacio Scocco will come good just in time to provide a late push for survival, but the evidence to date suggests otherwise. At least the likes of Alonso and Bridcutt fit into his prevailing philosophy, but otherwise you do have to question the wisdom of the business done. The rot has certainly not been stopped.

This all leaves us staring the Championship in the face and the man tasked with ending our transfer trauma appears to be Lee Congerton. Is he the right man for the job? Time, if he is given enough, will tell. Is his appointment too late? Even if we stay up, the task he faces is a huge one.

There will be a mass exodus from the Stadium of Light this summer, with loan players returning to their parent clubs and a huge number of players' contracts running down. If we are in the Championship next season, then those who remain will reportedly face pay cuts. That seems like eminently sensible planning on behalf of the club for once, until you consider Wolves' plight. Like Sunderland, they sold two prize assets for big money in Matt Jarvis and our very own Steven Fletcher, but were lumbered with the rest of underperforming squad, despite the wage cuts. Perhaps the slashed wages proved to be a demotivating factor and that, along with a variety of other problems blighting the club - some of which aren't too dissimilar to ours - eventually led them to a successive demotion, landing them in the third tier.

Could this happen to us? It's certainly a possibility. I went to Sheffield Wednesday against Watford this weekend and was disappointed but not particularly surprised by the lack of quality on show, especially from the home side. Hillsborough is a stadium steeped in history - although much of it tragic - and is home to a club bigger than its current standing.

That hasn't helped them on the pitch though and on Saturday I witnessed a rudderless side - unsurprising, given their manager had taken the day off to attend his son's wedding - playing in front of a half empty stadium, blighted by a sterile, apathetic atmosphere. The side on the pitch lacked any sort of character or identity - sound familiar? - and whilst Watford were nothing special themselves, with a bit of organisation and ability on the break were able to easily dismantle their grander opponents.

Wednesday, like Wolves now, have very recently spent time in English football's third tier. Both clubs provide worrying examples of how difficult the route back to the top flight can be. Leeds United, who find themselves in the midst of an almighty ownership mess are another worrying illustration of just how tough things can be when you drop out of the Premier League and miss out on its riches for a lengthy period of time.

We've come extremely close to a similar descent after both 15 and 19 point seasons. When Niall Quinn and his consortium arrive, the club was in a terrifyingly precarious situation. That season began with us looking every inch a precursor to Wolves and their current situation. Thankfully, the appointment of Roy Keane and a swing in momentum, we turned things round and made our way back up the league. To do so, he spent money and spent it predominantly well.

That is the key this summer. If we go down, so be it, but the "relegation model" must be reversed. The transfer trauma must be brought to an abrupt end and Gus Poyet given a chance to impose an identity on this side. Lee Congerton and his staff also need time to provide us with a long term vision in the transfer market. Signing young, hungry players with potential has proven to be a lot more difficult than it might seem. He needs to be given time to deliver.

Funding the sheer number of signings that will be needed this summer will be a challenge in itself. If we have a sell to buy policy, just who is left to go for big enough money to bulk the squad up and add the necessary quality to either challenge in the top flight or make an instant return to the Premier League? Steven Fletcher? Adam Johnson? Lee Cattermole? We certainly won't make back what we spent on them.

If it all goes wrong, then we might just be facing a long stint beneath English football's top tier. The Premier League is not the be all and end all, but the Championship is not an antidote to it either. It's simply a poorer quality version, which continues to be the graveyard for some of English football's bigger clubs. We've been digging our own burial pit for a few years now and this time it might just be too deep to clamber out of.

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