It can’t possibly have escaped the attention of regular readers of Roker Report that I am partial to an opinion or two on all things Sunderland. Opinions are not always popular, as I discovered recently by criticising Niall Quinn’s handling of “raising the debate” about the match-day pub-dwellers and once again when I questioned Phil Bardsley’s claim to the left back position in the team. But, as Brian Clough famously said, “It's only opinions - they make the world go round”, and with that in mind we are delighted to introduce a new weekly Roker Report feature: Captain’s Blog. Our subject this week is the recently departed Ricky Sbragia, and the legacy with which he leaves.
In many ways, Sbragia’s story as Sunderland manager has an almost Homeric quality to it. Sbragia, the classic Homeric hero as a man of virtue and humility, is asked by a deity (let’s call him ‘Niall’) to undertake a difficult task of pivotal importance in treacherous times. Following an epic rollercoaster of a journey, our virtuous hero leaves it to the last possible minute before emerging with a great personal victory and the kingdom is saved. As the population rejoices, our humble and unassuming protagonist disappears away into the distance, and the kingdom goes on to enjoy a great period of prosperity thanks to his efforts. It makes for a brilliant story. “Homer’s Rickyssey” or Virgil’s “Sbragiad”, perhaps.
I suppose, given that history is written by the winners, that is precisely how history will ultimately remember Ricky Sbragia. It isn’t how I will remember him though. For me, Sbragia’s management of Sunderland AFC was a walking, talking, disaster waiting to happen which was averted by no more than dumb luck. I think the most frustrating thing about it, however, was that it could, and should, have been so much better. He started brilliantly, picking up the pieces of Keane’s sudden departure and recording back to back convincing wins quickly moving us up the table. Whilst that early promise could not, understandably, be maintained, form was solid enough to put us into a very strong position in the relegation battle in early March which saw us in 14th place, on 31 points, and with back to back home games against teams around us in the table looming. It was a massive opportunity to positively stride forward and grasp the 6 points that would have seen us safe by mid-March. But Sbragia was not positive. The talk in the lead up to that double-header was not about taking our own destiny into our own hands and making a decisive leap up out of the relegation battle for good, it was about the importance of not losing the games. I must admit I found it very strange. Here was a man who had the courage to answer the call and the take the responsibility of keeping the club up on his shoulders. A man who was strong enough to identify Chimbonda and Diouf as the dressing room poison they were and ship them out when he could have been forgiven for tolerating them until survival was assured. Now, at the opportune moment, it looked like his bottle had gone. We did not get the 6 points that week. In fact, we only got another 5 points the whole rest of the season amidst weekly sermons from Sbragia on the importance of not losing, and only stayed up on the final day of the season thanks to results elsewhere.
One single incident during that March home double-header will always be my abiding memory of Ricky Sbragia’s Sunderland. The first game was against Spurs and within 4 minutes we were in the lead thanks to Kieran Richardson timing a run beautifully from central midfield and slotting home. In the second half, Richardson had the chance to chase a ball over the top of a Spurs defence keeping a very high line, but when he reached the half way line, he stopped, turned, and jogged slowly back to his position in central midfield inside his own half. Instead of being positive, taking the game to Spurs, and taking control of our own destiny, we surrendered half our own pitch for 86 minutes and sacrificed the initiative. Spurs got a late equalizer. Sbragia’s Sunderland perfectly summed up in one solitary moment of meek retreat whilst opportunity was knocking.
I am not having a pop at the bloke because it would have been easy for him to tell Quinn to find someone else and save himself the bother. Although I found his football philosophy eye-achingly dull and his overall managerial demeanour wholly uninspiring, I always just saw him as a decent man just badly out of his depth. I am sure the press found him easy and pleasant to deal with and well-humoured. It was difficult to hold any real animosity towards him. But what I will always really appreciate about him is that whilst his courage seemed to wane his humility remained resolute, never allowing any kind of ego to develop, and allowed him the clarity of thought to be able to realise that he wasn’t up to the job. That, to me, will always be his greatest contribution to Sunderland AFC.
So perhaps Ricky Sbragia wasn’t quite the Homeric-style hero that history will no doubt come to remember him as, but he must surely leave the club with the best wishes of us all. Given he was attracting offers of employment from Premier League clubs as recently as last summer, I doubt it will be long before he is back involved in the game in some kind of coaching capacity. I will always remember him as lucky manager who owes his managerial legacy almost entirely to the deficiencies of others rather than his own ability, but, although his courage seriously waned as the season wound to a close, he probably deserved that luck for having the bottle to take on the job in the first place. After all, fortune does, we are told, favour the bold.