Remember when Sunderland AFC would secure Premier League status and didn’t have only one game left in the season? Last time we saw that was four years ago, when Martin O’Neill ushered in a dream-like four-month confidence during the 2011/2012 season.
Some thought Sam Allardyce was set to do the same this campaign. He didn’t; at least, not in the manner that the Northern Irishman had. But that’s okay. In fact, it’s a good thing he didn’t. Because immediate success – and the expectations that come with it – has for too long been this club’s undoing.
It’s true. All that occasional complaining and nail-biting during Allardyce’s two-thirds-of-a-season? It’s been the most reassuring part of this season’s particular way of avoiding relegation.
Remember when Dick Advocaat had that immediate fortune of good results in 2015? Or when Paolo Di Canio had it too in 2013? Or when Martin O’Neill got it from December 2011 to March 2012? Or even when Gustavo Poyet had it during the performance u-turn that was the ‘great escape’ in 2014? Yeah, they were good times. Shame it all went downhill from there. If only those head coaches were dealt with the realism of their struggle sooner – maybe they wouldn’t have so dramatically collapsed when results went sour.
Well, that’s exactly what happened to Sam Allardyce this season. Allardyce (like O’Neill) prioritised the points tally being at pace with the number of matches played. That was step one in accomplishing league safety – something Sunderland hadn’t grasped in years. Part of that approach was to ensure if the team couldn’t claim three points, then at least settle for one.
This is not a new concept. Gus Poyet, in the 14/15 season, recognised the importance of retaining points and how advantageous that can be long-term. However, even under an experienced manager in Sam Allardyce, it took his Sunderland side fifteen games to earn a draw in the league.
Fortunately, this is a fight Big Sam has since won; and you know that he views one point as a worst-case scenario, rather than as the less-regarded positive trait Poyet viewed it as. That said, for a good three months, we saw Allardyce become increasingly annoyed by his team’s inability to retain one point. That quick-fix routine our prior managers were granted just didn’t happen for him.
Yet – again – that is a good thing. Could you imagine what sort of trap door Sam Allardyce could potentially have led Sunderland down had he been afforded the luxury start his predecessors received? Paolo Di Canio, in seven matches, made managing Sunderland look easy! His early victories ultimately defeated him, because he was never exposed to the humbling conditions of a relegation battle. And what happened the following season?
Better yet, look at what happened to Gus Poyet; a young coach who tried to stamp his continental philosophies on players that weren’t compatible. A Capital One Cup final and season-end flurry of wins only solidified the Uruguayan’s belief that his methods worked when, in truth, he steered Sunderland away from relegation despite himself. Just watch the carnival of emotions he endured during the 1-1 draw at Hull City, shortly before his dismissal in 2015. Poyet couldn’t make his methods work at Sunderland because he wrongly believed ‘identity’ was part of the reason for avoiding relegation previously.
Now look at this season. At what point before the 3-0 victory against Everton did Sam Allardyce make his job look easy? The worst of times for O’Neill, Di Canio, Poyet and Advocaat came at the end of their tenure on Wearside, but for Allardyce it occurred immediately, and continued into January 2016. That he began to forge even mild success after such a troubled start should be a confidence-builder for next season alone.
One of the reasons for these momentary rare achievements this season has been Allardyce’s pragmatic approach to the talent available; to accentuate the positives and shut out the negatives. By refusing to persist with any player who didn’t contribute to the greater cause of the team, Big Sam was able to utilise his most willing players to their fullest potential. Conversely, liabilities such as Billy Jones were dropped, and any player showing no signs of improvement – despite their apparent ‘fit’ with Allardyce’s tactics (Steven Fletcher), were unused or loaned out.
Speaking of: there’s another reason why we should be optimistic about this coming season too. In hindsight, I loved January. You loved January. Everybody loved January. Newcastle United may have won relegation, but Sunderland sure won that winter transfer window.
Sunderland had terminated one winger’s contract and brought in the tenaciously talented, set-piece magician, Wahbi Khazri. Lamine Kone had us realising there is a better defender than John O’Shea willing to come to Wearside. Jan Kirchhoff should be in the FIFA17 World XI and Classic XI. If he’s not – we riot.
Seriously though, each of Allardyce’s recruits were not just hand-picked preferences; they were genuine squad-improving signings. Supporters knew how much the first team lacked in these player’s attributes. In Khazri, we got a winger who could beat a man. In Kone, we got that no-nonsense, all-strength centre back. In Kirchhoff, we got possession back!
Now, compare our newest signings with their predecessors. It took Martin O’Neill £13m to bring the repeatedly-relegated Steven Fletcher to Sunderland. Italian journeyman, Emmanuele Giaccherini – (a bargain!) – was recruited without any consideration for what role he was meant for, and the club will likely see him run wild for Antonio Conte with Chelsea next season. Will Buckley and Liam Bridcutt played . . . okay for Gus Poyet for Brighton & Hove Albion, but the Uruguayan shouldn’t have been allowed anywhere near them in the transfer windows. Jack Rodwell, omg.
That Sam Allardyce was able to identify weaknesses at Sunderland after two months, and make signings as efficient as those brought in to nullify them, is the trait of a sagely coach. If nothing else instils confidence in you about next season, this surely should.
And yes, Diafra Sakho would be a good start this summer.
However there is also a bigger picture here that Black Cats fans should really take on board for next season. Y’see, Sam Allardyce’s success has not come despite the early-season difficulties under Dick Advocaat. That was an excuse Martin O’Neill could have said of Steve Bruce, or Paolo Di Canio have said of O’Neill, et cetera. Instead, Sam Allardyce can reasonably declare his victories at Sunderland being achieved despite all of the above.
Think about it. Sunderland has been a club defined by transitional players and staff alike since 2011. Steve Bruce’s dismissal left the team suffocated by inconsistency and tactical mismanagement. Then, for fifteen months, the team went from unbeatable to anaemic under the ultra-defensive non-football of Martin O’Neill. Something there clearly wasn’t right. After that, it was six months of full-throttle, ketchup-banning, player-revolting tyranny with Paolo Di Canio. Then it was a further seventeen months with the incompatible methods of Poyet’s South American playing style. Then it was Dick Advocaat’s alarmingly irresponsible, attack-minded setup until October 2015.
That’s a lot of variables with very few constants. John O’Shea, Lee Cattermole and Sebastian Larsson were likely the only ever-present people involved during this time. How could any player – including them – not be disillusioned with the club during any of this? So many average players could have developed into something better in those years and didn’t. Instead, we have watched an interchangeable squad learn and undo interchangeable management’s interchangeable strategies. Nothing has ever been consistent. Ever.
Now, when you think of that, it puts Big Sam’s biggest achievement at Sunderland into a real positive perspective. He wasn’t afforded the immediate success of his predecessors nor did he get the rub of a season-ending winning streak. Instead, Sam Allardyce coached and man-managed somewhat-expendable players, tested formations, recruited better, got rid of the dead wood; was humbled by bad results, turned poor performances into commendable performances; turned losses into draws, turned draws into wins, turned wins into momentum, momentum into survival, and most importantly – he never made it look easy.
In October, Black Cats Analects identified Sam Allardyce and Sunderland fans sharing a common mindset; that the aesthetics are irrelevant – it’s about results, accepted in any form. Against the odds, Allardyce has done that. Imagine now what more he can do on his own terms next season.
Fingers crossed, we might even finish 15th!