"YES! We’ve stayed up and we have a head coach who seems to know what he’s doing. Next season will be different and we won’t be in a relegation scrap!"
We heard it with Paolo Di Canio, Gus Poyet and Dick Advocaat. They came in when Sunderland look destined for relegation and keep us up. Then, the summer excitement kicks in, with the promise that things will be different next season, only to start poorly and have the head coach leave his position; lather, rinse, repeat.
Every summer Sunderland’s hierarchy somehow manages to got something fundamental wrong in its’ preparations for the upcoming Premier League season.
Summer of 2013
In 2013 Roberto De Fanti signed fourteen new players and only a small selection of which were actually any good. Di Canio may well have had a say in who he wanted but he definitely didn’t have the absolute final decision.
Duncan Watmore, David Moberg Karlsson, Modibo Diakité, Valentin Roberge, Cabral, Vito Mannone, Jozy Altidore, El-Hadji Ba, Emanuele Giacherrini, Ondrej Celustka, Charis Mavrias, Ki Sung-Yeung, Andrea Dossena & Fabio Borini – summer signings under Di Fanti in 2013.
What happened? One point from the first eight games with twenty goals conceded. The only sympathy I have there is that our first eight home games had Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester Utd, Manchester City, Chelsea and Tottenham with Fulham & Newcastle the other two. I’ll admit that was a hard start.
But, it still doesn’t excuse the mess that De Fanti created, one that we are still recovering from three years later.
Summer of 2014
A cup final, cup quarter-final and a great escape later we have Gus Poyet and a new sporting director - Lee Congerton.
In 2014 all I wanted was stability and whatever people think of Poyet, I personally really liked him and thought he would give us the best chance of that for the foreseeable future. This summer wasn’t as hectic as its predecessor but there were still problems there, most notably the financial restrictions placed on the club in terms of transfer fees and wages.
For what little we actually could spend, I thought Poyet did well to sign nine players but again how many of them were Premier League quality?
Billy Jones, Jordi Gomez, Costel Pantilimon, Patrick van Aanholt, Jack Rodwell, Will Buckley, Santiago Vergini, Seb Coates & Ricky Alvarez – summer signings under Congerton and Poyet in 2014
That summer I was content with the majority of the signings but to me we still didn’t address the main problem of who was going to score goals. Despite the late season form of Connor Wickham I didn’t think even then that he was the answer going forward.
One thing that also didn’t help was Poyet’s alleged strained relationship with Congerton and subsequently the staff at the club which, despite a decent first-half to the season in my opinion, lead to his dismissal in March 2015.
Summer of 2015
Enter, leave and then re-enter Dick Advocaat in the summer of 2015.
This time we felt there was going to be a change in the club’s fortunes – after all we had just persuaded a massive veteran in the game to rejoin the club. What could possibly go wrong? A better question is where do you start. We seemed to have more financial restrictions than the previous season and we have a massively under-fit squad going into the opening game.
I think there were some good signings this time. Fabio Borini returned on a permanent basis, Yann M’Vila was consistent throughout the season while Younes Kaboul is a man mountain. Whatever his attitude, Jeremain Lens falls into that category for me.
But there was still a problem in that majority of the players we had signed hadn’t played much football. They were reserve players at their previous clubs when we signed them for the most part. So, naturally we only got two points from our first six games, which included Leicester, Norwich, Swansea, Aston Villa and Bournemouth. Pathetic.
Sam Allardyce came in, saved us and now here we are entering yet another summer.
Summer of 2016?
I mentioned before that this season of survival didn’t feel like a great escape because we ultimately deserved to stay up whereas the previous three times we benefited through someone else either being more unlucky than us or simply worse than us. This summer must be different and continue the justified optimism moving forward.
The problem I have is that we have been in this situation before now. The summer holds a lot of promise before we are very quickly brought down to planet earth in August. So I’m being cautious this time around.
It still does baffle me how Sunderland have managed to repeatedly get things wrong every year, but one thing that I think we got right in the last year was scrapping the director of football system and go back to having a manager.
It’s no coincidence that the first time we have had a manager at the helm in the transfer market, the end result was by some country mile Sunderland’s best transfer window arguably since the early days of Steve Bruce. I am, of course, talking about January.
That’s not a slur on Congerton by the way. I’ve questioned the director of football system because it requires a lot of people to work together really well and be on the same page. But when done right, it can work. I just prefer having a manager and feel that system simply works better but everyone is different. And, in fairness to him, Congerton came in when there was a huge mess to clean up. I didn’t envy his task and I felt he did some things right. I do feel some level of sympathy for him as he was very restricted in what he could do.
Let’s also not forget, this was the man who helped us get rid of Jozy Altidore and replace him with Jermain Defoe in a straight swap with the only difference being an increase in wages. Where would we be now without Defoe? For that alone, I thank Congerton massively.
But overall I’m glad we’ve moved back to having a manager especially with that man being Allardyce.
As for the fitness levels, we must make that our first priority going into pre-season. I know it sounds ridiculously obvious but we have to make sure they are properly fit going into the first game of next season. We shouldn’t be messing about in America to play an MLS side who’s standard compared to majority of sides in England won’t be as good. No disrespect to that division but it’s true.
I understand to a point why we do it because you want to get the commercial revenue from making Sunderland A.F.C. well known across the globe. I get that.
But last summer should serve as a massive warning to everyone at the club because we could easily have paid the ultimate price for those mistakes. Relegation would have cost much more than scrapping a pre-season trip abroad. Not to mention, by prioritizing match-fitness and getting good players into the club, especially ones that will fit into Sunderland’s way of playing and actually make us better, that will make us a better prospect for commercial partners.
I know next to nothing about business but I believe Sunderland would benefit more from getting the football side of things right thus giving us a better chance of finishing higher up the table, which in turn generates more prize money from the Premier League. The commercial partners or business partners will more likely then come from that because we are a better team and a more attractive proposition as a brand.
But also as a professional football club, your main source of income is the supporters and if we are doing better in the Premier League, you’ll get more fans paying to go through the turnstiles on match-day. Money-wise, to me, it makes sense but maybe that’s just me.
This is a huge if, but IF we get things right this summer then we should be a force to be reckoned with next season.
What I’m saying is that despite us going over old ground again this summer, under Big Sam, this is our best chance for years to finally kick on and get out of the habit of being in relegation scraps.
This is our best chance to finally establish ourselves are more than annual strugglers and permanently cement our status as a genuinely good Premier League team.