Supporting The Lads has been a rough ride over the last few years.
Yes, we’ve been to a cup final at Wembley. Yes, we’ve dominated the Mags in the derby. And yes, we’ve pulled off Houdini-esque miracle escapes year after year. In the main though, being a Sunderland fan has been a bit rubbish. Unless you’re a masochist, that is. You might have enjoyed the last few seasons in that case.
But joking aside, as the transfer window opens across Europe, for once I feel a sense of optimism heading into the forthcoming season. After surviving year after year, there’s often been the feeling that the next season will be the one in which we pull away from the relegation dogfight and establish ourselves in mid-table heaven. Invariably, that has not happened, as we know all too well.
With Sam Allardyce at the helm though, I believe that we can finally take that next step. For one, Big Sam has a proven track record of stabilising teams in the Premier League. At Bolton Wanderers, he led the team to the top division, and after surviving two relegation battles, established the club as a surprising top half force. Between 2003 and 2007, Bolton finished 6th, 7th and 8th twice, competed in two UEFA Cup campaigns and finished runners-up in the League Cup.
At Blackburn, Allardyce took Rovers from 19th to 15th after taking over from Paul Ince, and then finished 10th in his first full season. When he was sacked by Venky’s in December, Blackburn were in 13th place. Then, after earning promotion with West Ham at the first time of asking, Allardyce led the Hammers to finishes of 10th, 13th and 12th.
In short, Allardyce knows what it takes to reach the dizzying heights of mid-table mediocrity, unlike Gus Poyet and Paolo Di Canio. And although we left it late to survive last season, only six points separated us from Watford in 13th. In three successive matches – Crystal Palace, Southampton and Newcastle – we threw away leads, earning three points rather than nine. Such fine margins can be the difference between a few places in the league table, and you have to believe that Sam will work tirelessly to improve our game management.
One of the main criticisms levelled at Allardyce throughout his career is that he is a defensive manager who favours solidity over expressive, free-flowing play. There is, of course, nothing wrong with that. Italy have used their solid defensive base to progress throughout the European Championship and have been labelled by many as the team of the tournament. As the season progressed, we began to see Sunderland as a more solid defensive unit. Our inability to keep a clean sheet was noted by Allardyce as a factor likely to relegate us. Indeed, we only managed seven for the whole season, but four of those came in the last eight games.
After pairing Younes Kaboul, fresh from injury, with Lamine Kone in early March, we allowed only nine goals in our final ten games after conceding 53 in the previous 28 matches. With Jan Kirchhoff anchoring in front of them, the defensive trio was vital to our survival hopes. Some believed that Dick Advocaat’s reckless abandon style tactics were an admission that our defence wasn’t good enough to keep us in the division, and he was probably proven correct for most of the season. Now though, Allardyce knows that he has a solid base to build upon when it comes to entering the transfer market.
Speaking of the transfer market…
Our January additions were key to our survival. There’s no doubt about it. I wrote in February that my initial impression of the KKK – Kone, Khazri and Kirchhhoff – trio was that they offered us hope in the fight to avoid relegation. The aforementioned partnership between Kone and Kaboul provided us with a solidity at a time we needed it the most. Kirchhoff, after a disastrous debut, was a revelation in holding midfield, and Khazri’s craft, invention, set-piece ability and tireless energy added another dimension to our play. Allardyce has a proven track record in the transfer market, and you have to believe that he will add the quality that we have desperately needed for a number of years during the window.
At the very least, Allardyce seems to be able to identify a player to fit a specific system or fulfil a specific role, as opposed to the seemingly scattergun approach previous managers have followed. According to Chris Young of the Sunderland Echo, Allardyce has identified five positions that he wants to add to the squad - striker, attacking midfielder/winger, box-to-box midfielder, full-back and centre-half. Again, it gives hope that for once, we have a specific, outlined transfer plan in place.
The aforementioned KKK trio cost around £16M. Or one and a half Jack Rodwell’s if you like. While transfer fees have gone daft (£37M for Odion Ighalo, anyone?), Allardyce has proven that quality players can be signed for a reasonable fee.
One thing that has been noticeable is the calibre of player that we have been linked with in the press. Of course, in the grand scheme of things, newspaper reports probably mean very little. It goes back to the old saying that "I’ll only believe it when he’s holding the scarf up." Nonetheless, it is encouraging to see the word ‘Sunderland’ next to some of the players reported in Andy’s ‘who have we been linked with?’ database. Names such as Edin Dzeko and Neven Subotic were previously unobtainable, "I’ll bare my arse in Joplings’ window if it happens" kind of signings. Now they seem more realistic.
"But they’re older, or out of favour," I hear you cry. Now, we’re going back a bit, but Sam made great use of these type of players at Bolton. Ivan Campo was a Real Madrid cast-off. Youri Djorkaeff was 33 when he arrived at the Reebok Stadium. Jay Jay Okocha was 28. Fernando Hierro was 36. Bruno N’Gotty was 30. OK, you get the point. Jan Kirchhoff was a Bayern Munich cast-off, after all. And while he did not sign Jermain Defoe, Allardyce has the striker playing some of the best football of his career at the age of 33.
Speaking of Defoe, one of the best pieces of post-survival news was that he had signed an extension to his contract, alongside the ever-improving Patrick van Aanholt. While still far from a defensive master, Van Aanholt has undoubtedly improved that side of his game under Allardyce, and of course carries a huge attacking threat. It can only be seen as a good thing that those who played a vital role in helping us survive have committed themselves to the club. Now just for Kirchhoff to be rewarded with a new deal.
In short, I’m optimistic, cautiously of course, about our chances of having a decent season this time around. We have a manager with a proven track record of knowing what he’s doing. We have a decent core of players from which to build upon. Our last transfer window was a successful one and you would expect the manager to be able to attract a higher calibre of player to the club, or extract the maximum from unfancied ones.
Maybe, just maybe, we could reach the lofty heights of mid-table mediocrity again. We can dream, right?