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Sunderland Downplaying; Lowering Expectation in a Market Boom

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The Premier League is booming - fans have been told to expect riches beyond their wildest dreams. The biggest season EVER starts at the weekend, yet in a raucous corner of the North East, Sunderland are practicing a dark, yet essential art. How do you cut costs in an overheating, over-hyped football industry? Downplaying, that’s how.

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The art of downplaying is a pseudo-field of human psychology.

It's a technique more akin to marketing bods than football clubs, but we're all customers of this glorious game after all. Downplaying is about managing the expectations of others, but the complex calculations required are fraught with danger. The downplay dealer simply seeks to minimise the significance of what’s going on around them. He or she can’t categorically deny what’s happening before your eyes, because complete denial is implausible, but there are a variety of tools at his or her disposal – trivialising or making light of the situation for example; or choosing just to plain ignore it, or at least appearing to.

In Sunderland’s case, this seems to happen on a bi-annual basis. A twice yearly transfer window stagnation which appears to outsiders as if those on the inside haven’t yet realised there’s even anything going on out here. Weeks pass and to the boys and girls it seems like there’s not much going on inside the Chocolate Factory. Yet inside, the Oompa Loompas are watching, waiting for their moment. And, just when all seems lost – Kamboom! a signing or two; the golden ticket is found and everyone rejoices having completely forgotten what it was they were originally hoping for.

Because, Sunderland AFC is a business which is haemorrhaging cash, but manipulating the market to curb those costs is desperately difficult, especially when Sky and the Premier League are telling everyone to spend, spend, spend. Every footballer, football agent, football commentator, football pundit and football fan is demanding that you unveil the mega-bucks, because they’re demanding their share.

The strategy over the last few seasons has worked, to an extent; but it’s been fraught with risk. Flirting with the Championship is stomach churning when you’re relying on the riches of the Premier League just to cover your basic costs, never mind to try and invest to grow.

So what do you do? Well, you employ the right personnel to communicate your downplayed message. Sunderland have done that in CEO Martin Bain and manager David Moyes. Now, I’m not commenting on their abilities to do their jobs here, it’s too early for us to do that and to be truthful I’m quite liking their style so far. Because, these two men have given us precious little to work on – on purpose. However, this week they’ve probably sailed just too close to the wind, and the strategy nearly got burned.

Moyes is a downplaying kind of a chap. His language is a dead giveaway. From his first interview, he was careful to say the right things – about progression, moving beyond the annual battle with relegation and improving the playing squad with some touches of quality here and there. Bain has yet to say much, on purpose.

Yet, what David Moyes gave us by way of information on the one hand, he took away with the other, because this is downplaying. So, he told us not to expect any big names, because they won’t come. He told us he will replicate his recruitment model from Everton, he will buy British, give youngsters a chance and will likely have to ‘win ugly’. In other words, there’s no money and it ain’t going to be pretty.

Then the other day Moyes said he was "hopeful" of some signings "soon", which didn’t tell us anything at all, but if you read it with just a cursory glance you would nod sagely and agree that Moysey must be working the transfer market damn hard. If you had given it a second look, you would reckon that, despite first appearances, there was nothing of note there because "hopeful" and "soon" are too open ended to be of much use.

Which is fine, so long as we all understand each other. So long as we all understand that David Moyes’ style involves purposefully lowering expectations whilst bolstering his own abilities and achievements to give the impression of progress in the face of adversity. The reasons for not getting your hopes up will be plentiful – injuries, referees, tactical difficulties, a limited squad. So long as we know that’s what we’re going to get, we can live with it, as long as the master plan appears to be on track. All managers do it; it’s a curse on all of them in fact, but Moyes is a clever man and he knows how to play us; which is fine right, so long as we have our eyes wide open.

But this week, Sunderland’s tactic hovered close to blowing up in their faces. Seemingly allowing a new fan hero, the rock at the heart of last year’s roar to safety, to flirt with Everton for a fee which doesn’t set anyone’s heart alight, was a risk which was just not calculated with sufficient forethought.

If you’re going to play this game – of downplaying expectations for as long as possible, then ‘kabooming’ your hidden genius into the faces of onlookers, timing is everything. This was like when everyone expected Apple to unveil the iphone 5 but all they got was the iphone 4s. It’s like when British Leyland announced they were launching the successor to the Mini, and proudly gave an incredulous world the Austin Metro. You have to give the people you’re trying to cheat at least something credible for their part in the illusion.

Firstly, the club didn’t react quickly enough to the effect of social media; again. The football world was all over a photo of Kone with that Everton fan before dawn broke and Sunderland fans woke to a moderate dose of pandemonium. By the time the working day started, it was decreed that big Lamine had decided to spend his day off on Merseyside, with his agent touting him at Ronald Koeman’s breakfast table.

Second, you’ve got to downplay this sort of thing as quickly as possible, and I mean you’ve got to literally downplay the damn thing! The club eventually fed someone the right line – via the Sunderland Echo I believe. They said that they would only be minded to sell once a replacement was identified. Great, but this was tea time, by which time some of the carnage was un-rectifiable.

If Sunderland are going to play this grand game of downplay, then they need to be a little smarter and calculate the percentages better. They have to give the watching public something to work with. Or maybe this is all part of the masterplan, a few days of angst followed by some shiny but cheaper signings to smooth the water. Then we’ll all be grateful for small mercies and play our part in accepting the season of cost reduction that the new men were brought in to deliver. Heaven knows the accounts need it.