I’ve been away on holiday in America for the last three weeks (lovely, thank you very much). I mention this not to boast about my jet-setting lifestyle, but to explain why I’ve found myself ever so slightly detached from the maelstrom seemingly enveloping the club this season.
I may have been away but, thanks to the wonders of modern technology I’ve been able to keep a fairly close eye on Sunderland’s progress (much to the chagrin of my almost preternaturally patient wife), and in particular the growing discontent from certain sections of Sunderland’s support about our new manager, David Moyes. I’ll admit, it might be the ludicrous optimism of the American people rubbing the edges off my usually dour North Eastern persona, but I’m struggling to see what all the fuss is about.
For the last decade, every time we’ve had a managerial change at Sunderland (and we all know how regular that’s been), David Moyes has been number one on my managerial wish-list. The dream candidate. Ideal for the job. This is the man who took Everton from the bottom six to the top six on a shoestring, wheeling and dealing with aplomb, putting out sides year after year which punched far above their weight in the Premier League. Make no mistake about it, when he got the Manchester United job it was because he’d earned it.
His record at Old Trafford might not have been what he’d have liked, but compared to Louis Van Gaal (a man given significantly more leeway in terms of time and money), it really wasn’t that disastrous. Following Sam Allardyce into the Stadium of Light was always going to be difficult, because he and Sunderland seemed almost made for one another, but let’s not kid ourselves about David Moyes. This is a man with serious pedigree.
Recent performances, too, have been encouraging. Of the games we’ve lost, I’d argue that Manchester City away and Tottenham away were absolutely to be expected, and the fact that we lost neither game by more than a goal’s difference might prove crucial at the end of the season. The draw away at Southampton was a good result, despite the manner in which it came about, whilst we matched Ronald Koeman’s Everton team for 60 minutes before Lukaku did the thing that Lukaku can do and blew us away. It won’t be the last time they beat somebody three nil this season. The Middlesbrough game was poor, undoubtedly, and I’m not claiming that’s the last bad defeat we’re going to see this term. But five games in is far too early to judge a team, to judge a manager.
Look at the hand Moyes has been dealt. Parachuted into a job at the end of July. Significant injuries to major players (Mannone, Borini, Larsson). A weaker squad than last year, without the money to do anything more than a patch job. Fitness questions over key players (Kirchoff, Cattermole). August consumed in a will-he, won’t-he saga over Lamine Kone’s departure or non-departure to Goodison Park.
Yet, with all of these impediments, Moyes is doing ok. No better than ok, admittedly, but ok is still an achievement. The transfer window may not have been the (almost) unqualified success we saw in January, but Didier Ndong looks like he might be a player. Jason Denayer and Javier Manquillo have added some quality to the defence. Even Paddy McNair bloody scored against QPR. Twice. Papy Djilibodji and Adnan Januzaj have question marks over them, and nobody’s expecting much from Donald Love, but it’s hardly been a disaster.
He’s taken chances too, taken risks. Lynden Gooch has become a fixture in the team under Moyes, and seems to be taking his chance. He’s trusted Jordan Pickford with the goalkeeper’s jersey, and bar a slip at Southampton the lad’s not let him down yet. He’s thrown in players like Asoro, and put Josh Maja on the pitch against QPR with the team a goal down, in a game Moyes really needed to win. Yes, the lack of squad depth has forced his hand, but they were all brave decisions for Moyes to take.
It seems to me that the root of many fans dissatisfaction with Moyes is in his demeanour. He’s almost stereotypically Glaswegian, a faithful replica of the man he replaced at Manchester United. No argument from me there. But I’d ask you to think back, three relegation battles ago (yes, it is that long), when Gus Poyet told the media that we would need a miracle to stay up. Remind me how that one ended? Look at Sam Allardyce’s press conferences last season prior to the January window, tell me how often he looks like he’s going to crack a smile?
David Moyes has a hell of a job on at Sunderland. He isn’t going to sugar coat it for us. It’s almost certainly a bigger job than he thought, and he’s almost certainly not received the kind of backing he might have expected.
But think about it this way. He could have opted for an easier life. He could have waited until October, when the Premier League axe starts to fall, and he’d have been at the top of a lot of other team’s wish-lists too. Stoke and West Ham currently sandwich us in the bottom three. He could have hung on for more money and a better squad on the banks of the Trent or the Thames. But he didn’t. He took the risk, rolled the dice. He’s Sunderland’s manager. And I for one wouldn’t have it any other way.