It would not be a stretch of the imagination to claim that even the most wildly optimistic of Sunderland supporters must be beginning to tire of our status as perennial strugglers. While some might say it is an improvement on the days when Sunderland yo-yoed between divisions, successful Championship seasons at least brought some respite from the crushingly desperate cycle of a dismal season, followed by a brief but magnificent run of form, narrow escape from relegation and a summer of misguided hope. Every man and his dog has a pet theory about how and why Sunderland have become stuck in this rut; everything from managerial incompetence to players who lack the desire to perform in a Sunderland shirt.
Admittedly, there is no clear answer to this conundrum, but perhaps we can learn a few lessons from this weekend’s opponents Burnley, specifically their club’s development since the arrival of Sean Dyche as manager in October 2012. There is much in Burnley’s story that mirrors Sunderland’s recent history – several relegations and promotions and the loss of star players to bigger clubs – but equally there is much about Burnley’s rise to their current position that Sunderland could learn from, especially if, as seems increasingly likely, Sunderland are relegated at the end of the 2016/17 Premiership season.
With financial turmoil one of the glaring problems facing Sunderland in recent years, Burnley’s promotion to and relegation from the Premiership in the 2014/15 season provides an interesting potential blueprint for Sunderland’s hierarchy to consider. Burnley largely retained their Championship squad, resisting the urge to spend their newfound TV revenue on new players. They instead used much of the TV revenue to pay off the club’s debts, with the end result that by the end of June 2015 the club was free from debt and in a strong financial position to mount their successful challenge for promotion in the 2015/16 season.
While Sunderland face a slightly different situation, the long term benefit Burnley have enjoyed in return for enduring relegation should surely give the Sunderland board serious food for thought. If Sunderland are relegated this season, then perhaps the priority for the club’s management should be to stabilise club finances rather than to target immediate promotion with a raft of signings in the manner that Mike Ashley has employed to uncertain effect with Newcastle this season. The club’s debts are significant, with an estimated gross debt of £141m as of August 2016, and with the Financial Fair Play regulations not likely to be abolished any time soon, Sunderland would do well to give careful thought as to how to reduce the burden on the club. The growth of Premiership TV revenue is seemingly inevitable but Sunderland must be in a position to use this revenue growth to improve the team on the pitch, rather than to service debts, for this to have a genuine impact on the club’s on-field fortunes.
Another crucial element to Burnley’s recent success has been the faith shown to Dyche by the Burnley board. Despite presiding over relegation in 2014/15, Dyche remained Burnley manager, while in comparison Sunderland have developed an unfortunate habit of jettisoning managers mid-season in the hope that the “new manager buzz” will help to stave off relegation. While this policy has worked thus far, serious questions have to be asked about the financial ramifications of Ellis Short’s apparent hire-and-fire policy and about the lack of stability and long-term planning this causes the Sunderland first team squad.
To Dyche’s credit, he has built a team from largely unheralded players, molding them into a collective that is far more than the sum of their parts. While the likes of goalkeeper Tom Heaton and centre-back Michael Keane stand out as players that would be welcomed into most Premiership teams, Burnley could hardly be accused of being a team comprised of superstars. The trademarks of Dyche’s Burnley sides in recent years have been a willingness to work for the team, well defined player roles within the side and the kind of organisation that Sunderland have been sorely lacking. It seems fair to conclude that this collective spirit and the efficiency with which Dyche has built his side are both side-effects of the stability afforded by the longevity of his tenure, the faith shown in him by the Burnley board and the ability he has had to build a squad to fit his system and principles.
In contrast, Sunderland’s squads in recent years have been plagued by the issues caused by frequent managerial changes. While David Moyes cannot be excused from blame for some of the woeful Sunderland performances this season, you need not look far to find some glaring examples of players within the extended Sunderland squad who do not fit the profile of the kind of players Moyes used to such success at Everton. Perhaps the best example is Jeremain Lens, a player brought in at the behest of Dick Advocaat and subsequently abandoned by his managerial successors. Sam Allardyce clearly did not see Lens fitting into his pragmatic team, reliant on hard-workers and grafters throughout the eleven, and it appears David Moyes has much the same attitude towards the mercurial Dutchman.
Admittedly, this could largely be blamed on Lens’ appalling attitude, for example his petulant comments about Sunderland in an interview earlier this season, but it is not difficult to see how long-term planning with a distinct idea of how the team would play and the players required for this could have prevented a marquee signing such as Lens ending up on loan at Fenerbahce after only a single season at the Stadium of Light. Such signings have also had the effect of bloating Sunderland’s already grossly inflated wage bill, something that Burnley have notably managed to avoid. While this is certainly a consequence of Dyche’s affinity for less high profile players, Sunderland could learn much from the kind of strategic acquisitions Burnley have utilised to build a successful Premiership team.
While it is hard to have been impressed with Moyes’ tenure so far, perhaps it is time for the Sunderland board to really invest in a manager and see if Moyes’ years of managerial experience can bear fruit if given time. In his defence, Moyes did not have the benefit of a full summer to assess his squad and carefully plan acquisitions to improve key positions or to suit a certain system, with the end result that many of his signings so far seem the result of a panicked rush to buy whoever was available via a phone call rather than the result of diligent scouting. However, if given a full summer to plan his transfer window business, plus the financial backing that would hopefully be generated by the sales of Sunderland’s premier playing assets, it is not inconceivable that Moyes could build the kind of young, British team that he declared he wanted at Sunderland. This season we have already seen flashes of what might be, with the likes of Duncan Watmore and George Honeyman both looking wholly capable, and if given the time and backing to unearth the requisite kind of players, I believe David Moyes could well bring the stability that Sunderland have desperately lacked for so long.
Finally, there is the issue of playing style. So far this year, there has been little-to-no discernible consistent strategy in Sunderland’s team selections, formations and approach to games. In individual games, such as the draw with Liverpool in January, we have seen elements of Moyes’ tactical nous, however these have been few and far between. Undoubtedly this is a result of the deficiencies in Sunderland’s squad and the absurd number of injuries the squad have suffered this season, but this just lends further credence to the argument that Sunderland should be looking to build a squad around a unifying set of principles, rather than the current patchwork menagerie left behind by various attempts at different styles of play by the slew of managers Short has discarded. While some may view this as an attempt to argue the benefits of retaining Moyes as Sunderland manager, the fact that he has so far struggled to develop anything resembling a consistent style of play, formation or system seems to suggest that he may not be the man to take Sunderland forward on this path. Undoubtedly, the David Moyes of ten years ago could have built a Sunderland team to be proud of, but his recent failures seem to have affected him more than he might admit. Perhaps Moyes could be the man to build a bold, new Sunderland, but I believe if we want to see Sunderland rebuild in a positive manner, then relegation may spell the end for Mr Moyes.
Clearly then, there are many lessons that Sunderland as a club could learn from the progress of Burnley. Their faith in the right man has been repaid tenfold and the fans, at the very least, see a team selected each week that cares enough about the club and has enough pride in their own game to convince the fans that they deserve to wear the shirt. Admittedly, Burnley have had certain advantages that Sunderland do not, but likewise Sunderland have many advantages that Burnley can only dream of. The Stadium of Light has more than double the capacity of Turf Moor and Sunderland have, without a doubt, one of the most devoted fanbases in British football. Hopefully the Sunderland board can see this and learn from what Burnley and many other Premiership sides have achieved in recent years and begin to build towards a bright and stable future for the club.