As uncertainty surrounds the club’s ownership, with no manager at the helm, and an unsettled squad to boot - Sunderland’s current predicament is worrying to say the least. Preparations for the new season get under way in just a matter of days, and if the aforementioned issues aren’t resolved swiftly then the campaign ahead could prove to be a tricky one.
That being said, if new ownership is installed soon the optimism that will undoubtedly be generated could prove to be the catalyst required for a successful future. It’s a big if, but it’s not an impossible dream.
New ownership must learn from the mistakes of the past if they hope to avoid them, and rekindling the club’s relationship with the fans is an important step in the right direction. The most obvious way in which the fans can be satisfied will be when a manager starts to deliver results - that goes without saying. We’ve had mouth-pieces tell us that everything will be alright, but as we’ve come to understand this is little more than spin - carefully created soundbites and video-clips aimed at assuaging our fears.
We won’t fall for those cheap tricks anymore though, and the owners of this club - whoever they may be come the beginning of the season - must know that the only thing capable of properly satisfying us is by doing everything in their power to help the club succeed.
I was never a particularly ardent supporter of Gus Poyet as I’ve never really been a big fan of possession-based football; however, his comments last year in The Guardian posed some interesting issues that new ownership would simply have to address:
There’s something inside Sunderland, something at its very core. It’s hard to explain but there’s a way of life, something deep down, that makes it difficult to fulfill its potential. Niall Quinn criticised me for saying so but later talked about ‘gremlins’; then Paolo Di Canio talked about that moment when you get your head above the parapet and … bang! There’s something there, something I couldn’t find. If I knew what it was I’d say but I don’t. But it’s there and needs to be changed at the root.
Speculation has been rife about where the rotten core lies, but Poyet went on to further explore the notion:
So then I go. Dick Advocaat comes in and the blame lies with the last coach and his signings. So you sign new players for the new manager. And then that manager goes and the blame lies with him and his players. So the new manager signs new players. And in comes Sam Allardyce. And then he goes and now David Moyes is there and he has what’s been left him by previous coaches and you can’t go on like that. You just can’t. It’s impossible. Because when you start from zero every year – every year – you stay at zero.
He’s right in a way, for the club has definitely been plagued by serious issues with regard to turnover of staff both on and off the field - though it’s his following words that really grasps the issue at hand:
You have to hire a coach and say: ‘Whatever happens, this is my coach for five years. No. Matter. What. And we’ll put a team together under his orders.’ And with time, if you chose well, you have a chance. But it’s five months Allardyce, five months Martin O’Neill, five months Poyet. If it’s Moyes it’s Moyes whatever happens. And you have to say: ‘We’re going to ensure Moyes has the right tools.’ You need 10 months to get started, to build but when they don’t give you 10 months.
Now like many of you I cringe a little reading the words, “it’s Moyes whatever happens.” But beneath that lies the root problem which Short and co. have failed to understand. Has any manager in recent seasons been given the ‘right tools’? Have they been helped to succeed?
The very definition of those tools deemed to be necessary for success is one that the potential new ownership need to identify and install as soon as possible. Since Steve Bruce was relived of his duties back in 2011 we’ve struggled to keep our heads above water. Six years of close-calls followed, but why?
Well, this idea of the right tools links to the notion of an identity. Sunderland simply don’t have one, and subsequently there’s no foundation for any manager to succeed. It’s a simple yet critical flaw with our club, and one that must be rectified swiftly.
A definitive system and goals need to be agreed upon and voiced in order to help the club alter its current course. In the last decade or so Sunderland have jumped from experiment to experiment without every really committing to any of them. From managers in control of everything, to head coaches and directors of football, back to old heads and antiquated systems with huge financial losses and utter tripe on the pitch - Sunderland have simply failed to find their feet under Short, and everyone has paid a heavy price.
So to me it seems really quite simple - if the new ownership wants our club to succeed, then they have to be clear in what they want, how they want to achieve it, and be consistent in their approach.
There are areas right across the club that need organizing and re-aligning, but there are several that need to be repaired almost instantly if the club is sold to new owners.
Firstly, a new manager with a clear vision for the club must be installed because with pre-season merely days away we need the first semblance of solidity, and a manager in charge brings just that. Of course this goes without saying, but the manner in which new ownership deal with the approach and installment would be heavily scrutinised and must be managed exceptionally. Indecision won’t be received well. The new man in charge will almost certainly set the initial tone and mood for any prospective new ownership, so his appointment will be incredibly important.
The manager must then be supported with staff, funds, technology and anything else they deem necessary in order to reverse the club’s faltering fortunes. This isn’t an easy job that can be done half-arsed and on the cheap, because if it is then the potential new owners will be doomed to repeat Ellis Short’s mistakes. Most fans will acknowledge that Short put money into the club, but did he ever truly know what he was doing, or indeed why? He clearly saw Sunderland as an opportunity to make money, but that has ultimately failed. Subsequently, the new gaffer needs to be supported by the board and share their ambitions. Since Niall Quinn left Sunderland we haven’t had a board member with a shred of footballing nous who links the playing side of the club to the business side - change this and you’re already heading in the right direction.
Long-term visions, policies and ideologies will need to be further formulated and voiced, but at this point in time new owners simply have to steady the ship whether we like it or not. Will a new manager and ownership be able to sign players this summer to be moulded into future stars? Probably not in all honesty because right now we have a threadbare squad containing several players who don’t want to be here. Simply strengthening the squad and making the club menacing once more has to be a short-term goal that will then lead onto better things. It’s not about giant leaps or baby steps - it’s more regular walk in all honesty; we need to be threatening and we need a squad and system capable of playing consistently well.
Finally, footballing ambition has to be a goal. Martin Bain’s acceptance at the beginning of this season that Sunderland would have to sell in order to survive might have been deemed realism by many, but in reality it did little other than highlight our total lack of aspiration. There’s a lot to be said about positive mental attitude and its impact on the subconscious, so perhaps it’s about time the club vocally expressed some ambition in an attempt at generating some momentum.
I remember listening to Ellis Short talking to Nick Barnes back in 2012 where the American noted:
It's a lot of pressure. The first step is getting into the Premier League, we're there. The next step is staying in the Premier League, the next step is being considered an established Premier League team. There is a lot of pressure not just to stay in the Premier League, but to improve. We're not happy with finishing 13th, we're not happy at all, but we realise that you need steady progress and continual progress - you don't want to finish 7th twice in a row and get relegated the next season, which has happened in the past. We do feel right now with Martin, and with the progress we've made we are well positioned. We want to be well within the top ten. We certainly can't promise that, but we're not happy with where we are and we do want to improve, and yes, there's huge pressure to do so - from the fans and their expectations, but also from the sheer size of the economics of the Premier League.
I remember feeling confused at the time because I wasn’t really sure what he wanted for the club, and I don’t think he ever really developed those thoughts. New ownership has a chance to grasp this opportunity and run with it - but only if they are able to learn from our recent history and avoid the doom of its terrible mistakes.