With each passing day the game that Ellis Short and Martin Bain are playing increases in risk.
The decision to put our managerial hunt on hold after the last-minute Derek McInnes snub was incredibly dangerous, given the scale of the rebuild needed on Wearside and the small window in which it can be achieved before the return of competitive football.
Fear of a new ownership group and their intentions most likely played a significant role in McInnes's change of heart, especially considering he would have been leaving a secure, successful environment in Aberdeen. The nature of his 11th hour withdrawal does also weaken the club’s ability to lure away other prospective managers: other candidates would be perceived as the second choice to Aberdeen’s gaffer and having to work with that knowledge, a young coach wouldn’t leave the Scottish Premier League to manage Sunderland. Any other Bain-endorsed appointment would also know new owners may have other plans for the club, not including the incumbent manager, regardless of when that man might have been appointed. In anticipation of a German takeover Jens Keller now sits comfortably near the top of all new manager betting odds lists.
In spite of this logic, doing nothing still feels like a massive mistake; leaving too many things to chance when securing Sunderland’s immediate future. More needs to be done in the interim between any finalised sale and managerial appointment, by current club officials, to ensure Sunderland’s decline is halted and fears of a further fall towards League One aren't realised.
It's fair to say the two most stark deals to be sanctioned by Bain have been controversial: selling our best player Jordan Pickford and retaining veteran John O’Shea. Selling Pickford was inevitable given the level of his talent and the realities of modern football, whilst O’Shea being given a new contract is a misstep typical of a club incapable of sound footballing decisions or making unpopular decisions when needed.
Rewarding O’Shea with a new contract after three seasons of awful performances typifies the lack of footballing nous at Sunderland during Ellis Short’s tenure. Arguments citing O'Shea's experience and decorated career at Manchester United as reasons to extend the Irishman’s stay ignore the reality of the level he currently plays at, blatantly dismissing the fact that what someone has achieved in the past is no guarantee of what they will accomplish in the future. This is without touching on his lack of suitability for the rigours of a forty six game season and, coincidentally, the often-awful attitude of the Stadium of Light dressing room in the last six years, a time in which the 36 year old has ostensibly been considered a leader on and off the pitch.
In a mishap which is again typical of Bain’s mishandling of club matters, backroom figures who could have been crucial to helping the club stay afloat have been shown the door or marginalised: Paul Bracewell was shown the door after being told he could leave when the club believed McInnes would be arriving imminently. Simon Wilson, our Chief Footballing Officer, was also told he could leave. Wilson has only been in his post less than a year and previously worked as Head of Performance Analysis at Manchester City.
With player recruitment on hold and Sebastian Larsson the only out-of-contract Black Cat believed to be offered a new deal, the uncertainty is frightening. Our first pre-season fixture is on July 7th and believe it or not, Derby County at home and the start of our Championship campaign is just five and a half weeks away.
If Sunderland were a stable club with a healthy promising playing staff, gambling preparation and the club’s future over the potential of a transformative sale would be more palatable, however this isn’t even close to the reality we face. Our threadbare squad contains no senior strikers, four prominent first-teamers that have openly stated their desire to leave and a further two internationals who are almost certain to go. What's left are mediocre journeymen and raw, inexperienced youngsters with little senior football under their belts.
Last season highlighted the potential disasters that can be caused by treating transfers as a low priority. The eight signings that David Moyes oversaw in August, made in just one month, reeked of panic and a lack of planning at the time. Unsurprisingly, bedding in several young players with little Premier League experience took time we didn't have and the club’s awful start was a major reason for the self-fulfilling relegation we suffered under Moyes.
Hull City faced a similar situation last year, with Assem Allam looking to end his near-decade stewardship in Humberside. The club’s failure to push a deal over the line was a disaster, Steve Bruce left on the eve of the season, disillusioned. The club failed to sign a permanent transfer before August 29th (aside from teenage goalkeeper Will Mannion, who is yet to debut for the first team).
Their disrupted summer guaranteed their relegation. The failed attempts to sell the club left a team lacking the depth and quality to compete at Premier League level. The shrewd mid-season appointment of Marco Silva as head coach nearly saved them: the former Olympiacos manager’s subsequent smart transfer business added quality and pace to the team but ultimately a terrible transfer window cost them Premier League status.
One must hope there is a contingency plan set by our chief executive in case the deal doesn’t go through. Whether that’s signing players by committee with Robbie Stockdale handling training and coaching the first team, or appointing an available manager rapidly, somebody who should have already been sounded out in the anticipation of such a scenario. It doesn't matter if it's a journeyman or a short term fix to keep the club afloat and competitive amidst uncertainty over ownership. It’s equally crucial that the heavily-linked German consortium are aware of the tight deadlines around rebuilding Sunderland’s playing squad and the enormous short term needs placed on their first appointment as head coach or manager.
If the wantaway, sought after cast of Vito Mannone, Brian Oviedo, Papy Djilobodji, Lamine Kone, Wahbi Khazri, Jermain Lens and Fabio Borini are sold, is what’s left going to be a capable squad at Championship level? Even in an unrealistic, hypothetical world where none of our high earners leave, the team still lacks a proven striker and attacking midfielder/central forward to provide goals, assists and a link between midfield and attack.
As discussed in this blog before, the Championship cannot be taken for granted and Sunderland can’t be complacent in sealing the club’s sale and hiring a manager. Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers spent heavily with ideals of buying their way back to the Premier League, only to finish in the bottom half and well away from contention last season. Their struggles highlights both the issues of depth and the difficulties a team must overcome to win promotion from the Championship. Wolves may be the only team to have suffered the ignominy of back to back relegations from the Premier League in the eleven years since Sunderland lined up in the second tier, however eight relegated teams in Sunderland’s hiatus have dropped to League One. Historic institutions in English football, Nottingham Forest and Leeds United as examples, continue to be stranded in the Football League both in their second decade away from the big time.
Given the morally abhorrent decision making and stark footballing failures endured under Ellis Short, a change in ownership could have that transformative effect on our club. Yet, get the timing of the changeover wrong or fail to sell the club at all or in good time and Sunderland’s crippling decline could continue long after we say goodbye to Short and his cronies.