The initial stages of Simon Grayson’s tenure on Wearside have been no less challenging than those of his recent predecessors. With the club in dire financial straits, the first team squad decimated by years of confused recruitment strategy and with Sunderland dropping into the hyper-competitive Championship, Grayson has more than a few things on his plate.
However, potentially one of the most pressing issues is how he intends to reconcile his stated ambition to mould Sunderland into a cohesive unit, full of men who play for the team and for the badge rather than themselves, with the presence of several highly talented players in his squad with a distinct lack of enthusiasm for playing week-in, week-out in the red and white stripes of SAFC.
Grayson’s rhetoric about the importance of hard work and developing a team ethic has been encouraging to hear so far, with a return to a hard-working Sunderland team welcomed by the vast majority of fans. While we would all undoubtedly like to see Sunderland stepping out on to the Stadium of Light pitch and playing like Barcelona every week, the bare minimum that fans deserve to see is a side that puts in maximum effort and this appears to be very much in line with Grayson’s philosophy.
This is particularly reassuring given the clearly limited budget Grayson has to work with this summer and this attitude has been reflected in the signings Grayson has made, with a combination of grafters, such as Bournemouth’s Lewis Grabban, and young players eager to prove themselves, such as the Everton loanee duo Brendan Galloway and Tyias Browning, brought in to supplement Sunderland’s woefully numbers-deficient squad.
With that said, pure graft and hard work are unlikely to be enough to fuel a Sunderland promotion campaign and this is where much of Grayson’s dilemma will lie. While Sunderland undoubtedly have some players capable of combining sheer footballing talent with the effort and commitment that Grayson has emphasised the importance of – Wahbi Khazri springs instantly to mind – there are some players within the squad whose commitment is wholly dubious, despite their unquestionable footballing talent.
There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that if Jeremain Lens could be convinced to stay at Sunderland this season he would be nothing short of a force of nature at Championship level and might finally justify the outlay that Dick Advocaat lavished upon him in the summer of 2015. We have seen throughout Lens’ brief Sunderland career that he is a player capable of moments of outrageous brilliance and this has been highlighted throughout pre-season, but there is an underlying question about his motivations and his commitment to the club. While Lens would be a fantastic asset in Sunderland’s Championship campaign, his stated desire to leave Wearside and the impression he has created that he feels the club is beneath him cannot be conducive to the kind of team spirit, work ethic or camaraderie that Grayson is hoping to develop among his Sunderland squad.
Likewise, Ivorian central defender Lamine Kone has shown time and again that he has both the class to dominate at this level of English football and an arrogant streak, seemingly convinced that he deserves bigger and better things than a career on Wearside, that could decimate Grayson’s attempts to foster the kind of spirit that has driven the likes of Eddie Howe’s limited but functional Bournemouth side to mid-table Premier League safety. Kone has demonstrated both qualities in abundance during his time on Wearside, but he also presents Grayson with a conundrum, in that he would likely attract a reasonable transfer fee and would remove a significant wage burden, while also removing our one experienced and genuinely classy centre back.
Both Lens and Kone typify the issue facing Grayson. For years managers, players and staff have spoken out about the “rotten core” at Sunderland and how much off-field issues have affected the club’s performances on-field and the development of the club as a whole. While it is hard to speculate from an outside perspective about just what might comprise this “rotten core”, it does not seem unreasonable to suppose that a group of senior players with a collective attitude problem might well be a significant part of the issue. However, while this may be part of the wider problem at Sunderland, the dearth of high-quality, experienced players throughout the team is an equally pressing issue for Grayson to consider and the retention of the likes of Lens and Kone would do much to improve Sunderland’s chances of promotion this season.
How Simon Grayson decides to solve this quandary may be crucial in deciding the outcomes of Sunderland’s season, we can only hope that his actions are as positive as his words have been.