I had become Premier League weary and I don’t think I’m alone in that regard. We had ten years in the most lucrative and exciting league in the world, yet we had not experienced success beyond nervy escapes that varied from the miraculous to the meticulous.
It may seem like sour grapes to express relief at exiting the Premier League, almost as though I’m acting happy about it in attempt to hide grief and failure. Though I am not happy, there is a cathartic element to this change from our cycle of struggle. It was clear that while we could escape relegation like no other team, we lacked the ingenuity and the knowledge to build an upwards path out of our perpetual struggle.
Of course, there is no guarantee that we have not exchanged one relegation struggle for another. Perhaps relegation to the Championship will reinvigorate us, perhaps it will take hold of us and prove as much of a struggle as the last five years. We simply do not know. But change is an opportunity and it is up to the hierarchy at Sunderland AFC to make the best of this change and use it to transform our fortunes.
The Championship is as cruel and unforgiving as the Premier League, more a test of planning, determination and nous than anything else. Money is not everything in this league, and while the same is true in the Premier League, the Championship is an outstanding opportunity for smaller clubs to outperform their wealthy competitors through simple, but effective and cohesive operations. The key to any successful season is to have the right people in charge who are all invested in achieving success for the club. It is about having a manager and players who will fully immerse themselves into their roles and a mission, not half-hearted egos hell bent on self preservation and short term personal gain.
I have said for a few years now that I wanted Sunderland to pursue the right manager and to be willing to pay compensation if needs be. Too often have we gone for the biggest names of the free agents, paying no mind as to whether they are willing or able to work under the constraints this club currently operates under.
When it comes to selecting a manager, I do not care if they were an elite player. I do not care if they have won trophies, managed in the Premier League or managed in European competitions. I don’t even care if they’ve been promoted from the Championship into the Premier League before. I want a manager who has proven they can change the culture of club and have a positive impact, relative to the circumstance they inherited. This could be the stabilisation of a club from relegation candidates to mid table safety, or maintaining a \stable position in the league despite enduring significant financial limitations and the loss of key players every year. These kinds of achievements are not to be sneered at, yet they so frequently are.
Naive owners usually go for the sexy managerial choices over the sensible ones. Birmingham went for Zola. Villa went for Di Matteo. We went for Moyes. Moyes had a great CV and had managed at the very top, but he was badly affected by his tenure at Manchester United, was no longer the right fit for a job on a budget and was always going to resent how far and rapid his fall from grace had been. It was the illusion of ambition on a budget, with none of the substance or thought required to actually achieve success. True ambition would have been paying for a manager who suited our circumstances, whose stock was on the rise, who had a hunger for success and was still determined to prove themselves.
We needed someone with momentum, who was achieving success at that very moment and working at a club where they had transformed a culture, producing stability and positivity. Instead we got someone who thought they had nothing else to prove, entitled to a carte blanche and automatic respect just because of what they’d already achieved. Every word Moyes spoke and every action he took seemed to demonstrate that he considered this club beneath him, and that he held his position and the constraints he operated under with contempt.
Relegation was not the thing that turned me against Moyes. We all knew it was a possibility and we’d operated under the threat of it for years. It was Moyes’ attitude, the manner of the performances and the meek surrender to relegation that was unnecessary and totally unacceptable. Moyes poisoned the culture and killed the joy of football for players and fans alike. And this must be the first thing to be fixed.
Our current situation means Simon Grayson is one of the best candidates we could have hoped for and we have decided to compensate Preston for the loss of their manager, rather than moving for a free option. Though he was not on my radar for the job, Grayson has an appealing resumé which includes some of the previous achievements I mentioned. In his first press conference, he made some refreshing comments, including that he wants to;
… get players in who want to play for the club. There are a lot of players who have come here for the wrong reasons. But the one’s who are going to be coming will be coming to play football and improve this football club.
Talk is cheap in football and only time will tell whether we can rid ourselves of the pervasive culture which has offered obscene financial rewards to average players with poor attitudes. Once at the club, too many players have rested on their laurels, satisfied with what they have already achieved and lacking the motivation to progress any further. Most had neither the hunger to work hard and help Sunderland climb the league, nor to prove themselves and move on to a club operating at higher standards of football. While I’m glad to hear of this eras death knell, I will only celebrate when I no longer see it on the pitch.
I think we have to be patient. Stability is definitely what we have needed for a while, but it has always been essential for it to be under the right manager. We now have a manager who will hopefully work effectively and happily with the players and funds at his disposal, instead of comparing Sunderland to his brief time managing a Champions League club, insulting current players and potential signings to the media and protecting his own name and reputation by disassociating himself with the club and the decisions he was making.
A top half finish in such a competitive league as the Championship would represent an excellent effort given the changes we will see, not only in personnel but also - hopefully - in culture. We have been spoilt in the Championship before and - even amongst serious upheaval and average playing squads - we have mounted successful promotion charges.
However, this season will be a learning curve for fans, players and manager alike and given the naivety of our owner and board over the last five years, I remain sceptical as to whether they can successfully implement a clear and effective strategy to get us promoted at the first attempt. We have several years of parachute payments and to fail at our first attempt would not necessarily be the end of the world. If we see positive signs and a plan in its initial stages, I think we can all forgive a stable if unspectacular season.
Having said all this, Grayson has enjoyed success at most of his clubs, and his only opportunity at a club with comparable infrastructure to Sunderland was at Leeds, where he was plagued by chaos and severely limited budgets, even by our current standards. Grayson guided Leeds to promotion from League One, then a top half Championship finish, but was sacked the following season with the club 10th in Championship and just three points from the play offs. If he gets reasonable support to sign the right players and changes the culture at a pace, a play off push is always possible.
Grayson seems motivated to test himself at a new level and having worked in tough roles with limited budgets, he has always left clubs in a better condition than when he joined them. One would hope he would relish this opportunity to further his own career by improving Sunderland’s fortunes and he will be happy and proud to do this on a relatively limited budget.
Obviously we have to see positive signs and should there be no tangible improvements and no plan or culture taking shape - even in a nascent form - then I will be as critical of Grayson as I was of Moyes. I did not expect overnight changes then and I do not now. I simply expect to see the beginnings of a plan on the pitch, and a manager conducting themselves in the right way off the pitch.
Time will tell, but we have a manager happy to live and work within his means. It’s a good - if somewhat belated - start.