Despite having only arrived in January, Darron Gibson is so dissatisfied with the attitudes of his teammates that not only was he unwilling to protect his colleagues in public, he encouraged fans to berate them.
There has long been a perception at the Stadium of Light of a contrast between the limited players who have grafted hard to keep Sunderland in the league, and other more heralded players who have accepted high wage packets but have not shown enough commitment and effort.
Our new manager, Simon Grayson, was quick to identify an issue with the attitudes of some of his players, lamenting individuals who weren’t meeting his requirements following a 3-0 preseason hammering at St Johnstone.
Speaking after the game, Grayson said:
There are certain players that are buying into ideas and certain players that aren’t. If players are not willing to work hard they can go somewhere else.
This isn’t to say that Gibson was unanimously right to throw three of his teammates under the proverbial bus. As disappointing as Lamine Kone’s transformation from potential cult hero to error prone liability has been, Gibson at times last season looked equally as one-paced and lethargic.
Wahbi Khazri, when given opportunities under David Moyes last season, provided a spark and much needed creativity that few members of the current squad are capable of producing. Jeremain Lens won’t be a Sunderland player for much longer, and will likely be seen as someone who underachieved on Wearside, but he possesses a dynamism that left many fans hoping he could be our talisman in the Championship, despite his flaws.
Gibson himself, as discussed elsewhere on this site, was grossly unprofessional in his conduct. He showed awful judgement letting himself get so intoxicated in public after such a humiliating 5-0 defeat to Celtic. His lack of restraint - even offering to get physical with one supporter - capped off yet another embarrassing incident for the club.
Finding a balance between signing talented footballers and those who actually give a “S**t” about Sunderland (as Gibson eloquently put it) is not a new problem. In Roy Keane’s most recent autobiography, The Second Half, the ex-Sunderland manager discusses regrets about the profile of players signed in 2008 ahead of our second season in the top flight.
Keane said, “George Graham made a point: if you’re signing a player he has to see it as a step up. Or else he’ll feel like he’s doing you a favour. The lads from Spurs in particular left me with the impression that they thought they were doing me a favour.”
Finding the right mix between talent and hard work represents Grayson’s biggest challenge yet this season. The 47-year old must also deal with a likely divide between those like Gibson and perhaps other established British and Irish players, who are sceptical of foreign stars who come from a different culture and bring a different understanding of English football.
Unless Sunderland can shake the mentality of a team where most players appear to believe they’re the genius, playing with ten idiots, the results could be catastrophic. No club has suffered back-to-back relegations since Wolverhampton Wanderers achieved such a feat in 2013. However, eight ex-Premier League sides have dropped to League One in the decade since Sunderland’s last Championship campaign.
Several successive years of piling up defeats only to narrowly escape relegation, prior to this year, has left many observers expecting Sunderland to level out and remain in the Football League in the near future. At the time of writing Sunderland sit 11th in the odds table for the Championship title.
Sought after players at this level may think twice about joining a divided dressing room with middling expectations.
The only club in recent memory who had a more ostensibly difficult, divided dressing room full of conflicting philosophies was the Queens Park Rangers team constructed by Mark Hughes and then Harry Redknapp. Hughes, seemingly keen to prove a point with his dismissal spell at Manchester City still fresh in the memory, tried to add too many technical flair players too quickly to a team recently promoted to the Premier League. A clash between those who helped get the club into the most lucrative football league in the world and those who didn’t ruined the team’s performance.
The likes of Jose Bosingwa, Esteban Granero and Samba Diakite never fully meshed with a squad that also contained Clint Hill, Jamie Mackie and Shaun Derry as key dressing room figures. Hill became lionised by several football writers and pundits. Certain media treated the thirty-something defender as a bastion of perceived old-school British footballing values of heart and grit amongst a team where many were perceived to be not trying their hardest.
A humiliating relegation was followed by an unlikely promotion back to the promised land, via the play-offs, only for Redknapp to repeat Hughes’ mistakes. The experienced English manager mistakenly gave prominent roles to past their prime old pros such as Rio Ferdinand and Richard Dunne. The team lacked the athleticism and energy to compete in the increasingly difficult Premier League and were unsurprisingly relegated.
The past two seasons have seen Queens Park Rangers plateau as a mid-table Championship club. They’ve finished 12th and 18th going through five managers.
Old experienced ex-Premier League stars allowed the club to stabilise in their first year, with Nedum Onouha and Paul Konchesky still regular starters, whilst quality players like Charlie Austin and Matt Phillips both started their first season back in the Football League before being sold on. Now Rangers represent a more typical Championship team - Jake Bidwell and Alex Smithies are key players for the R’s, both acquired from divisional rivals.
Is this Sunderland’s future? A transition to a more British but limited team that is merely competitive in the second tier? Other clubs with muddled identities and mixed playing squads have faltered since leaving the Premier League. Blackburn Rovers were relegated last year and Wigan Athletic have dropped out of the Championship twice due to an inability to suitably replace Roberto Martinez.
Which brings us back to how Sunderland are handling the need to create a more cohesive committed on pitch identity. Hiring Grayson fits well with the our dated manager-dependent structure - he has been managing in the league most of his career. In his role as Preston North End boss he was already scouting and coaching in preparation of a Championship season. The Yorkshireman is also acutely aware Sunderland represent his best and possibly last chance to manage in the Premier League. He’s impressed with positivity and a passion for the club since arriving, appearing to be motivated to succeed at Sunderland in a way Moyes never was.
A managerial change alone doesn’t solve Sunderland’s poor dressing room culture and miserable on field identity. There are several examples of Sunderland sides crumbling under pressure and giving up early when trailing in games - something that has been happening since Martin O’Neill was sacked.
Given the current issues within the Sunderland dressing room and the club’s history of folding under the slightest bit of pressure, recruitment is of the utmost importance.
So far seven players have been brought in - two youngsters still keen to make their mark in the professional game, a 26 year old goalkeeper with plenty of Championship experience, one free transfer from the Eredivisie plus three more famed players coming towards the end of their prime. Given that three of the deals are loan signings and that the four players signed permanently are 26 or older, Sunderland are not playing for the future.
These are pragmatic deals with a view to improving the squad for this season and this season only. James Vaughan and Aiden McGeady represent two signings with little sell on value - they are players who have likely played the best football of their careers already. McGeady, Vaughan and Lewis Grabban have all played for teams with similar or greater ambitions than Sunderland, so it’s crucial Grayson can give them something to work towards and buy into.
Buying players with vast Championship experience makes sense given Sunderland’s ten year absence from the Football League, but circling back to the Roy Keane era, it does leave Grayson needing to keep his new men motivated and on task as this isn’t a “step-up” for them. Grabban has bagged 22 goals at this level before, whilst McGeady has played Champions League football and spent a majority of his career at a higher level. Grayson must be able to coax the best out of these two talents if Sunderland are going to sniff the playoffs this year.
It’s hard to judge whether these pragmatic signings, designed to get results this season, embody Grayson’s desire to maximise his chance at Sunderland - to manage in the Premier League - or whether this short term approach to squad building is representative of a manager with his hands tied due to restrictions from above.
Despite parachute payments and Everton paying a deal worth upwards of £30 million for Jordan Pickford, Sunderland have spent £1.25 million on new players. Local media have been reporting new players will not be signed until others are sold.
So Sunderland are stuck relying on Championship veterans to improve a team that has constantly under-performed, with players failing to live up to the wages and hype they had prior to their arrival on Wearside for years. This has to be the year where hard work beats talent for Sunderland to succeed.