In an interview earlier this week with the Yorkshire Post, former Sunderland defender Billy Jones spoke about how he’s enjoying his time at Rotherham United, reflecting on his last season on Wearside which he describes honestly as ‘horrible’:
It has been really good. Obviously from where I have come from last season, there was not much positivity at all around the club with what happened.
It was obviously horrible being part of that, personally.
When I spoke to the gaffer in the summer, he obviously spoke about the close-knit group he has here and the way the lads work hard for each other and thoroughly enjoy each other’s company in training in terms of working hard and off the pitch as well.
It is a close-knit group and he spoke about how him and his staff do their utmost to improve you as an individual and as a team and it has been exactly that.
It has been really great to be part of and hopefully we are going to have a special season here and that is what we are working hard to achieve.
Now whilst there was nothing inherently scandalous or bad about what Billy Jones had to say, and I’m not offended by what he’s said, it did lead me to reflect upon what we went through last season and how we’ve since moved on - both as a fanbase, and as a club who used to employed players like Jones who could very rarely be depended upon on a regular basis.
I have no issue with Billy Jones personally - I just though that, for the most part, he wasn’t a very good player for Sunderland. He may be a nice bloke and an honest pro, but I can’t say I ever really enjoyed watching him in a red and white shirt.
And he’s not alone in that sense - along with various others, Jones became a player that the fans associated with failure, and with his contract up at the end of the season he was allowed to move on, offering both parties the chance to start afresh.
He’s right, it was horrible to be a part of what happened last season. The horrendous way that the club was being ran off the pitch had become deep-rooted, and the infection had spread right throughout the club - from the very top, to the very bottom.
I have a degree of sympathy with the players that were here last season, even if on the pitch it often felt like they weren’t trying. I recently read Peter Reid’s wonderful autobiography, and a theme which seemed to follow him throughout his managerial career after leaving Sunderland stuck with me. As manager of Leeds United, Coventry City and Plymouth he was working with both hands tied behind his back due to financial issues, and as well-intentioned as he was, the issues stemming from those problems led to the players on the pitch turning in every day with the wrong attitudes.
At Leeds he had well-paid primadonnas like Mark Viduka to contest with and he felt helpless in his job, despite initially keeping them up. At Coventry he was forced to work with a limited budget after being promised much more, and at Plymouth he had to try and motivate a squad of players that weren’t being paid - and even had to stump up large sums of his own cash to keep the club afloat.
Obviously, those are varying extremes and are not necessarily situations that you can apply to what happened at Sunderland, but it is important sometimes to gain an insight into what it’s like being in that environment when absolutely everything is intrinsically negative.
When players like Billy Jones concede that Sunderland was a horrible place to be last season, it concocts a variety of emotions. At first you want to bring him down a peg and tell him what you think of his ability as a player, but if you take a step back and recognise just how far we’ve came since then you can have sympathy with the players who genuinely wanted to be here but couldn’t make things work.
Billy Jones is one. John O’Shea is another. Callum McManaman, who couldn’t wait to get back to Wigan when the chance came up in July, was probably one more - a player who wears his heart on his sleeve but was undoubtedly damaged by his inability to make an impact big enough to turn our results around.
They made mistakes and may not have been good enough, but ultimately the environment they were playing in was too poisoned for success to ever be viable. Players that have remained since that time - George Honeyman, Lee Cattermole, Josh Maja and Lynden Gooch the four best examples - have thrived since the club turned over a new leaf under new ownership.
Time is a great healer, but I think that as I sit here today and write this I have more sympathy with the players that ultimately brought us to the third tier than I did upon the completion of last season. History shows that its almost impossible to thrive under conditions like the ones we had at Sunderland last year, and unlike clubs like Leeds, Coventry and Plymouth we’ve been lucky that someone well-intentioned came along quickly to sort out the mess.
Thankfully, we’ve been able to move on at pace - and players like Jones and McManaman have been able to fall back in love with their profession too, albeit at a different club.