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Sunderland’s leadership crisis stems from cowardice, which is far worse than incompetence

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Leadership is not a position or a title, it is action and example. Barring Chris Coleman - on the field of play and off - we’ve had neither.

Sunderland v Middlesbrough - Premier League Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

“True leaders understand that leadership is not about them, but about those they serve. It is not about exalting themselves but about lifting others up.”

Sheri. L. Dew

Chris Coleman has cut an indubitably lonely figure in recent weeks trying to crack the code that will unlock the buried secrets of Sunderland’s road to glory.

There is still much to admire about him. His bullishness is commendable. He does what all Sunderland fans appreciate and expresses himself honestly. No flash, no nonsense, no excuses. Coleman himself has assured us that he knew the extent of Sunderland’s financial challenges when he accepted the job as manager. He probably looked at the squad and felt reassured by Premier League names such as Cattermole, Kone, Ndong, O’Shea, Rodwell, Oviedo, Billy Jones et al, and perhaps optimistically, with that steely self-belief of his, convinced himself there was a core strand of quality that could bind this squad together.

But the weaknesses of this current set of players have been laid bare. Stripped of former glories, deprived of their once lofty dignity, their failing fragilities have been exposed time and time again. Talk about the snowflake generation? This mess don’t even have the snow- only the flakiest of flakes!

Coleman has been left stranded with a squad of empty shells. They have the outside appearance of professional footballers except for where it matters: on the inside.

Where is the backbone? The heart?

Birmingham City v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship
An unenviable task.
Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

The nakedness of their vulnerability is as stark as it is raw and painful to witness. More startlingly is the anaemic nature of their courage. The rule of thumb from our last relegation surrender seemed to gather pace around the wondrous experience of our older, shrewd heads. Those battle hardened, old pros with footballing wisdom to burn. They would surely show the leadership necessary to unite a troop of eager young war dogs into battle.

Now, hurtling towards March and the latter stages of an exhaustively depressing season, that player-led leadership we were desperate to cling to last August has been conspicuous by its deafening absence. We lie pathetically at the foot of the table, below Burton Albion, Barnsley and Brentford- all great clubs - but whose average home attendances added together still don’t match ours, even now.

So with no leadership on the pitch, certainly not enough to register any measly portion of significance, our young, enthusiastic, gazelles have floundered rather than shone. They have had one or two moments of individual brilliance, carved from the instinctive nature of their natural ability, but they have not been led by their mentors to fulfill their potential.

Their mentors, with all their international and Premier League experience have failed them, they have failed us, they have failed themselves. Leadership is not a position or a title, it is action and example. On the field of play, we’ve had neither.

Once again, that leaves us with Chris Coleman. Stern and steady. Exuding all the leadership qualities a man in his position can. Through the inaction of the players who should have stepped up, Coleman is a leader amongst the feeble. Even when they recognise the strength of his words, the power of his delivery and the manner in which he handles both victory and defeat, our players, for a myriad of reasons cannot respond.

It is left to Coleman to face the world, to give the answers, to lead the way.

Birmingham City v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship
Should we have expected more from Cattermole this campaign?
Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

Of course, this is partly what Coleman is paid handsomely to do, and I’m certain he will not retreat from the duty. But in a multi-layered professional institution, where hundreds of millions of pounds can be earned or lost, where reputations can be built or destroyed and where ordinary employees of the club who work tirelessly behind the scenes with no fanfare can lose their jobs, the issue of leadership must and as a matter of deep urgency be the core and obvious characteristic of all who have an element of control in this club’s destiny.

Coleman cannot - and should not - shoulder the whole burden of leadership when it comes to the fate of a once noble club and the hopes of a proud but faltering faithful.

Ellis Short and Martin Bain must step up and lift some of this weight from Coleman’s back. Not just because they are largely responsible for placing the unfathomable weight there in the first place, and not just because they are answerable to the hardworking stakeholders who care deeply about this club. But, because morally, ethically and as an undiluted act of human decency, they should own the mess they have been responsible for creating.

To occasionally surface as insidious, ghoulish figures, appearing only fleetingly in the shadows and moving like undetectable phantoms, providing little in word or solace is simply not good enough. In fact, it’s an act of unadulterated cowardice. A purposeful and specific use of avoidance and gutlessness.

Less so Bain, albeit he is far from blameless. His presence at the club coincides with one of the most negative, disastrous, bitter and ineffectual periods in the club’s history. But, he’s a puppet in tartan underpants.

Yes, he could do more. Yes, he could be more public, more visible, more truthful. He could sit, side by side in every presser with Coleman and answer as many intrusive questions as our manager is expected to do so. But, he is little more than an Ellis Short’s ‘yes man.’

Under pressure, his second hand car sales rhetoric would be in full poetic flow, using every pulsating sales technique to gently kiss our worries away, with one worthless promise after another. Coleman speaks well of Bain. He doesn’t of course have our history with the man, and most employees are publicly warm about their employers.

Should Bain shoulder the pressure of leadership with Coleman and feel the pain of this excruciating experience every bit as much as him, or us? Yes. Definitely. Despite his lofty position he offers nothing in terms of glad tidings, reassurance or anything that even vaguely resembles a plan. He must lead more, for like Coleman, he is extremely well paid to do so.

Lastly of course, it would be impossible not mention Ellis Short when the subject of leadership is written about or spoken of.

He is our owner. Our very fates lie in the palm of his billionaire hands. For all intents and purposes he is our leader. He could save us or destroy us and in the same amount of time. He could lead us to resurrection, or lead us further into footballing damnation should he so wish.

So, what of our esteemed and wealthy, Texan leader? Does Short know the way? Go the way? Or show the way?

If truth be told, on all three gauges of that barometer he fails abysmally.

Mr. Short wants to sell the club. Ok, I get it. He made a financial investment a number of years ago that required more money and commitment than he envisaged. He’s got no natural connection with the club, the region, the city or the game of football itself. I don’t expect him to run around the Stadium of Light draped in a red and white flag, singing well-oiled Sunderland chants while we all happily join in.

He wants out. But that doesn’t mean he should largely ignore we exist. He’s like an absent father, who feels morally justified in his absence, because he pays maintenance money for a child he never sees.

He has not shown the leadership required to steer our ship and partly that is down to ignorance of the sport and the culture that surrounds it. Part of it is weakness and dereliction of duty. He wanted Keane out and Sbragia came in. A series of short lived, overly emotional and explosive managers with little experience, a fall out with Quinny, the millions he gave to a footballing fraudster in Roberto De Fanti - who wasted and squandered our hard-earned cash. The Ricky Alvarez debacle, the Rodwell contract, the Johnson scandal, the constant relegation battles and now this limp, aimless and sadly pathetic slow death of a football club - all under his stewardship, all under his leadership.

His leadership has led to a host of ill-considered decisions that have subsequently devastated the club and have left us floundering without direction, barely able to function.

His business approach, his love of debt, his irresponsibility with long-term fiscal planning has left us crippled financially, unable to trade or compete, barely able to survive. Now he hides. He’s flown his guilt stateside and houses his cowardly approach to leadership in a mansion worth the same price as he wishes to sell our club for.

He’s reduced the price of course, but even that is a consequence of his own hollow authority and pitiful management. Had he not run us into the ground, had he not ravished the club of its reputation and defiled our dignity, had he invested wisely and profited from intelligent business techniques, perhaps he could have even sold for a profit. Alas, his wretched price is only a symbol of his own weak and infantile leadership that has left us on a knife-edge of uncertainty.

Sunderland v Burnley - Premier League
Not likely, Ellis.
Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images

However, Coleman is a rock upon which the foundations of a resurrection can be built and in him, I see hope.

If Short sells, perhaps he can pretend we never existed at all. If he doesn’t or if he can’t sell, he can either place us further into the wilderness or become the leader we have yet to see. I’m afraid my lack of faith in the man, leads me to believe he will be the former and rather the latter.

“Bad leaders can take good staff and destroy it, causing the best employees to flee and the remainder to lose all motivation.”

JM Lalonde.

Sound familiar, Mr. Short?