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The realities of League One; Optimistic revival or the final nail for Coleman’s Sunderland?

With relegation to League One seeming increasingly likely, Roker Report spoke to fans of three clubs to gauge the realities of falling into the footballing equivalent of the abyss.

Sunderland manager Chris Coleman takes his press conference at The Academy of Light on February 22nd
Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Tuesday night’s defeat to Bolton cemented the reality we all feared - relegation to League One is imminent. With 39 points still to play for, a team that’s only managed to pick up 26 points in 33 games doesn’t appear to be in a particularly healthy position.

We’ve been away from the third tier of English football for what feels like an eternity; who among us knows the true realities we will face upon falling into League One? We can only speculate.

In an attempt at understanding the gravity of the situation we find ourselves in, however, we spoke to fans from Leicester, Southampton and Blackburn who’ve been down there fairly recently (currently for Blackburn).

I hoped they would play on my sadism and explain how things only get worse, but things don’t seem all that bad, if not slightly idealistic.

Jake Lawson of @thefosseposse, a Leicester City fan blog, said:

I enjoyed the year in in League One more than I ever expected to. The fact that the opponents where Cheltenham, Northampton, and Stockport didn’t make as much difference to our enjoyment as you might think. We won 27 of the 46 matches and suffered only 4 defeats.

By abandoning the “win now” mentality, and building the squad through some astute transfers, we laid the groundwork for our eventual success. Had we not dropped to League One, I don’t think we would have had the patience to let the young players develop.

One thing that helped us a great deal is that we had some of the best facilities of any club at our level in League One and the Championship. This aided us in having the big Premiership clubs use us a destination for loanees. This not only allowed us to see players like Harry Kane and Jesse Lingard in our squad, but it gave us the first crack at players like Ben Mee, Matty James and Danny Drinkwater who were on their way out at their parent club. This pipeline of talent was a huge boost in getting us promoted and gave us a platform for our eventual success at the top level.

When the family purchased the club, we suddenly had the stability, the financial backing, and the ambition to build towards the goal of achieving Champion’s League football. Part of the appeal of the club to the King Power group and Srivaddhanaprabha was that we represented a good value for them; a large-ish club playing below their level with the potential to get much bigger. I don’t think we would have abandoned the quick fixes and built a solid platform of good, young players had we not fallen out of the Championship.

Leicester City v AFC Bournemouth - Premier League Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

Given what Leicester City have achieved it’s easy for them to look back on League One with rose-tinted specs; after all, any decisions made prior to becoming Premier League Champions will always seem like masterstrokes. Despite that, the decisions made seem like common sense for any football club, especially clubs like Sunderland with our grotesque financial burdens.

The value of the club would drop significantly if we were to plummet into the third division and with Short unlikely to subsidise any growing debts our attractiveness to buyers would be that of an infected scab. That being said, reports yesterday suggested Short is increasingly keen on selling the club, and could potentially waive a sale fee in favour of potential new owners accepting the club’s debt instead.

Ultimately, survival, and potential rejuvenation, relies on new ownership with a willingness to implement new structures and financial policies that will allow the club to thrive economically in a transparent, accountable way.

The question must be asked though: can someone see the potential of this fallen club while playing to crowds of 15,000 with mounds of debt? It’s a big ask.

Assuming the likely scenario our loaned players return to their parent clubs and our ageing seniors retire into cowardice shaped shells, we won’t have much of a team next year. In the same way we have used League One as a platform for developing our own youth, we would also be able to use ourselves as a platform to develop youth in-house.

If the inevitable administration fails to result in the seizing of the AoL and the utter capitulation of this beloved club, many Premier League clubs will hopefully see us in a similar light to Leicester and use us to develop their highly-rated youth prodigies.

Sunderland v Carlisle United - FA Cup Third Round
Could this be a common sight next season?
Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

Nick of @theuglyinside, a Southampton fan blog, said:

For us the atmosphere was very upbeat, we had just been bought by Markus Liebherr and there was an air of optimism around the club for the first time in 5 years, so it was very much a case of seeing it as a rebirth of the club and the first steps of restoring us to our former glory, so in this respect we are slightly different from many clubs who dropped down.

We had some good youngsters like Lallana, but in the first season down we spent big in League One terms, perhaps more than the rest of the division put together, but the fans stuck with the team because ultimately in that first season the 10 point deduction was a big gap to breach especially as we were rebuilding. We made some good signings like Fonte and Lambert who made the transition to the Premier League.

The fall to League One galvanised the fans, in our first season it was a collection of youngsters already at the club and some shrewd signings that got us promoted, in the main they went straight through the Championship with the momentum that was generated.

Many fans struggle to get to grips with the fact that we have sold so many players throughout this revival, the reality is that we cannot compete with the big six financially. We have to do it in a different way, that means a great programme of buying and selling. Initially we bought badly and wasted £35 million on 4 players who barely played a game for the club or had a resale value, so we got rid of our old CEO and rejigged.

Our model is good for any club who’ve been relegated, Sunderland need to look at buying players to get them out of League One, assuming you go down. Buy with promotion in mind, with experienced pros and with playing in the Premier League for the younger players.

The transfer model mentioned by Nick is a bitter pill to swallow for some, and if we did manage to claw our way back into the Premier League we would need to sell our best players to survive, constantly replacing and selling them until we regain some form of stature in the eyes of other players, managers, and teams. We’ve seen it happen with Everton, Leicester, and Southampton briefly, but it seems the chasm between the top 6 and the rest is becoming harder to breach in any sort of long-term way.

Holding on to the likes of Honeyman, Gooch, Robson, Watmore, Asoro, Maja, Love, and Mcnair could be the masterstroke that provides the bedrock for a successful Sunderland team of the future. Maybe it’s these players that appreciate their opportunity with Sunderland, possessing the commitment and emotional intelligence to understand what could be created here. And with Coleman at the helm who knows the limit of our glass ceiling? Best to tackle League One first, though, before getting too carried away.

Middlesbrough v Sunderland - The Emirates FA Cup Third Round Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images

@Rovers_Chat, a Blackburn Rovers fan blog, said:

Since we came down, there’s been a sense of renewed optimism really. We have one UK-based director in Mike Cheston, and a new CEO called Steve Waggott. Some fans have questioned why there was only one UK based director, whilst others have seemed to ignore it - at least for now - whilst there has been a good feeling around the club. I feel the majority of fans are more interested in the current run of form. Fans haven’t forgiven the owners, and rightly so, but it’s nice to see the fans united more recently than we have for years.

Venky’s have been at the centre of the downfall. A lack of investment and poor decision making, especially managerial decisions such as sacking Sam Allardyce, have led to Rovers ending up in the third tier of English football. From when they came in 2010 to before this summer, they’ve cashed in our better players, but not reinvested the millions they’ve received. This season, they’ve found a manager in Tony Mowbray who they seem to back. We’ve probably spent more this season than we have in the last 4 seasons combined, and it seems to be working. Let’s hope they continue this investment if we make it up to the Championship.

Tony Mowbray’s recruitment has been nothing short of excellent. Mowbray has united the fans and the squad, and it’s resulted in us selling the same amount of season tickets as last season.

Sunderland being on the bones of their arse means that our hand is forced in certain respects. It shouldn’t be forgotten that Short injected a lot of money into the club; transfer windows have gone by where we’ve spent upwards of £50 million. Many clubs are now realising though that blowing £20 million on vanity signings rarely equates to success, and that a more stringent, methodical approach of harvesting youth and mixing with experience could be the remedy. As we’ve seen with Pickford and Henderson any player that does prove his worth will need to be sold; it’s a cyclical process.

It should be noted that the tales of Leicester, Southampton, and Blackburn are tales of revival from the brink. There’s many other clubs like Blackpool, Portsmouth, Charlton, Luton, and Stockport whose plight has sunken much lower than what ours has - and hopefully ever will. It seems that once you go that far into the abyss it can sometimes be too hard to return from it.

The next few months will provide us with the clarity we’ve craved regarding this club’s future both on the pitch and off. At this point, survival would be credited towards Chris Coleman and his players, and rightly so.

However, with an absent owner unwilling (or unable) to fund transfers this season, it seems only fair that for the benefit of our beloved club, Short does the right thing: get us sold, absorb some of the debt and take responsibility for his mistakes.

Whether in the Championship or League One, as a club we need to make a fresh start and find a situation and approach that works for us as a club going forward. Here’s hoping we can find that stability and growth we long for as soon as possible.

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