I recently made it to episode 5 of Sunderland Till I Die, a series which defines ‘hard to watch’ as far as I am concerned. This episode deals with January 2018, exactly one year ago, when the initial boost from Chris Coleman’s appointment has subsided and the long slide to relegation has resumed.
Coleman and Kit Symons sit and discuss how they need to change the club’s culture. Culture change is hard at the best of times but doing so mid-season with an established group of players, many of whom had no desire to be there, was probably impossible.
Looking at them, you sense that Coleman and Symons knew it too.
Watching this episode brought home to me the epic scale of the challenge Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven took on, and the giant steps they have taken to rescuing Sunderland from oblivion. The Josh Maja saga shows how far we have come.
Maja is an important player who has fully earned a generous new contract - but he’s also an asset on the balance sheet. If he isn’t going to sign a deal he needs to be cashed in. The club cannot afford to let him go for nothing in the summer.
Maja apparently wants to stay but his agent wants to maximise his earnings (surprise, surprise, Mr Agent will do quite well out of that as well). So the agent’s plan will be to spin the will-he won’t-he drama until the end of the month, in the hope of securing a transfer, safe in the knowledge that if that doesn’t work Maja can then immediately be marketed as a free transfer in July.
It looks like a lose-lose situation for Sunderland unless a transfer fee comes in early enough for Jack Ross to recycle the cash to strengthen the squad, or Maja decides to sign a new deal in the summer (perhaps after promotion).
In previous years, Sunderland dealt with this sort of situation badly. No-one knew what was happening. Fans blamed management or the player or both. The club looked incompetent.
Stewart Donald’s fresh approach – speaking openly on the Roker Rapport Podcast about the financial challenges facing the club and opening up the way transfers work so we can understand the choices being made – treats us like grown ups and helps build bridges between the fans and the club.
It’s a tangible sign of culture change, a million miles from Ellis Short’s annual interview and Martin Bain’s posturing bluster.
Calling out agents won’t make Sunderland popular with football’s wheeler dealers and nor is it likely to change the way the Maja saga plays out, but it is giving us back some self respect after a decade of sell outs and low blows.
However, Maja’s likely departure is also a sign of a grim truth many fans have yet to acknowledge. We will struggle to keep hold of talented players in League One. If you’re an ambitious young player, having a large stadium and a fantastic fan base is not as good as being in a higher league.
There are rumblings that we are not running away with the league, we are not thrashing teams at home, and we are not beating our promotion rivals.
That’s because we are not a Premier League team on loan to League One. We are a League One team, there on merit, with League One players.
It’s going to be a long road back, not one long victory parade.
I am confident we will finish in the top two this year as we have a strong squad and Jack Ross will bring in players that add value this month, but it will be a hard fought promotion which will go to the wire and it will be a harder struggle to be competitive in the Championship.
At least I believe we now have the leadership at the club capable of giving it a go.