Our Editor-in-Chief, Gav, recently posed the question ‘What would we wish for Sunderland this Christmas?’ and my immediate thought was simply for people to do their jobs! It may have been a flippant, throw-away response, but it made me reflect upon events of the last year, even 18 months, to make sense of what I mean by that.
When Stewart Donald bought the club in the summer of 2018 there weren’t too many unhappy at seeing the back of Ellis Short and years of steady decline that had culminated in relegation and abject failure to recover in the Championship.
Sunderland were in free fall with debt, a lack of leadership and players wanting to leave. Donald arrived and negotiated a debt-free status for the club. He hired a young manager with a hunger, passion and a successful CV from his time in Scotland. Stability and growth were now the order of the day. The new owner and his two compatriots threw out soundbites we could all get behind. ”The p*ss-taking party stops now” was the headline.
According to the new owners we’d have the biggest budget in League One and we’d be looking for an immediate promotion. From there, their ambitions would accelerate and the plan for a return to the big table of the Premier League was within the strategy. The immediate issue was recuritment and backing the new manager.
Only Ethan Robson had committed himself to the club following relegation. Jack Ross managed to talk a few more round and made a few quick additions to bolster a depleted squad. Donald busied himself with clearing the decks and dealing with any legal fallouts. It seemed the tide would turn. Tony Coton was appointed to head up Recuitment. Hopefully now we’d use the summer wisely and build a team worthy of promotion.
Coton seemed a reasonable appointment. He had served in a similar role for Aston Villa, who were rebuilding for a return to the Premier League. Perhaps more importantly, Donald had appointed someone who knew Sunderland AFC.
Coton had played for Peter Reid on Wearside. He knew the passion and ambition of the fans. He knew the demands that would place on players wearing the shirt and representing the club. He knew that team spirit is key to success in the North-East and the team had to reflect those who supported from the terraces in their thousands come rain or shine. He surely also understood what type of players would be successful outside of the Premier League and would target the deficiences of pace and power within our ranks.
Working with a manager who had understood what was required to have lowly St Mirren mix it with the big boys was, on paper, a decent match.
However, in the 18 months and three transfer windows since Coton arrived, I am yet to see this ideal materialise. We still lack pace and power throughout the side. Players such as Alim Ozturk, Tom Flanagan and Jack Baldwin were not the dynamic, strong, quick centre halves that bring a sense of security to a back line. Adding the likes of Joel Lynch and Laurence De Bock last summer were simply more of the same. In midfield, signing slow possession-based midfielders like Dylan McGeouch, Max Power and Grant Leadbitter to work alongside an aging Lee Cattermole was surely not the requirement. In attack, bringing in another 30-year old forward in Chris Maguire to work alongside Aiden McGeady and an injured Charlie Wyke was only ever going to be a short-term option.
Today, many of those players are still the ones we are relying on. Which is why I would wish, this Christmas, for Tony Coton to simply do his job and recruit well for the January transfer window.
Yet I can’t blame him in isolation. I have to go back to Stewart Donald.
Last Christmas he made the decision to let Josh Maja go. Now we are all wise after the event and we can all point to last January as a turning point in the fortunes of Jack Ross’ Sunderland. Yet, at the time, the piss-taking party being over mantra was in evidence.
Sunderland would not be held to ransom by an agent, especially that of a player making his break-through season at the club. Maja’s public assertions of wanting to stay were simply false words and fake news. He had no intention of staying, else he would have signed the contract offered on the terms he had requested. Donald knew this and put into place a contingency plan in the person of Will Grigg. Or at least he hoped he could.
But how much was Grigg down to the Recruitment team doing a solid job on scouting the former Wigan player and assesing his relative merits for a Jack Ross side? How much was the manager pushing for the sigining of the Northern Ireland international striker? The owner pushed and pushed for a deal, signing off a record League One purchase long after the manager had left on transfer deadline day. Reports even suggest Donald took the decision against advice from Richard Hill, his trusted lieutenant.
Why would this be so? Why would the owner think this is the right course of action? Surely he employed people to run the football side and needed to trust their decisions?
How much did that interference erode relationships in the second half of the season, I wonder? Sunderland struggled with a fixture pile-up towards the end of the campaign, but equally Ross seemed lost as how to cope with Grigg in his system as much as losing Maja from it. Charlie Wyke was the only real alternative and he was in neither mould as a striker.
Not only did Ross’ team fall away from the promotion race, but failed to take advantage of two trips to Wembley. Both games were within Sunderland’s grasp for long periods but ultimately couldnt get over the line.
That was to be a fair assessment of Ross’ tenure, when all was said and done.
Come May, was Ross still the man for Donald and Methven? If January had undermined an already fragile recruitment team, ignoring the changes Ross proposed for the department was simply negligent. No scouting network and a lead who had been ill for periods of the season meant the summer was approcahed with little in way of a cohesive or solid plan.
Ross added two or three key players, such as Jordan Willis, George Dobson and Lee Burge, but at the same time had to say goodbye to Lee Cattermole, George Honeyman and Robbin Ruiter. Others were to follow them through the exit - the likes of Adam Matthews, Bryan Oviedo, Reece James, Jack Baldwin, Ethan Robson (albeit the latter on loan deals) - were either replaced with inferior players or not at all. Was this down to Coton and Ross?
More likely, Stewart Donald needs to bear the brunt of the problems again.
The summer of 2019 promised another change of ownership. Mark Campbell was rumoured to be buying the club and brining with him Coton’s replacement. Had both Donald and Coton mentally checked out at this point? The fact Campbell proved to be all bluster and no substance put a severe dent in Ross’ plans.
After all, the manager had been instructed to liaise with the potential owners at this stage of proceedings. Once the Campbell deal collapsed, Donald didn’t seem to have a Plan B for the team. Hamstrung once more, Ross was given ten games to save his Sunderland career.
Pesonally, I find this unacceptable. Stewart Donald spoke about how he lingered after the Play-Off final to savour the emotions and use them to spur him on to promotion this year.
He spoke on the podcast about the aim of 100 points this season to guarantee that ambition. He should have had a plan in his head as he walked away from Wembley.
Where had the team been lacking? Where was it crucial to leverage investment? Where was the back-office structure lacking? Was the manager the right man or did he need to make a change in advance of the summer, for both pre-season training and recruitment? If investment was key to his strategy, who was he going to trust with these footballing decisions? Should he hand this over to Richard Hill or, in reality, appoint a Director of Football to support Jack Ross, Paul Reid, Tony Coton and Richard Hill throughout all aspects of the footballing business? Having such a footballing person employed would have free’d him up to pursue the right investment without neglecting the squad development.
The fact Donald chose to ignore the core of the business is negligent, pure and simple.
Ross was never going to succeed in ten games with a weakened squad. The fact he did relatively well is now another hindsight moment for many. The decision to change was brave but five months too late. Or eight months too early. In appointing Phil Parkinson the strategy of choosing a manager to take us through the leagues in the coming years was scrapped in favour of a more short-term tactical appointment aimed at getting a manager with a record of escaping League One.
And yet that appoitnment has, to date, been another unmitigated disaster. If Parkinson is to stay then he is another whom I wish, this Christmas, starts to do his job and get the side moving forward.
But, once more, I have to look beyond that name and go back to Stewart Donald.
Parkinson has won twice in thirteen games. He has overseen Sunderland’s exit from all cup competitions within that time. The team now sit in their lowest ever league position in their entire history. The fight and desire has eeked its way out of the players, with arguably our best player now being told to stay away and leave in a few days.
Donald needs to see this and understand the trajectory the team is on under Parkinson.
So, let me return to Gav’s question - ’What would I wish for Sunderland this Christmas?’ Simply put, I’d like Stewart Donald to stand up and simply do his job.
He has the American investment on-board.
He has Juan Sartori and his financial links coupled to his passion for football. He has Neil Fox and Angela Lowes still on the board with him and has just appointed two Sunderland fans as non-Exec Directors. Donald needs to focus on the strategic direction of the business and not be so tactically caught up in the day-to-day football side.
To that end, the restructure needs to continue and big questions need to be answered.
If Jack Ross wasn’t the right man due to the underlying data, I can’t see how Phil Parkinson is. For me, Donald needs to admit his mistake and replace him with a new manager.
It’s not too late and Sunderland could still be contesting promotion come May, under the right guidance. The appointment of a Director of Football now would be a huge step forward. Someone who can link all aspects of the footballing side would relieve the pressure from both the owner and the manager, whilst taking some weight off Tony Coton.
Coton himself needs support in recruitment and key appointments need to be made there. Is Richard Hill the right man to be in his post? Just as Stewart Donald needs to see his own limitations and step back in favour of specialised and experienced individuals, so Hill’s role needs to be re-examined. How can Donald best utilise the likes of Kevin Ball, who is at the club or other ex-players who are vocally offering advice and support from outside?
Sunderland face a huge transfer window. We need the right manager, the right recruitment team, the right structures in place. We need Stewart Donald to be brave, bold and decisive. We need him to act as the owner of the football club and support those who are employed to make key decisions and not wade in on another personal crusade this winter. We need the Sunderland owner to own his own narrative and start running this football club in the right way and in the manner it deserves.