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What’s gone wrong at Sunderland? Listless club in need of bold leadership

After initial statements spoke of “not taking the mickey” and turnaround “in terms of culture,” just where have Sunderland gone wrong?

Sunderland v Bolton Wanderers - Sky Bet League One Photo by Alex Dodd - CameraSport via Getty Images

As 2019 draws to a close, Sunderland fans’ frustrations have finally exploded into action as fan-led organisations have banded together and called on the club’s owner, Stewart Donald, to sell the club:

If there is a realistic offer on the table he must admit that the enormity of the task at hand and cut his losses. For our club to move forward now change needs to happen on the pitch, in the dugout and in the boardroom.

The anger is entirely understandable, though. At present, the club currently sits mid table in the third tier, and since the appointment of Phil Parkinson the club has seemingly regressed. Things weren’t brilliant under Ross, but they’ve been worse under Parkinson.

Doncaster Rovers v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

When Donald took control of the club he said that he would value:

Hard work, value for money, not taking the mickey, making sure we get 100% from 100%. I’ll give 100% of my time, my finance and everything else and I expect when I walk in here to see the staff do the same, to see the fans be treated as the people who pay everyone’s wages because it’s their club, and I expect to see a group of players proud to play for the club who the fans can get behind. That’s what I expect.

Fans were obviously excited to hear an owner speak so passionately, and after the absenteeism of Ellis Short, it was refreshing to hear someone seemingly understand the issues at hand, and identify his expectations for the club.

Ultimately, you have to place your faith in people and that’s what the vast majority of Sunderland fans have done with Donald and his ownership team. That doesn’t make people gullible or dim-witted; instead, it shows the real support offered by thousands - something reflected in attendances and fan actions, like those who helped renovate the stadium’s seating.

Donald and Methven, in my opinion, likely saw the opportunity to buy the club as a deal too good to pass up on. They not only had the chance to manage a brilliant institution, but they also had the chance to rebuild, find promotion, and sell for a healthy profit. They gambled massively on gaining promotion, and unfortunately they’ve struggled thereafter.

Whether you think that makes Donald a bad owner is up to you, but it’s disappointing to see how far the ownership has fallen after what was a fantastic start to their tenure.

In the same initial interview of the Donald era, the former Eastleigh owner was adamant that:

This summer there needs to be a turnaround, not only an emotional turnaround but one in terms of culture.

This is an organisation that’s been used to failure for too long, over the last ten years this club has lost more games than any other, so there is a real job to get everybody facing in the same direction ready to be successful again.

Donald and Methven led a campaign of cutbacks that were arguably necessary in some areas of the club: see plastic plants and policing costs.

However, could the case be made that some of those cuts have effectively hurt the club? Possibly so. Did the firing of a large number of staff foster a sense of optimism? Did Sunderland ever develop a winning culture behind the scenes?

A one-man scouting department led by Tony Coton lacked the range and flexibility to truly deliver the Dortmund-esque vision that Donald spoke about on several occasions. I am certain that Coton and also Richard Hill likely tried their best during a really testing time with regard to rebuilding the side; unfortunately, Sunderland needed a bold vision and a recruitment team capable of delivering the cultural change Donald alluded to.

Big wages were moved from the books as the club looked to find some kind of sustainability, but a lot of quality was lost too. And you could argue that the club failed to replace the skill that was lost.

Sunderland AFC

With hindsight, the most glaring error was, in my opinion, the failure to appoint a Director with a coy brain capable of developing the cultural shift that Donald suggested needed to happen. An experienced head with the insight required to help drag the club in the right direction.

Recruitment struggles, tactical decisions, the longing for some kind of financial sustainability - an intelligent football brain linking boardroom to dugout could well have aided all of these areas.

Instead, the club have relied on an ownership structure that has seen two full time directors go, replaced by non-executive directors tasked with stabilising a lurching ship.

Sunderland are desperate for someone to be the figurehead of the operation. To be bold, confident, assertive and intelligent. Managers like Sam Allardyce and Roy Keane have proven to be that leadership figure in the past. Alas, both Jack Ross and Phil Parkinson haven’t been that figure and aren’t supported by backroom players that could be the controller at the club.

And so a large number of fans have decided that the time to act is now. How the club react will have a tremendous impact on our future both this season and beyond.