No club is immune from disaster. No club has a right to win something. No club has a right to be somewhere. It’s all earned - be it by chance or by design, football is a game where you get what you deserve. Sunderland aren’t the first team to endure a multi-league plummet, they wont be the last either, but is the desire of some fans to see a rapid return to the top of the food chain more hopeful than achievable, and should we all just accept that its a long, arduous journey back to the top?
Many a club have trodden the path, both in Britain and further afield. Whilst some clubs have bolted from the blue that is lower league obscurity to become established top division clubs, others have floundered and ultimately stagnated in the depths of the football league. Obviously, there is not a singularly defined pathway to success, so like with ourselves, every club’s path is different from the next. This isn’t to say Sunderland will (or wont) find it easy, but more a throwing of caution to the wind that this thing may just take slightly longer than we’d all like it too.
Examples of the multi-drop stretch far and wide. Portsmouth, Leeds, Southampton, Wigan and Rangers are some of the more notable declines in British football, whilst across Europe, Palermo, Racing Santander and even the Old Lady haven’t been immune from disaster. No club is too big. No club is too small.
To take examples close from home, Rangers and Leeds have suffered probably the heaviest of declines and the hardest of climbs back to the top, climbs of which both clubs are still in the throes of. Like climbing a mountain, its a marathon, not a sprint. It’s not about how long it takes to get to the top for these clubs, but a matter of once again reaching the peak they were cast from upon.
In 2012 Rangers, amongst much furore, were sent to the depths of the Scottish league system, to battle it out with semi-professional teams in grounds lacking in proper stands, with lengthy away trips and grounds that simply couldn’t hold any decent away support. In the four years it took Rangers to bounce their way back into the top of Scottish football they found their first two seasons relatively easy going. With a professional squad, vastly superior facilities and huge crowds, Rangers surprised very few with their success, even after a squad rebuild done entirely from the basement of the Scottish football pyramid, including an unbeaten season on their visit to League One.
That’s when came the bumps in the road. Rangers built a lower league squad with players from the Championship and the finest players in League One at the time, but it wasn’t until their promotion that the reality hit. In their third season away from the top flight Rangers faced tough division. Hibernian and Hearts had both been relegated too, and the competition for promotion was rife.
As part of their rebuild, Rangers had negated their academy and instead brought in experienced players from leagues above, but when in the Championship these players soon found their level. A second Championship season was the result. At the second time of asking, after a change of manager, Rangers soon found themselves at the top of the table but the same problems reared their ugly heads. A team assembled to rampage the Championship wasn’t good enough for the SPL and so Rangers became bogged down.
As time has passed, Rangers have improved and are now back fighting with Celtic for major titles in Scotland. European journeys are back and Steven Gerard has galvanised a fan base that once boycotted and turned their back on Rangers. Seven years on, Rangers haven’t been Scottish champions since. Their longest barren spell for over thirty years.
Another club that took the tumble were Leeds United. Leeds’ story hits somewhat closer to home, not through rivalry but how their demise transpired.
Peter Ridsdale, the owner at the time, took huge monetary gambles on Leeds and their ability to qualify for the Champions League. After failing twice to qualify, a huge wage bill and mounting debt saw Leeds begin a similar process of cost-cutting and belt-tightening.
Before long, a familiar managerial merry-go-round soon took hold; sackings, caretakers, more sackings, more caretakers. As they dropped down to the Championship the fire sale began, anything to get the high earners off the books. A squad rebuild, another relegation. Before long Leeds couldn’t finance their own debts, interest piling up, increasing the ever present pressure, before finally, the bubble burst.
CVA’s and points deductions - a fate narrowly escaped by Sunderland.
Next came the journey back. Leeds spent little time in football’s third tier but their player and managerial revolving door soon caught up with them. Since then, Leeds have seen a stability as a Championship side. Successions of managers being sacked started to wane as Leeds started to build for the future and a return to where they ‘belong’.
What came next were financial bumps compared to that of before, but bumps they were; numerous ownership challenges and attempts brought with them disruption, optimism and confusion. The revolving door of managers became a revolving door of owners, who themselves set a new motion in the continual changing of management.
Leeds, it seemed, never learned.
Eventually Radrizzani bought the club. An initial spell of sacking managers followed only to be dried up by the appointment of Marco Bielsa and a defined plan of Leeds’ return to the big time. At this point in time, Leeds are an exciting team to watch, dripping with talent and a great philosophy on the pitch.
Leeds, are still in the Championship. Seventeen years have passed since they were last in the Champions League, fifteen years have passed since any Leeds player kicked a ball in the Premier League.
So what does this all have to do with Sunderland? Well, it’s not as much a cautionary tale, as it is a crashing dose of reality. These teams have striking similarities to our own plight; bad owners, spiralling debt, managerial merry-go-rounds and impassioned fans. Clubs, bigger than ours, smaller than ours, some more successful, others less, have faced this reality.
Their journeys have been long, they have been arduous and they have been painful. Sunderland find themselves just at the start of this, but we are lucky.
Our owners have been shrewd. They haven’t always done what we wanted, but have done what we needed. The books - balanced. The debt - all but gone. The freeloaders - kaput.
All these sides share that in common; the absolute necessity for a clean slate.
So whilst I won’t sit here and tell you all how high we should aim (we all aspire to see Sunderland be the very best they can be), I will ask this of you: be patient.
Ask any Rangers fan. Ask any Leeds fan.
They, like us, share the lofty ambitions of which they grew up addicted to and like us, they have had to abandon them in the face of reality. That, however, doesn’t mean they can never return to them.
Both clubs mentioned haven’t finished their journey to where they once were. Some may soon, some may never. So just remember, for all we all want to be back feasting at the top table of English football, that this isn’t an easy ride.
It isn’t a quick one either, but this is now where we find ourselves.
As our own tale has shown, as has many before and many yet to come, no team is too big to fall, no team has a God-given right to achieve and although we may wish to think otherwise, no team has a right to belong somewhere above that of another.
As times change, so does football itself and with a new dawn seemingly on the horizon maybe dreaming big is a proposition too tantalising for some. One thing remains a constant though - as fans, we’ll be there every step of the way. It’s all we can do.
It may take two years, it may take twenty years. It is what it is.
So let’s buckle up, enjoy the ride for what it is and hold tight to those dreams and ambitions, as one day they’ll return, maybe not how you want, or even when you want.
They will return though, that’s the important thing.