The news that we are now consigned to a third season in League One, while expected, came as a huge disappointment. While it is, I believe, an incredibly unfair way to end a league season, it’s been decided. That’s life.
As the dust settles on the wreckage of our once-great club, we need to use this unique period to assess the damage and start rebuilding.
Two years ago, when Donald, Methven and Sartori arrived to a fanfare of excitement (surely, anyone’s got to be better than Short!) we needed a quick fix - hanging onto our better players, promotion at the first attempt, regroup in the Championship.
We all know how that ended.
One year ago, it was the last throw of the quick fix dice. Promotion at the second attempt – the desperation shown by Jack Ross being sacked after five wins, four draws and two defeats (19 points from 11 games (1.727 points per game. Form which, if we’d maintained, would have seen us finish fourth in the nonsensical unweighted PPG league table.)
Now, there’s no quick fix. It’s a rebuild job from top to bottom.
Once the breeding ground of the captain of the champions-elect and England’s first-choice goalkeeper, the Sunderland academy now resembles - from the outside at least - a jumble sale rather than a conveyor belt of future Sunderland stars. Everyone worth anything has been exchanged for a bag of silver - short-termism if ever you needed an example. The club argues it’s powerless to prevent young players moving on - stories you hear from people close suggest little or no attempt has been made to retain them.
That’s from the outside. Personally, friends of mine (not an SAFC fan by the way) have their ten-year-old in the academy and say it’s by far the best in the north east for the way they look after and treat the kids and the families.
And that’s great. However, we need to be keeping hold of these players until they are in the first team - not flog them for a few hundred grand at the first sign of promise.
If they get a £30m move to the best team in the country, then so be it. Every attempt must be made to keep the top talent until such a scenario arises. Otherwise, we’re covering running expenses. No more.
The academy must be a priority for us. Now, more than ever, we need young local lads coming through, and some turning into multi-million dollar players. That’s the foundation of any long-term, sustainable recovery.
The football staff
Of course, the right people need to be leading it, though. A huge failing of the current regime has been to install a proper structure of people off the field. People who know the club, people who work full-time for the club, and people who are based in the north east.
Sunderland simply isn’t a club you can dip in and out of. It’s not a club you can manage from 300 miles away. You need to be in it. Living it. Breathing it. Understanding it.
For the past two years, we have had Richard Hill - a person Donald sacked twice from Eastleigh - running football operations. From down south, I believe.
When Donald and co came to the club, they said Kevin Ball would have a much more prominent role. That’s failed to materialise. Kieron Brady has spoken on numerous occasions of the issues the club faces off the field, and detailed plans to remedy them in the long term. Attempts to speak with Martin Bain and latterly Stewart Donald – despite hand delivering an analysis of issues and a proposed way of addressing them – met with zero response.
Ball, Brady, Gary Bennett, Niall Quinn, Micky Gray, Kevin Phillips and Gordon Armstrong are people who know SAFC inside out. They care deeply about the club and the supporters, the city and our reputation. They are the type of people who should be steering the football side of the club. Whether directly or indirectly.
Back in the mid-2000s, Roy Keane came in and was staggered at the lack of standards, the lack of pride. The anecdotes about the Lonsdale kit, and about the choice of pre-game dressing room music are now the stuff of legend. But those standards need to be re-established. Pride needs to be felt - off the field, and on the field. Broken lift in the academy? Any guesses what Keane would say?
We need intelligence in recruitment. With little to no money available, we need an analytical, smart approach to bringing in a new breed of player who has the mentality to succeed here, and the ability to grow with us – to either be a player in the Championship and beyond, or develop into a valuable asset.
We need footballing people who understand SAFC to take on the task of rebuilding the club because, when people who don’t fully understand the magnitude of SAFC make decisions, the wrong characters turn up. On the field, off the field and in the dugout. People who see SAFC as an easy ride. A nice payday. Or people who turn up with the very best of intentions, but simply aren’t cut from the right cloth.
A few things Craig Russell said in his recent appearance on the Roker Rapport podcast really stuck with me. One was how Peter Reid motivated the same group of players Mick Buxton had failed to. He turned a group of relegation candidates into championship winners, with minimal changes. He got the club going again. To paraphrase Craig, his sentiment was along the lines of to be a successful SAFC manager you need to have broad shoulders. You need supreme confidence. You need to have the type of presence that, when you walk into a room, makes people stop.
Denis Smith had it. Reid had it. Keane had it. Allardyce had it.
I’m firmly in two minds over Phil Parkinson. He was brought in to get us promotion and failed miserably. He did establish an identifiable system and style of play, however – a failure to do so had been one of the criticisms aimed at Jack Ross. Unfortunately, he sacrificed the best part of three months in order to establish it, and ultimately that has caused us to spend a third season in league one.
Chopping and changing managers has been a major part of why we’re in this mess, of course. However, since Bruce left, of those that parted company out of SAFC’s choice only Poyet and Ross, you could argue, genuinely deserved more time. The issue has been the poor selection of managers, rather than the decision to terminate them.
So that begs the question: Is Parkinson the right manager for SAFC? Have we seen enough to give him a preseason and next season to get us up?
In the hope column, he’s had a good amount of time with the players to figure out who’s who, and what’s what. He did implement a decent system. The first half performances against Wycombe and Lincoln were some of our best in league one.
Tempering that hope is his track record - heralded in some quarters, but certainly not the stuff to get that belief back that’s needed throughout. He’s not the motivational, uber-confident manager we know Sunderland needs.
Do we bank on the fact he now knows the players he needs to improve the squad, and is best placed to deal with what is likely to be a turbulent transfer window? Possibly. However, the impact of his January signings raises alarm bells.
Stick or twist? I genuinely don’t know. In truth, it depends on what the alternative is.
The ownership and executive
It’s safe to say that Stewart Donald’s tenure at Sunderland has been nothing short of a disaster. On the pitch, the remit was to go up within two seasons. He’s failed. I always wanted to give Donald and co a fair crack, probably more than most. I wasn’t in agreement with the #Donaldout movement after the Boxing Day game - my focus was far more on failings on the pitch than in the boardroom.
However, the lack of transparency – ironically veiled in a pretence of transparency – has created so much distrust that it’s hard to see a way back for him, even if he returned laden with cash.
The sooner we have new owners in place the better – but not just any new owners. We need people who genuinely care about the club. Ideally people who are supporters or former players leading the charge.
People who have not only the capital – or connections to people with the capital – but the desire and the wherewithal to make this club respectable again – let alone great.
Supporters need to be involved in some capacity, to keep people honest, to scrutinise, to debate.
We don’t want people who are here to make a quick buck. We don’t want people who are touting the club for sale after being here for nine months. That’s treating the club purely as a business asset. A football club is so much more than that – and deserves to be treated as such.
Ultimately, we need people responsible for running all areas of the club who are in it for the long term. People who understand the club, the city and the fans. People who want to put a long-term infrastructure in place for the ultimate good of the club, even at the expense of their own bank balance. People who genuinely hurt every time we get beat. That goes for the football side as much as the admin side. For the owners as much and the academy staff.
How often do we hear people come to the club and say after a few months ‘I didn’t understand just how big Sunderland was until I got there’?
We need people at every level of the club who understand not only how big the job is, but have a firm and accurate idea of what needs doing.
And only then, with the right foundations laid and the right people in place, can we begin the job of rebuilding this great, great club into something we can be proud of.