It is two years since we found ourselves relegated to League 1, and now it is confirmed that we are to spend a third. Our ambition has always been to be promoted as soon as possible back to the Championship but, in that time, have we ever been good enough to achieve that?
There are plenty of supporters who believe that for a club our size and with everything at our disposal that comes with it, then promotion should be a formality. There are also plenty of supporters that believe with the size of our squad we should have been well clear at the top of the league. Are we really that good though?
Taking a look at what we were left with when we dropped into League One.
The first team players amounted to just Matthews, Oviedo, Hume, Honeyman Cattermole, McGeady, Maja, Gooch and (an unfit) Watmore. Running a critical eye over those names, how many can you say at least on paper, could be expected to show the quality needed to be a cut above in League One? From the defenders, Matthews had shown promise in the Championship but not established himself in the team. Hume was virtually unknown, which leaves Oviedo as the one defender who we might expect something from.
In midfield Honeyman had just really come into the team in the Championship but was made Captain. Cattermole was the one established midfielder we had but at that point it looked like he was on his way out of the club. In the forwards, Gooch had been in and out of the team in the Championship and not established himself at this point, Maja also yet to show if he had any quality and Watmore still far from fit, which left McGeady as the one forward we could look to.
A Bodged Rebuilding Job
Hence, the club looked to recruit over that summer to bring the squad up to size and hopefully have a tilt at gaining promotion. The club signed on free transfers, McLaughlin, Loovens, Ozturk, Flanagan, James, Maguire, McGeouch, Power and paid out fees for Wyke, Baldwin and O’Nien.
These are the players that formed the bread and butter of the Sunderland squad over the season, but only two of them - Loovens and Maguire - had ever played regularly in a higher English League and Loovens, we can agree, was past his best.
Over the course of the season, we lost Maja who showed himself to be a lethal goalscorer and brought in Grigg, Leadbitter, Morgan and Dunne. None of those 4 had ever established themselves in a higher English League bar Leadbitter who we can again agree was past his best.
Come the end of the season and failure, via the playoffs, to be promoted after we had finished with 85 points, Stewart Donald spoke of pushing on to build a ‘100 point team’. The debate about that is worthy of a different discussion, but sticking to the detail of what actually happened, over the summer the club lost Cattermole, Oviedo, Honeyman, Mathews and James and brought in Willis, Dobson, Connor McLaughlin and Burge, all of whom have spent the majority of their playing career in League 1. Add to that the much publicised departure of McGeady half way through the season, and you can argue that the 85 point team was weakened.
Phil Parkinson’s January recruitment brought in Lafferty, John, Bailey Wright, Scowen and Semenyo. Bailey Wright looked a good acquisition until injured, but apart from Lafferty making a few appearances, Parkinson has been reluctant to use any of the rest.
Over the two seasons the club has recruited from League 1, League 2 or Scotland. The players recruited from above this league have usually been unproven at a higher level and have only been loan signings. What we have is a League 1 squad, some of them good players, some of them bang average, but what you cannot say is that we have players that are the best in this league.
McLaughlin, inconsistent at times may have a claim to be one of the best keepers in League 1 and Willis one of the best centre backs, but that is all. Our midfield does not take charge of games and our forward line doesn’t put fear into the opposition. Gooch is brilliant on his day, but way too inconsistent over a season and Maguire is a good player for us but the best out there? As for our strikers we will never dominate this league in the way we hope until we have strikers who are scoring on a regular basis.
The Denis Smith team we had the last time we were at this level blitzed the league. They scored four goals regularly and hit seven on one occasion, a consistency that hasn’t been present in the past two years. The reason for that is we had players through the team who were a cut above at this level. The likes of Gary Bennett, Marco Gabbiadini and Eric Gates were not only too good for the league, they were also better than most in the 2nd tier and were good players in the top division. Add to that players such as Armstrong, Owers and Frank Gray meant the team dominated games.
The side played incisive football with pace as the primary weapon, something which gives defenders headaches at any level. The present Sunderland team hits high balls to Charlie Wyke, something League 1 defenders grew up on.
No wonder a big physical team like Fleetwood prospers when they play us.
Ultimately the table doesn’t lie. We have had (nearly) two attempts in League 1 under two different managers and have never looked like running away with the title at any point.
Unless you get lucky and get one of those managers who really can make a huge difference to the same squad, then the quality you have in it will ultimately place you roundabout where you deserve. If you look at successive Sunderland managers in the Premier League, we were perennial relegation strugglers no matter who was in charge. Same level of quality, same league position, different managers.
Look at any promoted Sunderland team; they have always had at least a couple of players who were second-to-none. Gates, Gabbiadini, Bennett, Quinn, Phillips, Johnston, Summerbee, Johnny Evans, Carlos Edwards, all huge players for us who made the difference between the side being ordinary to the best.
Until we have in our ranks three or four of the best players in League One, particularly up front then we will struggle to finish anywhere above the playoffs.