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Heart of Midlothian v Sunderland: Pre-Season Friendly

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Another year, another rebuild for Sunderland - will this time be different?

As yet another rebuild gains momentum, Lars Knutsen ponders on the benefits of continuity. There’s a lot to be said for stability...

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

The turnover of players at Sunderland Association Football Club over the past decade has been truly stunning – and remarkably, no real pattern has emerged as a result of a player recruitment policy.

It has all looked rather like someone was making it up as they went along. A sign of dis-ease at the Stadium of Light.

Looking back to my teens, I was at Roker Park on May 1st 1971 with 11,959 others, a full two years before our famous FA Cup win, for an end-of-season, meaningless 0-1 home defeat to Millwall. The Sunderland team that day comprised: Montgomery, Malone, Irwin, Harvey, Chambers, Porterfield, Tueart, Lowery, Watson, Harris and Hughes. Micky Horswill, Ritchie Pitt and Bobby Kerr were at the club but were not selected by manager Alan Brown that day.

On that outstanding afternoon of May 5th 1973, seven of the players who’d turned out two years prior started the game. A further three were players already at Sunderland 24 months earlier. The line-up was: Montgomery, Malone, Guthrie, Horswill, Watson, Pitt, Kerr, Hughes, Halom, Porterfield, Tueart – so only one new signing, Vic Halom, featured on that amazing day.

Compared to now, the Black Cats were then a picture of stability; players were spotted, acquired and developed, or came through the youth team ranks. Horswill, Watson and Tueart all moved on after being in that 1973 limelight, but I believe that if Bob Stokoe had avoided the health issues which led to his resignation, we could have gone on to great things.

But there was still a feeling of continuity around Roker Park.

Sunderland FC
Stability! Back row (from left to right): Dick Malone, Cecil Irwin, Ritchie Pitt, Brian Chambers, Ian Porterfield, Dave Watson and Gordon Harris. Front row (from left to right): Paddy Lowrey, Billy Hughes, Martin Harvey, Bobby Park, Jimmy Montgomery, Derek Forster, Bobby Kerr, Dennis Tueart and Mick McGiven.
Photo by R. L. Palmer/Express/Getty Images

What was different then in the football ecosystem? There were no agents or transfer windows, and wages were much lower. We were in Division Two – the equivalent to the Championship now– experiencing mid-table obscurity. Football itself was under-marketed and at a bit of a low ebb compared to 2021. Unlike now when fans watching games on Sky Sports or other TV providers pay decent sums into the game, much of the country followed their teams, but unless they showed up in person to games, would not contribute financially to their club of choice. There we also very few foreign players.

But we did have one thing: stability.

That sense of solidity and permanence has been sadly lacking at Sunderland AFC in recent years. The feeling of collective memory has gone and, aside from Kevin Ball, who definitely knows what this football club is all about, there appears to be little continuity. The departure of Lee Cattermole also reinforced this effect; to have someone around who was actually in the team when we won 3-0 at Chelsea over a decade ago meant a lot as we try to get out of League One and closer to back where we belong.

Our lack of success on the pitch since Sam Allardyce departed for the England job just five years ago has been striking. Let’s just be honest and call it a terrible decline in our club, after 10 years in the Premier League.

A lot of that success deficiency has been down to the revolving door of players. Even the earlier part of the last decade, for example, when local hero, Liverpool and England legend Jordan Henderson was sold on in 2011 after being talked up by current Newc**tle incumbent, Steve Bruce, the cash was used to turn over almost the entire team, bringing in many former Manchester United stars such as Wes Brown and John O’Shea. Despite a top ten finish for Bruce’s new recruits in 2010-11, the Corbridge born manager was sacked in November 2011 after the team had dropped to 17th in the Premier League. So, despite Bruce’s constant bleating after being fired, that particular rebuild did not bring the success that owner Ellis Short demanded.

Soccer - Barclays League - West Bromwich Albion v Sunderland
The Henderson money was poorly spent by Bruce
Photo by AMA/Corbis via Getty Images

Martin O’Neill came in, ended the season with a winless run and after under 16 months in the SSoL hot seat was moved on, paving the way for Paulo Di Canio, who definitely made an impression, but did not last long.

I have a theory about our hire-and-fire American owner, which is based upon living and working in the USA for over a decade. Short was not a planner, and there was no real pattern to recruitment. The USA is a “Type A” nation, and as I have noted before on these pages there is very little security of employment since the freedom to dismiss almost anyone at any time is embedded deeply in American society. There is no security of employment, people work “at will”.

Then there is the image of a new CEO who rides in on his/ her high horse and is expected to turn everything around, being everybody’s saviour and messiah. This puts an enormous strain on the particular leader or manager involved. And, of course, when this person comes up against the real world and underperforms for a host of reasons, they are often quite ruthlessly shown the door, regardless of reputation.

The problem that emerged during the Short era was that we almost never made money on selling players during the clear-outs which preceded each ‘rebuild’ – the biggest exceptions being our Jordans – Henderson and Pickford. So, generally, when each new manager came in, a new era started with major losses being incurred.

When the club was finally sold and Stewart Donald came in just after relegation to League One, it felt like we were starting with a clean slate, with many of the debts written off and the security of EPL parachute payments. This share of the broadcasting rights income was distributed over a three-year period – 55% in the first year, 45% in year 2 and, since Sunderland were in the Premier League for more than one season before relegation, 20% in the third year.

Charlton Athletic v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Play-off Final
Oviedo and Cattermole – top earners in Donald’s ‘gamble season’
Photo by James Chance/Getty Images

This gave rise to Donald’s gamble in 2018-19 when many top-earning players were kept on in the hope of a rapid return to the Championship. I guess if we had kept hold of Josh Maja, who scored 15 in half a season, and not overspent on Will Grigg, things could have been so different for the Black Cats.

But we are where we are, and under new ownership, there is a sense of optimism now, especially in the context of fans planning to actually attend games in person.

As fans, we need to have confidence in the recruiting team led by Kristjaan Speakman and Lee Johnson. This is an analytics-based, data-driven effort, which is moving forward well according to Johnson’s statement just released.

Personally, I am delighted to have Luke O’Nien and Aiden McGeady signed up, as they bring a lot to the club. Elliot Embleton is back after his formative season with Blackpool. Pritchard, Evans and Doyle all look as if they can bring something to the team – but we do need two players for each position, so strikers and full-backs are high on the wanted list at this time.

An injury-free season for our centre backs would be a massive contrast to the last campaign.

But what do we as fans really demand of new signings? We want them to be talented, of course, but also to show character which may not show in statistical analyses of patterns play. We want them to sweat blood for the team when they pull on those red and white stripes so that on a wet January or February night at Accrington, Bolton or Wigan they show up and drive the team forward when the going gets tough. It is often the wins at these unglamorous fixtures that will decide if we get into the top two in 2022.

In short, as fans, we demand promotion to the Championship by spring 2022. It will be tough, given the teams we are up against: Charlton, Ipswich, Lincoln City, Portsmouth, Sheffield Wednesday, Wigan and Wycombe Wanderers.

But we are Sunderland.

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