I was listening to Chris Wynn’s in-depth interview with former striker Danny Graham on the Roker Rapport Podcast, and I was fascinated by the striker’s views on his time at Sunderland AFC. He clearly loves the club but expressed how difficult his time there was, despite his enthusiasm for joining us, even as a lad who hailed from Gateshead.
He signed for Premier League Sunderland for £5 million on 31 January 2013 on a three-and-a-half-year contract, finally leaving in June 2016. He mentioned the loan spells he had and the “revolving door” of managers; Martin O’Neill, Paolo Di Canio, caretaker Kevin Ball, Gus Poyet, Dick Advocaat, and Sam Allardyce.
That’s quite a list and Graham expressed dismay at some of the decision-making at the top of our club.
There were many striking and outwardly puzzling features of the decade of Ellis Short’s ownership but for me it was that turnover of managers that stands out, which was also reflected in short-term and often flawed player recruitment.
The American owner acquired the Black Cats in the autumn of 2008 from the Niall Quinn-inspired Drumaville Consortium and had an unusual way of running the club.
He was generally absent, and the high-level people left in charge of running the club made a series of rash decisions and errors. Mainly because of the regular clear-outs seen as needed when a new incumbent came into the SoL hotseat, the number of players we sold at a profit was minimal.
As is emphasised in this 2016 article by James Hunter, only three of 46 signings made between 2009 and late 2016 were apparently traded for a profit. The knock-on effect was seen in the size of the debt that Ellis wrote off following the sale of the club to Stewart Donald and Madrox.
I was employed in Pennsylvania from 2005 – 2008 and then set up a consultancy company there, and observed a totally different work culture to Europe. There is very little security of employment, and the freedom to dismiss almost anyone at will, at any time is embedded deeply in American society. It is a “hire and fire” culture.
Then there is the US image of a new CEO who rides in on their high horse and is expected to turn everything around, and to be everybody’s saviour and messiah. This puts an enormous strain on the particular leader involved; 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.
I had these words published about the biotech company which employed me in the US:
the strategy was doomed to failure because the senior management of the company in question appeared not to have addressed the reasons for past failures, and any process of constructive self-criticism was lacking. Inherent features of the company had resulted in poor research performance, such as:
· An inability to set a strategy and stay with it
· Lack of team-building
· A blame culture and frequent staff changes – hiring and firing
· Senior management focusing on short-term bonuses rather than building true value, and apparently lacking desirable self-criticism
Those factors clearly also applied to our football club, and one wonders what would have happened if some of the perfectly decent managers we had at Sunderland had been given time to change things over a multi-year period.
It is very hard to rebuild a football club while “firefighting” and needing immediate positive results on the pitch. I think of Martin O’Neill, for example, who had a terrific record at both Leicester and Celtic, as well as doing pretty well at Aston Villa. Danny Graham spoke very highly of him, his bubbly character, fairness, and the enjoyable training sessions.
We could have rebuilt the club around him, if it was not for the knee-jerk, short-term thinking of the Ellis era.
We see the model of clubs that are yo-yo-ing between the top two divisions; Norwich, Fulham and Watford somehow seem to thrive on that. When Peter Reid took the club down on 40 points in 1997, he kept his job, and this built the success of 1999 and 2000 with top seven finishes in the EPL.
O’Neill was callously sacked in March 2013 after a bad run, to pave the way for the unpredictable Paolo di Canio, who did at least keep us up on 39 points. But Danny Graham was understandably damning in his criticism of the egotistical Italian, saying that the solid backbone of British players such as O’Shea, Brown, Bardsley, Colback, Rose, Vaughan, Cattermole, and Graham himself kept the club up that year.
Bringing this back to the present day I reckon that a plan is being executed at our club, players will be sold at a profit, and there is a structure for success based around young, exciting players. We may not be in the Premier League yet, but I believe that when we do get there, the present ownership can provide a genuine platform for success.