The last couple of weeks’ drama put me in mind of Lenin’s maxim that ‘there are decades where nothing happens and then there are weeks where decades happen.’
Although no one would argue that the last ten years at Sunderland AFC have been uneventful, this season certainly seems to fit the pattern, in microcosm, of slow-burning progress interrupted by sudden and dramatic change.
Yet whereas Lenin envisioned a rapid acceleration of the arc of history in a matter of ‘weeks’, we do things differently at Sunderland.
The decades that we’ve seen happening over the past fortnight aren’t of the future but of the past: rather than rushing headlong towards promises of a possible future utopia we prefer instead the comforting retreat to an imagined past.
So when events turn, as they undoubtedly have, it’s less a case of putting pedal to the metal and more of a swift gear change into reverse. The red flag we’re so keen to see flying high isn’t planted in some intangible promised land but in our rear-view mirror, viewed through the most rose-tinted of glasses.
When KLD took over the club’s running, he could be forgiven for underestimating the pull of past glories. After all, a club with a recent history of abject failure and a guy schooled in Marseilles, origin of La Marseillaise, would surely be the perfect fit to respond positively to the ‘marchons’ call of a long march to better times. For the majority of this season that largely appeared to be the case. But then came Bolton away.
In truth, there were already ample signs of things being not quite right and that some remedial changes were needed. The decision to sack Johnson surprised me but, fast-forwarding to the present, the appointment of Alex Neil makes a lot of sense. It fits the player recruitment pattern of bringing in young talent from the league above but with the potential to progress even further. However, the process by which we ended up here gives serious cause for concern and I’m far from convinced that the end justifies the means.
Even before the Bolton debacle, the pull of the past was very much in evidence. The availability of Defoe was always guaranteed to set pulses racing amongst a fanbase impatient for the ‘glory days’ of Premier League relegation battles.
In my view, Johnson’s comments on the speculation read like simple common sense to me but, much like Corbyn’s 7/10 verdict on the desirability of remaining in the EU, were viewed as insufficiently unequivocal by many. Yet why delve five years into the past when there are richer seams of the club’s history to mine. Johnson’s sacking quickly gave way to calls to turn back the clock a further decade, prioritising the pull of the past over the priorities of the present project, with Keane lauded as the obvious heir apparent.
Even those fans who doubted the wisdom of nostalgia-fuelled decision-making were unlikely to be immune to the clamour for Defoe and Keane both making a return to the club.
Fans are allowed to, and are even obliged to, give in to gut emotion when considering the future fortunes of the club. Yet the club’s owners have a duty to not indulge such flights of fancy, particularly when they appear to be anathema to their long-term vision for the club.
Sometimes, and particularly during difficult times, us fans are in serious need of being saved from ourselves.
I don’t want an ownership that panders to my every whim. My view of the owner’s responsibility is akin to Edmund Burke’s view of the responsibility of MPs:
‘Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.’
Maybe I’m doing the club’s management a disservice and that they genuinely thought that galvanising the supporters, through pandering to fans’ opinion, was the club’s best chance of a short-term boost to keep promotion on track without abandoning the key principles behind the long-term project.
Neither the sacking of Johnson nor the signing of Defoe can be categorised entirely as fan-appeasing moves without any rational merit. Yet the overall impression of the last fortnight has been of a management team that has lost the courage of its own convictions.
The suggestion that it would be disrespectful to Johnson to line up a replacement manager while he was still in post while also claiming, obliquely and somewhat disrespectfully to a job-seeking manager, that there were a number of concerns about him long before the Bolton game was confusing at best.
Far more culpable was KLD ‘liking’ posts about Keane becoming the next manager, consequently leaving the club woefully short of any sort of bargaining position in the upcoming discussions for the vacancy.
If the reports are true that Keane was eventually offered the job on an 18-month contract, I can only hope that this was because the club had inadvertently and naively backed themselves into a corner whereby the consequences of not offering him the job were greater than the consequences of doing so.
It’s difficult to think of a less suitable fit for the structure and model around which the club has spent the past 12 months carefully cultivating its foundations.
Whether Keane did us a favour by turning us down or whether negotiations faltered due to the club’s insistence on remaining true to its long-term vision and structure, the club’s loss of nerve over the past two weeks doesn’t seem to have cost us too much.
We’ve ended up with a head coach who could realistically prove an upgrade on Johnson.
More crucially, the long-term project remains in place despite an apparent willingness to sacrifice it all at the altar of populism.
Yet, irrespective of side issues regarding share percentages, it’s reasonable to now question whether the club’s direction is in less capable hands than it appeared to be two weeks ago.