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Sunderland v Milton Keynes Dons - Sky Bet League One

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Editorial: No excuses, Sunderland – none of this is anywhere near good enough

Both on and off the field, the club is falling way short of what we expect. Something has to change, and quickly.

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse, Sunderland manages to shoot itself in the foot and prove you’d completely underestimated their spectacular powers of plummeting to depths you never thought possible.

Think you’re disappointed now? You ain’t seen nothing yet.

Saturday’s game was dire. To say the performance was flat would be an insult to tower block living. The team still looked like it’s recently returned from the Somme, rather than Wimbledon, and the performance that was served up was more akin to football from the 80s than 2020s.

Isn’t football supposed to be fun? I remember that, occasionally, it used to be.

Of course, the week’s been overshadowed by ownership percentages, with outrage being stoked and fuelled by the fact that Donald owns more of the club than we thought he did. We always knew Methven had retained a shareholding, and Sartori likewise, the club had led us to believe Donald was a minority shareholder as opposed to Louis-Dreyfus’s majority.

As it transpires, the club mislead us completely – played with semantics and tried to gloss over something that they knew would cause consternation whenever it became public knowledge because, you know, it was always going to.

Whoever decided to communicate the ‘takeover’ in that way simply shouldn’t be in a job. At the time, if the whole thing was communicated clearly, it would have been begrudgingly accepted as something that, while being far from ideal, was significantly better than the current state.

After letting us believe for 12 months that KLD had a bigger stake, and Donald a much smaller one, than they have in reality they’ve once again treated supporters with contempt – which does absolutely nothing to aid the collective imperative of getting promoted.

Sunderland v Lincoln City - Sky Bet League One Play-off Semi Final 2nd Leg
The club’s hierarchy is once again creating unwanted and unnecessary distraction
Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

To avoid any ambiguity, let me say this. The sooner Donald and Methven officially cut ties with the club and sell their shares to KLD – if he’s a willing buyer – the better.

There’s too much water under the bridge, too much history, for them to ever be able to offer anything positive to SAFC, and their continued presence and involvement is an unwanted and unnecessary distraction.

Sartori, given his connections with the Louis-Dreyfus family, which pre-date his involvement with Donald and Methven, is still an unknown quantity, and I think people are more prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt than Methven and Donald.

We all want to enjoy football, we all want to concentrate on on-the-field stuff – and whether you believe Donald and Methven are the devils incarnate or not, their continued presence will only continue to hold us back – whether that’s in perception or reality depends on your viewpoint, but either way isn’t productive or positive.

Take their rumoured involvement in the recruitment of the new head coach – something seemingly purpetuated by the Sunderland Echo but not substantiated – and subsequently denied by Alex Neil. Whether there was a grain of truth in it or not we don’t know, but it fuelled yet more outrage and negativity at a time when it’s the last thing the team, or indeed the club in the long-term, needed.

When you break it down, this current wave of anger and fury stems from the fact Donald owns 10% more of the club, and KLD 10% less, than we’d assumed. I dare say the reaction would not be so loud, hostile and susceptible to the fuel being thrown on it if we were racking up the points and flying high at the top of the league.

Sunderland FC
Reidy got things right on the football pitch, and subsequently took the attention off Bob Murray
Photo by NCJ Archive/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

We’ve seen similar things before.

Back in the early 90s, Bob Murray was faced with incredible pressure and criticism of his reign – he was the focus of red card protests, chants and physical attacks that were all designed to force him to sell the club.

And then, along came Peter Reid.

Reid turned things around on the pitch, and the noise surrounding Murray dampened. Because all we want, ultimately, is a successful team on the field. Murray hadn’t done anything differently, he’d simply got lucky with one managerial appointment out of four. However, because of Reid the Stadium of Light wasn’t the ‘white elephant’ we all feared at the time it would be, and history remembers Murray incredibly favourably.

But – and this is a big but – the ongoing boardroom controversies cannot be used as an excuse for what we’ve seen happen at the club so far this year.

We cannot let them be a convenient excuse for failure.

To one extent or another, the ownership issues have been used to explain our lack of on-field achievement since the Charlton play-off final, and from a footballing perspective, we need to be much stronger, and much more single-minded than that.

While we’ve become accustomed to horrific drop-offs in form over the years, the past six weeks have been stunningly bad, even by our spectacularly poor standards.

At the turn of the year we were top of the league, having walloped Sheff Wednesday 5-0 at home. The following week we fielded a severely depleted team at Wycombe, played well in spells only to concede a last-minute equaliser. In patches, Lee Johnson’s team were playing some of the best football we’d seen for years. Yes, the team was inconsistent and yes, it needed some experience, but after inheriting the team from Jurassic Parkinson, we were heading in the right direction.

Fast forward just 42 days and we’ve fallen out of the play-offs, 14 points behind Rotherham.

Our form since that game at Adams Park has been nothing short of disgraceful.

Six points from nine games – six points from a possible 27 – has left us wondering whether we’ll even get into the play-offs come the end of the season. We’re currently in relegation form, and the football side of the club have a lot to answer for.

The decision to sack Johnson came as a big surprise to me. I still maintain it was the wrong one - others will disagree, but that’s by the by now.

If his sacking was provoked by the need to – the belief that we would – accumulate more points during the rest of the season without him rather than with him, then it’s certainly not played out that way so far. One point from four games since his departure, three against relegation fodder, indicates that maybe Johnson wasn’t the issue after all.

The footballing decisions taken so far this year have been disastrous. Whether or not you agreed with sacking Johnson, leaving Mike Dodds and Michael Proctor in charge for two hugely important games was a horrendously poor call.

Cheltenham Town v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Unmitigated disaster
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Compare that to Reading, who this weekend sacked their manager and immediately announced Paul Ince as an interim boss. That’s planning, that’s foresight, and that’s something that’s been sorely lacking this calendar year, as we’ve kneekjerked our way through 2022’s opening months.

The squad is completely imbalanced, the defensive disaster that was deadline day has been well documented – and its impact is being laid bare as we shuffle through the closing months of the season.

The appointment of Alex Neil – after a prolonged search that didn’t seem in-step with the need to get immediate results – wasn’t one that I particularly fancied, and on the evidence so far he doesn’t look as though he’s someone who can make the instant impact we were surely expecting.

Whether anyone could, of course, is another matter.

The change in shape Neil has implemented, while logical on face value to give defensive stability, is not one that’s suited to this squad of players. His style of play looks arritional and direct, and a couple of decades behind what we saw from Johnson’s team at its best.

His post-match comments following the MK Dons game were concerning too. I certainly didn’t see some ‘very good’ things in the second half – we scored with what I think was our only shot on target.

Another concern is he’s drip feeding excuses into his interviews already – lack of fitness, too many games played, not enough experience, players not listening to instructions – and to me he already seems to be covering his back.

It remains to be seen how Neil pans out as Sunderland manager, sorry, head coach, and to be fair to him he is working with an unbalanced squad, but the playing style and ‘philosophy’ we have seen in the past two games – which is supposedly set by Speakman and the club rather than the head coach – is streets apart from what we saw earlier in the season, and that’s a big worry heading into the closing stages of a campaign which promised so much and looks headed for ultimate failure.

Of course, it’s very early days for Alex Neil, and now he’s in the job we need to give him time to influence things positively.

Sunderland v Milton Keynes Dons - Sky Bet League One - Stadium of Light
Very early days, but if you were looking for shreds of positivity on Saturday you’d have been hard pressed to find any
Photo by Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images

As a club, we’ve completely imploded at a time when, regardless of who owns what, the focus has to be on 100% on getting out of this f*cking league.

The football side of the club has shown huge inexperience and has lost its way, which creates disappointment and frustration… which in turn fuels the anger and frustration at the ownership… which in turn fuels anger, disappointment and frustration at the footballing side of things.

It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and a cycle that can become incredibly difficult to break.

From here on in, for the rest of the season, the only thing that matters is what happens on the field – that we quickly get back into form, and seal a play-off place.

For me, the rest can wait, as we attempt to turn the season around.

There are enough games, enough points to play for, to secure that top six spot, and then anything can happen.

For the club’s long-term future, everyone at the club needs to refocus everything on those final 13 – hopefully 16 games – that remain.

There simply cannot be any more excuses.

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