Summer 2016. In politics, the Tories’ obsession with Europe had plunged the country into turmoil, with the Boris Johnson-Michael Gove psychodrama at the centre of events. In football, the Lads’ season had been saved following a remarkable upturn in form inspired by a new manager.
Plus ça change, you might say.
But the change that was just around the corner at Sunderland AFC would set off a series of events that would the string of great escapes come to an end and almost kill our great football club.
England’s unique ability to exit Europe unexpectedly had caused the downfall of both David Cameron and Roy Hodgson, and the Conservative Party, the Football Association, and Sunderland AFC all turned to a proven, experienced “safe pair of hands” to deal with the fallout.
What was the worst that could happen?
Sam Allardyce had proven himself able to steady the ship on the field, he’d signed a two year deal in October, but post-season talk of him extending that contract were said to be “wide of the mark”. Nevertheless, the club looked in a decent position to push on, recruit well, and avoid another season slugging it out to avoid relegation.
Then came the Iceland game...
Former Rangers executive Martin Bain started in his new job as Sunderland CEO on 1st July, having been poached from running the top flight of Israeli football by Chairman Ellis Short to replace Margaret Byrne.
He was given the task of transforming “our financial performances” and creating a “stable and successful model”, but instability was by that point endemic within the football club. Almost immediately following Hodgson’s resignation, Allardyce became the choice of both the press and the English footballing public as the man to rescue English football from oblivion.
The speculation grew and grew, making planning for the season ahead almost impossible. The Lads had not yet started their pre-season programme, and recruitment of players couldn’t really proceed with the FA lingering in the background.
In a statement on the club’s website on 13th July 2016, Bain made it clear the issues that the leaks and rumours were causing:
The Football Association contacted Sunderland AFC to seek permission to speak with our manager as part of what was supposed to be a confidential discussion process with potential candidates for the position of England manager.
At Sam Allardyce’s request, we agreed to this.
Sam is very much key to our plans. After what was an extremely challenging season, we are keen to see a period of stability, both on and off the field, and we want him to remain as manager of our football club.
The ongoing speculation over Sam’s position is extremely damaging to Sunderland AFC, particularly at this crucial time of the season and we urge the FA to respect the disruption that this process is causing and bring about a swift resolution to the matter.
By the time of the men’s first friendly against Hartlepool United a week or so later, the bigwigs in London were on the phone offering Sam the top job. It was his dream, nobody could deny him the opportunity, but it left us high and dry at a critical moment.
We all know what happened next - a hidden camera and a pint of wine did for Big Sam at England after only one game, leaving him with a unique unblemished 100% record in the top job. Sunderland turned to David Moyes, who almost immediately wrote off our chances of Premier League survival and relegation became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Bain wouldn’t achieve goal of financial stability, and almost destroyed the club in the process. Short became impatient, and the impact was felt across the board. A disastrous appointment of Simon Grayson condemned us to two successive relegations.
Staff lost their jobs, Sunderland Ladies lost their hard-won WSL status, the club was offloaded to a couple of Oxford fans and we embarked on a tortuous four year, covid-hit stint as a tier three EFL club.
Six years later, and it feels very much as if the tumults of summer 2016 are reaching some sort of narrative ending. It’s been painful, the wounds have taken a long time to heal, the divisions have been deep and enduring, the financial and footballing losses substantial.
The spring and summer of 2022 has been something of a cleansing period. Ghosts have been exorcised, it feels like we’re now on our way back up. The wounds are still there, much of the ground lost to our competitors is still to be recovered, but there’s renewed hope on the horizon.
We go look ahead to the challenges of the rest of the decade with a sense of cautious optimism that some important lessons - particularly about the bravado and lofty promises of flash rich men - have been learned football as well as in politics.