As it became increasingly apparent on Tuesday night that we weren’t going to add one (or two, as some fans demanded) strikers to our ranks, the refrains were familiar and the tone started to veer from confusion to dejection, and then to outright anger as the fallout began.
Sunderland were ‘bottling it’, there was a ‘lack of ambition’ being shown, Kristjaan Speakman was overseeing the derailment of our season before the clocks have gone forward, and the lessons from previous failings weren’t being learned.
None of this was particularly surprising.
Despite a league campaign that may have taken many fans by surprise as we’ve settled back into life in the second tier reasonably comfortably, there’s always been an undercurrent of unease, and a feeling that we’re one ropey performance or poor result away from a crisis.
Naturally, this would be a crisis that offered proof that the entire strategy is flawed, that Alex Neil was right to abandon ship when he did, and that Tony Mowbray is merely a yes-man for an intransigent sporting director who can’t see the flaws of his much-vaunted ‘model’.
It all makes for lively social media chatter and there’ll never be a consensus as to how we implement the best plan for the club, but exactly how far do you go before reasoned arguments morph into conspiracy theories? The Sunderland middle ground is perilously thin, and it seems to be shrinking all the time.
Ultimately, this boils down to a single issue.
The striker situation is messy and it’s hugely annoying that the weakness hasn’t been addressed, but the idea that the club have deliberately sabotaged the remainder of the 2022/2023 season because of inaction or a ‘lack of ambition’ is something I can’t get on board with.
Yes, reinforcements were needed and yes, the final eighteen games won’t be straightforward, but the idea that the season is ‘over’ seems premature. We aren’t fighting for our very lives and after all, how many of us would’ve taken mid-table stability after ‘only’ finishing fifth in League One last season?
In terms of strikers, my big question is this: did we stake all of our chips on one player, only to find that his parent club weren’t playing ball?
Ellis Simms was the name on most people’s lips and despite being recalled by Everton as they looked high and low for a solution, there was always the hope that he’d return to the Stadium of Light if and when the Toffees added reinforcements- something that ultimately didn’t happen.
It’s been four years since Netflix chronicled our frankly comical efforts to lure Will Grigg to Sunderland during the final knockings of the 2019 window, and now it was Simms being elevated to mythical status as we hoped that a Wearside return would materialise.
For now, though, we must make do with what we’ve got. That means immense pressure on Leeds loanee Joe Gelhardt to get off to a flyer, it means increased expectation on Amad, and it also means pressure on Mowbray to get a tune out of a squad shorn of its leading frontman as well as its captain.
For Speakman, this is not alien territory- both in terms of the decisions made and the criticism that’s been sent his way- and we all know what’s likely to happen next.
At some stage, he’s almost certain to give an interview during which his rationale will be explained, but that’s only likely to lead to more flak as his words are dissected and any hidden meanings pored over. It’ll be depressingly familiar when it happens, but this is life as Sunderland’s sporting director- the difference between villainy and hero status is miniscule.
On the other hand, the picture is not entirely negative.
Somewhat lost in the fallout from ‘Strikergate’ has been the fact that this window was by no means a wretched failure. Instead, it was a largely promising one with a nasty sting of frustration at the end of it, but the squad hasn’t been decimated by any means.
Pierre Ekwah ought to add some clout to our midfield, Joe Anderson’s arrival gives us another option at the back, Isaac Lijhadji is another exciting attacker who could blossom in seasons to come, and Gelhardt could certainly hit the goal trail in similar fashion to Nathan Broadhead.
The loss of both Corry Evans and Ross Stewart to injury have cast a pall over our transfer activity, but objectively, this is still a very strong and exciting squad with enormous potential.
As ever, the club hierarchy will stand or fall by their decisions, and wherever we finish this season, the January transfer window will be seen as a defining period as we either prepare for the playoffs or head into the summer looking to make improvements for the 2023/2024 Championship campaign.
A frustrating window? Yes. A season-ending one? No, and it’s now up to the players to prove it, starting against Millwall on Saturday.