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Sunderland’s Stadium of Light Managers, Part Five: Grayson, Coleman, and Ross

After relegation to the Championship in 2016/2017, Sunderland needed an inspirational presence in the dugout to help us get back on track, but that’s not what happened as the turmoil continued

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Simon Grayson (2017)

Confession time: when Grayson was appointed as our new manager in the summer of 2017, my initial reaction was, ‘Solid choice. He’ll stabilise us in the Championship, weed out the bad apples, and turn us into a well-drilled and resilient team’.

Sunderland Unveil New Manager Simon Grayson Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Perhaps it was a result of being slightly punch drunk following our relegation from the Premier League, or Grayson declaring that he wanted a team ‘full of never-say-die spirit, because that’s the least we should expect from a Sunderland player’.

Sadly, the former Leeds boss didn’t come close to living up to his initial sentiments, and far from being a stabilising presence in the dugout, it was under his stewardship that our downward slide began to gather speed.

It was certainly true that Grayson, who swapped Preston for Sunderland after we’d already been linked with a handful of names ahead of the 2017/2018 season, was a decent enough bloke and that his managerial record was, statistically at least, reasonably impressive.

In addition, the squad he was handed wasn’t the greatest, not least because these were the days when the so-called ‘rotten core’ was still eating away at the very fabric of the club.

OK, we’d brought in some quality in the shape of Aiden McGeady and Lewis Grabban, but they were counterbalanced by the likes of Jake Clarke-Salter and Ovie Ejaria as the squad was reshaped following relegation.

Overall, it wasn’t one of our greatest ever summer windows, but the new gaffer promptly set to work as we prepared for our first second tier campaign in a decade,

Amazingly, things actually got off to a reasonable start, with a home draw against Derby followed by an excellent away win against Norwich at Carrow Road.

Sunderland v Derby County - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

That was backed up by a draw against Sheffield Wednesday at the Stadium of Light, giving us five points from three games and offering hope that Championship stability was a distinct possibility.

Unfortunately, it was a false dawn, and thereafter began a brutal series of results that saw us slide down the table, setting the tone for the rest of the campaign and sapping the morale of the fans even further. If we thought that we’d hit rock bottom after 2016/2017, we’d seen nothing yet, as we went from merely being a club in trouble to a downright laughing stock.

We wouldn’t win again until November, long after Grayson had departed, and in the meantime, he seemed utterly clueless as to how to turn things around.

Tactically inept and an insipid presence on the touchline, Grayson, much like Howard Wilkinson, was simply the wrong man at the wrong club at the wrong time.

Similar to Phil Parkinson, Grayson’s record in the lower leagues is fairly solid and if you airbrush his time at Sunderland from the history books, he’s actually enjoyed a long and respectable career as a manager.

However, like so many before and after him, he just didn’t have what it took to get a handle on the multitude of problems that plagued us at the time, and few tears were shed when he finally departed.

Chris Coleman (2017-2018)

One of the most perplexing appointments of recent times, Coleman is living proof that making the transition from coaching Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsay and Ashley Williams to trying to get a tune out of a squad containing Marc Wilson, Brendan Galloway and Jason Steele was something of a downgrade.

Sunderland Training Session Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

His time at Sunderland coincided with morale sinking to subterranean levels, the Netflix cameras capturing the whole sorry saga on film, and the club slowly beginning to tear itself apart, piece by rotten piece.

Less than two years previously, Hal Robson Kanu’s turn and finish had catapulted Coleman to the semi finals of Euro 2016, and now he was bearing the brunt of the frustration of a fanbase who’d simply had enough, and who could blame them?

How did it end like this? How did the boss who’d given Wales fans such heady memories write himself into Wearside folklore for all the wrong reasons?

In order to unravel it, you have to travel back to the dark, dark days of 2017/2018, and a time when reason and logic had been replaced by madness and muddled thinking.

Simon Grayson’s miserable tenure had mercifully ended in low key fashion on October 31st, when it became glaringly apparent that he wasn’t having the desired impact.

He'd been temporarily replaced by Billy McKinlay and with Ellis Short now having checked out in all but name, it was becoming increasingly obvious that whoever picked up the baton would be facing an almighty challenge, and Coleman was that man.

Exactly how he could envision himself turning the club’s fortunes around, even after his feats with Wales (‘Like trying to turn an oil tanker with a canoe paddle’ as Mick McCarthy once observed), was difficult to fathom, and it felt for all the world as though this was a last-ditch gamble; a desperate roll of the dice for a club that was running on empty.

Sunderland v Burton Albion - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

The raw statistics of Coleman’s time in charge are wretched: a mere five wins from twenty eight matches, and some real bruising results along the way, including a 4-0 hammering at the hands of Cardiff.

Robbed of Grabban’s goals after the striker left in early January, things began to turn toxic alarmingly quickly as relegation to League One, unthinkable at one stage, began to loom large on the horizon.

Like Grayson before him, Coleman seemed powerless to stop the slide, and fan patience soon ran out and turned to outright anger as we sank ever deeper into the mire.

The final nail was hammered into the coffin by the time Burton Albion arrived on Wearside in April.

A goal from former Wearside hero Darren Bent was enough to send us hurtling through the trapdoor and into the third tier, as the former Fulham boss watched on helplessly from the touchline.

Yes, it might’ve been coming for quite some time but it was nonetheless painful and embarrassing to see the club. Coleman didn’t get the chance to see the campaign out, being replaced by Robbie Stockdale for the final game, but the damage had been done.

Some Sunderland managerial appointments work beautifully and some are simply the wrong fit, but Coleman always felt like a classic example of, ‘He’ll do’, and in the end, we paid the ultimate price for such a misguided belief.

Jack Ross (2018-2019)

We all know the drill with Ross.

A decent and honest man who didn’t shirk the challenge of managing Sunderland, he took some fairly brutal flack on social media for the best part of nine months and the passage of time might not have completely dulled the dislike of the man.

Jack Ross Starts Work at Sunderland Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

‘More draws than Ikea’

‘He failed to win promotion with the greatest squad the third tier has ever seen’

‘A dour Jock’

However, the reality is vastly different to the perception, and the former St Mirren boss, who arrived with the club limping along as a charred and shattered ruin in the summer of 2018, wasn’t anywhere near the disaster that he’s often portrayed as.

Ultimately, his tenure at Sunderland was defined by two losses under the Wembley arch, which were accompanied by some ropey league performances and results, but more on that later.

Following relegation to League One at the end of 2017/2018, it would’ve taken someone very brave (or foolhardy, depending on your point of view) to pick up the reigns at the Stadium of Light, but under our new ownership and with the hope of better days to come, the young and amiable Ross was given the job.

If an instant return to the Championship represented success in 2018/2019, and anything else was a failure, then Ross failed, but there’s some nuance to be applied here, including the circumstances and the restraints within which he was working.

The club was pared to the bone as we adapted to the realities of third tier football, and nobody quite knew what lay ahead as the new season kicked off. Optimism was high, but there was also a sense of anxiety as we waited to see how our new-look squad would adapt.

What Ross did do was ensure that the downward trajectory was halted, and that we levelled off before gradually starting to climb again. He made us hard to beat, injected some real fighting spirit into the squad and ensured that we were no longer an easy team to get the better of.

Burnley v Sunderland - Carabao Cup Second Round Photo by Kevin Barnes - CameraSport via Getty Images

However, there were missteps along the way, too.

Naming the fairly unassertive George Honeyman as skipper was probably the wrong call; we often found it hard to close games out, and the whole Will Grigg/Josh Maja shambles of January 2019 didn’t reflect brilliantly on him, either.

On the subject of what he had to work with, the argument about exactly how good our 2018/2019 squad was has never been definitively resolved.

Yes, it had the likes of McGeady and Lee Cattermole in its ranks, but it also featured the likes of Glen Loovens, Kazaiah Sterling, and Lewis Morgan, so arguments about it being an ‘all time great’ League One squad always felt slightly tenuous.

Perhaps the one true positive about Ross’s time at Sunderland was the emergence of Luke O’Nien, who arrived from Wycombe Wanderers in the summer of 2018 and remains a key player for us five years later.

By nature, Ross was a reasonably cautious and pragmatic coach- not necessarily a bad thing, given what he’d inherited and how porous we’d been, but there was always a sense that we weren’t living up to our full potential under him.

Sunderland v Coventry City - Sky Bet League One Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Results such as the kamikaze 4-5 home defeat to Coventry added fuel to the argument that we’d bottled our chances of promotion, and he often struggled to win over a fanbase who were crying out for a more charismatic presence in the dugout.

Had those two games at Wembley- the EFL Trophy final against Portsmouth and the playoff final against Charlton- ended differently, the Scot would’ve been hailed as a hero, but we ultimately fell short on both occasions.

In hindsight, perhaps Ross should’ve departed immediately after the playoff final, to spare him the brutal fallout that followed and the long period of purgatory that lingered throughout the summer of 2019.

He never fully recovered from the painful conclusion to the 2018/2019 campaign and a slow start to the following season ultimately brought his year-long spell to an end, the first of three managerial departures as we tried to ensure that our stay in the third tier would last for as little time as possible.


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