Sunderland report cards: (4) the curse of consistent inconsistency

For our fourth end-of-season review, we turn to Malcolm Dawson, who has written some cracking articles for Salut! Sunderland and is warmly welcomed here whenever he chooses to write. Looking back, he salutes the quality play he has seen from SAFC and deplores the more dire performances, often against modest opposition; looking forward, he hopes we are not about to settle for mid-table obscurity …

It is hard to be dispassionate when talking about football and in particular about the the club you support. Witness the ire displayed by several Villa fans on this site when it was suggested that maybe Sunderland are a bigger club or the responses of some Arsenal supporters, when it was intimated that they are the sinners, as much as the sinned against. Witness too the back and forth “banter” between some of our regular contributors at the suggestion that Steve Bruce is or isn’t the answer to our prayers.

When trying to assess things objectively I often apply what I call the “Tardis Principle”. By that I mean I shift the time frame and see how I would have reacted had things happened in a different order.

For example, imagine we are 3-0 up at half time but after a poor second period, the opposition grab the equalising goal in time added on. How do I feel? Sick as the proverbial. But what if we are 0-3 down at half time and grab a point with the last attack of the game? Completely the opposite emotion, celebrating a great comeback instead of throwing away what should have been an invincible position. In both circumstances the result is the same but one is frustration and the other celebration. I’d rather have been a Baggie than a Maggie on Sunday.

And so the same applies when looking at the season as a whole. I’m trying to remember back to the August. I seem to recall feeling that we should be aiming for a top half finish, with a hope of getting as high as eighth. I was fairly sure that Man Ure, Chelski, The A*se, Citeh and the Red half of Liverpool would finish above us. I also felt that we should be competing with Spurs, Everton, Villa and Fulham in the next group, with the rest fighting out the bottom half of the league.

And that’s where we’ve ended up. A combination of almost perfect results on the last day (as seen from a Sunderland perspective) ensured the top 10 finish. Had the Scousers beaten that big club Villa, we would have been ninth. So I suppose I should be happy with that.

Trouble is, in true Sunderland fashion, it has been another roller coaster. Hopes were raised before Christmas and dashed in the New Year. The end of season feeling is “what might have been” and not “what came to pass” although tempered with the “could have been worse”.

Had we consistently been yo-yoing between 6th and 10th, never looking like a bottom half side but ultimately finishing in 10th spot, I expect I would have been more satisfied than I am. But the fact that for so long, so early in the season, we looked to be top of the second tier, the subsequent slump which led to our ultimate position drove out the positive feelings for a considerable period.

Other contributors will no doubt reflect on individual games. We saw some great performances and some dire.

Consistently inconsistent is a phrase I have used more than once. There were many games where despite the lovely passing movements, we rarely looked like creating scoring opportunities. I only recall a few where it seemed we could score at will. We saw some quality play against quality sides and had too many mediocre results against mediocre opposition. I lost count of the number of times I felt we started well, defending high up the pitch, pressurising opponents to gain and retain possession in their half, only to tire and drop deeper and deeper as the game wore on. Still, I felt we had it in us to finish seventh, until injuries, Bruce’s tactics, the loss of a proven goal scorer or whatever reason you choose to explain the slump, conspired against the team.

The realist in me says 10th is not too bad. It’s a platform but a platform to where? Next season will we be settling for tenth again? Let’s face it a top five spot seems a long way off. There is much rebuilding to be done and a lot of players to be replaced or re-signed. I had hoped we would finish the season with the nucleus of a solid and settled squad that only needed fine tuning. Now it seems it needs a major overhaul with a raft of replacements required. Ultimately, I think we have to see where the club takes us, but with the current state of the Premier League we shall have to accept that mid-table obscurity means success for clubs like ours and that I feel is where the real disappointment lies.

If all this sounds a tad pessimistic then apologies, but I was asked for a personal review of the season. My hope next year will be to witness more positive football. If we play an entertaining game, where whatever the result, we always seem to be in with a shout then I’ll settle for that – as long as we don’t end up doing a Blackpool.

Ha’way the Lads.

*Also in this series:

* Satisfactory end, but a question mark over our North-eastern bragging rights

* Dear Colin .. all the best Steve: not what it seems

* How we missed those Bent goals

* If you want to have your say, at similar length, e-mail me at

11 thoughts on “Sunderland report cards: (4) the curse of consistent inconsistency”

  1. Well after reading all of your optimistic comments ; I’m left with 2 choices , either throw myself off Monkwearmouth Bridge , or go and support the mags . I’m glad the vast majorityof the 4,000 + core away supporters have more faith in the team . Perhps it’ no coincidence we had the 7th best away record in the league . Throughout the last few months I have been in the minority here , prasing Bruce and the stye of football he is trying to instill and insisting that we would easily avoid relegation and finish well up in the league . The doom and gloom merchants had us relegated . There is only 1 team can win the league , 1 team win th FA Cup . Perhaps Man Utd should pack it all in now ; they are light years behind Barcelona !!!

  2. I’ll have a pint of what Joan has been drinking before she wrote that last sentence!!!

  3. This has to be one of the most closely fought Premierships in some years – the difference between a ball hitting the bar and going in, the odd refereeing decision – have meant the difference between 4 or 5 places up the table or 4 or 5 places down. When I missed a train from Kings Cross by 6 minutes and had to pay an extra £74 to go home, I consoled myself with the thought that only the day before a couple of minutes had cost Newcastle £1.5m (I think each place in the table is worth £750k?) and put an extra £1.5m our way. I heard a while ago that there’s a direct correlation between the amount a club spends on players’ wages and the place they finish in the league. “The regression equation predicts a club must spend 1.98 times the league average to achieve a fourth place position” – whether this is correct or not I don’t know as I can’t follow the stats – but those with a more mathematical bent may be interested in this website So we’re limited by funds and maybe all the tactics and managerial changes in the world won’t make a great deal of difference. The financial state of football, cheating and FIFA corruption have left me less than enthusiastic about next season. On the other hand, visualising success can be a great motivator; maybe Ellis Short can visualise Sunderland playing like Barcelona and walking away with the Premiership in the next few years.

  4. My definition of mid table obscurity Davey is that raft of teams between 8th and 14th. Realistically I think that is the best we can hope for. Last season was the closest Premier League ever but there were still only four clubs in with a chance of the title. Whilst for a long time it looked as if there were five or six sides scrapping to avoid relegation, as the final day drew nearer more and more clubs got involved in that issue.

    The reality is that for most clubs, top five places are out of reach. I’d like to think that next season we can mount a serious challenge for one or both of the cups and not have to worry about relegation.

    I remember when it was possible for teams like Derby, Forest, Villa, to win the title even when they had only just enetered the top division. It doesn’t matter who we (or Stoke, Fulham, Bolton, Everton, West Brom, Blackburn, the Mags etc.) sign, the title will go to Manchester, or West London again, with maybe a challenge from North London and Merseyside.

    When I was younger I used to wonder what it must be like supporting teams like Hibs or Dundee United knowing full well that despite being a top side, your team was unlikely to ever win the League. For the past twenty years or so I think I’ve known.

  5. Great article and some good points made.

    I think we would all have taken tenth position at the start of the season. It represents progress.

    As Malcolm rightly says, if we had stormed into tenth position after an injury disrupted start to the season things would feel much better.

    There are concerns. Chiefly the injury problems. Quinn is right to investigate this. It could be as simple as not having decent indoor facilities. The hard winter caused real upset for training in the New Year and this cannot be a coincidence.

    Bruce appears to be the right man but I do have some concerns.

    Does he rush players back too quickly from injury? Maybe, but the dire situation perhaps forced his hand.

    Does he always get his tactics right? The team passes well but still has the age old problem of having a soft underbelly. Apart from the Wigan game if we go a goal behind we tend to struggle.

    Is he effective in the transfer market? This is a mixed bag – some have been great and some have been awful but this is probably true for all managers. He does give youth a chance which is to be applauded. I think he has also got it right to say goodbye to Mensah. A great player on his day but you need to build a defence around consistency. It benefits understanding which we seriously lack.

    I was also hoping for a few tweaks to a settled squad this summer but this is unlikely now. We need at least three strikers, another keeper, a couple of wide players and three defenders.

    I think that the aim has to be stay in the top half this season. Look at Birmingham. Ninth last season, relegated this. The first 3 seasons back in the Premier League have been about consolidation – i.e. not getting relegated. The next three need to be about establishing us a top ten team.

  6. We are going for Bosmans and loanees Davey. Half the team that we finished this season with has left for various reasons (mainly that we don’t own half of the team), and we talk about achieving some sort of stability. I don’t see any sense of stability when you have to bring in 8 players (which is the number Bruce has been talking about).

    At the end of any season you should be able to speculate what your team could conceivably be without anyone coming in or leaving. We don’t enjoy that privilege.

  7. You think it’ll make a difference, Davey, who we buy, who we keep, who we sell? I think many of us do have a clue what sort of team we’ll have and it doesn’t make us very happy. Getting rid of Bruce, alas, is unlikely to change that.

  8. Loads of negative comments ; how on earth can you say we will have “mid-table obscurity ” next season – when no on has clue what sort of team we will have – who we buy , who we keep , who we sell . Or is it the Sunderland supporters way of believing the worst will happen so anything else is a bonus . Get rid of Bruce – who will replace him /?? . Just look what happens up the road with a vast array of different managers !!

  9. Complete disarray is right. We’ll be starting next season as if this one just past never happened. The best thing you could say about it is that for once when we took two steps forward, we followed it by only taking two steps back, instead of three. We’re no farther back but we’re no farther on, either. And, once again, we’ll be building on sand rather than rock. No wonder it happens year after year, with the foundations continuously slipping away.
    I don’t see us doing any better than Malcolm’s well-expressed “mid-table obscurity” and that’ll only come if we get off to the same sort of flying start that we did last season; a badly needed boost. I’d settle for that obscurity if the side played consistently decent football. I’m tired of undignified – and often unsuccessful – scrambles to salvage a result and having to look anxiously at the results to see, not who did better than us but who did worse.

  10. Good article and points from Alan. What concerns me is the complete disarray we have going into next season. He says he wants 8 players but he can’t seriously consider starting next season with a virtually complete line up. No recognised right back being picked there with the only one we have on the wrong flank. Welbeck, Onouha and Mensah have left and Zenden has walked (understandably), and there’s not a lot to build around even if the 10th place was a reasonable finish. In reality we are not starting with a top half foundation, we are back to building from the bottom up. Bruce can have only one more season Alan, particularly when you consider that he’s likely to dispense with Riveros and Angeleri’ players who have only been here one season. You can’t rebuild every year, but that is what he is doing.

  11. Chatting to one of my Spurs friends today who contrary to proven evidence still says we were wrong to trust or buy Bent, he attributes Bent’s departure entirely to Bruce’s reaction to the purported relationship between Bent and Bruce’s daughter.

    Did petulance and anger on Bruce’s part bring about a perverse decision to let Bent go?

    He was our only consistent goal scorer. Yes he had lost his edge a little but why was he not told, “finish this season and we will sell you to any club of your choice.”

    Have I missed the point ,was his contract expiring? Surely the goals he scored for Villa would have projected us further up the table and even if he had to wait a few more months to earn three times the salary we paid him, it would have had no significant impact on his lifestyle in the short term.

    This is our second season of unprecedented injuries and a second season where Bruce has been incapable of motivating a key striker into giving his all for the club..

    Yes we achieved our target of a top ten finish but despite the lack of an obvious successor there remain, in my opinion, huge question marks as to Bruce’s ability as a manager at this level.

    Of further concern is the tendency that the only names we seem to try to buy ARE MID FIELDERS. Just how much longer can we survive without a recognised defender playing in the right position, no matter how good Bardo has been, where are our resident speedsters on the wing and a reliable strike team.

    Bruce surely cannot have more than one more season in which to live up to the early seasons promise our team showed against some quality clubs

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