Stopping Sunderland’s slide: the fable in five acts that defines the crisis

Jake: 'is this the Lad to lead the revival?'
Jake: ‘is this the Lad to lead the revival?’

Marcus Procopio*, a supporter Down Under, is a welcome occasional visitor to Salut! Sunderland. This is his assessment of the current crisis, with perhaps only its timing in our favour …

An insipid preseason has now been followed up by two losses to start the season – to teams unlikely to feature in the top half of the table come the end of the season. There are plenty of questions and there is genuine concern that we do not have the answers.

It seems ridiculous that we’re all so worried only two games into the season. I admit that I feel a bit silly writing this. However, recent history shows that we have good reason to be worried. For me, what has transpired so far has been in the making for some time. A time-honoured business management school story helps me to explain.

It starts with four monkeys, a cage and a banana

Act I:

Inside the cage hang a banana on a string from the top. Then you place a set of stairs under the banana and before too long a monkey will go to the stairs and climb toward the banana. Then ALL the monkeys are sprayed with cold water. After a while, another monkey makes an attempt with same result. As soon as he touches the stairs, ALL the monkeys are sprayed with cold water. Pretty soon, when one monkey tries to climb the stairs, the others will try to prevent it. Now, put the cold water away.

To me, this accurately describes our club under the later stages of Steve Bruce. He had something good going. However, the circumstances surrounding the exits of Bent, Gyan and Cana, combined with the TWELVE* players Bruce brought in to make up for it in the summer of 2011 brought things down and still haunts us to this day. These two things combined to give us our original sprayed monkeys.

*(El Mohamady, Wickham, Ji, Gardner, Larsson, Westwood, Deacon, Brown, O’Shea, Vaughan, McLean, Bendtner).

Act II:

Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new monkey. The new monkey sees the banana and attempts to climb the stairs. To his shock, ALL of the other monkeys beat the daylights out of him. After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs he will be assaulted.

We reached this stage around the time of Martin O’Neill. It didn’t matter who he brought in or what he tried to do. Assault was the only outcome. O’Neill still probably doesn’t know what hit him.

Act III:

Next, remove another of the original four monkeys, replacing it with a new monkey. The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm — because he is now part of “the team”. Then, replace a third original monkey with a new monkey, then similarly followed by a fourth. Every time the newest monkey takes to the stairs, he is attacked. Now, the monkeys that are beating him up have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs. Neither do they know why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey.

It’s difficult to say whether the reigns of Di Canio and Poyet reign fell under Act II or Act III. The answer is probably that both Acts were traversed.

By now, the septic culture pervading our club was too much for either manager to deal with. It was such that the inevitable mistakes they made as inexperienced managers were gobbled up by the monkeys around them, who probably had no idea why they were doing what they were doing any more – they’d just been sprayed or beaten up too much. Di Canio and Poyet’s managerial styles and weaknesses certainly didn’t help their causes either. I think we can also safely say that several perfectly good newcomers to our club would have been tainted by the collection of monkeys they unwittingly joined (eg Giaccherini).

Act IV:

Finally, having replaced all of the original monkeys, none of the remaining monkeys will have ever been sprayed with cold water. Nevertheless, not one of the monkeys will try to climb the stairway for the banana.

Why, you ask? Because in their minds, that is the way it has always been!

On paper, our squad is actually half decent. It’s full of players who, at one time or another in recent years, have been decent, competent Premier League level players. However, none of them is going for the damn banana anymore. We still have some of the original monkeys left, so we’re not all the way there yet.

Is there time to fix things before we get to the stage where there is only one possible solution and outcome? Let’s hold that thought for a moment…

We’re on Probation.

Let’s face it, our whole club and its shambolic setup is now on probation. To say otherwise ignores the overwhelming evidence that has unfolded over the last few years.

If the transfer window closes and we don’t have two uplifting signings in the door and the poor results continue, then I don’t see any coming back this season. Once a critical mass is reached, the momentum will be insurmountable and self-fulfilling.

The 43k crowds will quickly go down below 30k, every home game will have a League Cup first round atmosphere, visiting teams will love it, our players will feel even more dejected, the rot will set in and the club’s pathetic administration will have to learn the hard way. The players will also have to hang their heads in shame (they’re supposed to be world class professionals for crying out loud).

It’s not Dick’s fault or any other individual’s fault. It’s a cultural rot that’s like a black hole – we know it’s there and we can see its effect on everything around it, but we can’t see the damn thing itself from where we are. It’s chewed through and belched out countless managers and decent players since we came back to the Premier League and it wants to continue.

It’s not that we’ve lost the first two games, it’s the manner in which we’ve lost. It’s also the manner in which we’ve performed and lost over the last three seasons that has led the best possible supporters a club can ask for to seriously start losing hope and patience. I won’t wear any accusation that we’re too demanding and too hard on our boys or not supportive enough. If the product stinks, the answer isn’t to blame the customer who’s still amazingly buying it.

Four minutes and 30 seconds into the Norwich game, you can actually see our midfield holding their hands up to each other as they had no idea where they should be standing. Go and watch a replay of the match and you’ll see it. I knew we were in for a long game at that moment. Van Aanholt ruining two beautifully weighted cross field passes shortly after – that could and should have led to a pair of great attacking moves – rammed it into all of our faces. We are an embarrassment to ourselves and the standard of the Premier League at the moment and it hurts.

The end of the story

Act V:

Sometimes the only answer is that all of the monkeys need to be REPLACED AT THE SAME TIME!

Disclaimer: This story is in no way meant to be disrespectful to monkeys.

If we keep going the way we are, then this is all that’s left. Relegation will provide the catalyst for getting rid of the players. From there I can only hope that it would also remove the owner, the board and anyone else left in the club’s administration that’s had any authority over any material decision in recent years.

I really hope it doesn’t get to that, but time is ticking and the trickles of information coming through the media aren’t encouraging.

What should we hope for?

Trust me, this is a legitimate question.

I still hold hope that we can set things right. By this, I don’t mean that I hope we can avoid relegation by the skin of our teeth and keep putting around like a smoking wreck every season. We’ve all had enough of this embarrassing and gormless tripe. If it’s the choice between this and getting relegated and rebuilding from absolute scratch, I must say that I’d rather invest in the rebuilding (yes, I hate myself for even thinking this).

Like I said, I’m still firmly hoping that Dick and his crew can set things right by bringing in some solid reinforcements and finishing mid-table like none of this ever happened. Essentially, I’m hoping that I’m made to look like the biggest idiot in the world for writing this.

One positive is that at least we’re having our crisis now and not in March, so there is time.

Marcus Procopio
Marcus Procopio
Marcus on himself:: I’ve been closely and passionately following the Lads for over 15 years now, so still something of a baby! I’ve also been reading your site’s articles for the last few years. I’m 32, an in-house company lawyer born and bred in Perth, Western Australia. I don’t have any heritage or other close ties to Sunderland or the UK and never closely followed football until I was about 17. As a result, people naturally ask me why I support Sunderland and the answer I always give is that it just felt right for reasons I cannot explain in words. They were the first club I managed in LMA Manager (1998) – I still play far too much manager – and I’ve never looked back!

Despite the challenges our club has faced, my support has never wavered and not a day goes by where I don’t think my choice wasn’t completely justified. I just love this club and that will never change.

13 thoughts on “Stopping Sunderland’s slide: the fable in five acts that defines the crisis”

  1. I do wonder whether someone has done the sums and worked out that some how, relegation would get us out of the mire.

    It sounds mad but it would provide a rational explanation for the apparent indifference to making improvements to the squad,

  2. A modest proposal – field a team of reserves on Saturday, just to see what they can do and maybe give us a little more perspective. It’s not as if we have much to lose.

  3. Here’s an alternative. Introduce a new monkey and spray the rest of the bastards with cold water if they lay a finger on him when he’s climbing the stairs. We’ll soon have a cage of monkeys all eating bananas

  4. A thought fleetingly crossed my mind the other day that the way forward would be for the club to go into administration, get rid of the whole squad and start from scratch in a lower division. It was only a fleeting thought because the experiences of Portsmouth, Leeds, and Coventry would indicate this is not the way to go. Leicester and Southampton seem to have recovered but didn’t face the strict penalties which were imposed on the other three. Oh and Bournemouth seem to have done OK since they went bust too.

    I don’t know what is contributing to the woeful displays and lack of fight on the pitch this season. I don’t believe there are many professionals who would go out and consciously not try but I do know that substandard performances and a lack of commitment can be the result of poor morale and deep rooted discontent.

    The club appears to be in a mess and ultimately the buck stops with the owner and the people he appoints. Over the past few years we have signed loads of players who have had little or no impact on the pitch. To some extent we can blame past managers who have advised the club on the players required. To some extent we can blame the people who went out and brought in players who they thought might fit the bill and told the coaches this is what you have to work with.

    What I believe we are seeing now, is a coach who isn’t being given the resources he was promised because of poorly negotiated contracts with a whole raft of players who haven’t, or don’t feature in the coach’s plans.

    We have Bridcutt, Roberge, Buckley, Mavrias still on the payroll. How much I wonder is the club shelling out on players who have been moved on. I’ll bet they are still contributing to the income of Vergini and a host of other players who have now officially left the club but only because SAFC went some way to helping meet their wage demands. And then there’s Alvarez. Who do we believe? Whose decision was it that he should become a Sunderland player should we avoid relegation no matter what? If that was in the contract who decided that SAFC would not have complete control of any treatment required for injury? It seems bonkers to me that there would not be a get out clause but until the situation is resolved it remains a factor restricting recruitment and salary structure. How much of this is down to Margaret Byrne and the rest of Ellis Short’s executive team? If you can be bothered to trail back through my comments of two or more years ago I questioned the owner’s decision to marginalise Sir Niall which led to his going altogether. I can’t help but think the mess would have been considerably less had he still been involved.

    I’ll be there on Saturday. I’ll hope to see a better performance but I’m not holding my breath.

    • Going voluntarily into administration is an interesting if drastic idea but doesn’t a club have to be in rather more dire financial straits than SAFC to be allowed to do so? I don’t know the ins and outs of the law. Either way, if we do go down I’d rather see us go down fighting than signing legal papers. Now if only we could start to fight…

  5. I think that most of us would agree with Marcus about moving on the monkeys.

    I certainly wouldn’t be sad to see Cattermole,Fletcher and Larsson moved on,they being pretty much the last of Bruce and O’Neill eras. The other s,Brown and O’Shea, are all but ready for retirement at the end of the season

    However suitable replacements need to be found before they leave…..which is easier said than done. If we do any business on the next two weeks I hope it will be bringing in hungry talented ambitious young players who want to make their mark in football ,even if they do see us as a launch pad for their future careers.

  6. Nice “Groupthink” article, I like it a lot.

    Suggests we need characters in the dressing room who cause change—–Go for Balotelli !!!!

  7. Paolo as monkey-house curator tried to get rid of the inmates but the owner of the zoo sacked him instead

  8. A good article and it gets to the core, the all pervading sense of defeatism that has prevailed at Sunderland. Only Keane came anywhere near to breaking it in recent years.

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