‘And then the draws began’. Not Liverpool and Spurs but the final Sunderland end-of-season review

Pete Sixsmith’s peerless analysis of only Sunderland’s second season in the third tier is deliberately timed to coincide with the moment Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur kick off in the Champions’ League final in Madrid (OK a bit early to make sure). Just felt right …

Colin Randall, aka Monsieur Salut, writes: week after week, men and (less often) women report for newspapers, radio and television on football. Some are extremely gifted, other are less so but perform their duties to the best of their abilities. Bosses, as ever, will get away with not paying people if they can but by and large these writers and broadcasters receive salaries or fees for their efforts.

On sites like ours, usually with very limited income and sometimes with none, the work is willingly done for free. We are fortunate to be blessed with excellent contributors; just take a look at the articles from Malcolm Dawson, John McCormick, Bob Chapman, Ken Gambles, Wrinkly Pete, Lars Knutsen, Bill Taylor, John Marshall and others too numerous to mention. Jake, alias John Clark, chips in with neat illustrations.

Pete Sixsmith towers above all but the very finest of the professionals with his outstanding combination of footballing and general knowledge, natural eloquence and wit. As a journalist, I have been edited as frequently as I have edited others, among them some important others. Pete’s prose never needs more than the lightest of touches.

His material reward is next to nothing, save for the rather rare share of modest advertising revenue and the odd – and also rare – freebie.

Salut! Sunderland‘s audience can number a few thousand on exceptional days but more typically hovers somewhere in the high three figures. Sixer richly deserves to be read by many more. Here is his review of the 2018-19 season, another piece of splendid writing to close the series

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There’s no avoiding the fact that this has been the worst season in our history.

Never before have we finished outside of the top half of the 92 clubs that make up the major leagues of this country. We did this time: 49th, four places below where we were after the only previous Third Division season in 1988-89 and this time without promotion and a bright future to look forward to.

On the surface, therefore, the season has been a failure. The targets set by owners and manager all included the word “promotion” be it automatic or through the play offs. We didn’t achieve it. With the biggest budget, the biggest wage bill, with players who have spent their careers at a far higher level than Division One, we failed to finish ahead of a club who came up from the bottom division and a club who came down with us.

We then failed to beat the playing representatives of a club who were in a perpetual state of turmoil and whose owner, a Belgian as mysterious as any dreamt up by that Belgian master of mystery Georges Simenon, failed to attend the playoff final at a stadium whose name will never pass my lips again.

So why did it not work out as well as it had 30 years previously? Why are we spending another season traipsing to Fleetwood, Shrewsbury and Wycombe? Why will we have another nine months of poor referees, EFL Trophy games and bitter recriminations if things do not go to plan?

Sit back, pour a large malt (Tamnavulin is the one I am sipping at the moment) and we’ll look at my reasons for it all going wrong.

We need to remember where we were 12 months ago after the most inept season in the club’s history. Two managers had come and gone, Ellis Short had lost interest (as well as £80m) and the whole future of Sunderland AFC was up in the air. The new owners were finding their feet, looking at the books and probably wondering why they had bought what appeared to be a footballing and financial basket case.

They inherited a club with a bunch of players who the supporters had little time for and who, in turn, could not wait to get away. They had no manager or coaching staff. They had a disillusioned support base that had moaned and groaned through the previous two seasons and hankered for the return of Sam Allardyce and Jermain Defoe.

Plenty of out-of-work managers fancied the job. The fact that they were out of work probably disqualified them and in came Jack Ross. He wasn’t a “name” manager like, let’s say, David Moyes or Chris Coleman, but he started with a clean sheet – and not many players. That he managed to put a decent squad together for the start of the season is to his credit.

The owners created a feeling of optimism. They involved the support and encouraged them to buy season cards. They appeared on radio and in podcasts and tweeted almost as much as the giant baby in the White House. Their masterstroke was to enlist the support to replace the fading seats that had been at the stadium for 20 years and, for the last two, had not had a great occupation rate.

The squad building continued. Players left, some with regret (Asoro) some with best wishes (O’Shea) and some with tickets to their new clubs bought by grateful fans happy to see the back of them (Steele, Jones, Rodwell, Gibson). We had a new goalkeeper, four new central defenders, new midfielders and new forwards. The future began to look bright.

The opening weeks of the season saw that optimism justified. The first game was played in front of a healthy crowd of 31,075, six players made their debuts and we won in the last minute. By the end of August, the team had settled down into a winning rhythm and was sitting in second place, carefully tucked in behind Portsmouth and already relishing the battle for the title with the Hampshire club.

And then the draws began.

Games that should have been won weren’t and we slipped out of the automatics. The goals began to dry up with only Josh Maja scoring regularly. Charlie Wyke, a player who had been pursued all summer, was injured and, on his return, looked way off the pace. Jerome Sinclair ran around a lot and picked up injuries. Josh Maja scored regularly – but we’ll come to him later.

Home points dropped to Oxford United (played well), Fleetwood Town (well organised and could have won had McLaughlin not saved a penalty) and Wycombe Wanderers (cheats) knocked us back. None of those opponents were anything other than bang average Division One teams while, in the meantime, Portsmouth ploughed on, Barnsley dug in and Luton Town acclimatised.

We, on the other hand, kept on drawing. There were some good draws. A point was earned at Walsall after Max Power was sent off by a referee who would have looked out of place in our old friend, the Brandon and Byshottles Sunday League Supplementary Division.

A Luke O’Nien goal gave us a deserved lead at The Valley and we were the better side for much of the game. The week after, we took an early lead at home to a very steady and impressive Luton Town team and were well on top until we gave the ball away in midfield and then conceded a dubious penalty.

There were some good winning sequences; five in a row through October and early November and then an important three in a row in February but we could never get a six or seven-game winning streak and the draws returned. Three consecutive ones, away to Oxford United and at home to Blackpool and Accrington Stanley, all of which should have been wins, sowed doubts in my mind. My thoughts had gone from “we’ll win this league by 10 points” in summer, to “hopefully, we can get into the top two” by the end of winter.

We didn’t manage that and our cause was not helped when Josh Maja, a classy a goalscorer who wanted more from football than Division One, left for Girondins Bordeaux towards the end of the January window.

There were those who thought he was soft. There were those who thought he didn’t jump enough. There were those who thought he was a selfish player. And I am sure there were some who took against him because of the colour of his skin.

Whatever deficiencies there might have been in his game, we struggled to score goals once he left. He contributed 15 league goals in 24 full games and four from the bench. That’s a ratio of one every other game. Had he stayed, he might well have had 25 or more. Wyke and Grigg managed nine between them.

His quality showed itself in his final game before he made his fateful decision to move. It was at Glanford Park, Scunthorpe. We weren’t playing particularly well and it called for something special. He gave us it.

He played a long ball to Reece James with the outside of his foot and then made a run to the near post hoping that the full back would put a decent ball in for him. James obliged. The Scunthorpe centre half wasn’t quick enough to track Maja and the future Girondin flicked a header past the keeper.

Brilliant, and a goal that will live in my memory for years to come.

Whatever the reasons for him leaving, we had to have a replacement and we became involved in a convoluted bidding process for Will Grigg. Anticipation was great but, unlike Whistler’s quote when he likened the Prince of Wales to “a large jam doughnut with cream on top whose arrival gives us pleasure and leaves us wanting more”, Grigg did not make as great an impression as Whistler’s great rival Oscar Wilde had done on the PoW – at least according to Monty Python. We didn’t play to his strengths. He needs a ball played in front of him, not hoofed in his general direction; the excellent goal he snaffled at Bristol Rovers in the EFL semi-final showed what he is good at. He’s not Charlie Wyke, he’s not Josh Maja and ultimately, we failed to accommodate him in the team.

Did Jack Ross really want him as Maja’s replacement? Would we have ben better off with John Marquis from Doncaster Rovers or Tom Eaves from Gillingham? Both would have benefited from a long ball up front. Perhaps in tandem with Wyke. Poor old Grigg has not flourished at Sunderland and may go down as another Tom Ritchie/Ian Wallace/Paul Stewart/Torre Andre Flo, doughnuts all.

We got two Wembley visits in the season; both were expensive and both ended in disappointment – so no change there then. We consoled ourselves after the EFL Trophy defeat that now we could push on and claim that second spot. The wins at Accrington Stanley and Rochdale seemed to suggest that we would until Coventry City arrived to shunt our hopes and dreams into the sidings of Wembley Central.

The run-in was a huge disappointment; six points out of 21 is what you expect from strugglers at the other end of the table and we had clearly run out of steam. Last-minute losses at Fleetwood Town and Southend United suggested that our mental strength was fragile and that success in the play offs were likely to be beyond us.

We dug in well against Portsmouth and showed character, something that had been sadly lacking in the previous two seasons. Jack Ross can take much credit for that. He seems to have a good relationship with his players, something that the previous three managers lacked and they played for him. Unfortunately, they needed to play a bit better. Not a lot better, but a bit better. Fewer defensive errors, fewer silly tackles giving away free kicks and penalties, more ruthlessness in front of goal – yes, this means you Charlie Wyke.

We were there to be shot at. Every team bar Scunthorpe United and Rochdale raised their game when they came to the Stadium of Light. Some played better football, others (too many) came to kick and clog, waste time and feign injury – yes, this means you Wycombe Wanderers and Portsmouth.

Away from home, we sold out regularly and were accommodated by smaller clubs who saw us as a major pay day. Yet there were few times that we came away from these places with a ringing endorsement from the home fans. The general feeling seemed to be that “they were all right, better than us, but nothing outstanding”. And that just about sums us up.

It’s over now and we are where we are. Proud boasts of smashing the league with 100 points next season will not go down well with a support who have had expectations ruined this. The amount of moaning and chuntering at home and away is worrying and I think that we seem to think too much of ourselves as supporters. Crowds have been good, but rarely have the home support got behind the team to inspire them. Far too often, it’s been a case of sitting back and demanding that the visitors are put to the sword with little regard for their abilities. Ironically, the smallest crowd of the season for the Portsmouth play-off game was the most fervent as if the hard core had turned out and the moaners had stayed at home. Quality is better than quantity as we may find out next season.

If I were an Ofsted inspector (perish the thought) I would be hovering between “requires improvement” and “good”, with good being the outcome but with some caveats, these being;

  • bring some pace into the side. We have nobody who can really take on a defence. Lewis Morgan had his moments but they were few and far between.
  • we desperately need some creativity in midfield. A major disappointment was the failure of Dylan McGeouch to make the kind of impression that his former Hibs team mate John McGinn made at Aston Villa. I know his season has been interrupted by injury, but is his heart in it or is he missing the sunshine of Leith?
  • the central defenders have to be discouraged from hoofing the ball upfield. All of them did it, some more successfully than others but it was so easy for the opposition to spot. Good central defenders like Clarke at Portsmouth. Pinnock at Barnsley and Bauer at Charlton gobbled up the ball and left Wyke and Grigg looking particularly poor and they are not.
  • offer the goalkeeper whatever he wants to stay. I don’t think I saw him drop a cross all season. Jon McLaughlin was my player of the year by a country mile.

The leadership team work hard but they may not be with us for much longer. Stewart Donald will sell if a satisfactory offer comes in, alas not from Dubai. But while he has stabilised things, a poor start will see opprobrium heaped on his shoulders and intense pressure to change managers.

Football is now a series of kneejerks and any manager who completes three full seasons at a club should be awarded a gold pig. Morecambe’s Jim Bentley is the longest serving manager in the 92, having served nine years in a job that defines the phrase “thankless task”.

I am disappointed and next season may see me curtailing away trips. Lincoln City is a must but I have little desire to get up at daft o’clock to trek down to Oxford, Gillingham, Bristol and, particularly Portsmouth. The season card is renewed and I hope to see more home wins next season and some more inspired and less pedestrian football as we spend a second season in the company of many clubs who aspire for little more than continued Division One football.

Sheffield United took six seasons to get back to the Championship, Leeds United three and Nottingham Forest two. In this case, I’d rather be a Forest than a Blade, oh yes I would, indeed I would. See to it Jack.

Josh Maja goal posted on YouTube by Thane ME2, Jan 2019. Oscar Wilde Sketch posted on YouTube by DanHadan, Oct 2009. If there is any copyright claim, not answered by “fair use” on the videos and images used in this report please let us know and we will acknowledge or remove as requested

2 thoughts on “‘And then the draws began’. Not Liverpool and Spurs but the final Sunderland end-of-season review”

  1. Nice write up

    I saw the 100 points as aspirational rather than a boast. It’s what is needed to avoid the dreaded play- offs

    I think we are capable of it. We’ll benefit from having a settled team. Power, ONien and Leadbitter, all signed by Ross, will form a dynamic midfield. I agree that we need to play to Griggs’ strength. Wyke will start as he finished and will score double figures.

    Ozturk will start with more confidence along with a.n.other. they are used to the excellent keeper. Must be one of the best outside the Prem.

    It’ll be sad to see Catts and Oviedo go but it’s time.

    It’s time to embrace the youth. Ross has done a good job bringing the kids on. Making Honeyman captain was a shrewd move as it sends positive signals to the Academy

    I’m not a Pollyanna but we can accrue 100 points next season….worth having a good go…..but we must get off to a flyer. Ignore the cups….playing 62 games in a season is mental. Liverpool used to do that in the 70s…..but they had players like Tommy Smith…..tough as teak…..

    Finally, well done Jordan Henderson…..a credit to the game and his home town

  2. What a treat. And I mean the article not the Monty Python sketch. M. Salut sums it up so well in his introduction but we are all blessed to be able to enjoy Pete’s writing.

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