It’s becoming a little repetitive on Wearside. A positive end to a season that at one time seemed doomed. Hopes for better things to come then disappointment as they fail to reach fruition. Managerless a year ago when Advocaat took the advice of his missus, the joy at his change of heart was short lived. Fast forward twelve months and the club was set fair. Ha – this is Sunderland where events always seem to conspire against any long term feelings of optimism. Deputy Editor Malcolm Dawson reflects on his emotional rollercoaster ride since the team walked off at Vicarage Road.
This close season for me has been a microcosm of the past few Premier League campaigns. Optimism, disappointment and relief in that order, resulting in cautious optimism with an undercurrent of resignation to another season of underachievement ahead.
It may seem strange to those who don’t follow Sunderland AFC that a 17th place finish should be seen as a cause for celebration but that is what it was for those who witnessed the transformation that Sam Allardyce brought to the club. Big Sam had his detractors before he came and we were warned what to expect. West Ham fans seemed particularly divided about his managerial style, some acknowledging his success in winning promotion then establishing The Hammers in the top half of the Premiership, but others insisting we could expect boring, long ball football with an emphasis on avoiding defeat. Pragmatic, rather than stylish.
Avoiding defeat was indeed Sam’s prime short term objective but initially it appeared to be a flawed philosophy. Points were dropped as we loitered in the relegation places but eventually it worked and the medium term aim of keeping the club in the top flight for a tenth successive year was achieved.
What’s more as Sam got to know the players he inherited, shipping out those he had no use for and adding others of real quality, I witnessed some of the most enjoyable football I have seen from a Sunderland team since the days of Peter Reid.
The purists might disagree. This was no Barcelona or Brazil but it was a team that played as a unit, played for each other and showed the fighting qualities I want to see in those who wear the colours of my club. That they won crucial games, away at Norwich, at home to Chelsea and Everton at such a late stage of the season, taking us to a place where it no longer mattered what the others did, added to the euphoria.
On that celebration lap, after the final home game, it looked like we had a club that would go places. I saw a squad who cared, playing for a manager who cared. The final game was further cause for optimism. The development squad players who were given their chance didn’t look out of place and a revamped side should have beaten Watford had the linesmen not flagged two perfectly good goals offside or had the referee not given a debatable penalty. Significantly too that match saw starts for Rodwell and Lens both of whom got on the score sheet. I’ll come back to them. The foundations were solid and long term improvement was on the cards.
Close Season So Far
Part 1. Optimism – I had seen enough to convince me that 2016/17 was to be a turning point in the recent history of SAFC. Twelve months previously we had just escaped relegation but ended the season managerless. This time we had a manager who would do things his way. The Director of Football model was defunct. The coaching staff had got the squad fitter than they’d ever been and no way was Big Sam going to let that slide. Not for this manager, publicity seeking, long range trips organised by the commercial department. This time a pre-season designed to prepare the team for the new campaign, ready to go from day one.
The squad was looking better than it had done the year before. We had the foundations of a settled side and a manager who seemed the perfect fit for where we were. Yes we still had too many players who didn’t feature in the manager’s plans and we had lost the services of several loan players but we would surely snap up M’Vila and look at bringing back Yedlin. Toivonen and N’Doye would be no great loss and with Fletcher and Graham no longer on the wage bill we would soon be in the market for fresh blood. I hoped that as soon as the transfer window opened and the Chief Executive got his feet beneath his new desk, signing those players Allardyce and his team had earmarked would be a priority.
Part 2. Disappointment – Maybe the club knew something the rest of us didn’t. Maybe they had suspicions that should the Euros go badly wrong for the national side, then the F.A. would come calling. That didn’t seem likely a month ago. Big Sam’s chance had been and gone when the “wally with the brolly” got the job. But transfer business was slow with just Vergini of the contracted players on the move and no-one coming in. We were linked with various names but for whatever reason it seemed that none of those targets would be signed quickly. Still this was no time for panic, as we were led to believe that negotiations were under way with Ayhew, Sakho, M’Vila and others. Then Hodgson did what many of us expected he would do and failed to get England to the semis against a side we should have beaten comfortably, throwing in the towel as he did so. Even at this stage it was unlikely to impact on Sunderland – or so I thought.
Was Wenger approached? If he was he was quickly ruled out of the running leaving Arsenal to continue their close season unhindered by speculation surrounding their manager. Step in the media with a concerted campaign to install Allardyce as England boss. I had hoped that if the club had acted swiftly in the transfer market it might have shown Big Sam its intent and make him think twice about leaving the job half done. He seemed the perfect fit and I wanted to see him take us onward.
Perhaps M Salut and others were right. Perhaps the club knew all along that if the F.A. came calling Allardyce would up sticks and leave anyway and perhaps that had something to do with the lack of transfer activity. Maybe the owner was more canny than I gave him credit for and had learned it was a mistake to lumber a new man with the previous manager’s signings. Once the media hoo-ha focussed on Allardyce there was surely no way he wasn’t going to get the job and going through the motions of talking to Bruce and others only added to the disruption.
Part 3 – Relief. And so Saturday came and the rapid installation of David Moyes. Would I rather that England had beaten Iceland and Hodgson’s contract been extended? Of course I would. We would have had a summer free from speculation and insecurity. We might even have had a few new faces in the pre-season training camps but I was pleased to see the club act swiftly in appointing the new manager. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and the frustration at the F.A. seems to have been a result of their having accepted the inevitable and having the new boss lined up well in advance. From the club’s point of view (and ours) the longer Moyes had before the Man City game, the better. He’s here now and from the looks of the first two friendlies he has a squad that is fitter and better organised than the one at this stage last year. Only three weeks for the Scot to work his magic, but at least we have a man in post and it didn’t do Leicester City any harm appointing a new manager this time last year.
Part 4 – Cautious Optimism. Like many others I look back at Moyes’s time at Everton as the blueprint for Sunderland. Similar club, similar ambitions. In my opinion he was always on a hiding to nothing at Old Trafford, weighed down by expectation, following on from an iconic manager who hovered around in the background like a spectral figure, ever reminding the supporters, the media and the hierarchy of what had gone before. I don’t follow Spanish football too closely so don’t know why he wasn’t a success in that job but I see no reason why he can’t take Sunderland into the upper reaches of the division just as he did with The Toffees.
My renewed optimism is tempered by the fact that we still have glaring inadequacies in the squad and transfer business is so slow. How much that is down to the owner’s cautiousness or how much it is down to other issues, I wouldn’t like to say but I would have liked to have seen new players on the flight to France and I wonder just how fit anyone we do sign will be when they do come. We need them up to speed from day one.
The Championship starts a week before the Premier League and any teams interested in Bridcutt, Buckley, Gomez, Matthews and Mavrias may well lose interest if the club continues to hang on to them. In a way it is prudent to do so until replacements are found. They may well have been told they are not part of the manager’s plans and are unlikely to see first team action, but our senior squad is still too small and the Development squad players who may come good are still inexperienced at Premiership level.
And so to Lens and Rodwell. Here are two talented players, big money signings who have to date failed to have the impact on the field we would have liked, but both have shown what they can do in spells. If Rodwell can stay fit, if Lens has the right attitude and desire to give his all for the club I have a feeling they can be big players for us this season. If I’m right it’ll be like having two new players without having to splash the cash. Remember Lens goal against West Ham. Rodwell, like Kirchhoff may well have to fill in at centre back for a spell and though he was criticised for missing a few chances last season, at least he got himself into positions where he could be criticised for missing. We need more penetration from midfield and either of those could be just what we need. I would still want to see M’Vila back but if N’Zogbia proves worthy of a contract surely that would allow Borini to take a more forward role, playing alongside Defoe and the recruitment can focus on a centre back, a full back (or two) and another striker.
Finally, I really hope that Moyes sticks with Bracewell and Stockdale. They have done a great job working with the current squad and can provide continuity. Moyes might well want to bring in his own men, the Neville brothers have been mentioned, but there’s not a lot wrong with the men in situ in my view.
Now with less than three weeks to go I am back to my familiar state of mind when it comes to the new season. Anticipation tinged with trepidation. Can’t wait.