From Russia with undying, wearied love: ‘end the futilty of supporting Sunderland’

Jake's vision of plenty
Jake’s take on Andy’s Five Year Plan

Andy Potts*, a Sunderland exile in Moscow, has been promising to write for Salut! Sunderland since not long after the October revolution. He still hasn’t, or hasn’t quite, got round to it. This is a contribution of his to the gripping saga of Sunderland-supporting folk, near and far-flung, that is the Blackcats e-mail list. Just in time this week before we slip into our traditional suspension of hostilities, not always observed, as another matchday approaches, Andy offers a cocktail of thoughts that will give SAFC management indigestion but is more constructive that the Molotov variety. An equally well argued riposte, calling for patience, appears as the first comment …

Andy began by picking up on a discussion about continuous disappointment of transfer windows and who is recrutied and shipped out …

This appears to be the underlying issue.

Either our scouting system isn’t good enough, or we have serious problems attracting better quality players to move to Sunderland.

Most likely it’s a bit of both. It seems like we’ve spent several seasons trading one bunch of journeymen for another, sacrificing any prospect of continuity (which might bring about some improvement) in the vain hope of unearthing that rare allignment where an average player just “fits” into a particular club and looks like a class act (something Cloughie was an apparent master at, by all accounts).

Bottom line, that tactic isn’t working for us. We’re simply producing different versions of 15th place, and it’s getting tedious.

The worst thing about this season for me has been the sense of utter futility – it no longer feels like there’s any prospect of SAFC pushing up the league, or getting to the business end of a cup competition, and year after year of top flight invisibility is hugely uninspiring.

We’ve actually managed to deliver mediocity to a statistically anomalous level – no other team has had as many Premier League seasons as us without qualifying for Europe somehow or other (speaking since the formation of the PL, I mean).

Among the knock-on effects, this Christmas was the first time I was back in the UK and didn’t bother to get to a game – the fixtures didn’t fall kindly for my other commitments, and being largely based at my sister’s in Birmingham I couldn’t be bothered to schedule in a dash up north (and spent Boxing Day at Sutton Coldfield vs Halesowen, which was quite fun in a couldn’t care less kind of way).

Great stuff from Jake
Love – for SAFC not Salut! – comes oval-shaped from Jake

So what can change? Assuming there’s no huge pot of cash which can be used to bribe better quality players to come (and side-stepping the ethical questions around chequebook team-building), the club needs to review its transfer policy and scouting system.

This needs to be at all levels – get more out of the academy (perhaps by recruiting from a wider orbit? I’m struck by the way clubs like Arsenal seem to have a United Nations youth team, and ours seems very local – if we’re relying purely on lads who grow up watching Tyne Tees Tonight we’re limiting ourselves unnecessarily).

We should

* source players more widely across Europe and beyond (hopefully this involvement with Africa might bring some rewards) rather than our usual hotch-potch of plunder from relegated clubs and the has-beens and (most often) never-weres from Old Trafford.

* accept that, in the mid-term, we’re liable to be a selling club – be prepared to let players move on for the right price, and reinvest that money in replacing them. And, hopefully, make some steady progress.

I’m not asking to qualify for the Champions League at the end of the next season; I would like to spend next season looking up the table rather than down. And I don’t think that’s unreasonable for a club with a few PL seasons under its belt, given that there’s always likely to be a no-hoper or two among the promoted clubs and an accident waiting to happen elsewhere.

Jake, too, dreams of Visions of Plenty
Jake, too, dreams of Visions of Plenty

Trouble is, all that takes time to implement … and probably requires a concerted decision at boardroom level to allow a manager two-three seasons to implement the recruitment structure he is comfortable with and produce “his” team.

That, of course, runs the risk of relegation – which is financially unsustainable. Even if it doesn’t threaten the club’s survival, it knocks us off the gravy train and when we return, we come back as one of those no-hopers desperately trying to eke out enough points to keep our snouts in the trough.

And I’m unconvinced, sadly, that the current manager is the man for that task (with genuine sadness – I like O’Neill, I think he has been a great manager, but I don’t see evidence that he can make things better here. Times change, and we need someone at the forefront of the next generation, not shining brightly in the twilight of the preceding era).

I’d love to see a di Matteo type coming in (ha! we’d end up with Dominic Matteo!) as a statement of intent that SAFC is changing its outlook.

I’d almost prefer a s***-or-bust punt on someone like Solksjaer (ideally with a more easily spelled name!) rather than another trot around the usual suspects when we look for a new manager.

Maybe, in the end, I’d just like to something happen which surprises me: instead of a predictable move (or a desperate, Wilko-style throw of the dice), maybe a logical, plausible attempt to fundamentally change where the club stands in English football.

Without that, I really can’t see anything better than a run of lower midtable finishes prior to the next, inevitable relegation and rebuild to the point where we can sustain another run in lower midtable.

It’s tempting to blame “modern football” for this, but looking at Swansea – although in fairness I argued against moving for Laudrup when MON came in – Newcastle (last season), Fulham (not a glamour club, but they get a fair crack at Europe), even Stoke, it’s clear that the system can be beaten, at least for a while.

And we’re not beating it. So even if the system is wrong, we’re also getting it wrong somewhere. Time for a rethink.

andy potts* Andy Potts on himself: … first badgered my Dad into taking me to Roker Park as a seven-year-old, and saw a relegation-bound Swansea City pick up one of just two points away from home that season. Which, in a nutshell, seems to encapsulate the Sunderland-supporting experience.
Now based in Moscow, he’s eternally grateful for Rossiya Sport 1’s habit of showing games ‘as live’ after staggering home in the early hours of Sunday morning, meaning a good night out is no longer subject to the afternoon’s results.”



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Monsieur Salut, by Matt
Monsieur Salut, by Matt
See also: Monsieur Salut, aka Colin Randall, at ESPN: http://espnfc.com/blog/_/name/sunderland/id/1210?cc=5739

Sample:

I still think Sunderland will just about retain Premier status for a creditable seventh season.

But the “what if?” scenario is chilling. For every fond memory of invigorating seasons watching Sunderland romp to promotion is the nagging reminder that unless a return to the top flight is achieved as immediately as was done by Newcastle United and West Ham, the financial and footballing implications are ominous.

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19 thoughts on “From Russia with undying, wearied love: ‘end the futilty of supporting Sunderland’”

  1. Paul said J, “I understand why you might not like “stability” and “continuity”, but when the alternative is upheaval and chaos, I know which I’d choose. Chelsea, Southampton and Reading have been laughing stocks this season after dumping Di Matteo, Adkins and McDermott following their achievements for the clubs.”

    Sorry Paul, but that doesn’t wash. The ludicrous dismissals that you refer to were just that. Not even knee jerk, but absurdity in the first degree, each of which appears to be an act of absurdity designed only to outdo the previous. Sacking a manager at Sunderland has never been a knee jerk reaction. There’s not a manager at Sunderland sacked prematurely in the last 30 years (Durban was the only one that I can think of in my lifetime in fact). Managers have always been sacked due to the chaos caused by relegation or when the last throes of a PL season are well under way. Bruce is the only one that hasn’t been sacked too late to stave off relegation and could have gone 9 months before. The same now applies to O’Neill. They were sacked as a result of the chaos caused by their own poor management. Which managers since Durban would you have stuck with since Durban. There’s not one of them who’s time was not well and truly up. Please expand on that?

    • Well said Jeremy, you can only have stability if things are improving or there are signs that things will go North. Unfortunately, we’ve gone backwards this season and we’ll struggle to get anywhere near the 45 points we ‘amassed’ last year.

      Don’t know about you but I find it sad when fans say we should stick with O’Neill, even if we go down. What part of stability includes relegation? Even after seeing how much it crushed our fans the last twice it happened in particular, some are fine with it. Unbelievable. You’re one of a number of exiles on here but it’s heartening to see how much you all still care about the club and you don’t want to see it crash. I wonder wether I can say the same about all the fans that still live in the NE.

    • Nonetheless, J, if we sacked O’Neill it would be seen outside the club as equally ludicrous. Our reputation in the game would plummet and no manager other than the usual suspects would touch us with a barge pole (unless we offered a ridiculous salary, which, rightly, isn’t our style). To be honest, if you were a supporter of one of those clubs you might easily approve of the sackings – perspective is very different when you’re emotionally involved. 18 months is nowhere near enough for a manager to get things working the way he wants them.

      You are right that we haven’t tended to do the knee-jerk thing, and rightly so. If we had wielded the axe when some supporters wanted to, things would have been considerably worse. Which brings me back to my question of whether we should have sacked Reid after Reading in 1997 – or whether Man U should have sacked Ferguson in 1988? Any thoughts?

      I accept that we have gone backwards this season, and it’s been massively disappointing. Many of the players have under-performed, and there has to be an element of criticism towards the manager for that. That doesn’t automatically mean he should be sacked. Part of the question has to be whether things are likely to improve. His record says yes, and I’m prepared to give him more time because of that.

      Another part of the question revolves around whether anyone else is likely to do a better job. I don’t see many candidates.

  2. Yet replacing the manager will stretch this problem even longer as he will face the same problems. There is no model in place like, say Swansea, a new man will have to spend a year working with the rubbish he has and another year at least trying to turn it into his own side.

    • I have actually never said replacing MON was the answer or that he should be replaced. I am asking what is the long term plan because the mess we have on the pitch is not magically going to change in a seasons time.

      The Club nead to be honest and upfront regarding the long term ambition as people are having their faith in the management stretched to breaking point.

  3. Bruce had lost the plot near the beginning of the season and had half another two full seasons before that. The manager deserves the summer transfer window to finally be able to claim that it’s ‘his’ side. Bruce built two sides over and left us with the majority of the rubbish we have now.

    • I think you are right regarding SB, but where does this leave MON.

      Are we looking at another summer clear-out and if we use William C’s defenition of success results are poor and enterrtainment is zero.

      What is the plan, what was agreed with MON….keep us up and rebuild over a three year period.

      My dispondancy with the current situation is that it is impossible to discern what the plan is, I can’t see any evidence on or off the pitch relating to advancement. this is the worry.

  4. William C. Absolutely correct! We set up some scouting system with John Barnes in the Caribbean a few years back. Have we had anyone of any worth arrive as a result of that? Is it still running even?

    We currently have a manager who seems obsessed with signing physically unfit players we have never heard of from clubs most of us would struggle to locate on Google Earth. He and his army of scouts have scoured the globe but the only decent player he has signed came from Wolverhampton.

  5. Very good article. I seem to remember that two seasons ago, Niall Quinn promised a ” root and branch review ” into the running of the club, following yet another fruitless, failed season. Did this ever take place? and if so, what were the conclusions?

    This should have been the opportunity to closely examine the management of the football side of the club : it’s coaching set-up and it’s scouting system.

    It seems to me that we spend plenty of time in looking at the commercial and social image [ and they are important ] but not enough on trying to ensure that we have a successful and entertaining team to watch.

    The key to all of this is to appoint a decent manager. We have failed to do this for so long that many fans have doubt that we will ever get it right.

  6. CSB; absolutely spot on. There are two words which football supporters should be banned from using. The first of these is “stability.” The second is “continuity.” Any fan caught using both within the same sentence (or even paragraph for that matter) should be consigned to a set of stocks on Durham market day. The term that no football manager should ever use is “football club” particularly when used as a suffix to (Sunderland or this).

    Continuity (with a positive spin) comes from having a reasonable run of results, a period of competent management and a climb up the table, as opposed to a steady slump, associated with embarrassing exits to domestic cup competitions etc.The other sort of comes with losing games and sticking with a failing manager until it is too late, resulting in relegation. Bob Murray specialised for many years in this form of continuity.

    Stability comes with maintaining a safe and consistent position in the table every year, and doesn’t mean that European qualification is mandatory. It might help if you achieved it for several seasons unbroken.

    Neither continuity or stability are possible when you have a clueless manager and a team full of shite, incapable of winning football matches. We’ve got both. As a result I am rambling on continuously and becoming increasingly unstable.

    If anyone listened to Paul Roberts we’d still have Len Ashurst and would be hoping that Peter Daniel will have a good run in towards the end of this season.

    • J, I understand why you might not like “stability” and “continuity”, but when the alternative is upheaval and chaos, I know which I’d choose. Chelsea, Southampton and Reading have been laughing stocks this season after dumping Di Matteo, Adkins and McDermott following their achievements for the clubs.

      Quite simply, history proves that knee-jerk changes to the manager just don’t work. How many clubs can you name who have achieved success after regularly sacking their managers 18 months into their tenure (with the exception of those who just throw stupid money at the problem)?

      More to the point, 2 questions: would you have sacked Alex Ferguson after Man U lost to Oxford in 1988? Closer to home, would you have sacked Peter Reid after losing at Reading in 1997? (Scratch that last one; I know the answer to it. You’d have been wrong.)

      MON has an excellent record in management – a better one than any other manager we’ve had since WWII. In my opinion, he deserves to be cut a bit of slack.

      As to your last comment, it’s true that I’m usually one of the last people to call for the head of a manager, mainly because I recognise that it’s an absolute last resort with the problems it causes. Like many, I stayed with Bruce until the Wigan game when it was obvious that he had to go. Maybe it’s because I think any manager deserves the chance to have the players he wants, playing in the style he wants. Or maybe it’s because I just think that loyalty and commitment in the face of adversity are just good qualities to have, in life as well as in football.

      Paul R.

  7. Very good article and some great points. A large part of the problem is the players we keep buying. You don’t have to spend the earth to sign quality but we also keep appointing managers that aren’t interested in having a real scouting system (Keane, O’Neill) or managers that are just plain clueless (Bruce). The likes of Odemwingie, Ba, Michu didn’t cost the earth and look how good they are.

    It’s frustrating seeing how well West Brom and Swansea are ran, for example, compared to us. They choose their signings carefully and their turnover is probably little more than half of ours. You get the sense that the directors, scouts and managers work together at those clubs, it’s hard to believe it’s anything like that at safc. I’ve no idea why people keep making the excuse that O’Neill has ‘only’ been here 18 months and hasn’t had enough time to build. He’s signed just five players, four of them at a cost of 32 million, and that’s no-ones fault but his own.

  8. Yes, well, the problem with Robert’s post is that if we applied his logic we would still be stuck with Bruce….or was Bruce dispensible because we had already secured MON?

    Timing as usual is the key here. When is enough enough? My problem with the current situation and MON is that on paper we have a better squad than our league position reflects, we turn out the same players, use almost identical tactics and not suprisingly end up with the same outcome.

    MON is essentially using the Bruce squad with a few additions but results remain depressingly the same. The players body language says it all, it is not a happy dressing room. I do agree that MON has a lot more knowledge about the game than any of us and the players at his disposal, but additionally he has had ample opportunity to replace and recruit. Maybe he has a three year plan but I see little hope if it results in an other summer clearout, why have we waited so long to cut the dead wood?

    Only MON can answer these issues and Sundays match with Norwich and the teams response for the debacle at QPR will be under the micro-scope, nothing short of a win will do and a convincing win at that. Here’s hoping because we are stuck with the squad we have and if they don’t respond positively for manager and fans then we will be looking at a summer clear-out and may be not just with the playing staff.

    • Sorry Paul, got your christian name mixed up with your surname…I’ll just go and stand in the corner.

    • Having a lot of knowledge of something does not always result in effectiveness, particuarly in areas like performance management. You can only use two things to assess success : results and entertainment. To date, on both counts, O’Neill has failed.

  9. I agree that you can’t chop and change manager too much. And we have done that. It didn’t work at Liverpool and they are now sick of changes and are giving Rodgers time.
    We need to do the same with MON. MON has succeeded (eventually) everywhere he’s gone, and to be honest I don’t think we’ll be able to attract anyone better. Who would be a better manager than MON?

  10. Sorry, Andy, I disagree profoundly with a lot of this.

    You argue correctly, in my view, that we need stability and to accept that success is going to take a long time. But you then go on to push for a change of manager, and all the upheaval that entails – search for the right one, contract pay-off, whole new backroom staff, a continuation of the revolving door for players. Usually when people argue for a new manager it’s because they see a short-cut to instant success, which never works anyway. You then go on to advocate a gamble on a young foreign manager untried in the English game.

    Look, if you want stability and are prepared to accept that there is no quick fix, for goodness sake give MON time! He’s had less than 18 months, which is nowhere near enough for him, or anyone else, to produce the kind of team he wants. Alex Ferguson was MU manager for 4 years before he won his first trophy! I don’t hold with the idea that MON is outdated and someone younger should come in – he’s been involved in the game a long time and he has an infinitely greater understanding of it than you or I.

    [Maybe that’s where I differ from a lot of the complainers on here – I see decisions made which I don’t particularly agree with, but I accept that a manager which a vast amount of experience and knowledge, and a fantastic record on the game, knows rather more than I do.]

    Once again we’re in the position of the team struggling so some want to change the manager, without any obvious choice of someone who would do better. I see people arguing for the likes of Moyes, but they forget that he’s being booed by his own team’s supporters at the moment as well – and he’s not exactly renowned for producing flowing football either. All other names mentioned are huge gambles.

    Our best option in the current situation is to accept it may be a bumpy ride in the immediate future, get behind the team, back the manager and see where it takes us. We already had a poll earlier in the season where the common response was to stick with MON even if we went down. That makes considerably more sense to me.

    • Fair points Paul, and most of them can only ultimately be answered by MON and Ellis Short.

      On a pedantic note, I did say I’d _almost_ prefer a punt on a Solksjaer type – not quite the same as unbridled support. That’s mostly out of frustration that we seem, as a club, to be committed to cautious ‘safe pair of hands’ appointments which seem destined to keep us on the same treadmill of under-achievement. Maybe a huge gamble is the only way to resolve that, for better or worse (although, obviously, it’s someone else’s billion-dollar fortune that has to bankroll that gamble, not my considerably less than oligarch-level funding!).

      Stability with MON is another tricky one. I’d love to see him come good and take us up a level, but I’m waiting for the evidence that would make me believe this is actually possible. For now I see a mixed record in the transfer market and a poor record on the pitch. Of course he inherited problems, but as we approach the end of his first full season do you honestly feel we are better off than we were this time last year? And if not, why do you think another year will improve matters substantially? We know it’s going to be bumpy ride; I’d just like a bit more grounds to believe that each bump is steering us closer to our goal, not pushing us further away.

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