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