Sunderland’s shameful home record will become officially the worst in English football history on Saturday if Millwall are not beaten at the Stadium of Light. Nineteen games – 18 in the Premier League and Championship and one in the FA Cup – have passed since a scrappy 1-0 defeat of Watford in December last year. That is a winless home run shared by Dagenham and Redbridge, Derby County and Nottingham Forest. Are we really about to make the record our own? Stand by for a bleak assessment of our club’s present crisis …
Perhaps the best that can be said about the visit to Aston Villa next Tuesday is that at least Sunderland won’t be at home. The match comes four days after the managerless club must beat Millwall to avoid setting that wholly unwanted record for failing to win at home.
Whatever happens in Saturday’s game, Sunderland travel to Birmingham knowing they are up against the familiar face of a man who would dearly like to add to their troubles.
Since his acrimonious departure from Sunderland to make way for Martin O’Neill in 2011, Steve Bruce has twice secured promotion to the Premier League with Hull and is now on course to take Aston Villa back to the top flight.
The Villans are currently sixth in the table but third favourites to be promoted because they have a strong squad and a manager who undoubtedly knows how to succeed in the Championship. Sunderland supporters may dislike Bruce because of his allegiance since boyhood to Newcastle United and comments he has made since leaving Sunderland, but how they could do with a manager of his calibre now.
After suffering the ignominy of relegation last year and being forced to part company with their best players, not least to pay off debts and trim a bloated wage bill, a period of readjustment was always going to be necessary for Sunderland.
Even as the season began, they were far from being promotion favourites (unlike their other North East rivals Middlesbrough). Money spent under David Moyes had failed to keep them up and having lost the likes of Jordan Pickford, Jermain Defoe and Seb Larsson (and even Pickford’s understudy Vito Mannone) with only modest repacements, the chances of an immediate return were slim.
But for Sunderland to be bottom of the table in mid-November is just embarrassing.
Perhaps the Sunderland job is seen as a poisoned chalice; after all, they have gone through seven managers in the last five years – but a club this size should be able to attract some high-quality candidates.
Names like Kevin Phillips and Peter Reid have been touted. Both are club legends but one is inexperienced and the other has not managed since a stint at Plymouth Argyle in 2011. Sacked Boro boss Aitor Karanka has also been mentioned (and is currently leading in the Salut! Sunderland fans’ poll on Simon Grayson’s successor), but he does not seem to fancy a role that has marred the reputations of previously hyped managers such as O’Neill, Moyes, Paolo Di Canio and Gus Poyet.
Paul Heckingbottom of Barnsley is not exactly a name to get pulses racing. If this is a club with serious ambitions of getting back to the top flight and establishing itself as a force to be reckoned with in English football once again, surely they should be breaking the bank to sign a manager like Bruce.
We will see how dire the situation is for Sunderland when they visit Villa. Research top betting sites before wagering on the game and you will see that the Black Cats are huge underdogs and John Terry and co are expected to destroy them.
Their misery will have deepened if the visit of Millwall ends in another draw or home defeat. Sunderland are staring League One in the face in stark and humiliating contrast to the experiences of Newcastle, twice relegated in recent times and twice bouncing straight back up by winning the Championship at a canter. Each time, there was a clear plan in place and Newcastle executed it well to ensure their stay in the Championship was fleeting.
At Sunderland there does not seem to be a plan. Managers are fired with alarming regularity. There is chaos on and off the pitch, in the boardroom and behind the scenes. Who knows where it will end? The latest odds have Sunderland as third favourites for relegation and with three teams going down, it is not looking good.
Sunderland will have to hope the such teams as Burton and Birmingham slip up while also massively improving their own performances. A win at Villa Park on Tuesday may seem improbable in the current climate but would be an emphatic statement of intent. Do not count on it.
And don’t forget to have your say on who should be Sunderland’s next manager.