SAFC fans who buy the matchday programme will know that Salut! Sunderland writers regularly contribute. For the Shrewsbury edition, our associate editor John McCormick looked back over a tumultuous year for the club and its supporters. Here is his article (NB: there may have been a couple of edits before publication) …
Can you remember the last game of 2017?
You might not, although it was a win, at Nottingham Forest, because we lost a must-win game against Barnsley on New Year’s Day, following which we exited the FA cup courtesy of Middlesbrough and then shipped four goals at Cardiff, three of them after Didier Ndong had received a red card.
Things did improve a little when we beat Hull, thanks to a goal from a young lad who was making his first league start. His name was Joel Asoro and ten days later he started alongside another academy product, Josh Maja. They did well together until Maja was replaced by Kazenga Lua-Lua, brought in to replace Lewis Grabban or maybe James Vaughan, but they could do nothing against a determined Birmingham team who swept us aside on their way to a 3-1 win.
And that was January done. Five games, one win, two goals and the knowledge that young lads, last minute signings and loanees weren’t going to be enough.
February saw another five games but even fewer points. We managed only two draws and, as I wrote at Salut Sunderland, it was after watching our loss in the must-win game at the Macron that I accepted the inevitability of relegation. It was another two months before Darren Bent came off the bench to confirm that relegation but, in truth, we had been dead men walking for weeks.
Relegation laid bare the plight of the club. An absentee owner who wanted to sell and was no longer investing in the club. Massive debts. A stadium showing obvious wear and tear with no money for refurbishment. And above all, highly paid but disinterested players who made no secret that they wanted to be away.
There were some positives. Not all senior players wanted away and our academy was coming good. Asoro and Maja stole the headlines but every league squad of the season included academy players, with George Honeyman making 42 appearances. And there were the fans. Disenchanted and disillusioned, vociferous in their anger, but still there. Over 25,000 had turned out to see that second relegation confirmed by Burton, a figure some mid-table Premiership clubs couldn’t achieve when playing well. Nevertheless, the questions were stark. Who would buy a club like ours? What if there was no deal?
As the press went into overdrive I remembered what I’d written a year earlier, when relegation came with the news that our owner would contemplate selling: “Personally I’m not asking for much, just that Mr Ellis Short… …ensures no harm comes to our football club. If he does sell he has to pick the right people.”
Everything hinged on his decision, which wasn’t long in coming. Before the season ended we had an announcement that the club was being sold, followed by an announcement that Chris Coleman would be leaving. Bulletin followed bulletin and by mid-May we had not only confirmation that the deal was done but also a new manager, not to mention the good news that a burden of debt had been lifted.
But questions remained. Fundamentally, had Mr Short, to use my words, picked the right people?
Another edition of Red & White is done and dusted! ?
? Manager's pre-match notes
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? Captain @GHoneyman10 on character
? @JackBaldwin_6's Q&A
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— Sunderland AFC (@SunderlandAFC) December 28, 2018
Six months on we might be approaching an answer:
Salaries are under control, although in Lee Cattermole and Bryan Oviedo we have two players whose wages didn’t drop in line with their new status. Yet no one is complaining, not the owner, the manager or the fans. They both perform creditably on and off the field and if we do go up they will have played no small part in our promotion. Elsewhere, some commonsense, some good deals and some give and take saw players who needed to leave depart, which freed up a little funding for squad strengthening. We’d like more money, who wouldn’t, but the situation is manageable and we’re not bleeding cash.
The stadium’s looking good, thanks to those stalwart fans who turned out in numbers to help replace seats and to an ownership that saw the need and reconnected with fans to meet it.
Asoro left but the other academy players who did their bit last season have come on in leaps and bounds, with the older players who remained showing them the way – look at Aiden McGeady, for example. Astute dealing in the transfer market brought in players willing to accept the ethos that the club is bigger than them. We now have players who don’t know when they are beaten, who play for each other and respond to the massive support they get. In a nutshell, pride in the club has returned.
Results reflect that. As I write we have suffered only one league defeat in 20 games [the figure grew to two at Fratton Park]. We have scored in every league game and have the league’s best goal difference [one of the best now]. And we’ve done it all without some very important players. Their return and the possibility of one or two players arriving suggests very much that January 2019 will be a lot better than January 2018, and so will the months that follow.
If that doesn’t answer my question about picking the right people you could always ask other fans. Those I talk to are enjoying their football again. They like going to games. Last New Year’s 28,000 against Barnsley and the 25,000 when we were relegated are more than respectable, but sold out away games and 30,000 at home in League One is amazing. That alone should be enough to tell you that Ellis Short did get that one crucial decision right.
It was a decision which, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, was not the end. It was not even the beginning of the end. But it was, perhaps, the start of a new beginning. Who would have imagined that it would lead to so much fun?