Rats live on no evil star. The ultimate palindrome, or at least the one we learned at school. In this outstanding analysis, Pete Sixsmith detects lots of rats scurrying about in the bowels of the Stadium of Light. And he still hasn’t decided what to do with the Man City v SAFC ticket sitting on the kitchen table at Sixsmith Towers (aka swish residence on Busty Bank) …
The noises coming from Gus Poyet are not very encouraging. Like all sensible supporters he seems to have accepted that relegation is an absolute certainty and that it could be a long haul back to the promised land of the Premier League.
He has hinted at something being “wrong” with the club and that he hopes to find out what it is; failure to do so will probably see him and his staff leave for somewhere that does not appear to be as hapless as we clearly are.
Let me offer some suggestions as to why we are now facing our fourth relegation from the elite of English football, back into the no doubt welcoming arms of the Football League.
It really goes back to 1964 when we gained our first ever promotion from the Second Division. Until 1958, we had played in no other division, but the club really was rotten to the core in those days, with directors being disqualified for illegal payments and a culture of complete underachievement.
After six seasons in the nether regions, we finally made it back to the top level with a side that played the best football in the division, far better than (although not as ruthless or determined as) Leeds United, who pipped us for the title.
The future looked bright – Montgomery, Hurley, Harvey, Herd, Crossan, Mulhall were all exceptional players – and what happened? Manager Alan Brown left over a bonus payment that was not given and we waited until November to appoint a stopgap manager. Imagine Ellis Short and Margaret Byrne picking the team – that’s what happened in 1964.
Since then, we have never spent more than seven consecutive seasons in the top flight. Clubs that we regard as our equals – Everton, Aston Villa, Tottenham – have either remained in the top flight or spent the odd season out of it, whereas we come and go and are never, ever seen as challengers for a top half place. In the 50 years I have followed Sunderland we have had three top flight top half finishes. What does that say?
Managers have come in, desperate to awake the club from of its torpor. Peter Reid almost did it before staying one season too long. Dennis Smith gave us our respectability back and brought one or two decent players through. Mentioning the names of some of the others makes me cringe.
Roy Keane showed promise in that he realised that hard work was needed to alter the losing mentality that surrounds us, but he was eventually overwhelmed by it. Steve Bruce looked promising but faded, Martin O’Neill was too old and too far away from the ethos of the club whilst the Di Canio period was, ultimately, an unmitigated disaster.
And now, we have a head coach (he made it clear when he spoke to BBC Newcastle’s Nick Barnes on Saturday that he wanted to be manager, not head coach) who has a philosophy on how he wants to play and who seems a decent man but who is struggling to complete the season with us if the rumours are to be believed.
So, why is it that we cannot build a club and a team that can hold its own in the top league?
In our favour we have a superb stadium and excellent training facilities. There is a fan base that, apart from the top group and a couple more, is as vast as it is large and it is local. The area loves its football and there is a desire to succeed and do well. Surely any player worth his salt would aspire to be at Sunderland. Players who do well are loved and revered and become legends.
But – and this is a big one – the relative success that we have had over the years has been fleeting. We have struggled in the second tier. We have had two awful seasons in the top flight where we did not make 20 points. There is every possibility that we will not make 30 this season. How attractive is that?
Look at our transfer policy since we returned to the Premier League. It is poor. Most of those who have come to the club have been journeymen, players who look upon Sunderland as good source of income without too much expected of them. Not bad players and not cheats, but men who are limited and who, at the end of the day, cannot raise their game and rarely improve.
Keane, Bruce and O’Neill signed lots of these. Danny Higginbotham, Craig Gardner, Steven Fletcher are names that spring to mind. Three decent players but players that only Sunderland were interested in.
Bruce almost broke the mould in his first close season. In came Darren Bent and Lorik Cana. Bent was a sometime England international who would guarantee goals. Cana was the kind of signing that ambitious clubs make. He had a pedigree having played for Marseille and PSG. He started well for us and played 31 games in his only season.
And then off he went to Galatasary. Why? Did he sniff that aura of complacency and failure that Poyet detects around the club? What does his sale and that later of Bent tell us? Did Bent leave for money or were there other reasons?
At the same time as Bent was there, we also had Kenwyne Jones and Fraizer Campbell. Campbell was another kind of player that we rarely sign – a young, ambitious forward who wanted to develop. Not the greatest but one who would do a good job if things went well for him. Injuries hindered his progress and he was moved on by O’Neill and in came Danny Graham. No further comment needed.
How many young players do we bring through? In the last seven years, Leadbitter, Henderson and Colback are the sole representatives of the Academy to play regular first team football. Two have left, the other will in the summer. Other than that, nothing.
Martin Waghorn might have done something for us, but he was sacrificed as we signed Gyan, a player that no other Premier League club was interested in. He was yet another flop and the word gets around. Agents must say to their clients, “they sign ordinary players. They sign flops. They don’t produce their own. Keep away from them. I’ll get you in at Aston Villa or Everton instead”.
Di Canio had an understanding of the culture amongst the players and the feel around the club, more so than the complacent Bruce and O’Neill, who, as typical British managers, thought they could deal with it by ignoring it. Unfortunately, the Italian went completely the wrong way about altering it, choosing to implement change by revolution rather than evolution and treating all the same way.
Now, as we stand on the verge of what I feel could be a terminal relegation and as we look likely to lose yet another manager, I can see few solutions. We need young, enthusiastic players who are not tainted by the stink of failure that hangs around the club.
We need a culture within the club that makes it clear that you are not a success until you have won something. Take Brown and O’Shea out of the equation and how many players do we have that have actually won titles and cups on a consistent basis?
We need to start to bring our own players through. Southampton do it in spades, so do the likes of Everton and Arsenal. We loan ours out to Boston United and Harrogate Town.
By my reckoning, we will be relegated at Old Trafford, the place where we deliriously celebrated a 2-1 defeat in January. That kind of thing may go a long way to explaining why there is a rotten core at the heart of Sunderland AFC.