A lot has happened since Jeremy Robson, a long way from his native Murton, took this clinical retrospective look at a season that, at the time his thoughts were flowing, still held ample scope for disaster for Sunderland AFC and its passionate followers. A day that had not quite begun in his Canadian exile was to end happily. But Jeremy – that’s his lad, Dave, aged seven, a future SAFC keeper, after a tournament at the Riverside (a Championship ground near Hartlepool) – sees no reason to change his analysis of where the club found itself at 4pm on Sunday. There is sharp criticism of Roy Keane, harsh questikons about our rightly revered chairman’s role in the way the season developed – and evidence of a surprisingly intimate knowledge of the work of Barry Manilow …
Judgement day, as I write, has already arrived in Sunderland.
Here in Elora, Ontario it’s 13 minutes away, so still tomorrow. One more day left at least as a Premier League side. I must confess to stalling on writing this.Salut! Sunderland asked me to do it weeks ago, and pestered me all week to remind me that I hadn’t.
I’ve been stalling, not because there’s nothing to say. The problem is that there’s too much to say, so bugger it here we go.
In football, as in life there is a truism: you can be let down only by those you trust.
Trust can only be invested in individuals in those which you have faith in fulfilling their promises and fulfilling your greatest hopes and dreams. Expectation is something different because expectation can be closely associated with disappointment even when that disappointment is to be expected, and based on that experience.
We’ve experienced countless promotions to the top division of English football. Promotion is often forgotten – simply the club’s belated apology for the previous relegation. Under the chairmanship of Bob Murray, disappointments came along like Christmas.
We placed our trust in Niall Quinn, a man intent on dancing to the beat of a different drum.
At the start of this season there were a number of supposed high profile arrivals in the form of Djibril Cisse, Steed Malbranque and Anton Ferdinand, as well as El Hadj Diouf and Pascal Chimbonda. All were seasoned Premier League performers. Even for older fans these were different days. The supposed five-year plan was being put into action.
The start of the season was anticipated with an unprecedented optimism even for increasingly weary supporters with 40, 50 years of dedication behind them. Yes, these were different days indeed. We were actually signing proper Premier League players and not wannabes desperate to make the step up.
Now, there are fewer things in football more predictable than the form book.
Notwithstanding Hull’s swashbuckling start over the first eight games of the season there have been few (if any) upsets since.
Our season began with expectation rather than hope, That expectation was reinforced with the performances and results against the likes of Spurs, and Newcastle and to a lesser extent, Arsenal. Yet the reality was that these sides were going through a bad patch, and we overestimated the challenge they provided.
The madness or cluelessness (you choose) of Juande Ramos was exposed for what it was when Happy Harry made his way to White Hart Lane to undo his predecessor’s nonsense, buying back all the players that Ramos had sold. Wenger managed to turn his side’s form around as the season progressed, but the early autumn showed that Arsenal were in a sticky patch.
Newcastle United’s managerial merry go round was only just beginning to spin.. It turned out to be no big deal to have beated Spurs away. It was no big deal (in footballing terms) to beat Newcastle at home as everyone else was doing it too. The results in the early part of the season were flattering Keane. We just didn’t realise it at the time.
The fixture list had been kind to us in the short term but blinded many to the cracks that were widening. Following victory in the derby with Newcastle United, performances began to crumble. An erratic run saw Sunderland sliding down the table and into the dreaded relegation zone. That familiar territory – the bottom three – was still a shock, after such a promising start.
Keane’s brooding and cold stare had been regarded as signs of his sense of purpose and focus.
In reality they were the hallmarks of his general unpleasantness and his own frustrations when he found himself unable to carve a decent team from the array of players he’d spent a fortune on. Come the first weeks of December and Keane had gone. Walked out, citing “interference” from the new Texan shareholder, Ellis Short, as his main reason for quitting. The gentlemen from Drumaville had remained stoical about Keane’s transfer dealings. We can be sure of this as Keane would doubtless have told us about “interference” from that quarter.
Keane objected to being told when he should turn up for work, and claimed offence when Short suggested he move to North East. Keane has little idea of what working for a living means to the rest of us.
It also illustrated a bizarre perception of Keane’s own worth, and showed that he is remarkably touchy when it comes to accountability. Keane had plenty to be touchy about. He had overspent on players who weren’t good enough.
The Emperor either had no clothes, or at least they were in the wash. He seemed to have little idea how to organise and motivate the team. Bizarre team selections and despotic disciplining of players for a variety of incidents further undermined his ability to manage.
The consequences of Keane’s transfer spending will probably take the club many years of recovery. The most staggering mark of his tenure had less to do with his overspending on players that he later admitted he didn’t really rate. It had more to do with the fact that he seemed incapable of selling any of them.
At various times over the course of the season Sunderland had 15, 16 or more players out on loan, often at clubs that had either no intention or insufficient funds to sign them permanently. Sunderland were doing more lending than Northern Rock before the credit crunch.
Danny Higginbotham was Keane’s only signing on whom he was able to recoup a fee, Higginbotham returning to Stoke City a year or so after leaving them for us. This is an astonishing statistic and one which is a damning indictment of Keane’s limitations as a manager.
He was also a mind bogglingly poor judge of quality. Michael Chopra was signed for £5.5M, David Healy arrived in a swap deal that took Dickson Etuhu to Craven Cottage. Can anyone seriously maintain a case that either of these players was better than David Connolly who was our top scorer in the promotion season, yet barely kicked a ball in anger subsequently?
Similar comparisons can be made between the £9m goalkeeper, Craig Gordon, and not only Marton Fulop, but also Darren Ward. The incongruity between ability and value is remarkably confused in Roy Keane’s world.
There seemed a palpable lack of logical candidates within the club when Keane had left. The almost invisible Tony Laughlin, Keane’s silent sidekick, had also left. At the time it would have been doubtful whether Laughlin was perceived as caretaker manager material among the powers that be. Very few people had even heard the man speak.
The step up to caretaker manager from reserve team coach for Ricky Sbragia came as something of a surprise to most onlookers. Not least to Sbragia himself when asked if he wanted the job. His expressed lack of interest in convincing fashion. It seemed a rather academic question to begin with as few observers would have regarded him as even a wild card candidate for the post full time.
But having told Quinn he didn’t want it, Sbragia somehow still ended up with it, despite having no previous managerial experience.
His confirmation as Keane’s replacement came on the back of a narrow “backs against the wall” defeat at Old Trafford in his first game, followed by resounding victories over WBA at home and away at Hull. These fixtures were gifts from the gods to a rookie manager.
At this point Quinn really ought to have consulted the form book. WBA had been anchored to the foot of the table since the early weeks of the season, while Hull’s baptism of fire to the PL – which had produced some astonishing results in the opening weeks – had given way to a run which by the end of March made them the worst performing side in any of the top European leagues.
Scientists will often talk of spurious results in experiments, outcomes which falsely indicate a trend or an association between variables.
Spurious results require further analysis as when taken at face value they can be misleading at best and downright dangerous at worst. If they were taken as evidence of Sbragia’s ability as a manager they were highly spurious. When considered as evidence that Hull and WBA were possibly two of the worst sides in the league then the weight of evidence was compelling.
The players had added their weight to the campaign to give Sbragia the job after the 1-0 defeat at Old Trafford. But experience has taught many football supporters that anyone voted for by the players who would come under his charge should automatically be excluded as a candidate. Anyone remember Malcolm Crosby?
Rumours began to circulate that there was a big name being lined up for the manager’s job for the summer and that Sbragia was seen as safe pair of hands to guide the club to mid-table respectability for the remainder of the season.
But his inauguration as permanent boss was a clear indication of what was to come. A drab goalless draw at home to Blackburn followed by a 3-0 reverse away at Everton, who played that day without a striker, posted the warning signs.
Progress in the FA Cup was halted by Blackburn after an encouraging win against Bolton in the previous round. Hard fought victories against Stoke and Hull City, where a clearly offside goal gifted us all three points, provided the only respite from defeat after defeat by Villa, West Ham, Manchester City, Everton.
A dubious penalty award by Howard Webb, at St James’ Park saved Magpie blushes and denied Sunderland what would have been a deserved victory over bitter rivals for the second time this season.
Our supporters revelled in what was seen as a moral victory with debates continuing for weeks on Michael Chopra’s “miss” in front of the Leazes End. Chopra’s move to Cardiff the following day had actually provided a tacit answer to any questions about where his allegiance really lay.
The transfer window closed with the arrival of Calum Davenport and Tal Ben Haim on loan from West Ham and Man City respectively. Both could be kindly described as “failing to settle’” at their previous couple of clubs. “Serial failures” might be more accurate.
Davenport became a regular for the rest of the season and, after a couple of indifferent performances at full back and centre half, Ben Haim reached the end of this season unable to make the bench, with Sbragia strangely preferring the hapless Paul McShane who had returned from a loan spell at Hull City.
McShane had left the Stadium of Light with something of a reputation as being reckless and unreliable. Both these traits became apparent as he almost decapitated a Villa player when coming on as a replacement for Nyron Nosworthy, and giving away a penalty as a consequence. McShane had been on the field for only a matter of minutes. Things were just going from bad to worse.
The season’s end couldn’t appear quickly enough as results failed to improve. Everton provided us with a second drubbing of the season, and opportunities to put significant daylight between ourselves and the likes of Boro, Newcastle and WBA were thrown away with home defeat by Wigan, a goalless draw at the Reebok and one of the worst performances of the season, away at Portsmouth, in the penultimate game of the season. For the umpteenth time, a winning lead was thrown away after Kenwyne Jones finished with a first time effort following Davenport’s great run and cross from the right.
Celebrations erupted among the travelling supporters, but it didn’t last long. Pompey were level within the space of two minutes. A bizarre incident involving the referee Alan Wiley blowing his whistle before John Utaka stuck home the equaliser couldn’t hide the glaring weaknesses in this Sunderland side.
A total of 23 points had been squandered from winning positions by Sunderland this season. That raises the most serious questions about attitude, application and ability, but most importantly about why the inability to hold on to a lead cannot have been properly addressed.
Buses and cars left Hampshire and headed north without points yet again. It would go down to the final match.
Conversations had raged about the various permutations required from remaining fixtures. These debates had raged for weeks but as the final day of the season approached they intensified to the point of obsession. Supporters found themselves staring at the league table as if the figures will change in our favour if stared at for long enough.
As I write, we face the unthinkable: another possible relegation, the familiar reality that we have a team that is still not good enough to compete in the Premier League.
We were the victims of our own misjudgement early in the season. The fixture list was kind to us early on. It was kind to Ricky Sbragia when he took over. The apparent upturn was illusory, but seemed real enough for Niall Quinn to hand the reluctant caretaker the job.
Keane knew the real situation with the team before Christmas. That’s why he left. Ellis Short interfering? He wasn’t; if only someone had interfered while Keane saddled the club with players woefully short of PL quality and worth a fraction of the fees they commended during his spendthrift reign. Millions spent and we have a team depending on there being one of two other sides even worse than us on the last day of the season.
A season which began with unequalled hope, and talk of European football, has withered and died in the most lamentable and painful manner imaginable. This season has been like a Barry Manilow concert, starting with Copocabana bright and optimistic and yet cringeable at the same time with the opening defeat against Liverpool, and culminating with a flight perilously close to the Bermuda Triangle.
The refrain from Barry’s tearjerker Mandy is an appropriate theme for most of the away grounds that we’ve visited. I can almost hear the home supporters singing “You came and you gave without taking” as an oblique jibe at our lack of points on the road. Just like one of Barry’s shows, incredibly familiar and brutally painful. You’ve seen the show live and you certainly wouldn’t want the DVD for Christmas. By the finale you wouldn’t admit to your neighbours that you were there, although your wife will be happy to remind them.
Irrespective of how the results may turn out on the final day we can rest assured that Quinny did his best. It may count for nothing if we are relegated and if we escape the drop it will not erase the simple truth which is that his judgement has been woeful.
We enter judgement day at the end of a season which has seen the club governed by people with a complete lack of judgement. Niall Quinn needs to hold up his hands and acknowledge publicly that his judgement has been lacking:
* lacking in allowing Keane to impose on the club ridiculously overpriced rubbish.
* lacking by asking Keane to remain when he had decided to leave
* lacking in appointing a complete novice in Ricky Sbragia after good results against teams we would have beaten at the time anyway
* lacking for sticking with a manager failing dismally, when he clearly should have replaced him
Escaping relegation, should we be fortunate enough to do so, will not change any of this. That’s why I’m writing before the final game is played as the outcome has no impact on how this season should be judged. To be reassured by a favourable permutation would be the greatest misjudgement of all.
PS after Sunday’s final whistles …
And survive we did. As if I need to spell it out, that was at Newcastle United’s expense. Ricky Sbragia very wisely resigned as manager. Niall Quinn announced that there should be some news on Ellis Short’s increased stake in the club, and it has now happened. I think most of us would agree that the future looks brighter tonight than it did this morning. But our survival was achieved by the failure of others.
Let’s hope that the outcome of judgement day is that far reaching lessons have been learned from the roller coaster season we’ve just endured …
Ha’way the lads!