Salut! Sunderland’s deputy editor Malcolm Dawson shrugs off the torpor of the early close season, pre-transfer window, pre-fixures list and all, and considers what seems to be going right, and what more he’d like to see, in the world of Sunderland AFC …
Back in 1939/40 at the outbreak of World War 2, the whole of Britain was on tenterhooks waiting for an invasion that never came. It became known as “the phoney war”.
Here in the summer of 2016, the celebrations of Sunderland fans relieved at a 17th place finish, may not have been on a par with those on VE Day but were pretty impassioned nonetheless. For some the fact our survival condemned our local rivals only added intensity to the festivities.
But I think it was a little more than that. The obvious improvements since the New Year and especially the performances in the closing stages of the season have given rise to a sense of optimism that next year will see the club firmly established in the top half of the table with fears of relegation non-existent and it’s not just the fans who think this. Football correspondents and pundits all seem to share the view that Sunderland AFC will progress next season and that Big Sam will bring stability and direction to the club.
But here we are in a footballing equivalent of the “phoney war” where nothing seems to be happening and it’s all a bit flat. At this time of year supporters can become frustrated at the apparent lack of activity whilst most players are soaking up the sun or waiting for the Euros and managers are doing their dads’ dancing in Balearic bars.
Various circumstances dictate this period of inactivity but player contracts generally run until 30th June and the transfer window doesn’t open until July 1. I guess until then we will just have to be patient and read transfer gossip which will probably bear no resemblance to what actually happens once the window opens.
However, this doesn’t stop us reflecting on the future, immediate and long term and as usual my thoughts are a right mix of optimism and foreboding. When is it otherwise?
On the positive front I am hoping that the appointment of Martin Bain, signals an improvement in the negotiation of player contracts. Having worked at Tel Aviv and Glasgow Rangers, the new CEO has a working knowledge of football as well as finance. Obviously it is necessary in the modern age to have someone with legal experience in this role but being au fait with both sides of the club should lead to fewer duff signings and a healthier balance sheet.
Under the director of football model, not only did we sign players that the head coach didn’t rate but many of those players had clauses which committed the club to signing them permanently if certain circumstances were met, whether or not they would get any playing time. Vergini is a case in point. Alvarez another.
There is a lot of deadwood to be moved on if the club is to attract the calibre of players we need and still remain within the boundaries of the financial fair play restrictions. Yes this year we will receive the boost of the massive TV deal but so will all the other Premier League sides, so in real terms all I can see happening is that salaries and transfer fees will go up and there will be no narrowing of the gap between the wealthy and the not so wealthy within the Premier League. What I do foresee is a widening of the gap between the Premiership Clubs and those in the lower divisions, making it ever harder for promoted clubs to establish themselves in the top flight.
Another factor in the “phoney war” is the brinkmanship which delays many possible transfers until the last minute of deadline day.
Although Bain doesn’t take up his post until July 1 I’m sure there are already negotiations going on that can be rubber stamped asap. M’Vila is a case in point. He was a lynchpin last season and though the January signings took some of the pressure off him, we will be a weaker side without him. I’m sure Sam wants him if Bain can negotiate an acceptable deal. I feel the same about Yedlin. If we can secure his services too, for at least another season, the club can start the new campaign with what was a settled side, with confidence and hopefully the momentum that carried them to safety. That’s what happened with Leicester City and while I can’t see us winning the title a sound start is something we haven’t had for a long time.
I expect other comings and goings are being set up but for once wouldn’t it be nice if transfer dealings were more or less completed before the round of pre-season friendlies began? We know the areas that need strengthening and where we need extra players to provide suitable cover. The performances of Pickford, Watmore, Greenwood, Robson and Honeyman at Watford suggests that we might finally see some members of the development squad graduate to first team duty on a more regular basis. Add goalkeeper Max Stryjek and striker Linden Gooch to that list.
A sensible pre-season programme can only help too, although a tour of Thailand, off the field shenanigans and a change of manager by the end of June didn’t seem to upset the Foxes. Hopefully we will soon discover what preparations are in place and that the coaching staff continue the excellent work they have done under Sam’s tenure.
One area of concern that I have was the disclosure that Mark Taylor, who came to the club as performance coach with Big Sam, was dismissed in March – a move which left Allardyce perplexed and contemplating his future, if newspaper reports are to be believed. On field performances would suggest that his leaving hasn’t hindered the team’s progress but the suggestion that he had a lot to do with finding the January signings may suggest that here was someone with an eye for the type of player Sam needed.
Let’s hope our summer signings are of a similar calibre and that homes can be found for the deadwood. I can think of at least six players who will still be drawing wages if no-one comes in for them who are unlikely to get another game in the first team and that doesn’t include Rodwell or Lens who I do expect to be in the nominated squad should their services be retained.
Bain, I hope too, will find some way of harnessing the passion of supporters and build links between club and fans in a way that hasn’t happened for some years. Kaboul’s tears, Defoe’s striptease, the reactions of Kone, van Aanholt, Yedlin, Borini, Mannone and Khazri would suggest that all these players have developed an affinity for the club and the fans that we haven’t seen for a while. Cattermole’s passion goes without saying. Wes Brown was seen at most games when he wasn’t on the team sheet and even Ola Toivonen made the right noises. The spirit to carry us forward is there.
So the celebrations have calmed down and the future’s bright. How many times I have thought that over the past few years but this time I feel there really is cause for optimism. Let’s see if I feel the same come kick off on August 13?