Relegated Sunderland finding Championship life tough - Interview
Thursday, 12th Oct 2017 18:08 by Clive Whittingham
Two for the price of one this week as we rake over the wreckage at Sunderland with Rory from Roker Report and Pete from Salut Sunderland – both great sites.
Fair to say last season was a disaster several years in the making?
Rory: That's pretty fair, yes. In our recent escape acts, the only season where it felt like things were actually changing was when Sam Allardyce kept us up. We were really good to watch for the second half of that season and we had the nucleus of a good team that looked like it could kick on. But, as with everything at Sunderland, it was too good to be true. England lost to Iceland in the European Championships and that set off a chain of events that led to Big Sam leaving us and the side he was starting to build was pretty much torn apart.
When David Moyes came in, most of us were hopeful that he would offer some consistency but it was clear early on that he didn't have the stomach for it. His attitude was disgusting and he always gave the impression that he thought Sunderland was beneath him and offered no encouragement to the supporters. It meant that last season was a perfect shit storm with no ideas on the pitch or off it and only relief was seeing Moyes depart after the final game of the campaign.
Last season could hardly be described as a surprise, given how bad we'd been for the past five or so years, but it was avoidable.
Pete: An interesting question. Nobody knows what would have happened if Sam Allardyce had stayed. He seemed to be building a well-structured, organised and competent side before he left for his short stint as England manager. Having said that, I suspect that he would have left anyway as the owner, Ellis Short, was not keen to put in the money for the transfer budget that Allardyce likes. He would not have got the money he had at Palace. He was a good fit for Sunderland; a gritty, working class manager for a gritty, working class club.
David Moyes came in on the back of two failures and never looked comfortable. With hindsight, he should have been gone by October, although who would have come in to replace him is a difficult one to ask. We have diced with relegation a few times, but it was not inevitable. Had Gus Poyet built on the side that looked so compact towards the end of2013-14, we could have moved on. Instead, he brought in Jack Rodwell, Jordi Gomez and Billy Jones.
Why, despite considerable money spent, and some decent managers passing through, have Sunderland been so bad for so long?
Rory: You have to look at those above the manager. You won't find many Sunderland fans who don't want Ellis Short to sell the club, although some are more anti-Short than others. It can't be denied that he's put a lot of money into the club and he's done it with great intentions, but he's made some dreadful decisions.
Short has appointed two directors of football during his time on Wearside, Roberto Di Fanti and Lee Congerton. Di Fanti was basically just a charlatan agent who signed no marks such as Valentine Roberge, David Moberg-Karlsson and Mobido Diakite. While Congerton didn't fare much better, overseeing a deal for Jack Rodwell which saw us pay £10m and gave him a contract with no relegation wage cut, meaning we're still paying him a fortune when he can't even make the first team.
So it's clear that Short hasn't surrounded him with people who can make good footballing decisions. That extends out to Margaret Byrne (who was CEO until her disgraceful handling of the Adam Johnson situation saw her shown the door) who was overseeing the mess at the club on a day to day basis. Bad managers have been appointed, who then have to be paid off, those managers have obviously spent money on players who aren't good enough, leading to the new manager trying to fix the club by buying new players and the cycle repeats. It's left us in a financial wreck and we could barely spend a penny of the £30 million we made on Jordan Pickford.
Short is rarely seen at the club now, despite still being Chairman, leaving the running of the things to CEO Martin Bain. It's clear that Bain has been instructed to get the club prepared for a sale, with little money being spent and redundancies being made to around 70 staff members last year. It's hard to shake away a grim atmosphere when things like that are going on and the team on the pitch aren't looking anywhere near good enough.
Before the club can really reestablish itself, Short will have to go.
Pete: An unfair question. We have spent 15 years as a Premier League club out of the 25 since this ugly behemoth was created and there are many who would love to be in the top league for that long – yourselves included. Our problem was getting out of that bottom third; something that has always been a problem for the club since the early 1960’s when I started watching them. Apart from a couple of seasons under Peter Reid when we finished seventh, it has always been a struggle. I can’t explain it. We have a very good stadium, a very good fan base (although there is a feeling of disillusionment and apathy at the moment) but we just can’t make that breakthrough. When clubs like Bolton Wanderers, AFC Bournemouth and, god forbid, Middlesbrough finish above you, it really does make you scratch your head. Poor recruitment by a succession of managers doesn’t help – neither does a succession of managers.
We quite liked and rated the job Simon Grayson was doing at Preston with no money, what did you think of his appointment at the time?
Rory: I can't lie and say I was excited by the appointment but I was hopeful. After Moyes, I just wanted a manager who really wanted to be here and felt proud to manage Sunderland. In his first press conference, you could see Grayson giving off that impression and I hoped he'd be at least capable enough to get us back on our feet.
The fact he could work on budget certainly played into his favour as well. We only spent around £3m over the summer which included Aiden McGeady for £250k and Callum McManaman for free, so he seems like he can work the market fairly well. Although, £500k for Jason Steele isn't looking like a great decision so far.
Pete: I thought it was a pragmatic appointment. He’s a solid man with a solid record in the Championship, although he seems better at getting clubs into the second tier.
Has that opinion changed? Not going well so far, but was that sort of inevitable?
Rory: Yes and no, to be perfectly honest. In the first three games, I was pleasantly surprised with the way we played as we won away to Norwich and drew with Derby & Sheffield Wednesday. The players looked really committed, had some good ideas going forward and looked generally solid. Clearly though, that's broken down and we haven't won since that Norwich game back in August.
Losing 5-2 away to Ipswich a couple of weeks ago was an obvious low point and it was hopefully the rock bottom. In that game and in the few proceeding it, we were so easy to break down and looked incapable of creating chances, while Grayson also made a few dodgy comments towards the supporters. Against Preston though, we looked much improved and it was the best we had played in weeks, with us being unlucky not to win the game.
It will count for nothing if we lose on Saturday, of course, we desperately need to get another win and need to get that first home win of the season. The last game did restore some pride and hopefully it will give us a bit of momentum.
Pete: I think he will be fine. He has struggled due to injuries and not quite knowing what his best team is. The nadir came at Ipswich (I hope) where we were beaten by a team who are no more than slightly above average. He selected a far better team for the next game at Preston and we came back with a point.
Rory: How long have you got?
Lack of leadership on the pitch seems to be a big issue. Lee Cattermole has been poor since the opening few games and our defence has desperately looked short of an organiser. Against Preston, Cattermole looked more like his old self and John O'Shea gave the defence some experience, so hopefully we can build upon that.
Tactically, it's been hard to see what our plan has been for a lot of games. One example would be who we've played with James Vaughan up front quite a lot this season, a very limited player but still a player who is fairly handy in the air. Yet, we never really get down the flanks and bang some crosses into him, we just lump the ball up through the middle and hope for the best. Our options are limited, especially since Lewis Grabban got injured a few weeks back, but with Aiden McGeady and Duncan Watmore returning, along with Callum McManaman edging closer to full fitness, we might be able to find some inspiration up front.
The defence needs to sort itself out too. Despite looking a little bit more solid against Preston (and conceding two unlucky goals) we haven't kept a clean sheet all season, which isn't good enough.
In short, we haven't been creative enough and have been a disaster at the back.
Pete: As Rangers well know, this is a difficult league and you need players who know it and understand it. Too many of our players don’t. Hopefully, they have had a good look at what is expected from them and can adjust properly during October. It is fiercely competitive, very physical and you need to be organised to flourish in it. Look at Cardiff City – they are all three of those without any outstanding players. Our players need to learn from them and the likes of Preston, Ipswich and Sheffield United if they are to flourish.
Stand out players so far?
Rory: It's hard to look beyond Aiden McGeady, there's no one who really comes close to him in terms of stand outs. When he spent a few weeks on the sidelines, his absence was huge and in the two games he's started since, he's scored twice. He can finish from anywhere (all three of his goals for us have been from outside the box) and his skill is so unpredictable that defenders can't really get near him.
Pete: Not many, I’m afraid. We are hoping that Duncan Watmore can spark us up the table. Aiden McGeady is a box of tricks at times. But we need to be tight and rely on players helping other players out.
Rory: You have to look at our defence, given how we can't keep clean sheets. In goal, neither Robbin Ruiter or Jason Steele have been able to hold onto the number 1 jersey as they've both given questionable performances. Lamine Kone has had the odd decent game but was rightfully dropped last time out, while Marc Wilson has struggled since arriving on deadline day. Long balls over the top and crosses have been a weakness for us, so I think Ian Holloway will be targeting that on Saturday.
Pete: Neither of the two new goalkeepers (Jason Steele and Robbin Ruiter) have been particularly impressive. We haven’t kept a clean sheet all season so the defence leaves a lot to be desired. We lack muscularity in midfield and we don’t score enough goals. Our home form is abysmal. Apart from that, none really.
What was the aim at the start of the season and has that changed given the start?
Rory: Despite Martin Bain emphasising the fact that we would be focussing on promotion, barely any supporters expected that before the start of the season. A bright start in the opening games did see some positivity blossom but that was sharply shot down by the games that followed. I can only speak for myself but I would settle for mid-table now, especially given our current league position. I would love to be a bit more upbeat and say we'll challenge for the play-offs but I can't honestly say we're capable of that, at the moment.
Pete: At the start of the season, I would have settled for a play-off place. Now mid table obscurity will do. A run in the FA Cup would be nice. We won it as a Second Division club you know…..
How does the club turn itself around medium term?
Rory: We need to get through this season with some evidence that we have something to build on. A strong finish which shows where we have some strengths and how we can further develop them would be great. Next summer will probably be another transfer window where we don't have a lot to spend but hopefully we'll still be able to use our cash wisely and push on from there.
All being well, this will make us look like an attractive proposition to potential buyers. That's not to say they will come in and we'll be able to buy our way back into the Premier League but it will feel like a fresh start and then we can look at getting promoted with renewed hope and different identity. Not just going up and repeating our old mistakes.
The Twitter @rokereport, @salutsunderland
Pictures – Action Images
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