In matters of football harking back to yesteryear as the antidote for current woes is a mugs game. There is always an element of looking through rose tinted spectacles and chances are it was never quite as good as you remember. However, at the moment – with Sunderland at least – to do so serves a thought-provoking purpose.
Looking backwards may not be the answer to the club’s present problem. But, if we do cast a brief glance at the past there is a more revealing and worrying realisation that should be of interest to supporters.
Let us first reminisce for a minute back to around 10 years ago, when the Black Cats clawed themselves into the Premier League once again under Roy Keane’s stewardship. Instantly we are transported back to a time when the club seemed on an upward trajectory. There was positivity throughout the city again. The wounds of the recent ‘lowest points’ relegation had begun to heal as Keane’s aggressive yet passionate approach mended the fans’ fractured spirit.
The Irishman was certainly a character around the place. At that time he was just what Sunderland needed and after the fizzling out of a great playing career, possibly the Black Cats were just the tonic for Keane too. His interviews were always good value and the way he instilled a Manchester United never-say-die attitude into his players was commendable.
The rise up through Championship had seen goals scored ‘from the banks of the Wear’ and the Stadium of Light was bouncing again. In the boardroom Niall Quinn was looking out for the club’s best interests and at one point in time season tickets had been sold on the strength of Keane’s name alone. Nothing could go wrong. Or so it seemed.
Curiously, Roy Keane’s name has been much mentioned this week too. Within the context described above you can understand why. However, that was then. Football has moved on, as it always does. An era cannot be recaptured no matter how hard you try to will it back into existence. Even if the former manager returned to Wearside to oust the current incumbent it would not be the same. For that reason we should not look back.
Yet, if we examine the past less as a means to reminisce but more as a method to evaluate progress, a worrying picture begins to reveal itself. The club has simply made zero progress since Keane’s time at the helm. You may argue that this is clear from looking at the league table at the end of every subsequent season. Well, agreed. But if we examine matters in a little more detail you begin to see just how stark that inertia is. From top to bottom, Sunderland has become the very definition of stagnation.
If you are a Sunderland supporter, ask yourself a simple question – would you prefer the 2007/8 squad over the current team? Right now, Jermain Defoe and possibly Jordan Pickford aside, most would likely say yes.
Games such as Arsenal away at the Emirates Stadium during the first campaign back in the top flight, saw the Black Cats come back from 2-0 down with goals from Kenwyne Jones and Ross Wallace. It is a game that sticks in the memory, and if we use this one simple example as a measure of how far we have come then the answer is surely we have not moved forward at all.
Jones and Wallace may not be the most glamorous of names to have in your team but if this current side went 2-0 down away from home the chances are a further few goals would be conceded in quick succession. Heads would drop and any fight remaining would quickly be drained away.
In fact based on yesterday’s limp 0-0 against Burnley, if you work your way through a typical starting eleven from the Keane era you would be hard pushed to argue a player from the 2017 side is far superior. Given Sunderland has been back in the Premier League for ten years that is a damning situation in which to be.
Sides which have come up into the Premier League after Sunderland have still been able to push on without as much investment. Yet the Black Cats, for all their huff and puff have been left treading water. When it is distilled to its simplest there is only one man that should hold his hands up and apologise. It is an unforgivable situation for which only Ellis Short is accountable.
However, saying sorry will not change what occurs on the pitch and nor will wishing for a return of happier times. Learning from mistakes is the answer but sadly for Short and Sunderland supporters it is a lesson that the club seem incapable of heeding.