As Chris Coleman packed a suitcase and prepared to become Sunderland’s ninth manager in six years, his new players issued a reminder of the grisly challenge facing the former Wales coach.
Perhaps mercifully, Coleman – who will be formally “unveiled” on Monday and take charge of team affairs at Aston Villa on Tuesday – did not arrive on Wearside in time to see the club set a thoroughly unwanted record.
In failing to beat Millwall, Sunderland became the first English League side to go 20 home games without winning. They have now failed to record a victory at the Stadium of Light for almost a year and remain bottom of the Championship. Small wonder supporters’ pre-match excitement at news of a rare recruitment coup swiftly evaporated.
Coleman may not have been in the stands but, initially at least, his imminent appointment seemed to have a definite galvanising effect. Season ticket holders blinked in astonishment as the first five minutes featured the almost forgotten sight of Sunderland refusing to forfeit possession.
For a short while the watching Kit Symons – Coleman’s soon-to-be assistant here – must have been wondering if things were really quite as bad as advertised. Sunderland even took an early lead, Lewis Grabban stabbing home following a corner. Then, as home fans serenaded Millwall with rousing renditions of “How shit must you be, we’re winning at home,” reality intruded.
A key reason behind the home side’s plummet to the foot of the table is their unfortunate habit of conceding at least two goals per game. Coleman will doubtless be anxious to work on defensive positioning, concentration and body shape but arguably the biggest issue weighing down his “in-tray” is the goalkeeping dilemma.
Simon Grayson’s two summer signings in the position have both proved less than reliable, with his problems exacerbated by a destabilising tendency to rotate Robbin Ruiter and Jason Steele.
Robbie Stockdale, the caretaker manager, opted for Ruiter here but, even though Coleman was still in Winchester saying temporary goodbyes at his family home, the free transfer from FC Utrecht looked much more nervous than usual.
Faced with two routine, eminently saveable free-kicks from George Saville, Ruiter fumbled both, putting Millwall 2-1 up. The half-time whistle was greeted by resounding boos. Plus ça change.
“Thank goodness Coleman’s not here, he might have changed his mind,” muttered a fan, the inflexion in his voice suggesting he was only half joking.
By now, odd shafts of weak November afternoon sun had disappeared, dusk beckoned and an initially upbeat mood darkened. It was further depressed by the sight of Duncan Watmore, one of the team’s brighter attacking sparks, limping off clutching his knee. Watmore has only just returned to action following a cruciate ligament rupture.
The first Championship footballer to sign up to Juan Mata’s Common Goal project, whereby players pledge to donate 1 per cent of their earnings to charity, the forward is one of the game’s good guys. He is also perceived as a rarity in a Sunderland dressing room containing some difficult-to-manage individuals. Grayson had a strong record at this level but never got the measure of potentially key but latterly seriously underachieving players, most notably Lamine Koné.
Coleman must cope without the injured Koné – a defender who, not so long ago, attracted an £18m bid from Everton – until February. By then it is thought he will have been able to invest a few million pounds on fresh January blood but it will be interesting to see if he waits that long to recruit a new goalkeeper. He would surely be well advised to scour the free-agent lists.
Then there is the Lee Cattermole question. The midfielder may remain an influential dressing room figure – previous managers disagreed on whether that was a plus or a minus – but his lack of pace debilitates the team. Grayson dropped Cattermole but Stockdale has restored him. What does Coleman do? Considering the alternatives include Darron Gibson and the £60,000-a-week Jack Rodwell, it is not a straightforward question.
Here Cattermole helped Sunderland avoid defeat by setting up Adam Matthews for a slightly flukey, goalkeeper-error-assisted, equaliser, involving the latter’s cross eluding Jordan Archer.
Whoever he names on his team sheet at Villa, Coleman’s renowned powers of communication and sheer charisma will be needed to be deployed at maximum motivational power.
Martin Bain, Sunderland’s chief executive, may have seduced the Welshman with talk of a Premier League return and near-50,000 home crowds but keeping this side out of League One may prove considerably tougher than leading Wales to a Euro 2016 semi-final. Coleman probably has cause to buy a black cat but Stockdale is not among those questioning his sanity. “It’s a tough job,” the caretaker agreed. “But it’s also a brilliant job.”