How Sunderland have slipped to the brink of disaster

Luke Edwards
Sunderland are bottom of the Premier League and staring relegation in the face - Rex Features

It has been an unhappy few years for Sunderland, and there are a number of reasons the North-East club is facing a painful and costly relegation this season...

Recuitment

"Expensive, over paid and under-performing"

If there is one area that has repeatedly let Sunderland down during their ten year stay in the Premier League, it is recruitment. Whether overseen by a manager or a director of football, arguably no club has achieved less value for money. Sunderland have signed too many players, for too much money, on wage packets they have failed to justify.

Despite saddling themselves with a top ten wage bill under former chief executive Margaret Byrne, the Black Cats have achieved just one top ten finish, under Steve Bruce six years ago. The other nine years have been spent battling relegation.

Sunderland have spent £254m on transfer fees since promotion and have recouped a tiny fraction in sales. Of the 91 players bought just five have been sold for a profit – Darren Bent, Simon Mignolet, James McClean, Connor Wickham and Patrick van Aanholt. Three of those were signed by Steve Bruce, who was sacked in 2011.

The only other player sold for a profit was Jordan Henderson, who is one of only three Academy graduates to have played more than a handful of games, along with Jack Colback and Jordan Pickford.

Sunderland spent £12m on Steven Fletcher in 2012 Credit: AP

When they have spent big on players like Adam Johnson, Steven Fletcher, Jack Rodwell, Fabio Borini and Darren Bent, they have largely flopped.

Lack of clarity at the top

"Confused and muddled thinking…"

Why does anyone buy a football club unless it is out of self-interest? It is a question Ellis Short has never answered. Like most owners, he does not like interviews, but it is difficult to see how the American bought Sunderland for personal gain. It has cost him more than £100m just to keep the business running and his enthusiasm was genuine at the start.

Without his financial backing, Sunderland would probably be administration, yet he has also been part of the problem. Sunderland could not survive without him, yet they have also been slowly destroyed under his leadership.

Since taking full control from the Drumaville Consortium in 2008, charmed by former chairman Niall Quinn’s gushing talk of the club’s untapped potential, Short has been through seven managers. He has not given any of them a full season in charge since Bruce in the 2010/11 campaign, which in turn, was the only year the Black Cats managed a top ten finish.

Sunderland have had seven managers in Ellis Short's time at the club Credit: Reuters

He has never had a clear vision. His thinking has been muddled, confused, the decision making kneejerk or misguided. When he first took over, his aspiration to be the top eight club Quinn claimed they could be, clouded everything.

The managerial merry-go-round has caused chaos, whether it has been the type of players signed, the style of football, the instructions given to the Academy or the way staff are treated.

Every manager has different methods and ideas, the squad has been in a constant state transition.

In turn, the thing that kept saving Sunderland from relegation, a change in manager, is also the reason they have never broken the relegation cycle.

Short no longer knows why he bought Sunderland. He does not want the hassle anymore. He has been trying to sell up for months. He does not want to spend any more of his own money. As a result, Sunderland are cutting costs and paying the price.

A chaotic pre-season

“Sunderland were paralysed…Allardyce was distracted and disinterested”

Sam Allardyce was the right manager for Sunderland and he knew it. The supporters loved him and he knew that too. There was no moaning about the style of football, just an appreciation that Allardyce knew what he was doing, would get things done. He was the right man at the right time.

As a former Sunderland player and coach, Allardyce was as close as supporters had to one of their own in a position of power since Quinn was removed by Short. He would have turned Sunderland into the stable mid-table club they have always craved to be.

Premier League manager safety index

Allardyce was happy on Wearside, comfortable in the North East among people he could relate to. He also knew how to manipulate Short. Sunderland spent more than £30m in the transfer market last season, their second highest net spend since promotion, which drained the budget available to his successor last summer.

And then came England’s disastrous European Championship campaign. As soon as Roy Hodgson resigned, Allardyce wanted his job. He lost sight of what needed to be done for Sunderland and the Black Cats sleepwalked into pre-season.

When the FA decided to go through a methodical recruitment process, Sunderland were effectively paralysed. Allardyce was distracted and disinterested and there was nothing the Black Cats hierarchy could do about it. When he finally left in July, without making a single signing, Sunderland were already heading into another relegation battle.

Moyes is resigned to defeat

“There has been an air of defeatism hanging over the club that Moyes has failed to disperse”

On paper, Moyes is the best man for the job at Sunderland because of the work he did over 12 years at Everton, a club of similar size and resources before their recent takeover. He is yet to prove it, though.

The Scot was attracted, like all managers, to Sunderland’s potential, the size of the fanbase, the stadium, but he quickly realised he was on the receiving end of a hospital pass from Allardyce.

He arrived too late in July to recruit properly. He did what he could do rather than what was needed to be done. He made stop gap signings, gambled on players and they have not worked out.

His inability to hide his grim assessment of the squad he inherited has been extremely damaging. He has sounded like a man who picked the winning numbers for the lottery, but forgot to buy a ticket.

In his defence, Moyes always felt he needed to strengthen in January. He was relying on it. Only this time, there was no money to spend. Short has stopped the cash flow.

From that moment, Moyes feared the worst and there has been an air of defeatism hanging over the club that he has failed to disperse.

Nobody has said it publicly, but Sunderland have been preparing themselves, mentally and financially, for relegation since the start of the year.

Moyes is already planning for the life in the Championship. He is thinking about a rebuilding job rather than an escape act. He has been assured his job is safe, but in the short term, it has drained him.

He takes his share of the blame, yet Sunderland, having refused to sack him, must now allow him the chance to repair the damage. It is their only hope of preventing relegation turning into a catastrophe.

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