Managerial stability is supposed to promote reassurance, a sense of safety even, but its belated advent at Sunderland has merely prompted widespread insecurity.
Last July David Moyes became the club’s seventh manager in five turbulent seasons as Ellis Short vowed to end his seemingly interminable cycle of hirings and firings. Subsequent results may have tested the owner’s resolve – paradoxically, Moyes appears in acute danger of being the first of the American financier’s appointments to lose a relegation skirmish – but even if Sunderland do go down, the Scot will be allowed to rebuild in the Championship next season.
By then, though, as many as 60 familiar faces may have disappeared from club corridors. In February, scores of employees received emails from Martin Bain, the chief executive, warning that their jobs were at risk. This has created a somewhat toxic atmosphere, particularly among those staff members who had never spoken to Margaret Byrne’s successor in the wake of his installation last June and suspect the former Rangers and Maccabi Tel Aviv CEO might be a bit hazy as to what their roles actually entail.
The latest issue of Private Eye reflects wholesale shock that Rob Mason, the erudite, highly respected editor of Sunderland’s multiple-award-winning programme Red and White features in the at risk category. It points out that with it having either won, or been runner-up, in Programme of the Year for each of the past nine years, Mason is the club’s only proven winner.
In mitigation Bain and Moyes – whose bottom-placed team face key games at Watford on Saturday and Leicester on Tuesday – have inherited considerable problems at a club currently around £140m in debt. If recording such staggering losses during an era when Premier League clubs are rich beyond belief seems almost incomprehensible, one particularly damning statistic explains Sunderland’s plight. Of the past 46 signings made by assorted managers only four, Darren Bent, Simon Mignolet, Patrick van Aanholt and James McClean have been sold on for profit.
The collateral damage caused by such chronically poor investment has not only spread to Sunderland’s back offices but also community projects in Africa and the club’s once flagship women’s team. It is not so long ago that Sunderland Ladies, inspired by Beth Mead’s goals and Carlton Fairweather’s astute coaching, threatened to rival Manchester City and Chelsea at the top of the Super League.
Mead is now at Arsenal and Fairweather unemployed after the team’s reversion to part-time status. Aware that a nucleus of the current England side – including Steph Houghton, Lucy Bronze and Jill Scott – began their careers on Wearside, Byrne had made Fairweather’s side a priority before resigning in the wake of her failure to suspend Adam Johnson before the winger’s conviction and imprisonment for sexual activity with a 15-year-old girl.
Almost a year later, Bain’s judgment was questioned when he announced the impending wholesale redundancies shortly after sanctioning an extremely expensive bonding trip to New York in February enjoyed by Moyes and the players.
The manager and chief executive, both Glaswegians, have established a bond so strong that some insiders suspect they may have talked each out of resigning last autumn, when it became apparent that Short wanted to sell – he is now apparently resigned to the reality that it may be some years before a buyer is found – and Moyes realised the January transfer kitty was empty.
As winter bit, Bain accepted the resignation of Gary Hutchinson, the previously influential commercial director, and Moyes proved increasingly unsparing in his descriptions of the squad’s limitations.
If there is little doubt that he has been dealt a horrible hand, some fans are concerned the former Everton, Manchester United and Real Sociedad manager harbours too many old-fashioned notions.
More specifically, the 53-year-old’s recent claims that he dropped Gabon’s Didier Ndong, Sunderland’s record£13.5m signing, because he wanted “more Britishness” in midfield and needed to “put more Britishness” into his £8m Senegal centre-half Papy Djilobodji’s game raised concerns about his ability to breathe new life into a side badly missing the injured winger Duncan Watmore.
Indeed, with Watmore’s energies diverted into saving the lives of three pensioners after a boating accident off Barbados, where he was on a convalescent holiday, the only man who looks capable of resuscitating them is Jermain Defoe.
Without the newly recalled England striker’s goals Sunderland would probably be in the second tier already, but the bad news is that a clause in Defoe’s contract grants the 34-year-old a free transfer in the event of relegation.
Moyes clings to the hope it will not come to that. “We’re not down,” he says. “And we’re not planning to go down. We’re planning to stay up.”