As the full-time whistle blew at the Stadium of Light, there were only mixed feelings. Sunderland had just beaten the league champions, Wolves, in a refreshingly positive display. But just the week before, amid a resounding chorus of boos, the club had been relegated to League One.
The Black Cats had long been one of English football’s main stalwarts, always seeming to cling onto life in the top flight despite some last-gasp relegation battles. But this year, the club’s rapid descent continued at relentless pace.
It is an entirely self-inflicted situation. The chairman made no secret that he wanted to sell the club. The group of players appear disinterested and content to collect pay checks.
Both of these issues have no place in modern football, and have slowly turned Sunderland into a pale shadow of what the club used to be. Aside from the badge and the stadium, it’s difficult to understand the difference between the current Black Cats and any regular bunch of football mercenaries.
There can be no denying that Sunderland are stuck in the midst of a rut, faced with life in the wrong end of the Football League and with a squad made up of too many players who would rather be anywhere else. The arrival of Ellis Short in 2011 signalled the beginning of a very painful spiral for the club. Many of the decisions made over the next few years have played a large role in banishing Sunderland into League One next season, beginning with the arrival of the controversial Paulo di Canio.
The Italian’s controversial past views on fascism sparked outrage from pockets of the club’s support, and the rocky start set the trend for the rest of his tenure.
Despite the occasional highlights, including the victory at arch-rivals Newcastle United in his second game in charge, di Canio appeared doomed from the very beginning. The next season, after only five league games, the Italian was dismissed.
After rumours of a bust up between players and coaching staff there was no way back for di Canio, and Sunderland set their sights elsewhere.
But no matter the figure in the dugout, the club’s inescapable attraction to the Premier League doldrums proved too much.
Gus Poyet was brought in, but was dismissed after guiding Sunderland to ‘the great escape’ from relegation and a League Cup final. Any rare achievements in domestic competitions simply didn’t counteract the mediocrity typically on show during the rest of the season. Relegation appeared an inevitability, and during David Moyes’ ill-fated time in the North-East the club’s ten year stay in the Premier League finally came to an end.
There was no miraculous revival. Sunderland’s single season spent in the Championship ended in another relegation.
The revolving door of coaching staff continued, whilst the players who had contributed to the consecutive demotions lingered. At the start of this season, the appointment of Simon Grayson appeared a shrewd one on paper. The former Leeds and Preston North End manager boasted ample experience in the Football League, and seemed the ideal candidate to steady the rapidly sinking Sunderland ship.
However, after just four months in the dugout Grayson was dismissed, with the club sitting perilously in 22nd place. The hope that the club could pull away from another relegation battle and surge up the table rapidly deteriorated with every passing matchday. With a squad bereft of confidence, a board dissatisfied with their ownership and supporters rapidly turning against the team with every languid display, Sunderland simply needed a miracle.
One last roll of the dice appeared, in the form of ex-Wales manager Chris Coleman.
Despite having a relatively poor management record outside of his tenure in charge of the Welsh, Coleman was entrusted with keeping Sunderland in the Championship. But after just leading the side to five wins, the Black Cats were relegated for the second consecutive season.
Coleman was then released from his contract, despite the majority of supporters wanting the departing manager to stay. The Welshman’s enthusiasm for building a project on Wearside was evident, and he reportedly was willing to take a pay cut and manage the club in League One.
But whilst his departure proved to be an unpopular decision, hope appeared on the horizon in the form of new investors. Ellis Short cleared the debts outstanding at the club, and handed over the reins to Steward Donald, the head of an international consortium. Donald wished for a clean slate, and Coleman and his coaching staff were released from their contracts.
Wholesale changes needed
After a dismal half decade for Sunderland, however, supporters can finally cling onto a vague feeling of optimism. Despite the club dropping into the third tier of English football for the second time in its history, the rebuild can now begin.
A thorough cull of the squad needs to take place with only the young, exciting prospects desperate to represent the shirt likely to remain. Wage bills must be halved and the lapse attitude stemming from the boardroom must stop.
Take the curious case of Jack Rodwell, for example. When Rodwell joined the Black Cats for a £10 million fee, there was an expectation for the midfielder to go on and become one of the club’s standout performers.
But this season, things have been very different. Having made only three senior appearances, Rodwell asked to leave but no transfer materialized.
Instead, Rodwell became content to collect a hefty pay check whilst not playing – as the club hadn’t inserted a relegation wage cut clause in his contract.
This example summarizes the state of Sunderland currently: players content with mediocrity, and mistakes from the boardroom plunging the club even further from what their stature deserves.
The only group truly bearing the brunt of this mess are the supporters. They’re the ones being betrayed by these football mercenaries on a weekly basis, and are surely entitled to some form of resurgence from their club soon. The new investors, must realise that some supporters’ lives revolve around their football team.
A fresh work ethic and mentality must be installed at the Stadium of Light to reflect this. Only then can Sunderland’s decline truly end.