By James Martland
This season marks ten years since Sunderland were last promoted to the Premier League. Roy Keane guided his side to Championship victory in the 2006/07 campaign, leaving the likes of Crystal Palace, Southampton, West Brom, Stoke City and even current Premier League champions Leicester City trailing behind. Considering Sunderland have not been relegated since, one might have expected them to have progressed into a solid premier league side in the last decade. In reality, however, they have been less successful than all these aforementioned teams, with a solitary League Cup Final appearance against Manchester City perhaps being their only highlight.
It is not as if Sunderland have lacked ambition either. Roy Keane’s purchase of Craig Gordon on return to the top flight, (at the time a record fee paid for a goalkeeper by a British Club), suggested that not only were Sunderland here to stay, but also aiming to develop themselves into a top half side. Sadly, this has failed to materialise. Record signings of Darren Bent, Adam Johnson, Asamoah Gyan and Steven Fletcher followed, but a tenth placed finish under Steve Bruce in 2011 remains their highest Premier League finish this decade; A campaign which, in recent years, looks almost unusually successful. Indeed, for Sunderland fans, an all too familiar pattern has appeared. That 2010-11 campaign was the last one in which the club were able to retain a manager for a whole season. Managers have gone from heroes one season to villains the next. Martin O’Neill, Paulo Di Canio, Gus Poyet and Dick Advocaat have all seen themselves save the club from relegation, only to leave due to poor results during the following campaign. Ricky Sbragia in 2009, as well as Sam Allardyce most recently, also came in to save a sinking ship before resigning in the summer. For a club that has spent an estimated 220 million pounds in this last decade, with a stadium capacity of over 40,000, this story is simply not good enough.
Once again we find ourselves this October with Sunderland in a great deal of trouble. Two points from seven games leaves the club firmly rooted at the bottom of the table. The question, however, is not solely as to whether this aforementioned miserable cycle is set to continue, but if more frightening prospect of relegation is as certain as it currently looks. Indeed, whilst appearing, for the moment, short of ideas, confidence and direction, there is nothing to suggest another great escape cannot happen once again, and whilst this is surely not good enough for a club with such resources, it may be the best that David Moyes’ side can aim for.
When it comes to assessing David Moyes, there appears to be two camps. One feels sorry for a man who had the managerial world at his feet just a few years ago, when he left Everton and took over the reins at Manchester United. The other, perhaps short-sighted, sees him as a man with few ideas, and unfit to manage in the Premier League. Nevertheless, neither camp can fail to notice his decline. It is hard to disagree that Moyes did a fantastic job at Everton, taking a club in a similar situation to Sunderland (having finished in the bottom seven in the six previous seasons), to European football and a regular top half finish. After eleven years, there were few more deserving of managing one of football’s biggest teams than the Scotsman himself. With such pedigree, and a proven track record of turning a team into a Premier League stronghold, it would seem Chairman Ellis Short had made a shrewd appointment. However, in reality, it doesn’t look as if the David Moyes of his Everton years is still around. Instead, the Chairman has perhaps appointed a man past his best and out of ideas.
One such example of this is in his transfer dealings. Moyes is a man credited for being so thorough that he would only sign a player if he had up to fifty reports on him, from over ten different scouts. Journalist Michael Calvin, writer of ‘The Nowhere Men,’ a book focusing on the life of scouts, concluded from his extensive research that Everton had the best scouting set up that he had ever seen. Moyes was behind signings such as Seamus Coleman, John Heitinga, Miguel Arteta and Tim Cahill; all key players who were often linked to moves at bigger clubs. Although failing to feature under Moyes, both John Stones and Shkodran Mustafi also now rank amongst the best defenders in England. Of course, not all transfers in this period where successful (Andy van der Meyde springs to mind), but no manager can get every deal right. The contrast between this and Sunderland’s summer dealings is arguably shocking. One could perhaps even suggest that Moyes has decided to rely on his own opinion and even sentiment, rather than on the detailed reports of others as he once did. Steven Pienaar, a fantastic acquisition for Moyes at Everton, is now being used as a first team regular, despite being 34 and making just thirteen appearances in the previous two seasons. This, alongside the promotion of youngster Lynden Gooch, who admittedly has impressed, means that Wahbi Khazri, a man who spearheaded the club’s charge at the back end of last season with vital goals against Manchester United and Chelsea, is now on the bench and is inevitably disinterested. The signing of Paddy McNair adds further confusion. Bought in from Manchester United, there is no doubt that the Northern Irish international has some ability, but once again, Moyes’ tactics appear uncertain. McNair was bought on as a defender on his debut against Manchester City, only for David Moyes to announce two weeks later that the 21-year-old is ‘an attacking midfielder.’ Thus Moyes’ previously detailed approach appears to have disappeared and it is costing Sunderland dearly.
It would seem a shame to make a judgement on the club’s other dealings this early in the season, but the fact remains that they have left the club woefully short and it is unclear as yet as to whether the replacements are up to scratch. Departures of players such as Jeremain Lens and Younes Kaboul, neither of whom were exceptional for the club, but who at least provided competition and numbers, means that Moyes has limited options to work with both defensively and offensively. Therefore, the likes of Gooch and Pienaar have received more football than they otherwise would have done. Centre back Papy Djilobodji has also not been given time to adjust to the Premier League, resulting in a serious error, which cost his side the game at White Hart Lane.
However, it does seem harsh to blame Moyes’ recruitment policy alone; Everton turned Lamine Kone’s head just as the Scotsman arrived at the club, resulting in him sitting out the start of the season. Nine first team injuries also affect what has always been a very small squad. It is, therefore, difficult to assess the team’s credentials with so many players who are either injured or not yet settled. However, despite the hardships, Moyes has little time to get things right. Paulo Di Canio survived just five games in the 2013-14 and Ellis Short may be forced into a decision quickly if results don’t start improving.
It is not as if performances have provided Sunderland fans with much hope either. A spirited loss against Manchester City on the opening day may have got supporters excited, but since then, there have been very few moments to get spectators off their seats. The problem remains that Jermain Defoe has had little support or backup. Victor Anichebe, a player who can be a handful, but has never been lethal in front of goal, has been bought in, but once again, having worked with him before, Moyes appears to have gone with his heart instead of his head. A club the size of Sunderland, with the aspirations that Moyes himself has, should not be bringing in a player who was surplus to requirements at West Brom. It speaks volumes about the club’s attacking threat that Patrick Van Aanholt, a left back with just thirteen career league goals to his name, is currently causing opposition defences the most trouble. The performance against Tottenham demonstrated the gulf in class between the two sides, with Sunderland allowing Spurs all of the ball and a host of chances, but providing very little in return. If it wasn’t for the heroics of Jordan Pickford, it might have been a cricket score. Furthermore, despite visits to White Hart Lane and The Etihad, it is not as if the club have had hard fixtures. Home losses to Middlesborough and Crystal Palace are not acceptable for a team who wants to stay in the division, with the latter, a 2-3 loss having been two goals up, displaying a worrying mental fragility. Indeed, it is hard to see a way in which David Moyes and his side will be able to stop the rot in the immediate future.
Perhaps Sunderland are simply not cut out for the top level. Newcastle, another club with large resources and fan base fared even worse last season. Chris Thompson of ‘The Guardian’ believes that in the modern day, Northern clubs are simply not able to compete. The lure of cities such a London and Manchester means that many of the top youngsters will go there, rather than to Newcastle and Sunderland. This means that Sunderland are left with worse talent themselves and have to spend money buying other team’s cast offs in order to meet the Premier League’s home-grown rules. Whilst an interesting viewpoint, the fact remains that other clubs from small cities have managed to develop themselves into mid-table teams and so Thompson’s account cannot act as an excuse for Moyes and his predecessors, but may be an a contributing factor towards this ongoing pattern.
With the current injury situation at the club, Moyes may yet be able to build a side who can break this cycle and become a mid-table club, safe from the relegation struggle every year. However, this does seem like wishful thinking. Perhaps the only way to break the trend will be through relegation.
Photograph by Wikipedia Commons