Fittingly, it ended in farce.
Defeat snatched from the jaws of victory; an almighty scramble producing a goal that was given and then, after much deliberation, taken away; much of the stadium and the playing squad unaware of the ramifications of what had just happened until well after the final whistle.
Sunderland’s defeat to Burton Albion summed up what the Wearsiders have become. Chris Coleman’s men took the lead for the fourth successive game and, for the fourth successive game, they could not see out the match with three points intact.
It leaves them with just two home league wins all season and only five in the last 23 months. It leaves them with 34 points from 44 games. It leaves them looking ahead to life in the third tier for only the second time in their history.
An absentee owner
Sunderland were first relegated in 1958. There have now been 10 demotions since. The club’s recent decade-long stint in the Premier League was their second longest stay in the top tier in their history. Ellis Short, the club’s chairman, referred to it in November last year when, in a rare interview given to the club’s official website, he explained the reasoning behind the recent sacking of manager Simon Grayson.
In that interview, Short spoke of his desire to return the club to the top half of the Premier League. If that was fanciful then it looks downright idiotic now. Since Grayson’s sacking, Chris Coleman was appointed, the club’s top goalscorer Lewis Grabban cut short his loan spell and Coleman was afforded precisely nothing to spend in January. A smattering of untried loanees and ageing free transfers were all the manager was offered in his fight against the drop.
As Coleman lost that fight on Saturday afternoon, the Welshman watching numbed from the sideline, Short was nowhere to be seen. That is a recurring theme. The Sunderland chairman attended just two matches at the Stadium of Light during Sunderland’s tumble out of the Premier League last year; this time around, he has taken up his seat at the club’s ground just once, way back in August, during the opening day draw at home to Derby County.
Short now resides in Florida, 3,000 miles away and removed both physically and emotionally from the football club he owns. He continues to plug financial gaps where they appear, though recent rumours he foots a bill nearing £0.5 million a week are wide of the mark but other than that he holds no interest in how the club faces. Whatever drew him to Sunderland has long since been extinguished. He has been trying to sell the club for several years and relegation to League One will only intensify his efforts to get rid.
One of the critiques often laid at the door of football club owners is that they have been too spendthrift, too unwilling to loosen the pursestrings when needed. Yet this has not been the case for Short. He has invested millions in a club to which he had no affiliation before his arrival on Wearside in 2008, supplementing the many millions that come alongside a 10-year stint in the world’s richest league.
How galling that Sunderland have so little to show for it. Over the past decade some £800 milllion has entered the club’s coffers, the vast majority of which has been splurged on transfer fees and player wages. In return they have one appearance in a League Cup final and a succession of last gasp survival bids.
To look back upon the club’s recent history is to be baffled by the repetition of the same old mistakes. Following Steve Bruce’s sacking in November 2011, the club did not finish a season with the manager it began it with for six years, David Moyes being the man with whom Short and club CEO Martin Bain opted to stick. Ironic then, that it was Moyes who took the club down after years of flirting with the drop.
Those flirtations, rather than looked upon as a disaster narrowly avoided and never to be repeated, were instead celebrated with a fervour they did not merit. Time and again those late season revivals had fans thinking a new dawn may be on the horizon, only to watch on as millions were spent on sub-par footballers with hefty wage packets. Jack Rodwell, a £10 million signing from Manchester City, remains on the club’s books at the cost of £70,000 per week. He has played one league game this season and currently trains with the youths.
Few without blame
Sunderland supporters are often asked, on radio phone-ins, in newspapers, on television: who is to blame? The problem with that question is that it assumes just one person is at fault. Ask plenty now and they will, understandably, point to the club’s vacant chairman’s seat as the chief protagonist behind their rapid downfall.
That is fair enough: Short has overseen years of drift, both on the pitch and off it, as a club that one formed a pillar of the community in which locals could place their pride has been reduced to an embarrassment of an entity, one with some rather unsavoury skeletons in its closet.
Yet to blame Short solely would be unfair too. Several managers have underachieved, whilst successive squads of players have arrived, found a losing mentality present and done little to go about fixing it. Rumours of a strong drinking culture within the side persisted for many a year. More recently, several players seem simply not to care about the club that pays their wages. One, Jeremain Lens, went on record as saying he hoped Sunderland were relegated, believing it would help him turn his loan spell at Fenerbahçe into a permanent one.
Lens eventually left, though not until February of this year. To that end, he joins a lengthy list of players who have been paid a small fortune and offered little by way of return. Rodwell represents perhaps the peak, or trough, of Sunderland’s largesse but he is by no means the only example of dreadful dealing that the club has undertaken in the seven years since Short officially took over as chairman.
Now he finds himself chairman of a side in League One. In the space of two seasons, Sunderland’s broadcasting revenue will have dropped by around 98%, notwithstanding the ‘parachute’ payments that remain due to them following their relegation from the top tier. Their last financial statements showed a debt figure of £140 million. New numbers are due out soon; few expect those liabilities to have reduced by much.
In all, Sunderland’s is a tale of waste and neglect. Premier League status was prioritised above all else, as the club flitted from one crisis to the next, throwing vast sums of cash at players and managers alike without undertaking any form of long-term planning. The rot that threatened to set in for many a year has now taken hold. The well is dry and the chairman refuses to pump it any more. Even the most optimistic of red and whites can see little to be cheery about, at least not until a new owner arrives with a proper plan.
And while Sunderland’s story is one that is staggering for the ineptitude it portrays, other clubs would do well to take heed. Ellis Short and other members of the club’s hierarchy did not plunge the club into its current gloom willingly, rather they found themselves blinded by the riches of the Premier League and, unable to accept the need for long-term planning and a sense of perspective, rushed headfirst into disaster.
Their tale should serve as a warning against the excesses of English football’s top tier.
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