Nearly all of the candidates for relegation from the Premier League this season have a certain spark about them. Southampton boast the considerable attacking talents of Rickie Lambert and famed Spanish creators Ramirez, Rodriguez and Lallana. (Yes, I know.) Wigan are managed by a man scientifically proven to warm hearts more than puppies in spring, and have Arouna Kone, a striker who cleverly fools defenders using nothing more than his incongruous haircut. Aston Villa's side consists of a handful of A-Level students with US Army crewcuts and generic men whose names end in "-an", all doing things that they (wrongly) think will help Christian Benteke score goals. This is a good thing. Reading have taken the novel approach of trying to play a season in the Premier League with Football Manager regens; anyone who thinks Hope Akpan and Shaun Cummings are real people are kidding themselves. Queens Park Rangers, meanwhile, are interesting in the same way that a motorway accident is interesting.
But now there's another team in the mix. Sunderland, a veritable vacuum of sporting or human intrigue, are being sucked towards the bottom by the collective gravity of the other teams scrapping against the drop.
The writing seemed to be on the wall at the start of the season: the Black Cats endured a torrid start to 2012/13, winning just two of their first 16 matches. They then managed to claw themselves back towards the holy grail of midtable purgatory, owing much to the goalkeeping brilliance of Simon Mignolet (who, you may not know, played the role of Augustus Gloop in the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Choclate Factory) and the goals of the Scottish Raúl, Steven Fletcher.
Last week, Fletcher got injured while playing for Scotland. But this is a Premier League club. They've got some other strikers, right? Wrong. They have Danny Graham, a Newcastle fan doing a sterling job behind enemy lines. (To be fair, Graham was great for Swansea last season. But Swansea can string more than three passes together without getting nosebleeds.) Then there's... Conor Wickham. I'm going to end this paragraph now.
Elsewhere, things aren't much better. Martin O'Neill, once considered the great white hope of British football management, seems to be losing it somewhat. His favourite trick appears to be trolling his midfielders, asking them to play at full-back for months on end. "At first, we all thought it was a joke," Jack Colback sobbed down the phone to me yesterday. "But it keeps happening!"*
Then you have James McClean and Adam Johnson, two players with the impractical flair - and collective footballing intelligence - of a thatched roof. At least Stephane Sessegnon has the sense to point his body towards goal before getting Craig Gardner to wind up the handle on his back. The one player who can actually deliver crosses, Seb Larsson, is shunted into central midfield (all the actual midfielders are busy in defence, remember) and asked to be as weasly as humanly possible to make up for Lee Cattermole's absence through injury/suspension/amnesia.
This isn't a squad that has been assembled on the cheap. Sunderland's net transfer spend since they won the Championship in 2006/07 is in the region of £80 million - a similar figure to that of Manchester United over the same period. It goes without saying that, having splashed out that kind of money, they really ought not to be slogging away at the foot of the Premier League table.
Yet that is exactly where they find themselves. If O'Neill doesn't get a grip on things soon, the trapdoor will loom ever larger as May approaches. The Black Cats will bemoan their bad luck, but for neutrals exposed to their soporific football this season, a season or two without Sunderland may not be cause for sadness.
* This obviously did not happen. Jack Colback famously only communicates by smoke signal.
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