All of a sudden there was a clanking noise, deep down below; as if some person were dragging a heavy chain over the casks in the wine-merchant's cellar. Scrooge then remembered to have heard that ghosts in haunted houses were described as dragging chains. The cellar door flew open with a booming sound, and then he heard the noise much louder, on the floors below, then coming up the stairs, then coming straight towards his door.
“It's humbug still!” said Scrooge. “I won't believe it.”
His colour changed though, when, without a pause, it came on through the heavy door and passed into the room before his eyes. Upon its coming in, the dying flame leaped up, as though to cry, “I know him! Marty's Ghost!” and fell again.
The same face: the very same. Marty in his tracksuit, bespectacled with two-for-one NHS frames, and wearing football boots from the Back To School range. The chain he drew was clasped about his middle. It was long, and wound about him like a tail. It was made (for Scrooge observed it closely) of pages from Randy Lerner's cheque book, out-takes from the BBC's World Cup coverage, and a £65,000-per-week contract for Emile Heskey wrought in steel.
“How now!” said Scrooge, caustic and cold as ever. “What do you want with me?”
“I am here tonight to warn you that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate. A chance and hope of my procuring, Ebenezer. You will be haunted by three spirits. Without their visits, you cannot hope to shun the path I tread. Expect them on Saturday, when Aston Villa travel to Sunderland for a 3pm untelevised kick-off."
And so it was, that with his Sunderland scarf wrapped tightly around his neck, Scrooge did venture down to the Stadium of Light this past weekend to meet the ghosts of Martin O'Neill past, present, and future. His beloved Black Cats, as curiously cursed as the creature from whom they derive their nickname, tried - and failed - to add to their record of one Premier League win since March. Their opponents, an equally troubled and uncreative outlet from the Midlands, were simultaneously a shocking look into the past of their former manager, and a stark warning about the road they themselves could be starting to go down.
Much was made in the summer about Sunderland's investment of around £13 million for Steven Fletcher being proof that either the game had gone mad, or decimal point buttons on Wearside were knackered. Adam Johnson, despite being surplus to requirements at a club with more money than most nuclear-armed nations, also cost over £10 million.
These are fees that won't have shocked Aston Villa fans, though. During Martin O'Neill's tenure at Villa Park the list of over-priced acquisitions reads like the wishlist of a dying Baron losing the plot in his favourite Faberge egg shop. Marlon Harewood - £4 million, Nigel Reo-Coker - £8 million, Luke Young - £5 million, Stephen Warnock - £7 million, Curtis Davies - £8 million, Stewart Downing - £12 million, Carlos Cuellar - £8 million. All in all, the club spent almost £100 million in his four years in charge.
As dumbfounding as these figures are, it's been the club's rapid slide into desperation that's come as the biggest shock. From consecutive 6th place finishes, Villa only just managed to stave off the threat of relegation a mere two seasons after O'Neill had fallen out with the board over a refusal to... wait for it... spend money on transfers. The big names followed him out of the door, and all in all, even when factoring in hail-mary punts on strikers like Bent and Benteke, the club have a net spend of only £5 million since. Alarm bells should be ringing louder than the aforementioned ghostly shackles.
O'Neill likes to buy British. He also likes to buy young (and, indeed, buy Young). These two factors lead to overpricing quicker than Paul Merson and Tony Adams would lead a conga line to the bar. The policy has landed his former club in what looks to be serious trouble, and if his first transfer window as Sunderland boss is anything to go by, nothing has changed in his mindset.
Add to this stats like having the fewest attempts on goal - and the fewest on target - the worst shooting accuracy, and the fact that Sunderland's second top scorer is Demba Ba, and the scenario looks bleak in the extreme. The aim was to push for the top six. Spending to achieve that before mid-table mediocrity can be guaranteed is suicidal.
For his current club to be smashing the little glass emergency window this early and forcing everyone to calmly and orderly evacuate the little caravan of hope that was parked outside the ground upon his arrival is ridiculous. But if results haven't improved come Christmas day, and another apparition of Marty appears in Ebeneezer's board room with a shopping list of extortionate British talent to get them out of trouble, it wouldn't be Scrooge-like to show a little discretion with the purse strings.
If Adam's wintery tale has chilled you to the bone, back Sunderland to be relegated this season at 8.00 with Unibet.
Read more of Adam's articles here.