Gus Poyet said this week that he had resisted the temptation to begin planning for life in the Championship. But resistance, after Monday night’s capitulation at White Hart Lane, is futile. Sunderland are sunk and Poyet should feel free to prepare for the worst. And in a funny kind of way, this might be what they need.
This will be a miserable relegation, but it will not be a surprising one. Few clubs could give the rest of the division an eight game head start and expect to get away with it, least of all a team as hapless as Sunderland. Their long-suffering supporters saw this coming a mile off. As Newcastle discovered in 2009, it doesn’t matter how many supporters you have, you cannot run a football club with witless abandon and stay up.
After flattering to deceive under Steve Bruce, with brief flashes of phwoar interspersed with extended periods of gargh, the Black Cats hit the skids hard. Martin O’Neill’s arrival at the club brought a short-term surge and then a long-term decline. After victory over Manchester City on Boxing Day 2012 gave supporters hope of a concerted push for a Europa League place, the following year brought nothing but a mounting sense of terror. O’Neill was axed and Sunderland, hitherto so sensible, embarked on a journey that could be best recreated by piling a dozen clowns into a car with square wheels and running it straight off a cliff.
Directors of Football can be a good thing. If everyone at every level is clear on their responsibilities, if everyone at every level has been recruited because they are demonstrably good at their job, if there are no hidden agendas or conflicts of interests, two tiers of management are better than one. But not when one tier is an obscure, Boris Johnson-headed Italian agent and the other is a frothing, untested megalomaniac with delusions of competence. That, for want of a better word, is just silly.
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Under Roberto di Fanti and Paolo di Canio, Sunderland wasted the summer of 2013. They wasted millions on footballers who were unproven, unsuitable and wholly unprepared for the challenge ahead. The dressing room was divided and lost as one player after another lost faith with a manager who publicly and privately blamed them for everything that went wrong. Poyet’s appointment was a gamble that failed to pay off. There were others available who might have been more suitable, but at least the Uruguayan has taken responsibility for the situation. At least he has maintained some dignity. At least there has been an effort to make a better fist of things. And there was that cup run. He deserves a chance to head up the rebuilding project.
This summer Sunderland can learn from those mistakes. With half the squad either on loan or in the final year of their contract, a huge chunk of the wage bill can be cast off quickly. The bulk of the remaining players are believed to have mandatory 40% salary cuts in their contract in the event of relegation. Sunderland, it seems, are not entirely stupid.
There are few clubs in England with the natural resources of Sunderland. To boast an attendances so high when the football has been so bad, tells you all you need to know about the faith of the fans. If they can get that many through the gate for this sort of fare, imagine what the stadium would be like if they ever got their act together.
In the Championship, perhaps they can regroup and rebuild, bringing in the right sort of players at the right sort of prices. Under Poyet, they can find their groove, playing intelligent, attractive football. This has been a brutal lesson, but there’s a chance that Sunderland will return in better shape.
Sunderland are 1.20 to be relegated.