Sunderland have been in disarray for years, but the club’s attempt to shift some blame for this season to their fans was a new low…
There’s a semi-regular feature on the Totally Football Show called Flip/Reverse, where we take a look at a ‘Sliding Doors’ moment in football, and wonder what would have happened if, figuratively speaking, Gwyneth Paltrow hadn’t managed to catch that tube.
In time, last season’s League One playoff final could make for one of the most interesting and even extreme examples. As the clock ticked into the 94th minute at Wembley, two teams were steeling themselves for extra-time, before Charlton’s Patrick Bauer popped up and broke the already shattered hearts of Sunderland fans.
This was, of course, only the latest calamity to befall Sunderland, who’d suffered just about all the possible indignities it was possible for a football club to suffer in the previous couple of seasons. They had seen horror pile upon horror, putting ‘Sunderland Til I Die’ only slightly behind ‘Threads’ and ‘Lilya 4 Ever’ in the stakes of the most harrowing things ever committed to celluloid.
Still, at least they could console themselves with the safe knowledge that it couldn’t get any worse. How could anything be worse than losing the playoff final, deep into injury-time, having spaffed their chance of automatic promotion with a parade of careless draws in the latter half of the season, after the twin relegations that put them in League One in the first place?
Well, they’re finding out this season that what they thought was rock bottom, actually turned out to just be a ledge they briefly paused upon before falling further. So you do wonder what things would have looked like had Bauer not scored that winner, and Sunderland had won promotion.
Would it have signalled the start of a new, more hopeful world where the club started to heal itself, led by new hero Jack Ross? Or would this have just elevated the calamity to a slightly higher level, making everything a little more cruel before it all fell apart once more, like waving a string of sausages in front of a starving dog before throwing them into a quarry?
Either way, that’s all in the theoretical. Here in the real world, Sunderland are in bother. Having sacked Ross, rightly or wrongly, when the team were in sixth place, under Phil Parkinson they have slipped further down the table to the point that very recently they were looking over their shoulders at the relegation places. On Boxing Day everything seemed to take a real turn for the nasty, the home fans expressing their frustration at a 0-0 draw with Bolton by calling for Parkinson to go, and doing what one often does at moments of high emotion by reverting to something familiar and comforting, by demanding the return of Kevin Phillips.
In the last week a little hope appeared in the shape of two wins from three games, but as if the universe spotted these faint specks of joy and ruthlessly decided to enforce the ‘Sunderland cannot have nice things’ rule, owner Stewart Donald announced on Tuesday that he was actively looking to sell the club.
That in itself might not be the worst thing in the world. The club have stagnated, they don’t have a chief executive or director of football and Donald’s unpopularity is growing. But this is another element of chaos that is hardly constructive for a club who have not had much constructive going for them for…well, years now.
It also doesn’t help that Donald’s announcement came in response to a statement put out by a collective of fan websites and podcasts, including A Love Supreme and the Roker Report, which urged him to sell. It was only a week or so ago that he was talking in earnest terms about the club’s plans for the January transfer window and getting behind Parkinson, so to then promptly announce his intended departure in response to some disgruntled fans seems…odd, at best.
But the most galling aspect of the club’s statement was the implication that those fans could have potentially derailed the team’s season. ‘Furthermore, the timing of the demand was not obviously conducive to the immediate improvement of the first team squad and as a result, the club’s chances of promotion,’ the statement said.
There are plenty of things that haven’t been conducive to Sunderland’s chances of promotion, such as the managers, the players and the owner, and to imply that the views of a group of fans is the thing getting in the way of a successful season is at best disingenuous, but more realistically a deliberate attempt to shift blame for the desperate state the club is in.
Donald has been an open owner in his 18 or so months in charge of the club, appearing on podcasts and answering questions on Twitter, but the problem with that is it can mask deficiencies in areas that genuinely matter. Such as the successful running of what is still one of the biggest football clubs in the country.
Sunderland have, essentially, been in a state of tumbling disarray since the last days of the Steve Bruce regime, possibly before that. They’ve had periods of brief success and even the odd stretch of mild stability, but the last semblance of that disappeared when Sam Allardyce left to briefly pause in the England job.
But every time you think the lowest low has been reached, something else comes along. At some point soon things have got to get better for Sunderland. It’s just hard to see when that will be.
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