Soccer City: Sunderland – the weight of history

SUNDERLAND have been “big” for many years. That big means two things; big history and big support. It doesn’t mean a reflection of size in the same way that Manchester United or Arsenal are described, because Sunderland are not a successful club in the modern football era. The club’s historic success was mostly accumulated between the late 19th and the early 20th centuries. Of Sunderland’s eight major trophies, only one, the FA Cup in 1973, has come since the end of the second world war. Their last Football League championship success was in 1936.

The club’s fans have been loyal in the extreme and this devotion is poised to be tested further in 2018-19 when Sunderland kick-off in League One, their penalty for two successive relegations. The likelihood is, in the club’s second “parachute payment” season, that Sunderland will bounce back, but the task of returning the “Black Cats” to the Premier League may take some time and a corporate rethink.

Sunderland are certainly too big for League One football, but unless they have a more stable model at the Stadium of Light, it’s difficult to see them back in the top flight in the near-term.

Sunderland’s history has included some great footballing moments, but most people who follow the club cannot even remember when Ian Porterfield’s goal beat the mighty Leeds United in the 1973 FA Cup final. “I was there,” said an elderly fan with a “Wembley 73” tracksuit top on his wiry body. “Stood behind the goal when Monty made that save from Lorimer…but we’ve had nowt since,” he said rather wistfully. “This club’s going nowhere until Short gets shot of it…he wants to go and he blames himself, but we have been relegated twice on the bounce. It’s terrible. Shocking….a disgrace.”

Wembley 1973 is everywhere at the impressive Stadium of Light. Bob Stokoe’s statue greets you as you walk from the town centre and across the giant industrial age bridge that, alongside the giant viaduct, provide reminders that Sunderland played its part in the age of steam, ship building and commerce. Stokoe’s outstretched arms are an iconic depiction of one of modern football’s most romantic stories. But it is 45 years ago and Sunderland have had precious little to add to that golden afternoon at the old stadium when England’s finest team of the early 1970s were beaten by a second division team that included the likes of Jim Montgomery, Dave Watson and Dennis Tueart.

Sunderland’s other major prizes included three league titles between 1891-92 to 1894-95, the sort of record that, today, entitles a team to be called “legendary”. They deserve mention for more than their achievements – Sunderland entered the Football League in 1890 having promised to pay the travelling expenses of every visiting team to the North-East. Furthermore, that Sunderland title-winning line-up, which was nicknamed, “the team of all talents”, included six teetotallers and seven non-smokers, somewhat unusual in that period.

Sunderland, like Aston Villa and Newcastle United, were standard-bearers of Victorian and Edwardian football. This was their most influential, and in Sunderland’s case, most successful time. As Britain’s economic profile changed, clubs that represented the establishment and growth of industrial football fell away from pre-eminence and of that trio, Sunderland have had less success.

When the Stadium of Light was built in 1997 on the north bank of the River Wear, it seemed to represent a new, hopeful era. The club had been relegated in 1996-97 from the Premier, but two years later, they were promoted back to the top level. They became a yo-yo club for a while, but in 2007 they were promoted again and spent 10 years in the Premier before being relegated in 2017.

The writing had been on the wall for a while, so relegation was no great surprise. But from a financial perspective, the drop was catastrophic for Sunderland. In 2015-16, the club had lost £ 33m while its wage bill increased by 9% to £ 84m. Wages represented some 78% of revenues, a worrying figure for a club in decline. Equally concerning was the club’s level of debt, the fourth highest in the Premier at £ 137m. Overall, as Premier League clubs are actually making decent profits, Sunderland’s position raises red flags, and not those with club crests emblazoned across them.

Adding to the feeling that the club is drifting in the wrong direction is the number of managers Sunderland have employed in recent years. The current manager is Chris Coleman, formerly the Wales national team coach, who was appointed in November 2017. His predecessor, Simon Grayson last just four months and since 2015, Dick Advocaat, Sam Allardyce and David Moyes have all attempted to change Sunderland’s fortunes. The average timespan of a Sunderland manager in this period has been around seven months – hardly a recipe for success.

Sunderland went into 2017-18 with very few new signings of note, spending just £ 1.2m on James Vaughan (Bury), Jason Steele (Blackburn) and Aiden McGeady (Everton). They also signed a  umber of players on free transfers, such as West Bromwich Albion’s Callum McManaman. At the same time, they lost goalkeeper Jordan Pickford to Everton for £ 30m.

The season started with two draws and a win, but it was not until November 25 that Sunderland won again, 2-0 at Burton Albion. By this time, Sunderland were in 22nd place in the Championship. Their first home win of the campaign came on December 16, a 1-0 success against Fulham. Their only other home win was in late January against Hull.

Sunderland took up permanent residency in the bottom four from quite early in the season. As 2018 arrived and headed towards spring, the unthinkable started to become reality – Sunderland could be relegated for the second season running. With three games to go, and all hope of avoiding the humiliation of a double-drop gradually evaporating, Sunderland faced fellow strugglers Burton.

The mood in the town centre was sombre, not quite what you’d expect of a city that recently ranked among the top six growing economies in the UK. The fortunes of the football club have always had an influence on people on Wearside,  but since relegation the crowds have dropped by 33%, the biggest fall by a Football League club in 2017-18.

Given the form of Chris Coleman’s team, this is understandable, but Sunderland are calling on everyone to lend a hand. The Catholic church on the corner of St. Mary’s Way was urging all passers-by to light a candle for the team, perhaps a last-ditch attempt to pull away from the abyss.

Inside the Stadium of Light, the crowd was slow to build and remained fairly quiet, the only significant noise coming from the Burton fans, who were also staring relegation in the eye. The difference was that for Burton, Championship football represented the unexpected pinnacle, whereas expulsion for Sunderland implied complete disaster.

The game itself was poor and evidenced why both teams have struggled all season. Sunderland took the lead in the 34th minute through Paddy McNair, but it was an unconvincing half-time lead. Still, Sunderland could have made much more of their period in charge. Former player Darren Bent was greeted by his old fans with cries of “one greedy bastard, there’s only one greedy bastard” and it was ironic that he should score the equaliser after 86 minutes. As it hit the net, the first exits were made by Sunderland’s frustrated fans. When Liam Boyce headed a second for Burton in added time, the sound of seats being tipped up, and in some cases, kicked to pieces, even drowned out the jeering. A banner, which nobody could read, but was doubtless aimed at the club’s owner, was unfurled in protest.

There was even more confusing and heated drama in the dying seconds when Sunderland appeared to net an equaliser, but after some consultation and frantic card-waving, the “goal” was ruled out for handball. Burton’s win sent Sunderland into League One.

The Lowryesque procession back to town began, largely resigned and silent as Sunderland’s fans digested more disappointment. The occasional, muttered expletive could be heard from the red and white striped mass. While some talked of “bouncing back”, others were more dystopian in their outlook for the future.

Meanwhile, Sunderland issued a press release confirming their relegation. “We began the season in the knowledge that with the backdrop of relegation from the Premier League and our financial position, it would be a significant challenge to make an immediate return to the top flight. However, it was not envisaged nor expected that we would subsequently be facing the prospect of League One football.”

What next for Sunderland and their crestfallen fans? This is a hugely relevant club but one that, in order to compete in the modern football business structure, needs investment beyond its current level. The club’s financial position, which will undoubtedly be clarified with the publication of 2016-17 figures in the coming weeks, is a concern, and the disconnect between owner and supporters is also sub-optimal. The owner is prepared to sell for next to nothing if the club’s debts are taken over – relegation does not help that situation, but with an excellent stadium, superb support (25,000 for the death knell game against Burton underlines the loyalty of the Sunderland public) and strong regional identity, Sunderland is still one of English football’s grand old names. The real hurdle is to make that identity into a genuine 21st century institution that can compete. Sunderland should never forget its historic achievements, but new heroes for a new age are needed.

Photo: PA

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