Sunderland’s rebirth begins, but there’s a way to go

SUNDERLAND regained Championship status at the end of 2021-22, winning a play-off final at Wembley against Wycombe Wanderers. Since then, there has been some boardroom activity, with the club’s owner, Kyril Louis-Dreyfuss, strengthening his hand by raising his stake to 51%. This may not sound like complete control, but he now has the majority stake in the club, which will give him the freedom he needs to drive his own agenda. His acolyte, Uruguayan senator Juan Sartori, has a 30% holding, so everyone should more or less be singing from the same song sheet.

This is important, because if Sunderland are to get back to the Premier League and rediscover the elixir that returns the north-east to hotbed status, then the club needs direction, a strategy and a vision of how it can be achieved. In 2022-23, the club will be marking 50 years since they last won a trophy, that legendary 1973 FA Cup triumph against the mighty Leeds United. How appropriate would it be for the Black Cats to win a place in the Premier at the end of a landmark campaign?

Take away that shock win in 1973, and there’s scarcely anyone alive who remembers a Sunderland success. Their last league title was secured in 1936 and a year after they won the FA Cup for the first time. Sunderland’s real glory days were in the late 19th and early 20th century, five championships between 1892 and 1913, including the famous “team of all the talents”. In fact, this period was really the north-east’s footballing belle epoch.

Sunderland are part of a small group of clubs that enjoyed their best moments when football had grown out of the industrial revolution – Newcastle United and Aston Villa are also members. These clubs suffered when the inter-war years brought depression and recession to Britain, and needless to say, it was the working class and back-breaking industry that suffered more than most. Sunderland’s crowds went from 25,000 in 1929 to 17,000 in 1933, while Newcastle United saw their attendances fall from 33,000 in 1930 to 20,000 in 1935. Middlesbrough, meanwhile, were drawing 12,000 in 1934, a third down on the 19,000 averaged at Ayresome Park in 1930. Whereas pre-World War One football saw Newcastle United and Sunderland win eight league titles, only two have been won since – 1927 and 1936.

Generations of fans have forgotten what a truly successful Sunderland looks like

Some of this has undoubtedly been attributable to the decline of Britain’s industrial heritage and the over-emphasis on London, and in the case of Sunderland, shipbuilding, which had been so crucial to the town’s growth, declined until the last shipyard closed in the late 1980s. How much of this impacted on the football club is uncertain, but there’s little doubt a poor economic climate in a town or city can be reflected in the performance of a club. There are exceptions, of course, but for a football institution with huge potential support and a pivotal role to play in the city, Sunderland have become one of English football’s great underachievers.

The club has had many false dawns, the term “sleeping giant” has been used so much that generations of fans have forgotten what a successful Sunderland looks like. And yet, their loyalty is undeniable, the recent television documentary, Sunderland ‘til I die, demonstrated just how important the club is to the local 175,000 population. The club has had too many owners in the 21st century, including Ellis Short, Stewart Donald and Bob Murray. Kyril Louis-Dreyfuss, who is part of the famous French family that has business interests in finance, agriculture and shipping, also has a stake in Olympique Marseille.

From a financial perspective, Sunderland’s current position illustrates how much ground they have to make-up on Premier League clubs even at the bottom end of their own food chain. In 2020-21, their revenues totalled just £ 10.7 million, a 63% drop on 2019-20. Since 2017, their income has dropped alarmingly (it was £ 123.5 million in 2016-17) due to two relegations and the pandemic. However, their wage bill of £ 13.4 million represents an astonishing 125% of earnings. Louis-Dreyfuss has prioritised the task of making Sunderland a more sustainable business. Promotion back to the Premier League would transform the club’s finances dramatically.

With Louis-Dreyfuss snapping-up the shares owned by now departed Charlie Methven, any prospect of a crypto-currency driven group acquiring a stake – via the shares of Methven or Stewart Donald – has gone. The local media reported that rumours of a crypto group’s possible involvement “has gone down like a lead balloon with Sunderland fans”. While some may consider the club has dodged a bullet, this has underlined the growing presence of a largely speculative and volatile form of finance gathering momentum in the football world. Louis-Dreyfuss distanced himself from talk of and emphasised any transfer of shares must not compromise the club’s integrity.

The fans will be hoping that the Louis-Dreyfuss regime will bring stability and the chance to build with a longer-term view. In the past decade, Sunderland have employed 12 permanent managers, ranging from Martin O’Neill to current boss Alex Neil. The average tenure has been just 40 games. Neil was appointed in February 2022 and the team has lost just once since he arrived. Again, for the Black Cats to be successful, they need some consistency and solidity in the dugout.

The current team is largely a young squad, with only a couple of players over 30. The leading scorer, Ross Stewart, has earned the nickname, the “Loch Ness Drogba” from Sunderland fans, owing to his style of play. He scored 26 goals last season and won two caps for Scotland. The club has added to its forward power in the summer by signing former Bayern Munich striker Leon Dajaku from Union Berlin. Furthermore, Sunderland have been boosted by Lynden Gooch’s decision to remain at the Stadium of Light. The 26 year-old USA international has impressed since Alex Neil joined the club. Winger Patrick Roberts, who featured in the promotion run-in on a six-month loan, has signed a two-year deal to stay with the club.

The Championship is a highly competitive league and Neil’s team will do well to make a mark in their first season back at that level. They may need a year or two to consolidate and then mount a serious challenge for promotion. Sunderland need to look beyond 2022-23 if they are to transform their status and create real value for their owner.

Ipswich Town: Tractor boys trying to find their way home

IN THE days when British football teams had players called Mick, Terry, Paul, Eric and Kevin, Ipswich Town were among the finest footballing teams in the land. When the club won the Football League in 1962, they were called “rustic” and “journeymen”, but despite the popular view that they were a team of has-beens, only two players were over 30, John Elsworthy and Jimmy Leadbetter.

The 1981 team was far from rustic and played some of the most progressive football in the Football League. In truth, that team was a better, more sophisticated unit, managed by the popular [Sir] Bobby Robson. Ipswich, when on song, were a marvellous set of players and were very popular with the neutrals. They were skilful, entertaining and, mostly, played the game in the right spirit.

After Robson left to manage England and take his country to the last eight of the World Cup in 1986 and semi-finals in 1990, the club declined. Many might have predicted there would be a downturn as it often happens when an outstanding coach leaves the group he created. Ipswich were always punching above their weight, largely because of Robson’s reign at the club and when he departed, they were left to battle it out with clubs with greater financial resources.

Between 1972-73 and 1981-82, Ipswich finished in the top six in all but one season. And in that period, they ended in the top three on seven occasions. In the first campaign after Robson’s departure, they finished ninth and in 1986, they were relegated. From thereon, the story changed, and since 1992-93, they have enjoyed only five Premier seasons and 22 in the Championship. The past three seasons (including 2021-22), they have been in League One, the third tier.

It says a lot about the decline of a fine club that Ipswich Town are now hosting Accrington Stanley, Fleetwood, Burton Albion and Morecambe, instead of Barcelona, Real Madrid, AC Milan and Roma. Ipswich were a typical UEFA Cup team in the days when the competition oozed quality. At the same time, while considering Ipswich’s current status, it is important to credit clubs like Accrington rubbing shoulders with some big name clubs. Success, as we know, is relative.

On a cold, sunny January afternoon, Ipswich welcomed Accrington to Portman Road knowing almost every league game between now and the end of the season would be vital. Both teams were chasing a play-off place, but competition is fierce. Ipswich, who started the season poorly, had sacked coach Paul Cook in December and brought in former Manchester United assistant manager Kieran McKenna. Cook has since spoken out about his sacking, claiming there had been too much churn of the playing staff to judge his progress by mere statistics and data. To some extent, he is surely right, for almost the entire starting line-up against Accrington was acquired in the summer of 2021. In the days leading up to the game, Ipswich were back in the market, signing goalkeeper Christian Walton who made his loan spell from Brighton permanent and midfielder Tyreeq Bakinson was signed on a loan deal from Bristol City.

Cook lasted just nine months and 44 games (win rate 29%).  Just after he was appointed, Ipswich Town changed hands, with long-time owner Marcus Evans selling his 87.5% stake for £ 40 million to Gamechanger Limited, a vehicle controlled by US Investment Fund ORG AZ. As a result, the club is virtually debt free and should see the benefits in the future from a company that has US$ 13 billion of funds under management and US$ 700 million in cash. 

The new owners need to invest in Portman Road, a ground that has seen better days and needs some modernising, especially the Cobbold Stand with its outdated facilities (catering and toilet) and somewhat peculiar access points (steps down to go up). Nevertheless, the stadium is still neat, homely and has a good vibe. From the surrounding area, Portman Road stands out as a beacon for the town and the floodlights provide an excellent orientation marker. Ipswich’s crowds have been remarkable considering 2021-22 is their third successive year in League One, and for the Accrington game, the gate was 20,000 of which 131 hardy souls from Lancashire made the trip. The division has a number of clubs who have strong support, including Sunderland, Portsmouth and Sheffield Wednesday.

McKenna started his Ipswich career with a win against Wycombe Wanderers at the end of December and before the Accrington game, his team had won two of their three games, including a 4-0 victory at Gillingham. He must surely be aware that in the club’s current position, the pressure will be quite intense. The owners obviously want to restore Ipswich to some sort of normality and probably push on to regain Premier status. Instead of hiring one of the merry-go-round coaches, Ipswich’s management seem to have gone for a young, potential-rich coach with good connections.

The first half against Accrington saw the visitors, a tall and physical unit, take the lead after 15 minutes with a low shot by Ethan Hamilton. They almost went two-up when Matt Butcher’s effort was deflected onto the crossbar, but in the 23rd minute, Ipswich equalised when Bersant Celina found Wes Burns and he chipped the ball over goalkeeper Toby Savin’s head. Accrington hit the woodwork again through Jay Rich-Bagheulou but in the 65th minute, Conor Chaplin, who impressed for much of the game, was set-up by Janoi Donacien and he made some space before shooting home. A 2-1 win for Ipswich that keeps their play-off hopes alive for now and damages Accrington’s own chances. 

Given they have eight points to make up, Ipswich may have too much to do if they are to creep into the play-off zone, but an extended run of wins could soon change the picture significantly. Although league tables don’t lie, there’s something strange about seeing Ipswich Town this low in the football pyramid, but with new ownership with fresh ideas and new ambitions, it won’t be too long before they start their climb back.

Stranger in a strange land: Sheffield Wednesday

ALTHOUGH a battle would rage between Leeds and Sheffield if you ever suggested it, the club with the most gongs in Yorkshire is actually the Wednesday. Sheffield Wednesday have won eight major honours to Leeds United’s seven, although most of those trophies were lifted before the second world war. Sheffield United, their neighbours and red half of the steel city, have won five. Leeds, without doubt, are the closest the county has got to modern success, although their last piece of silverware was won in 1992.

Hillsborough has become a word that sends a chill up the spine of every football fan who remembers the days of precarious overcrowded terracing. There is a kind of horrific irony in the fact that the 1989 disaster took place at a time when football was staring into the abyss. 

The average attendance for the top flight in 1988-89 was 20,500 and Wednesday’s gates were just over 20,000. The most horrific and far-reaching catastrophe of the modern football era took place at a time when football grounds had never been less appealing. Not that Hillsborough was one of the worst stadiums, for it was always considered for FA Cup semi-finals and it hosted several games during Euro 96, but times were very different.

Hillsborough today remains a decent and capable arena and Wednesday still have the potential to be a very sizeable club. Sadly, they fall into the category of big also-rans, a status they have endured often over the past 50 years. The list of clubs in this bracket is extensive and seems to be getting more lengthy with time: Birmingham City, Nottingham Forest, Derby County, Stoke City, Newcastle United, Sunderland, Middlesbrough and so on.

Sheffield is a city that should host Premier League football on a regular basis. With a population of 530,000 people and two big clubs in Wednesday and United, it is not unreasonable to think that some modicum of success should come the city’s way. The last trophy to land up in Sheffield was the Football League Cup in 1991, won by Wednesday. That’s 30 long years ago. The last league title was won by Wednesday in 1930 and the last FA Cup triumph was also theirs in 1935. United’s last prize was the FA Cup in 1925 and their only title was won in 1898.

This season, Wednesday find themselves in league one thanks to a 12 point deduction that was later reduced to six. The penalty was punishment for breaching the EFL’s profitability and sustainability rules. Understandably, there is some bitterness and resentment, but Wednesday are too big to stay at this level for too long – at least that’s what the optimists believe.

While United were rubbing shoulders with the elite in 2020-21, Wednesday were last in the Premier League in 2000, so they have been in exile for over 20 years. The club’s finances have clearly suffered and in 2019-20, they made a pre-tax loss of £ 24.1 million. Their income totalled £ 21 million, but their wage bill was £ 33.5 million, a very worrying figure.

They haven’t uprooted any trees in 2021-22, so the mood at the recent home game with Gillingham was a little sombre and flat. Admittedly, it was Remembrance Weekend, but with the team just above mid-table and a little shot-shy (20 goals in 16), it was no surprise that Darren Moore’s side had drawn half of their games. They had only lost three league games and had gone seven games unbeaten, but those stalemates can be very damaging. Wednesday’s top scorer, Lee Gregory, had netted six goals before the Gillingham game, but he was unable to play in the game due to a calf injury. Gregory joined the club in the summer from Stoke City and has already become vital to Wednesday’s cause. They could have done with him.

The game itself was a reminder that this was the third tier of the English game. Gillingham took the lead after 22 minutes through Vadaine Oliver, a neat finish permitted by a generous Wednesday defence. Earlier, the home side went close when Callum Paterson’s close range effort bounced off the post. It wasn’t until the 75thminute when Wednesday equalised, Barry Bannan’s shot rebounding to Florian Kamberi, who shot home from inside the area. That was it as far as entertainment went, it was not a classic game by any means. But Wednesday are not far away from being a reasonable side, they have lost just three times, after all. With a few more goals, they can be promotion contenders. A crowd of 20,000 helps support the narrative of a long lost status.

Perthaps this is why the locals seeed perpetually discontented, judging by the banter on the journey back to the centre of town. A trip from Hillsborough can include a tram journey, a highly civilised way to travel even if the carriages were full of supporters singing anti-United songs and gagging for their pre-match refreshments. They’re all the same, really, football fans.