By Paula Marcus
It really hasn’t been a good year for Sunderland. They spent the first half of the year trying to not be one of the worst team in the Premier League, and now they are ending it trying not to repeat the same feat in the Championship.
This week’s draw with bottom of the table Bolton Wanderers leaves them in the relegation zone, with no win in 11 games and now no manager.
Just one day before that draw with Bolton, manager Simon Grayson stated he was the right man to take the club forward. Apparently the club didn’t agree, announcing the sacking 17 minutes after the final whistle. Even though the club had been very quiet before the game, few doubted anything less than a win would see Grayson leading the team out on Saturday.
So far this has been a strange season in terms of manager sackings in the division, mainly because there haven’t really been any. Sunderland are only the second team so far to sack the manager, but that isn’t to say Sunderland are necessarily wrong in their decision (or that other teams are right). The balance has always been about how much time do you give a new manager to find his feet and when is it too late for anything to change.
Whilst the goal at the start of the season was probably promotion, the expectation for an instant return to the Premier League is probably not the issue here. If relegation to the Championship is costly, it is nothing compared to a double relegation, and the knowledge that the quickest you could possibly return to the top flight is two years. It is very hard to keep players and sponsors (and some fans) happy for that long.
Grayson took over a team that had suffered 26 losses in the previous season, and that failure to win can become an all too worrying habit. A change in manager is generally seen as a way to change form, but in this case it didn’t really work. The reason why it failed is also pretty clear. Despite selling players for millions, there was very little change or investment made in the squad. It is unclear if that was the manager’s belief that the squad he had was good enough, or the boards unwillingness to spend (or need to cut their losses).
Last season Aston Villa went down the spending route to little effect (although after some stability in players and management they are apparently reaping the rewards this season) and Sunderland may have wanted to learn from their lesson. But a squad that is really not good enough for the Premier League, and that has never played in the Championship, will be unlikely to get you promoted. There is another lesson that can be taken from Villa’s poor display last season; the correct manager appointment is vital.
Sunderland aren’t the only relegated team giving their fans a rough ride. Hull City are hardly having the return they had hoped for, sitting just a few places above Sunderland in 17th. For the fans, there is an obvious reason for their poor form over the past few seasons, the man/men in charge. Everyone remembers Assem Allam and his failed attempt to change the club name. Well now his son is involved and is seen by as the reason for the past few years of failure due to poor payer recruitments.
This all came to head last weekend when the fans planned a day of protest to mark ‘Allamween’ (which is certainly one of the more imaginative protest titles). Masks were given out showing the chairman’s son complete with dunce’s hat and there was a pregame march and protest. However some fans decided to go a little further to get that point across.
At 19 minutes and four seconds, to commemorate the year the club was formed, a small group of fans threw small yellow balls onto the pitch and into the Nottingham Forest penalty area. As the game was broadcast live on Sky, the resulting halt in play was front and centre, and attracted all the mainstream media. That isn’t to say everyone is happy.
Sometimes drastic times do call for drastic measures, and the stunt has split fans. The Hull City Action For Change has condemned the ball stunt and suggested that it isn’t the best way to get the point across. Manager Leonid Slutsky has also appealed for fans to get behind the team, something that isn’t likely while the Allams are in charge of the club.
Despite years of protests nothing has changed at the club, and maybe it is time to do more to get the point across, especially if action is wanted from the Football League. In another show of strength, this week they announced that Massimo Cellino, you all remember him, has been banned and fined over the sale of Ross McCormack from Leeds in 2014. This decision has taken so long that the man that said he wouldn’t sell the club has actually sold the club, so the small fine and year ban are hardly likely to do much.
Of the three relegated teams from last year, it might seem surprising to those in the Premier League that Middlesbrough are so far best placed to make that quick return. But over the past few years they have been the most stable club, and that really is the key.
Listen to Paula’s latest Championship podcast at Premier Punditry.