Things can only get better. I’m sick of hearing it. Along with the chorus of a Bob Marley classic, D:Ream’s anthem sings of hope, but also hopelessness. It is the hope that kills.
For three seasons in a row now, I have clung on to the hope that “every little thing’s gonna be alright”, witnessing three magicians perform three acts of managerial and motivational magic to keep Sunderland AFC in the division by the skin of their teeth.
Last season, it was Dick Advocaat’s turn to pull the rabbit out of the hat in turning around another season on Wearside that seemed destined to end in relegation. Like Di Canio and Poyet before him, Advocaat gave fans a thrilling finale to the campaign, with extraordinary wins against Newcastle, Southampton and Everton and an away point at Arsenal, to pull off a hope-inspiring, laws-of-football-defying, Houdini-esque escape.
But following the ephemeral nature of the windows of positivity in Di Canio and Poyet’s respective reigns at the club, and the ultimate falling of the illusion that things had improved at Sunderland since the days of Bruce and O’Neil after one cup run and five consecutive derby victories, what is to say that the appointment of Advocaat will not prove to be just another distraction from the cancer at the heart of the club?
There are several similarities, some positive, others rather disconcerting, between Di Canio and Poyet’s spells and Advocaat’s brief time in charge so far.
Perhaps not so surprising is the fact that each of the three managers succeeded in getting a reaction out of the players, the same lacklustre players that had failed to create chances, score goals and get results all season under the former regime: Di Canio’s honeymoon period that followed the sacking of O’Neil proved to be perfectly timed with unlikely wins against Everton and Newcastle to keep us up; though Poyet was slightly slower out of the blocks, he managed to get vital points on the board after the Kamikaze start to that season under Di Canio, during which we gained just one point from a possible twenty one. It goes without saying that not many Sunderland fans would have put money on repeating our good fortune again last season.
All three managers showed a lot of passion for the club and fans, especially at the start, and this paid visible dividends on the pitch in important games – look no further than the derby record over the past three and a half seasons. I will never forget that infamous knee-slide in front of three thousand Sunderland fans at St James’ Park – we won that game simply because we wanted it more. However, looking back in retrospect, Di Canio’s re-entrance out onto the pitch after ‘his’ victory against Everton to the sound of his name sung to the tune of La donna è mobile was a sign of things to come – it was all about number one, and though he might as well have been on the pitch with the players the way he ran up and down the touchline, this self-centred celebration of an unproven (some might say lucky) head coach underlined his immaturity. There is little need to even mention his over-exuberant ill treatment of Cattermole, Sessegnon and Bardsley.
Contrast this to Advocaat’s display of emotion after escaping from an even tighter straight jacket, pulling off an even greater Great Escape than Poyet the previous season: muted tears, within his technical area, leaving the players to take the plaudits. Advocaat deflects all personal praise and in his interviews never uses the word ‘I’ or ‘me’, the sign of a true professional that has been touched by a struggling club whose fans deserve infinitely more. At 67, it would have been no surprise if Advocaat had decided to hang up his boots (or hang up his notebook), but he said that if he continued, it would always be at Sunderland. It is clear he developed a soft spot for the Black Cats, and recognised that the club was bigger than him.
Worryingly, however, Advocaat’s Sunderland team has shown that it is weak and vulnerable to capitulation at key moments in lynchpin games with disastrous consequences. Parallels will no doubt be drawn between the 4-1 home thrashing that Advocaat’s side took from Pardew’s Crystal Palace, the heart-breaking 4-0 annihilation from Villa four weeks earlier under Poyet (which was by far the worst performance I have seen from a Sunderland team at the Stadium of Light), and the 6-1 schooling that Di Canio’s ‘fellas’ received away again at Villa the season before. On each occasion, I was embarrassed to call myself a Sunderland fan.
All three managers were appointed by Ellis Short following the American’s almost inevitable loss of faith in their respective predecessor whom he regarded at the time as being the right man for the job. Three sackings in three seasons clearly signposts that his footballing decision-making is not his forte – and perhaps even, in the tragedy that could still be Sunderland AFC next season, his hamartia. Could Advocaat’s appointment be yet another catastrophic mistake?
I’d like to think not.
What has baffled me for the past five years is how four managers in Bruce, O’Neil, Di Canio and Poyet have been able to sit back and watch John O’Shea and Wes Brown plus one other slow and lazy centre back play week-in-week-out in the Premier League. A simple long ball over the top of the midfield played through to any striker with any amount pace whatsoever has Sunderland fans sweating with anxiety, biting their nails or placing blind faith in the goalkeeper (which, on a more positive note, has been a well filled position for the past few seasons).
Moreover, failure to replace Bent’s goals has frustrated many fans. Unfortunately, ex-Sunderland attacker and fans’ favourite Stephane Sessegnon, along with Wickham, Bendtner and Fletcher, could never fill the hole that Bent left in the team, and since his departure 5 years ago, only two players have scored reached double figures for league goals, and the last was three years ago. The thirty one goals that we scored last campaign was the lowest from a Sunderland side since the club were relegated from the division on a record low points total of fifteen in the 2005/2006 season; that side only scored five fewer goals than last year’s.
The adoption of the supposedly ‘sexier’, European style in football club management with the appointment of Di Canio as head coach and De Fanti as director of football almost proved to be catastrophic, and the wound that this regime left in the side of Sunderland has still not fully recovered. As Jame Riach writes in The Guardian, “for many, [De Fanti’s time on Wearside] remains one of the more mysterious periods in the club’s recent history. A new structure, an array of obscure signings and the presence of a volatile coach formed a combustible mixture that so nearly exploded.” After his sacking, De Fanti would go on to say how he was proud of his £7million net-spend that summer to “build a team from scratch” which saw Sunderland stay in the Premier League by the skin of their teeth, while the likes of Cardiff and Fulham, who each spent over four times more than that, were relegated.
But this is missing the point, and Ellis Short alongside Lee Congerton need to recognise this. In order for Sunderland to progress, first of all we must be prepared to spend more than a net-spend of £7million. More importantly, we need to sign quality and not quantity, something that Advocaat stressed in his emotional post-match interview at Arsenal. Just look at Southampton, who Shaw, Lallana, Chambers, Lovren and Lambert leave for £90million and replaced them with four quality signings in Tadic, Pelle, Betrand and Anderweld for £20million who took them to the next level. Contrast this to Spurs, who after selling Bale two years ago for a reported £85million have never replaced his goals and assists. This is despite spending £97million on international midfielders and attackers Paulinho, Chadli, Soldado, Capoue, Eriksen and Lamela – only one of whom being an out and out winger and only really Eriksen justifying his price tag. Spurs opted for quantity over replacing Bale’s quality.
Sunderland never in the first place had the same quality that Southampton and Spurs had. However, though Di Canio and Poyet also pointed out the lack of quality in the side, both failed to bring it in where it was needed, and players that did show some moments of quality could only be taken only on loan. To lose five key players out of the Capital One Cup Final starting XI over last summer was always going to be tough to deal with, but to replace them with Buckley, Bridcutt, Gomez, Jones and Vergini (Championship players at best) was for Poyet to shoot himself in the foot. Now is not the time to be trusting previously relegated players, such as Gomez, Fletcher and even to some extent Larson to take the club to the next level; nor is it the right time, as @SimonSKITSNYGG concluded last week for Roker Report, to be trusting luxury, unproven youth prospects such as El Haji Ba and Charis Mavrias. It is therefore not the time to be gambling on unproven managers with a club as big as Sunderland AFC.
At least two strikers, two strong, pacey centre backs and a creative central midfielder must be brought in this summer, and faith must be placed in Advocaat, a more experienced manager with many connections across Europe (especially in the Dutch league), to improve the squad with fitter and better quality players.
If he can first of all sign quality players and then continue to get players buying into his style of football and man management, then next season’s campaign hopes to be a promising one. Let’s put an end to hoping beyond hope for survival. Perhaps Dick Advocaat can be the medicine, not the magic, that Sunderland really need next season.