When the full-time whistle blew at the Stadium of Light yesterday afternoon, the only limiting factor on the cacophony of boos that greeted the players as they slunk from the pitch was that so many of the 25,000 strong crowd seemed already to have left the ground. It had been supposed that relegation from the Premier League at the end of last season might, at least by way of compensation, provide some sort of relief from the perpetual cycle of ever-diminishing hope and ever-expanding ennui that being a Sunderland supporter had become. Perhaps, it was reckoned, Sunderland needed to find their level. A year or two in the Championship, winning a few more matches, might put smiles back onto a few faces.
It hasn’t worked out like that, of course, and irony laid upon irony as they slid from the Championship. First, there was hope. Paddy McNair gave them the lead in the thirty-fourth minute, and held onto it with increasing grimness before, with four minutes left to play, Darren Bent, still reviled in Sunderland for the nature of his move to Aston Villa from them several years ago, equalised. With this came despair, further compounded when Liam Boyce nicked a winner for Burton, two minutes into stoppage-time. Then false hope and anger, with a goal suspiciously chalked off for handball with practically the last kick of the match. And ultimately, resignation. Slender margins are slender margins, but Sunderland haven’t been good enough over the course of this season. And perhaps that’s what hurts the most.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this, not against Burton Albion. This was the team that had been sitting about the foot of the table all season. A team of modest resources, even by comparison with Sunderland’s Premier League parachute payments. But it spoke volumes of the natures of Sunderland AFC at the moment that what might at any other time have been a routine win against the division’s bottom Club dissolved so quickly, and into such farce. Burton themselves still face an uphill battle to survive, and their refusal to give up explained something about why, despite their own shortcomings, they still have a chance, whereas Sunderland do not.
As ever, pointed stares are aimed towards the directors box at the Stadium of Light, in particular towards the one chair guaranteed empty every week – that of absentee owner, Ellis Short. It’s not difficult to trace the majority of problems back to Short, even if he did get involved with the best of intentions, and even if he has underwritten eye-watering losses with a rictus grin, although accusatory glances are also commonplace towards chief executive Martin Bain, who has overseen two relegations since arriving at the club… two years ago. Some, however, do consider him to be a symptom rather than a cause of the club’s problems.
Quite where manager Chris Coleman will come to sit here is anybody’s guess. His stock as a coach had never been higher after taking Wales to the semi-finals of the 2016 European Championships, but even though he failed to get the team to the World Cup finals after this, his appointment into the Sunderland job seems baffling. Had he been so involved in international football that he was unaware of just what a terrible state Sunderland were in? It would be overstatement to say thay Coleman’s reputation is “ruined” – again, he arrived long after the systemic issues that run from head to toe through this club began to manifest themselves – but it can hardly be said to have been “enhanced” either, by a win rate of just 17.9%, comfortably the worst of his career.
Then there are the players. Or rather, “the players”. Yesterday’s team was poor. Yes, of course it was. But to blame the players of Sunderland for what has happened is to assume a collective responsibility on all of those who have passed by the door of this football club over the last few years. “The players” are responsible. Not just this season’s lot, not just last season’s lot. Every player should stand up and take their part of the blame. Sure enough, there will be a small number who don’t deserve it, but they’ll be vastly outnumbered by those who do, and all concerned have been handsomely recompensed for doing so.
And then there’s David Moyes. The extent to which one can absolve David Moyes of responsibility over this mess is, put simply, the extent to which you think the club was already beyond help before he arrived. On paper, he was a reasonable signing for a club at this level, except for… everything. Moyes appeared disheartened from almost the very moment he arrived at the Stadium of Light, and the best that can said about some of his more pronouncements is that if they were intended to be realistic and somehow motivational players, he can only be considered to be hopelessly tone deaf. This fatalism boxed him into a corner from the moment of his arrival. Goodwill and good faith are rare currencies around the club at the moment, and Moyes seemed almost pathologically interested with destroying his from the outset. Again, the problems started long before his arrival, but he did precisely nothing to improve the club while there and his legacy is ultimately this second successive relegation.
The relegation of Sunderland isn’t the end, of course. But that doesn’t necessarily need to be a good thing. There were likely people who thought that relegation at the end of kast season was “the end” of something. None of this is that Sunderland will simply continue to plummet. All it means is that this relegation marks the end of another chapter, and that there’s still more to write. Next season might well see the club find its level, get the right players for the task at hand, and apply itself positively to the job of getting out of League One in an upwardly direction as quicky as possible. League One has tended – with a couple of exceptions – to be as far as those who have tumbled from the Premier League have fallen.
Where does Sunderland AFC go from here? It’s an entirely fair question. Will Chris Coleman hang around, knowing that he probably hung the jury last season, he might not get so lucky again? What can Sunderland do to their wage budget by offloading some of their more expensive players? Will a buyer for the club be found, ending this bizarre type of slow drift towards obscurity? Ellis Short has to go, and if he won’t or can’t go, then he has to suck it up and change. He has to take some ownership of the situation. His business is depreciating in value with every passing minute and if he doesn’t get a hold of it, the club’s finances could easily slide out of control.
We almost certainly said this last year, but perhaps this is as bad as it gets for Sunderland. After all, similar obituaries were written for Blackburn Rovers this time last year, when they completed a similar journey from the Premier League to League One with distant, mismanaging owners. Blackburn currently need just one win from their remaining three league matches of the season to secure promotion back to the Championship. Manchester City took this step twenty years ago, and look where they are now. But that’s the thing. Manchester City are the exception. Blackburn found their bottoming out level, and Sunderland’s may or may not be lower than theirs.
But what’s difficult to take about what’s happening at Sunderland in particular is the inertia on the part of some of those who can in the face of such a decline. It’s probably less the case than has been before, but we do have a degree of tolerance for sheer, blind incompetence. If Ellis Short hit The Peter Principle, the point in the world of work at which a manager rises to the level of their incompetence, then so be it. But that doesn’t excuse not even bothering to ever attend it and not dropping the price to take it over to a level at which somebody, somehow, will take it off your hands. For all of that, though, Sunderland have been a unique blend of omnishanbles in recent years, from which few who’ve been in contact at a professional level emerge with a great deal of credit.