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The Impossible Job: Are Sunderland Simply Unmanageable?

The Impossible Job: Are Sunderland Simply Unmanageable?

Monday, 6 November, 2017 - 07:15
Clockwise: Paolo Di Canio, David Moyes, Simon Grayson and Gus Poyet are four of the club’s eight permanent managers in the past six years. Composite: Rex/Getty/PA

Simon Grayson readily agreed his record of one Championship win all season was not too hot but demanded it be viewed in grisly context. “I can’t think of too many people in football at this moment who could do a better job than I am,” he said on Monday.

By Tuesday evening he was gone, having been sacked by Sunderland within 15 minutes of the final whistle following a 3-3 home draw with fellow strugglers Bolton Wanderers.

While Grayson leaves the club in the relegation zone, with one victory in 15 league games this season and on a record-equalling run of 19 games without a home win, his brief tenure raises all sorts of awkward questions about Sunderland. Foremost among them is: are Sunderland simply unmanageable? Grayson was the eighth permanent manager at the Stadium of Light in the past six years. Of that group only Sam Allardyce left with his head held high – for his short time in charge of England – and could be said to have inspired confidence among supporters.

Allardyce readily admitted the job he did in rescuing Sunderland from relegation in 2015-16 was “the hardest thing he had ever done” in football.

The coaches Robbie Stockdale and Billy McKinlay will be in charge for Sunday’s derby at Middlesbrough in advance of an appointment being made during the international break. Contenders include Aitor Karanka, the former Boro manager, but many candidates may prefer to avoid clambering into one of the game’s most toxic tracksuits.

If Ellis Short, the owner, has made a series of calamitous decisions, Sunderland’s constantly shifting cast of players must also shoulder considerable responsibility for the series of relegation dalliances that prefaced last season’s drop into the Championship.

For years there have been rumours – consistently, and often vehemently, denied by the club – of excessive player power allied to a dressing-room drinking culture.

A potential sliding doors moment was reached in September 2013. At the time Paolo Di Canio was the manager and, having dramatically prevented relegation, the maverick Italian embarked on root and branch reform.

Man-management skills were not Di Canio’s forte and he always seemed to lack the subtlety necessary to coach at the highest level but Short and his board arguably made a very big mistake in sacking him in the wake of a player revolt possibly unprecedented at the highest level of modern English football.

On the Sunday morning following a defeat at West Bromwich Albion accompanied by a huge row involving Di Canio and the midfielder Lee Cattermole, a delegation of players – with Cattermole prominent – visited Margaret Byrne, the chief executive and demanded the manager’s dismissal.

The squad were outraged at the former West Ham striker’s persistent questioning of their professionalism and lifestyles but the suspicion lingers that, for all his faults, Di Canio had a point. This after all was a group who managed to rouse themselves sufficiently to record six straight victories in derbies against Newcastle United but consistently flirted with relegation.

Gus Poyet, Di Canio’s successor, soon seemed uneasy. “There’s something wrong and I need to find it before I go too,” the Uruguayan said. The issue remained on his mind when Poyet spoke to the Guardian’s Sid Lowe during his time at Real Betis. “There’s something inside Sunderland, something at it’s very core,” he said. “It’s hard to explain but there’s a way of life, something deep down, that makes it difficult to fulfil its potential. If I knew what it was I’d say but it’s there and it needs to be changed at the root.”

A high player turnover partly prompted by managers wanting to bring in their own men has dictated that Cattermole – perhaps significantly demoted to the bench by Grayson in recent weeks – and John O’Shea are the only survivors from Steve Bruce’s Sunderland reign but, whatever the team sheet, familiar problems endure.

If Grayson was always up against it after offloading 15 players in the summer and signing 10 for a collective £1.25m, he clearly failed to communicate and connect with potentially key individuals including Lamine Koné and Didier Ndong among a squad who have an annual wage bill of £30m.

An Allardyce signing, Koné has seen his form regress alarmingly since David Moyes, Grayson’s predecessor, rejected an £18m bid for the centre-half from Everton in the summer of 2016. Few fans objected when he was dropped to the bench against Bolton. Recruited by Moyes, Ndong is Sunderland’s record £13m signing but the Gabon midfielder has disappointed this season. At the training ground he is known for being the last to arrive and first to depart while often seeming disengaged. “Only Sam Allardyce really succeeded in getting inside the heads of players,” said an insider. “And Sam had to really take them back to basics.”

In August Darron Gibson, a Moyes buy and another midfielder yet to impress, was secretly filmed in a bar by a Sunderland fan following a 5-0 friendly home defeat to Celtic. Gibson, clearly inebriated, suggested his team-mates did not care. “We’re fucking shit,” he said. “There are too many people at the club who don’t give a fuck.”

Behind the scenes there is unhappiness about Martin Bain, the chief executive – who replaced Byrne following her role in the Adam Johnson scandal – presiding over a series of behind-the-scenes redundancies last spring.

By way of further complication, a club corroded by Byzantine off-field politics as Short flip-flopped between a European director of football system and traditional managers is also for sale. A year ago Short was demanding £180m for a concern that has a near 50,000-capacity stadium, a superb training ground and is capable of regularly attracting crowds in excess of 45,000.

Now the American financier is relocating to Florida, the club is arguably worth less than the £49.5m he wants for his house in Chelsea and, with season-ticket holders simply not bothering to turn up, the ground invariably feels well under half-full.

“Simon’s a tremendous manager with a great record throughout his career,” said the shocked Bolton manager, Phil Parkinson, on Tuesday. “I think anybody who comes into this club is going to find it a tough challenge.”

The Guardian Sport

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