GARY Bennett has seen enough Sunderland relegations in his time as a radio summariser for Radio Newcastle – and he was even involved in a couple during his playing days.
But that was long before Drumaville and Ellis Short got generous cheque books out which should have bankrolled the Black Cats into becoming a fixture in the top half dozen teams in the land.
And Bennett (right) says Sunderland should never have found themselves in the position this season of sweating on their Premier League lives after finishing their penultimate game of the season.
“It’s ridiculous really,” he said.
“Especially when you look at all the money spent on the club in the last few years and the advantages it enjoys in terms of its Academy, its stadium and 40,000 plus crowds it attracts.
“The owner has spent more than £100m on transfer money since taking over and he was entitled to expect better.”
SEASON 2012-13 – ONE TO FORGET
NO ONE was unduly worried back in August with the manager looking to have bought well in the summer, striker Steven Fletcher, winger Adam Johnson, full-back Danny Rose and centre-half Carlos Cuellar being added to the ranks.
But the continued improvement under Martin O’Neill (left) failed to materialise and Bennett feels the manager has to take the lion’s share of the blame for the club’s current plight.
“I go back to the start of the season where the manager seemed to have made his mind up about the players and the system he was going to play, and that was that!” mused Benno.
“He went for a 4-5-1 formation which didn’t serve them too badly on their travels but which failed to bring goals and wins at home.
“It meant he played players who were clearly out of form but kept on sticking with them rather than giving others a try. You look at strikers like Louis Saha, Connor Wickham and Fraizer Campbell and they were just never given a chance.
“By all means, have your first choices, but if it is not working at least be prepared to change.
“It was the same with his substitutions, he rarely seemed to make any which were pro-active or affected the game, and as for only fielding six subs instead of seven, saying he didn’t want to give youngsters false hopes, because they didn’t merit a place on the bench, well that completely baffled me.
“Maybe they weren’t good enough but that move would have done nothing for their confidence or motivation, and not playing so many other members of the squad would have similarly sapped confidence and motivation.
“The alarm bells were there when he said he was worried at the start of the season that the squad lacked true ability!
“If it did, then it was up to him to change it. If it did, it was up to him to get the most out of players he possibly could and too many did not perform to the standards they were capable of.
“He then had a last chance to change it in January with another transfer window but he failed to improve things then too. In fact they got worse.
“He spent money on Kader Mangane who wasn’t fit and then didn’t play at all under him. What confidence would that have given the owner?”
PAOLO DI CANIO
SHORT’S response was to sack O’Neill and bring in Paolo Di Canio.
And while Bennett doesn’t quibble with the decision, he believes we have to accept that the Italian is not quite the finished product as far as Messiahs go.
“Paolo has come in and I think he has done very well,” he said. “He improved their display in his first match at Chelsea and then he got fantastic results and performances against Newcastle and Everton, which lifted the whole city.
“But then it went belly up against Aston Villa and, more worryingly, I don’t think he helped the cause in either of the home games against Stoke and Southampton.
“He played James McClean on the right-wing, which was clearly the wrong decision. The lad couldn’t play in that role against Stoke and we only improved when he was switched.
“So it had you scratching your head when the head coach started him there against Southampton, although at least Di Canio switched him after 15 minutes when he wasn’t playing well.
“There were just a few odd selection decisions he made and I was far from alone in wondering why Seb Larsson was played in the middle and Jack Colback on the wing when it seemed obvious they should have been playing in the opposite positions.
“These decisions didn’t help the team and for the first time you had people scratching their heads and worrying about the manager’s tactics.
“We have to give the new manager time to learn about his players though, although I suspect the hardest thing he’ll have had to grasp is that though they are playing in the Premier League, sometimes they struggle to do the simple things well.
“He has to appreciate they are not as good, as players, as he was.
“We have to give him credit though for those victories against Newcastle and Everton which helped make all the difference because the club was going nowhere fast before he arrived.
“Now he has to be given the best backing he can get for what will be a summer of rebuilding.”
WHAT NEEDS TO CHANGE AND WHO NEEDS TO CHANGE IT?
IF THAT rebuilding process is to succeed, Bennett believes two things have to happen – Short and Di Canio have to work hand in glove and the overhaul must be seismic in its repercussions.
He told the Echo: “I don’t think it comes down to Di Canio or down to Short. They BOTH have massive roles to play.
“Short will make plenty of money available again, I’m sure of that. He has watched the games and he knows big changes have to be funded.
“But I think this time more than any other he’ll want value for money. I think he’ll want more from the Academy and I think he’ll want more from player recruitment.
“I watched the FA Youth Cup final the other night and saw Chelsea take on Norwich. Norwich had four or five good young players who you could see going on to good things but why shouldn’t Sunderland be up there too? What have Norwich got that Sunderland haven’t?
“Short has been in football long enough to wonder why the Swanseas, West Broms and even Wigans can be buying so shrewdly, getting players in who blossom at their clubs but don’t break the bank and why we can’t be doing the same.
“I think he will Paolo his head this summer – let him reshape it as he wants it – but I don’t see Short as some remote figure anymore, if he ever was, he will want to be involved because this is now a massive project for him now and he wants to see some degree of stability and success.
“What encouraged me most, was Paolo’s statement on Sunday after the Southampton game: “I change everything,” because I think that’s what needs to happen.
“It needs to be a root and branch overhaul from top to bottom. We need to see more and better players coming through the Academy. Then you have to look at the scouting system, maybe it needs to be more scientific and thorough if we’re going to match other clubs in the Premier League that have done better than us.
“And as for the first team squad itself, major surgery is required.
“Sunderland fans could tell you the problems that have been obvious for years now but have not been addressed and now need to be looked at urgently.
“We need a good young centre-half with pace, we need a central midfielder who can put his foot on the ball and dictate the game – nothing against Seb Larsson who does a job on the wing, but he was never the answer in central midfeld – we need more goalscorers, some might mention a left-back or a right-back.
“We need more leaders, more characters, more talkers because as a team we’re too nice.
“But this has been going on for a while now and it has been allowed to reach quite a serious stage.
“Beforehand, a year or two ago, we needed maybe three or four in and three or four out.
“Now it is something like seven or eight in, seven or eight out.
“I think it is going to be a big summer for the club – Di Canio might struggle more to get players out, than to get them in – but at least it is clear that he has a massive appetite for the job.
“Sunderland are going to need every bit of that enthusiasm and desire, plus a lot of nous and maybe even a little bit of luck, if the fans are to get back to getting the sort of team their amazing support deserves.”