The anatomy of a crisis in football is very much similar to that of an ailing person. A minor crisis can be reversed given the care and attention required at that time, especially if the pre-crisis health of the patient was rude. But when minor becomes major at a time of already failing health, that is when you have a problem.
Beginning the season with a pair of defeats might not constitute a major crisis to some, but coming off the back of three years of Lazarus-like resurrections, Sunderland’s defibrillator is running low on charge.
Major surgery was needed on a perpetually underperforming squad during the summer but what actually occurred was akin to placing a sticking plaster over an axe wound. A cheap, ineffective plaster at that.
The defeats you can stomach, but it’s the manner in which the points are surrendered that worries most and mere tinkering with the team isn’t going to be enough to reverse a culture of such negativity and defeatism which has surrounded the club for too long.
Dick Advocaat isn’t to blame for that. When clubs are on the slide and find themselves in a form trough, it’s easier to stop a runaway train single-handed than to halt a run of bad results and insipid performances. That’s why I hoped Dick’s arrival would be coupled with wholesale changes to ring in a new attitude on the back of last season’s Houdini feat.
But barely three hours of football has led to a bemused Advocaat scratching his head so much I’d be surprised if he hasn’t drawn blood. He has already felt the need to call a team meeting last Sunday and I’m afraid say, in my experience, these kinds of “crisis” meetings rarely result in anything other than a chance to expel hot air.
Managers tell the players what they are doing wrong, players admit they haven’t been performing up to standard and they make promises to each other that they will try harder, defend more resolutely and to attack with more verve, and whilst all promises are made with the best of intentions, the majority of time they ending up just being words. Promises as fragile as the confidence of the players, and broken just as easily when they aren’t met.
I’ve no doubt that Sunday’s meeting will not be the last post-mortem to be called, unless there’s a drastic turnaround in fortunes. It will get to a point where you feel as if you’re having meeting to discuss the meetings and UN diplomats need to be called in to help discussions stay amicable.
If the point of irreversibility is reached, the next phase to the crisis is the “manager/player fallout” at the training ground, which usually ends up with session being abandoned. I can remember that happening half a dozen times during my career, and twice during my time at Sunderland.
The first time was on the pitch at Roker Park during a practice match. Reserve team player Anthony Robinson put an unnecessarily heavy challenge in on manager Terry Butcher and the blue touch paper was lit. Cue much scuffling and a pair of shovel-like hands having to be prised from around Robinson’s throat.
The second was an argument between Gary Owers and then assistant manager Trevor Hartley, which started off innocuously enough but ended up with the coaching staff prematurely wrapping up training. The end for both bosses was only a matter of weeks in the distance.
If the reaction to the first two games of the season seems to be somewhat rash, then I’m afraid that’s just the nature of the game. Or at least, that’s the nature of Premier League football, anyway.
Pre-season dreams have been turned to nightmares like a pound of Stinking Bishops before bedtime and the optimism swilling around the city in June seems as far away from the place as ketchup was under Paolo.
In the end, the manager ultimately pays with his job but in this instance it would be foolish to shoulder Advocaat with too much of the blame. And I know the players have come in for some stick this week, particularly from Michael Gray, but if you say the players aren’t good enough, you can’t really blame them either. And therein lies the real problem.
This is a squad assembled not just on the say of one man but of a recruitment team that stretches from scouts right up to the owner. Taking Costel Pantilimon, Lee Cattermole and a smattering of raw untried kids out of the equation and you’re left staring at a black hole of the genuine four and five star talent needed to succeed at the very top.
Gary Neville’s takedown of Younis Kaboul was as accurate as it was brutal and despite its nature, it’s the kind of honesty that’s required right now. There can be no flowering-up of the situation, no amount of Mourinho-like delusion can disguise the need for a total revamp, not just of the squad but of the processes that put it together.
When I see Stoke signing players like Afellay and Shaqiri, Leicester picking up Huth and Okazaki, Swansea getting Andre Ayew, Palace acquiring Cabaye and Sako, Villa buying Amavi and West Ham convincing Payet and Carl Jenkinson to play for them, I wonder why Sunderland are linked to the likes of Kieran Richardson and Fabio Borini again and not players you’d gladly pay the money to watch.
I’d rather blow the whole budget to get someone like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, grab some popcorn and watch the drama that ensues. At the very least he’ll guarantee the crowd will still be in their seats after half-time, no matter what the score in the game.
There I go dreaming again but sometimes you have to dare.