YOUNGER readers might not realise the phrase “back to square one” supposedly originated from BBC radio commentaries of the 1930s.
(Come to think of it, younger readers might not have heard the phrase at all!)
It’s believed the saying emerged from an era when the Beeb sent out a picture of a football pitch marked into eight numbered squares so that radio listeners would know where the ball was on the pitch by the square being talked about by the commentator.
“Back to square one,” invariably meant that the team in possession had just returned the ball to the place where it had first started.
This is the position Sunderland find themselves in right now in terms of the future prospects of its existing squad.
Back to square one.
It’s the square where you realise that all the squad building done in the hope of Premier League progression, will have to be undone and cloth will have to be cut back to Championship standard.
It’s where Sunderland found themselves after being demoted in 2003 as the likes of Kevin Phillips, Claudio Reyna and Jody Craddock were replaced by the likes of Darren Byfield, Jeff Whitley and Gary Breen.
If, as expected after Sunderland’s defeat to Tottenham Hotspur on Monday, relegation is only a matter of time away this season, then it will be a vastly different Black Cats side which takes the pitch next season.
And, inevitably, it will mean revolution in the squad, rather than the evolution that managers prefer.
Since Sunderland returned to the Premier League in 2007, the various bosses have dreamed of getting to the stage where they have an established, settled side, so that each transfer window requires only two or three quality players to be added to it to take it to another level.
It has been a dream which has been tantalisingly within Sunderland’s grasp on several occasions, but, on each occasion, bad buying or enforced sales have scuppered it.
Roy Keane spent more than £40million after Sunderland’s promotion to the Premier League, and with some success, but for every hit – Phil Bardsley, Kieran Richardson – there were equally as many maybes (£7m Kenwyne Jones, £5m Michael Chopra) – and plenty of definite misses – Rade Prica, Andy Cole, Paul McShane.
His biggest signing was £9m Craig Gordon, who Keane hoped would go on to be a Sunderland great, but he played only 88 first-team games in five years.
The next season, the few “quality” players added to the squad were £8m Anton Ferdinand, who turned out to be little more than an average Premier League player, and the returning George McCartney, for £4.5m, who wasn’t even that standard in his second stint at Sunderland.
Extra flair was added by the acquisition of the troublesome Pascal Chimbonda and El-Hadji Diouf – moves which spelled disaster – and Keane was gone by Christmas.
Steve Bruce arrived and had considerably more success in the transfer market, with the purchases of players like Lorik Cana, Lee Cattermole, Darren Bent and Simon Mignolet successfully transforming the side.
But there was an over-reliance on loan players and the enforced sales of Bent and Jordan Henderson left Bruce facing a large-scale overhaul in the summer of 2011 and it never worked out – with the likes of £8m Connor Wickham and £6m Craig Gardner not making the impact the Tynesider hoped for.
The manager complained that the money he had hoped for – in particular the money from Bent’s sale – never materialised.
As December arrived, Bruce departed.
Martin O’Neill had less freedom in the transfer market than either of his predecessors, but he was allowed to make two big-money “quality signings”, in £10m Adam Johnson and £12m Steven Fletcher.
They had varying degrees of impact but another transfer window did for O’Neill – he hoped to add key players last January but Danny Graham, Alfred N’Diaye and Kader Mangane turned out to be anything but.
That brought us to last summer and Paolo Di Canio and Roberto De Fanti’s vast rebuilding job – once again, a revolution instead of the preferred evolution.
As Echo columnist Gary Rowell pointed out earlier in the season, a dozen or more players coming into a club makes for plenty of positive newspaper headlines for the journalists and a feelgood factor among fans, but it rarely translates into success on the pitch.
In order for the risky strategy to work, the dozen signings made this summer needed to gel instantly.
By now, Jozy Altidore should have been as goal-laden as he was for AZ Alkmaar and Italian international Emanuele Giaccherini should have been providing the supply line.
Cabral should have been Sunderland’s powerhouse box-to-box midfielder, while Modibo Diakite should have been the rock on which the Black Cats’ defence was built.
Coming through the ranks, at least one of the youngsters from David Moberg Karlsson, El-Hadji Ba or Charis Mavrias might have been expected to be making an impact by this stage.
But if Bruce’s final summer window shopping was disappointing, the one overseen by director of football De Fanti has been a true disaster.
The upshot of it is – in the wake of Gus Poyet’s first transfer window in January being unable to turn the listing ship around – is that Sunderland look destined to plummet back down to the Championship next month.
That is likely to spark a truly remarkable clear-out.
Three of the four loan signings – Fabio Borini, Ki Sung-Yueng and Marcos Alonso – are not going to want to play Championship football.
On top of that, eight out-of-contract players are hugely unlikely to be at the club next season while many others will want to stay in the Premier League and there will be plenty Poyet will want to offload.
It will be revolution, not evolution. Again.
On the bright side, there will be few players that the fans will mourn as they depart. Most supporters will welcome the clear-out and the chance to start again.
But should relegation be confirmed, it will means another massive gamble in hoping that a newly-assembled squad, designed for a successful Championship campaign, can gel quickly.
Back to Square One.
* Don’t miss tomorrow’s online Football Echo – available on this website from around 6.45pm – with our report, pictures and verdict on Sunderland v Everton, plus much more.