Phil Smith: Continuity, stability and fearlessness will be key for Sunderland to survive in unforgiving division

The days when Sunderland were fearless with Niall Quinn and Roy Keane in the hot seats.
The days when Sunderland were fearless with Niall Quinn and Roy Keane in the hot seats.
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The Championship.

Where bright ideas and burgeoning careers meet the stalwarts and pillars of the Football League.

Where Jurgen Klopp’s old assistant bloods unproven German talent and one of the fiercest presses the modern British game has seen.

Where, inevitably, he loses to a Neil Warnock side who score twice from set-pieces.

It is a league where rebirth and exhilaration are as likely as stagnation and despair.

Sunderland understandably are not talking about it publicly but anyone who saw Manchester City stroll their way to victory in those difficult last 20 minutes, in front of a virtually empty Stadium of Light, will know it is time to get used to the idea at the very least.

For so many, a return to the second tier would be a long-awaited relief.

Little wonder. The Premier League has become a painful grind for Sunderland, and this year has arguably been as numbing as any.

Fans look to the apathy, not anger or raw emotion, that has greeted the closing stages of home defeats in recent times as the most damning indictment of all.

Compare that with Carlos Edwards finding the top corner against Burnley, the deafening strains of ‘Hey Jude’ at the start of what inevitably was another Roy Keane home win.

Taxis with Quinny, records broken aplenty.

Compare it with a season when Sunderland boasted Phillips, Quinn, Bridges and Dichio in their front line. Compare it with Sunderland 7 Oxford United 0.

It is impossible not to feel a wave of nostalgia, of yearning.

The Championship, though, is a different beast now. It remains the most open of divisions but increasingly money is beginning to talk. Rebirths at Sheffield Wednesday and Brighton have been heartwarming but make no mistake, they are powered by cash and lots of it.

Slowly but surely, parachute payments are creating a two-tiered division.

The assumption that a relegation would be an opportunity to breathe, reboot and conquer are hopeful.

For every Newcastle, there is an Aston Villa.

Relegation there saw the sale of the club at a cut price, and a summer of extraordinary turnover. The squad that they were left with was a mix of players they paid far over the odds for, and a collection of those who had been part of the long decline but could not be moved on.

The end result, unsurprisingly, has not been success.

Villa are streets behind their rivals, with a bloated set-up, a precarious financial set-up.

The drop did at least bring a new owner with enthusiasm for the task at hand, though the footballing decisions have been poor. It has not necessarily been more fun than the Premier League, and that is with a debt far less of a burden than Sunderland.

That three figure millstone is what makes the drop such a terrifying prospect to those inside the club.

It will not allow the club to be selective in who stays and who goes, it will put everyone on the market and some will in all likelihood leave for prices below their true value.

It will not allow for significant reinvestment.

Add to that uncertainty over the ownership and it makes it impossible to be definitive about who will be calling the shots come the opening day. The plans and scouting being put in place now could be irrelevant.

The common denominator among the teams who have bounced straight back from the drop is continuity and stability.

Who can honestly say that will be the case at Sunderland?

Something has to give, clearly.

If the drop is the breathing room Moyes needs to start again, to find a way to cut costs but put in place a clearer way of playing, then it will be welcomed.

The Black Cats are scouting far and wide across the continent and as has been said on many occasions, an injection of youth and pace would make a major difference to the quality of football Sunderland are able to muster.

If the worst does happen, however, uncertainty will reign.

Sunderland’s best chance to cut the debt substantially is, quite clearly, to secure another year of TV money and allow Moyes to build on the period in November when the core of a competitive team began to emerge.

Injuries ravaged that revival but the wind was firmly in Sunderland’s sails.

Niall Quinn was at the Stadium of Light on Sunday.

Remarkable, even now, the way his presence boosts morale around the ground.

It is tempting to wonder where the club would be now, were it not for his fateful intervention after the last relegation, and his inspired decision to allow Roy Keane to light a spark under a club ailing then as it is today.

In those days, Sunderland were fearless.

For too long, it has been a club paralysed by fear. Perhaps confronting that can see light emerge at the end of the tunnel, in a division that has treated Sunderland so well in the 21st century. Another season of this limping is unthinkable.

Just remember that the Championship is as much a graveyard for the great and good as it is an oasis.