Former Sunderland favourite on the lessons to learn from his promotion campaigns and why ownership change is key
Stephen Elliott was an eyewitness the last time it all changed.
A brutal season in the Premier League brought fans to the Murray Gates in protest.
The similarities are eerie, fans launching a website to question the long-term direction of a club that seemed to be drifting without direction or leadership.
From that low ebb came Drumaville, Quinn and then Keane.
Despite a false start to the Championship campaign in 2006/07, the mood had changed beyond recognition and, after a deadline day in which six proven performers arrived, Sunderland went to have one of the most exhilarating campaigns in recent history.
For Elliott, it is that change at the top that is needed again.
“When Roy came in we were bottom of the Championship, he came in and he was backed by the consortium, he brought in some good quality players,” he says.
“For us lads who were already there, we bought into it. It gave us a new lease of life as well.
“We were able to bounce off that energy that was suddenly about the place. That’s what it needs now.
“I remember that deadline day, we were on international duty with Ireland at the time. Kavanagh came in, Liam Miller, God bless his soul, Ross Wallace, Stan Varga. Good players.
“It created a buzz and, even though we were down the bottom, we had that belief again that we were challengers. The fans were back on board – it changed the mindset so much.
“As a club, it needs a refresh. I think the club needs someone to come in and take over from Ellis Short, it needs an injection of life.
“You speak to supporters at the game and they don’t expect anything. That’s criminal when, less than two years ago, Sam Allardyce is dancing on the pitch.
“That’s the only hope I have for someone coming in, that it isn’t so long ago it was going in the right direction.
“You hope that someone sees that, what it can be.
“The worst case scenario is the club gets relegated and Ellis stays in charge.
“I don’t know where the club is going then.
“I look at it positively and hope there’s a knight in shining armour out there because we all know what the club could and should be.
“The club is the fulcrum of the city and it needs to be doing well for the city to feel vibrant, I think.”
Lessons, too, can surely be learned from Elliott’s first promotion campaign.
Picked up from Manchester City at a bargain price, Elliott was young player of the season (2004/05) in a squad without great reputation but with unquestionable drive.
Crucially, it had a blend of seasoned Football League campaigners and players like Elliott, making their way in the game. Every player had everything to prove.
“The recruitment of the players hasn’t been good enough,” he says.
“Obviously, we know about the situation with the money, but going into a long slog of a Championship season, you need two players in every position almost.
“I was brought to the club by Mick McCarthy – I was only a young lad at the time. I had no experience of playing regular first-team football.
“A manager who knows the league helps, I think.
“To me, you look at the table and it’s no coincidence when you see the guys up there.
“OK it isn’t the case with Wolves, but we all know the money that’s gone in there. You’ve got Steve Bruce at Villa, Neil Warnock still doing it.
“They know the type of players you need at this level and that’s the crucial thing.
“If you have a good recruitment team, you can the right players in who you know are going to be hungry for it.
“When I came in, there was the likes of myself, Dean Whitehead and Liam Lawrence. Those two guys had played a lot of games for Oxford and Mansfield respectively.
“It was new to me, but Mick got the balance right at that level.
“He had his critics, but that year we went up we had a real hunger for it, we were making our name in the game and wanted to do well.
“You need those players who will run through a brick wall for the club. It just hasn’t been good enough all season.”
Now plying his trade for Northern League leaders Morpeth Town, Elliott lives locally with his family and has seen the struggles of this season at close quarters.
Like most, Elliott would do one or two things differently to current Sunderland boss Chris Coleman (putting Aiden McGeady in the starting XI first and foremost), but he feels the Welshman has inherited a difficult situation.
With eight games to go, like most, Elliott finds light at the end of the tunnel hard to find with this squad of players. He says: “I thought Chris coming in was a really good appointment.
“It was strange that he wanted to come, in a way, because his stock was so high, but he obviously saw the potential.
“We’ve all questioned some of the decisions over the past few weeks, but it is hard to say ‘this is what he has to do’.
“He has a small pool there and there’s only so much he can do. He didn’t get the players he really wanted in January and it is difficult.
“Look at the goalkeepers. If I’m honest, I think he’s probably got keepers there that he doesn’t really want and it’s not good – the goalkeeper organises your defence and it all starts from there.
“You don’t want to be too harsh on individuals, but, if we’re honest, it has been a bit of a shambles.
“There’s obviously a lot of lads out of contract, that’s been highlighted this week.
“I’d like to think that, as a player, you’ve got a little bit of self pride,. These lads must realise that the club shouldn’t be where it is.
“You’ve got to find that leadership amongst yourselves, to get that reaction, and it just seems to me that a lot the senior lads look like they’re carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders.
“I don’t know if the manager will see that and maybe go back to some of the younger lads.
“I don’t know what the answer is.
“To be fair, I don’t think anybody does.
“If you keep doing same things, then I don’t see anything changing.
“I look at someone like John O’Shea – he’s still coming out every week and putting his body on the line, albeit he’s not the O’Shea of 10 years ago, but that happens.
“You’re looking for players around him to bounce off him, but it just hasn’t happened.
“I find it hard to criticise players like him because he’s going out and there playing, and I know it’s hurting him.
“You need to see that hurt from the other players.
“If 70% of the other players were hurting like that, you might see a bit more of a reaction on the pitch.
“With the young lads, they’ve never faced this kind of pressure before.
“You can play Under-23s football when it’s nice, passing the ball around, but this is proper business, a football club at stake.
“If the only players you have, other than the ones out on the pitch, are these young lads, then you’re in a difficult situation because it is asking so much of them in these circumstances.”