Chris Young column - What’s the reality of life in the Championship?

Steven Fletcher
Steven Fletcher
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ELLIS SHORT could be forgiven for hankering after the franchise system from his native America, rather than the relegation/promotion model staring Sunderland in the face.

If the Premier League teams were set in stone, then the 40-odd thousand at the Stadium of Light would be ring-fenced and not potentially replaced by a club happy to get 10,000 through the turnstiles.

Reality is that Sunderland increasingly need a snooker or two to preserve their Premier League status

Of course, the promotion system offers minnows like Bournemouth the chance to achieve the impossible; to create those heart-warming rags-to-riches stories previously produced by the likes of Blackpool, Wigan and Hull.

But at times like these, you can’t help contemplating how stress-free life would be if Sunderland were just in the Premier League and couldn’t drop out of it, full stop.

After three successive years of nail-biting, it’s an attractive daydream.

That’s not reality though.

Reality is that Sunderland increasingly need a snooker or two to preserve their Premier League status after the context of the relegation battle has somersaulted over the last five days.

For some supporters, the prospect of life in the Championship almost seems a blessing.

While they’ve not exactly fallen out of love with Sunderland’s Premier League tenure, they’re certainly feigning a headache and rolling over to the other side of the bed.

They (completely understandably) argue that it can’t get much worse than much of the dross served up over the last couple of years, and Sunderland might... might actually win a game or two other than the derby.

If – and as we all know it’s mammoth-sized ‘if’ – Sunderland return to the top flight relatively swiftly too, the new man at the helm can form some semblance of a coherent team again, rather than the hokey-cokey, in-out, in-out, annual overhaul of the squad.

But for Short’s almighty dollar, the mere prospect of relegation understandably prompts sheer terror in the corridors of power at Sunderland.

On a human level, good, diligent members of staff at Black Cats house would lose their jobs, while businesses in the city would similarly suffer at the Premier League bandwagon decamping.

They are the people who really suffer.

Yes, the players receive a 40-odd per cent reduction in their wages, but at least they will either still be in employment at Sunderland, or will be back in the Premier League elsewhere.

It doesn’t compare to having to support a family on a redundancy pay-off.

On a footballing level though, the new head coach would face that daunting challenge of putting together a side from players mentally shattered by relegation, those youngsters in the Under-21s deemed good enough, plus any new recruits he can scavenge.

After Sunderland’s £16 million annual loss, there is unlikely to be a giant swag bag to throw at an instant promotion challenge.

It’s difficult to imagine Sunderland following Fulham’s example from last summer by investing all of their first parachute payment on one player.

Short won’t let the club slide into financial oblivion, but things could be tight – loanees, free transfers and bargains may be the order of the day in the summer recruitment drive.

There would be gaps to fill too.

Perversely, relegation might not be quite as bad as it would have been 12 months earlier, when Gus Poyet faced the prospect of having a squad left that barely crept into double figures.

But there could quite easily be up to 10 high-profile exits after the drop, either on free transfers, permanent exits or at the end of their loan spells.

Wes Brown, Sebastian Coates, Ricky Alvarez, Santiago Vergini, Jermain Defoe, Connor Wickham, Lee Cattermole, Steven Fletcher and one of the goalkeepers are all feasible departures.

Youngsters such as Duncan Watmore and returning loanees like El-Hadji Ba are far more likely to get a chance in the Championship and deputise for their predecessors, but Sunderland would still need half-a-dozen or so fresh faces, particularly in attack and central defence.

The problem comes in buying players who are fine in the Championship, yet then need to be replaced if promotion is achieved. Think David Connolly.

That’s one of the many mole hills in the Championship minefield that Sunderland would have to avoid.

While previous campaigns have created plenty of glorious memories of life in the second tier, it is not always a happy-clappy place of weekly victories – just ask fans of Fulham, Cardiff and Wigan this season.

The cost of relegation is dear, make no mistake.

While there’s a chance of Sunderland still beating the drop, this club has to be united – regardless of the regular cock-ups over the last few years – and battle like mad to remain in the Premier League.