Inside Sunderland's latest summer of great uncertainty: Familiar failings, fan fears - and why it's clear the Madrox project is over

COMMENT: In his weekly column, Phil Smith reflects on a fractious few weeks and more uncertain ones ahead

Tuesday, 7th July 2020, 2:16 pm
Updated Tuesday, 7th July 2020, 2:16 pm

It felt a little jarring, watching the celebrations of Gareth Ainsworth and Karl Robinson on Monday night.

The mind wandered back to January, when Ainsworth was forced into a chuckle in the Stadium of Light press room. He had been asked about the substitution he had been forced to make just 29 minutes into the game, and his reaction underlined the helplessness he had felt on the touchline that day.

His side had been thoroughly dismantled by Sunderland and so he felt the need to stress how far his team had come, that a poor run of form was not worthy of too much concern, all things considered.

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Sunderland fans are facing another summer of uncertainty at the Stadium of Light

Robinson, too, defended his players and their application just over a month later.

Sunderland had defended resolutely for a 1-0 win and after the sales of Shandon Baptiste and Tariqe Fosu, Robinson’s play-off aspirations looked to be fading fast.

It served as a jolt, a reminder that regardless of the wrongs of the EFL's process to bring this season to an end, Sunderland's failure was ultimately their own.

They had the chance to take their destiny in their own hands and they failed to do it.

Regardless, these memories are already fading fast.

The play-offs may continue but Sunderland are deep into yet another summer of great uncertainty.

It is abundantly clear now that the Madrox project is over.

Relegation to League One two summers ago was a crossroads moment for a club that had been punished so harshly for the short-termism that they had been unable to escape from.

There were a couple of roads any new owner could follow as they picked through the utter wreckage they inherited.

One route was to transform the club's model entirely; invest in youth and implement a coherent recruitment strategy. The other was to focus on a rapid return to the Championship above else.

The owners took the latter and it seemed to guide all of their decisions.

They denied it, but the evidence is long now. The takeover talks, the cuts in recruitment early on, the inability to retain talent in the academy set-up.

Sunderland have again locked themselves into a cycle of living from window to window, searching for the lucky formula in lieu of long-term investment, strategy and patience.

The most damning indictment of the Madrox tenure is that two years on they have put in place nothing to achieve long-term success, and have also failed to achieve results in the short term.

All of which serves to leave us in a painfully familiar scenario.

In the final years of the Ellis Short era (and those brutally uncertain summers in which nothing felt secure), failure led to an apparent apathy on the owner's part, a disillusionment and an effective withdrawal.

The situation may not be as extreme now but there are similarities.

Madrox want out, as they seemed to have done for some time, but the price for their failure on the pitch means that this is far from straightforward. They will not find it easy to get their desired sale and in the meantime, a club in need of direction is left largely without.

Into this void, all sorts of uncertainty, fear and loathing reigns.

It was at this point that the deja vu felt almost overwhelming.

Once, we could see the eye-watering debts piling high and match it against Short's fading interest. A dystopian future was not hard to imagine.

Now, supporters can see the moves to protect the club's cashflow and amid the wider uncertainty of the coronavirus world, familiar concerns have taken hold.

Trust between regime and fanbase is broken.

Two years of unfulfilled promises will do that and the events of this uncertain summer have only worsened the issue.

Supporters were yet again told in the spring that Juan Sartori's increased involvement was nearing, and yet again there has been absolutely no sign of it. Just a vignette that tells a bigger story.

The appallingly handled season card renewal and refund process has left scores of the club's most loyal supporters feeling as if they have been taken for granted.

For some clubs in the EFL pyramid, the challenges of the current climate have provided an opportunity to forge stronger bonds and togetherness.

The attempt at Sunderland to protect cash flow with little dialogue or transparency has meant that ironically, the opposite has probably been achieved.

By offering refunds as part of a reduced card for next year, or a staggered series of choices, by engaging from the off, the club would surely have achieved far more renewals and would sit in a far stronger position now.

Though some of the right decisions have been arrived at, it has been a tortuous process here is still much that rankles. For one, that many will have paid significant chunks for next season before being refunded for last.

It is hard to see how this trust could be rebuilt.

The obvious answer is that a good starting point would be the repaying of the balance owed to the club by Madrox. The club's owners insist they are doing so and at a faster rate than planned, but even by their own word the balance remained around £11.5 million in early May.

The club cannot move forward truly until this is settled but it remains to be seen whether there is the will or the means to do so in a swift fashion.

This tension underlines why the mood on Wearside will be different to other clubs, who will also be making difficult financial decisions as the current crisis continues to bite.

Out of all of this, a League One squad needs to be built and this is the challenge now for staff working amid the uncertainty, to improve the club against a backdrop of owner apathy and what seems likely to be limited investment.

The recent change of direction in Academy leadership is a signal that there are those on the board and at the club still determined to try and achieve that, but balancing short and long term demands in such an environment is a task that Sunderland supporters know better than anyone to be challenging.

They are not helped when videos surface from the not too distant past of owners making claims that amongst others, the fanbase have tried to eject their five previous regimes (much thought has gone into it, but attempts to recall criticism of the beloved Niall Quinn have proved fruitless).

Rodwell said that the owners understand their 'obligations' to the club but this is not just about keeping Sunderland afloat, which is how we once talked of Short fulfilling his.

If Category One status is to be maintained in the long run, there will have to be investment into the U18 and U23 set up, while in the first team there is a need to improve a squad that has now twice fallen short.

Phil Parkinson has already said he wants seven or eight players and that he also wants to add 'quality'.

He has stressed that given the uncertainty he knows the club will face in so many departments, he will make it 'crystal clear' what he wants and needs from the market.

It was possible to detect more than a nudge in this regard, particularly when he urged progression on the talks to secure a new deal for Tom Flanagan.

Supporters have been left underwhelmed by some of the rumoured moves so far, though sources have indicated that talk of a move for Jay Spearing is premature. The scepticism there is fair, even if Spearing is an experienced, proven player who caused problems for the Black Cats as recently as this season.

Sunderland are well stocked in central midfield and if they are to recruit another, surely it would be about bringing variety. What they lack in that part of the pitch (at least to my eyes) is a more creative outlet, capable of going past an opponent and getting beyond the front three.

Strength and depth is badly needed and centre-back, while a striker is also needed as a bare minimum.

The point is that there is much work to be done if Sunderland are to take that extra step. Improved as they were after the turn of the year, in attack at least the Black Cats were short on the league's best sides, particularly away from home.

Here, internal uncertainty is matched by a troubling picture in the wider game.

A restart date for the new campaign has still not been set, and looking throughout the pyramid it is clear that there is a reluctance to commit in full to deals while that remains the case.

Continuously growing at Sunderland in particular is a nervousness regarding the potential introduction of a salary cap this summer.

Given the understandable uncertainty around so many elements of the club, the impact a cap of £2.5 million would have has perhaps not fully been digested yet.

Sunderland's wage bill still remains comfortably above that number, and while the original proposals sent out by the EFL include transitional arrangements, no one can be quite sure what clubs will opt for.

With the rules now changed so that just two-thirds of League One clubs can vote any proposal through, a drastic change of some sort seems likely and the Black Cats will have work to do to adjust.

Consider, for example, that Sunderland's spend over the last two transfer windows on agent fees (which are set to be included in the cap) was £1,346,373.

You can expect this to fall rapidly now that the final contractual legacy issues from the Premier League era have been settled, but it underlines the potential pitfalls in trying to increase the squad's size significantly while also cutting the wage spend by a potentially considerable margin.

In the longer term, with Championship clubs still discussing their cap, it could significantly increase the gap in standard between the second and third tiers that has already been growing in recent seasons.

If all of this seems pessimistic or weary, then that reflects the fact that this feels like a road worn too frequently and for too long.

What we will learn in the coming weeks and months is just what the owners deem meeting their obligations to be.

Right now, it's fair to fear it will not mean breaking out of the familiar cycle of short-termism.

That it is time for change, there is no doubt.

What it can't mean, is as was the case last summer and for the latter years of Short's tenure, is a lack of attention to the areas that can preserve the club's long-term future.

It’s no wonder supporters are concerned.

They’ve been here before, and with regards to the current ownership, it has been long enough now to judge words against actions.