Phil Smith: Explosive Sunderland statement risks deepening divide on Wearside - with all eyes on Stewart Donald's next move

A video circulated on social media recently, tracking the points accumulated in the top flight of English football, from its very inception in 1888.

Tuesday, 7th January 2020, 12:29 pm
Updated Tuesday, 7th January 2020, 3:53 pm

Even knowing and growing up with the rich history of Sunderland’s football club, Buchan, Gurney, Shackleton and Carter, it still feels like something of a shock to see the red and white bar so persistently towards the very top.

Even accounting for recent decline, the end result still shows Sunderland sitting in the top ten.

So this is the context to the unease and fractious environment that envelopes the Stadium of Light at the turn of the year.

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Expectations have been significantly realigned in recent years as malaise and decline grew deeper.

There is no demand of top four charges.

Most would accept that even at its very best and most competitive, with the turbo-charged financial power at the disposal of the now elite clubs in the country, Sunderland’s place in the game has changed.

What all would acknowledge is that where it finds itself now is not good enough.

Supporters in the Stadium of Light's Roker End
Supporters in the Stadium of Light's Roker End

Three encouraging performances, seven points from nine, and a wide-open division, has raised some tentative hopes that a season that by all accounts ought to already be written off can still be salvaged.

When four prominent fan groups called for change, in the dug-out and the boardroom, Sunderland were languishing in the lowest position they have ever held in their history.

It was fair to question the decision to change manager, given that it had been sold to the fanbase as a move that could extract the small gains that were needed to turn a squad sitting in sixth position to one that could close the gap to the top two.

The lofty 100-point target remained fresh in the memory and so too was the belief from the boardroom, restated after the departure of Jack Ross, that this was the best squad in the league.

So the alarming regression on the pitch rightly drew criticism and concern.

Since then, that improvement has certainly seen something of a truce develop with regards to on-pitch matters.

Phil Parkinson’s side have competed tenaciously, created more chances and perhaps most crucially of all, pressed and ran in the fashion of all Sunderland’s best teams.

They have played with an obvious structure and path to victory.

It is too early to draw conclusions about whether this is a corner turned or merely a brief upturn, but has offered a foothold to progress from that was long overdue.

At this stage, there is some credence in the argument from the boardroom, reiterated in today’s explosive statement, that investment in conditioning staff and time on the training ground would lead to an improvement in results.

The atmosphere at recent games has been excellent, patient, passionate and supportive.

Off the pitch, there remains concern at the club’s long-term direction.

The statement calling for a sale from the four groups will not have spoken for every supporter and in fairness, nor did it claim to.

What it did reflect, undoubtedly, was a widespread concern at the club’s regression since the play-off final defeat to Charlton Athletic.

The club’s response in its official statement risks further deepening the divide amongst supporters at a crucial period.

Stewart Donald has vowed to sell the club, and in the statement it was confirmed that this process has officially begun.

It is worth pointing out that this has almost occurred twice in recent months.

First, to the real estate businessman Mark Campbell, who spent time on Wearside alongside a number of potentially key figures in his acquisition, including John Park, lined up to be the new director of football.

Then to the FPP group, who initially held talks over taking a majority shareholding.

Of course, there is a change in that in both of those circumstances, Donald had intended to remain at the club in some capacity.

That is clearly no longer the case.

Still, to say that the board would have preferred more time, as the statement says, is a touch disingenuous even accounting for the eventual deal struck with the FPP group.

Months on, the extent of the American’s interest and ambitions remains frustratingly unknown.

The messaging over that initial deal was mixed, to put it kindly. That was the latest financial matter in which much was said, but little clarity found.

It was also said on numerous occasions that Juan Sartori would be stepping up his involvement, but there has been so sign of that yet.

The departures of Tony Davison and Charlie Methven have further deepened the concern that many supporters have that this is a club drifting.

Even if steps have been taken recently to address the issues, there has also been concern over the extent to which key departments such as recruitment have at times been under resourced.

The point is that regardless of the debate over the manner and call for change, it is entirely legitimate to want better for Sunderland and to voice that view.

Sunderland’s board are entitled to offer their own view, but it does little good to criticise, implicitly or explicitly, those who ultimately want success for their club.

The onus is now ultimately on Donald.

He pledged on Friday night, in an interview with BBC Radio Newcastle, to sell the club to the right buyer and not to hold out for a price that could block that.

In the club’s statement this morning, he also pledged to do what was required in the January window to get Sunderland right back in promotion contention.

Fans, regardless of their opinion of the ownership, will wait eagerly to see what comes of both those promises.