From takeovers to transfers: The wrong calls and nearly moments that cost Sunderland promotion
COMMENT: Sunderland’s season was brought to an early conclusion on Tuesday. Phil Smith reflects on a questionable EFL process, and the errors that have left Sunderland facing a third season in League One
We have known this was coming for some time but even so, the confirmation stings.
Sunderland, for the first time in the history, will play in the third-tier for the third consecutive season.
This is failure with an asterisk.
In what was proving to be one of the most ferociously contested promotion races for some time, the margins have proved inconceivably fine.
In the final set of fixtures before the postponement, Sunderland delivered one of their worst performances against a Bristol Rovers side drifting in mid-table.
It looks to have cost them a shot at the play-offs.
Oxford United will now fancy their chances of promotion, but it was so close to being so different.
In their final fixture they were 2-0 to Shrewsbury, a red card tipping the balance and a late winner making all the difference.
This end to the campaign will be tough to reconcile.
Serious questions about the EFL process have rightly been raised when the decisive vote was held at a time when the result was a foregone conclusion.
The clock had been wound down to a point where there was no time to conclude even if there had been a will for it.
It says much that even before the vote was held, the four teams set to compete in the play-offs were returning to training and beginning the testing programme.
Those clubs will get the chance to play for a place in the Championship with just one point more than the Black Cats.
The frustration on Wearside will not just be aimed at the EFL, though.
This was a bitterly disappointing campaign and while no one can say for sure, few would have said with much conviction that this team would have gone up.
It has been another bruising period for supporters, who watched the club fail to build on the near miss of last season and indeed regress for the most part.
Concerns over the off-field situation have only grown.
It is a most unsatisfactory end, but from day one, this never felt like a promotion campaign.
A 100-point target and the summer that betrayed it
In the immediate aftermath of yet more Wembley heartache, Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven set their stall out.
A 100-point target was set for this campaign and in a particularly pointed set of remarks, Methven also said that he did not want to hear ‘a bunch of excuses’.
The pressure was heaped on Jack Ross as he took his short summer break.
Supporters could therefore be forgiven for expecting a summer of decisiveness and improvement.
It never came.
Whether that target was set in the belief that it would ultimately be somebody else’s problem, we will never know.
By now, Mark Campbell was deep in takeover talks that dominated the first half of the summer.
Ross returned to Wearside having been left largely in limbo, unable to effectively make recruitment plans for the new campaign.
On his arrival at the Academy of Light, Campbell was a regular visitor and John Park, set to be installed as a new Director of Football, had even picked his office.
Ross was consulted on potential targets and some very ambitious names were touted by the potential new owners, including Joe Aribo, who would go on to join Rangers.
Even as pre-season neared, little was clear.
The Campbell deal suddenly went quiet and Ross was finally able to move in early July.
Tensions, though, had already begun to simmer.
Ross had to clarify that he had been asked to operate on a one in, one out policy, and that he would not be spending big fees.
Though he had no issues with the decision to part with Lee Cattermole among others, the preparation was far from ideal.
Ross was tasked with delivering a 15-point improvement from the previous season, yet the window ended and retrospectively, it is hard to argue that the squad was improved even if Jordan Willis proved to be an inspired addition.
The manager’s move to a 3-4-3 also yielded little. It was this system that dominated the pre-season games and yet it lasted just one-and-a-half games in the season proper.
It made for an uneasy state of play at the beginning of the campaign.
Results were relatively solid but they were not spectacular.
The disappointment of the end to the previous season never left and particularly as the promise for better this time around never materialised.
Something had to give and after an insipid defeat to Lincoln City, Ross was dismissed, just hours before a game against Grimsby Town.
Sunderland sat on the edge of the play-off places, where they have rarely strayed from since.
To hit the target of 100 points (adjusted for a 44-game season), Sunderland would need to be on 78 at this stage.
They currently sit seventh on 59.
‘An exciting few months’
In a statement made a week before the arrival of Phil Parkinson, Sunderland issued a club statement looking ahead to an ‘exciting few months’.
Parkinson was appointed with the clear brief to win promotion this season.
Despite a thumping and often exhilarating win over Tranmere Rovers in Parkinson’s first home game, it proved to be a tumultuous period.
Sunderland were dumped out of all three cups, and won just one further game before Christmas.
The club dropped to its lowest league position and for many, its lowest ebb.
The football was turgid, the absence of key players leading to a woeful run of performances in which the squad available struggled to adapt to Parkinson’s more direct style.
The return of Charlie Wyke and Lynden Gooch led to a surge in performances and results, but two spells of poor form looked to have cost the Black Cats dear.
Firstly in those months following the change in the dug-out, and secondly in the final four games before fixtures were postponed.
Though for a period results were encouraging, the past eight months have not panned out anything close to what was promised.
The FPP confusion
The campaign also played out alongside growing frustration with the club’s ownership, and in particular the bitter disappointment over a developing theme of lofty promises and underwhelming results.
Nowhere was this better underlined by the proposed takeover by the FPP group.
Even if it had been a turbulent summer, a corner looked to have been turned when Sunderland stormed into a first-half lead against AFC Wimbledon, Chris Maguire at his best in front of the investors who looked as if they could transform the club’s fortunes.
The takeover became investment, and it later became apparent that the investment was secured against the club and its assets.
The ownership continue to insist that this does indeed have the makings of a long-term partnership that can push Sunderland through the leagues, but the continued silence of the American investors has created an understandable sense of unease.
Many supporters took to social media in December to call for Donald’s departure, with influential fan groups leading the call.
Though results did subsequently improve, trust has broken down and the divide between owners and fans has only deepened.
Repeated claims of Juan Sartori’s increased involvement have consistently failed to materialise, while Methven was forced to apologise for comments made about supporters at a collective meeting.
Significant investment was promised in January and though Bailey Wright looked an excellent signing before injury, the business was otherwise modest and the results mixed.
The recent season-card controversy, as well as the startling revelation that a large chunk of Madrox’s debt to the club had been written off (Madrox insist they will and are paying it back), have seen relations reach a new low.
A takeover of the club looks no nearer and so yet again, Sunderland is a club where uncertainty reigns.
Where do Sunderland go from here?
Sunderland’s owners have undoubtedly made major strides in reducing the club’s onerous cost base and as the COVID-19 crisis continues, this will be key.
Particularly as Sunderland now enter an era in which their parachute payments from the Premier League are at end.
The concern, though, is what is in place to move forward from here.
In a new era for football, clever recruitment and academy graduates are going to be more important than ever.
Here, Sunderland looked to have made little progress since the change of ownership two years ago.
There have been sporadic successes in the market, but no sign of an overarching and dependable vision.
Ross wanted to implement a model of signing younger players who could grow with the club, but also faced the pressure of knowing immediate results were being demanded above.
He also operated for the vast majority of his tenure with a scouting network that could be described as threadbare at best.
Little wonder Sunderland have so often looked muddled and unbalanced.
Non-executive director David Jones has made clear his aim to correct this, but it is clear that there is a huge amount of work to be done.
Whenever next season does begin, it seems certain that a handful of academy graduates will be key.
Elliot Embleton, Denver Hume and Lynden Gooch serve as a reminder of the excellence that still underpins the Category One academy.
There is, though, a major gap in the generation behind them.
The regular departures of players to big Premier League clubs before they can be signed to professional terms has weakened the U18 and U23 teams at a time when they are arguably more important than ever.
Though the recent appointment of Jim Rodwell finally addressed the void of day-to-day leadership at the club, the decision-making structure leaves much to be desired.
One of the season’s most notable moments actually came when reflecting on the one before.
Sunderland ‘Til I Die season two depicted the chaos that surrounded the purchase of Will Grigg, decisions made in different places and with a scattergun approach.
Not much seems to have changed since and whether Sunderland have learned the lessons of their plummet through the divisions still seems unclear.
They remain a club that seems to live from window to window, held back by boardroom uncertainty, hoping for the right combination of manager and players to emerge.
So while there will rightly be a sense of unease with the EFL process, and how the season ended this way, there will also be a strong sense that Sunderland remains a club not set up for success, still so far from where it should and needs to be.