Tony Gillan: Who is to blame for Sunderland’s terrible season?

Sunderland's Connor Wickham (left) battles for the ball with Chelsea's Nemanja Matic (right).
Sunderland's Connor Wickham (left) battles for the ball with Chelsea's Nemanja Matic (right).
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LAST Wednesday was fun at full-time.

Dick Advocaat completed an excellent job with a fine performance against an imposing Arsenal team. Sunderland supporters could exhale for the first time in months.

Still, it was somehow fitting that one of the rare highlights of 2014-15 was yet another goalless draw, the ninth of the season, which means that a quarter of Sunderland’s games ended nil-nil.

Overall it was a dismal, boring campaign. Avoiding relegation was about all that could be said for it. And it was a long time in the making.

In the previous two seasons the club under-achieved with their 14th and 17th places. This time, the 16th position was about as much as could be hoped for from a squad that has been gradually eroded by a compilation of bad decisions. But who made those decisions?

It is worthwhile discussing the question, not just because we want to point the finger of blame (although that can be a lot of fun), but because those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Where to start? We could go back to Darren Bent’s greed-fuelled transfer, but that was four-and-a-half seasons ago. We would end up debating the misguided sacking of Alan Durban in 1984, or Len Shackleton’s fraught relationship with Trevor Ford in the 1950s.

So let us reminisce about the January transfer window of 2013. At the start of that month Sunderland were chugging along in a reasonable 13th place. Martin O’Neill attempted to build on that by enlisting Kader Mangane, Alfred N’Diaye and Danny Graham after an inexplicably dogged pursuit of the Swansea striker (bless his heart and all that, but come on).

But that was nothing compared to the rubbish that O’Neill’s incompetent successor brought in.

Sunderland fans have nothing to thank Paolo Di Canio for. Quite the opposite. Like a thousand other managers who turned out to be useless, the stiff-armed Italian won a couple of games early on before going on to demonstrate his “worth.”

He tried to blame everyone else, but he had final say-so on all 14 signings during that infamous summer. In fairness, he did bring Giaccherini, Ki, Borini and Mannone, but otherwise Sunderland continue to pay the heavy price of his staggering mismanagement. He also turned down millions for Ji Dong-won while ostracising Lee Cattermole.

Say what you like about John O’Shea, but any Sunderland fan with a modicum of intelligence should want to shake his hand for having the gumption to stand up to a bully who would have been lucky to win 15 points had he not been booted out (and if you’re offended or annoyed by that comment – good).

O’Shea couldn’t take discipline? He withstood Alex Ferguson for long enough. Di Canio amassed nine points from his 12 games – the same as that other managerial hot property Jim Charver managed in his first dozen at Newcastle.

The useless Mussolini-lover was replaced by Gus Poyet, who seemed to have a talent for undoing his own good work.

We can’t argue with the recruitment of Alonso, van Aanholt, Pantilimon and Defoe, while Rodwell seemed like a good idea at the time. But Buckley, Bridcutt, Scocco and several others were somewhere between out of their depth and plain dreadful.

There has been no single spectacular piece of bad management or misfortune since January 2013 that caused the deterioration. It was a succession of seemingly insignificant transfer dealings that almost sent the club down to the Championship.

The only departure to create national headlines last summer was that of Jack Colback, but that was because of local rivalry and not due to Sunderland losing any great talent. Nor did anyone despair at Phil Bardsley or Craig Gardner scarpering. But none were replaced by anyone better. The fact that they all left for free did not help.

Similarly, most supporters could take or leave Stephane Sessègnon. But his replacement was Jozy Altidore and his accompanying first touch like a JCB’s. A string of other decent but unremarkable players have departed in recent seasons without eulogy, but in hindsight we wish one or two of them were still here.

Talk tactics as much as you like, but their importance will always be far secondary to the quality or otherwise of the players.

Who else can we blame for the present state of the club and the threadbareness of the squad? Possibly Lee Congerton, the sporting director since March 2014; but I’m not sure what he has actually done.

I’m not being catty or flippant; I really don’t know what he’s done since joining. What was his role in any signing, good or bad?

Since Mr Congerton’s arrival, Sunderland have signed eight players and borrowed three. Some, like Defoe, Buckley and Vergini were already known personally by Poyet. Others like Rodwell, Gómez, Pantilimon, Jones, van Aanholt and Coates were hardly secrets in English football. How much expertise is required to know of and buy such players?

Only Réveillère and Álvarez were new names in England. One was an almost accidental signing. The other was a flop.

Was Mr Congerton instrumental in securing the services of Advocaat? Perhaps, but again you have to wonder how much negotiating skill is required to persuade someone to do two months’ work for a seven-figure fee.

Understandably, Ellis Short would not wish to interfere with transfer activity. He leaves his employees to it.

But Jozy Altidore was someone who had played 28 games for Hull in the Premier League – badly – scoring one goal in that spell. Did no one at the top of the club think to query why they should part with £6m for him?

How were even so-called free transfers sanctioned? Valentine Roberge for example was snapped up for no obvious reason in 2013; an obscure 26 year-old who had been hawked around several European clubs with no particular distinction.

Roberge still has a year on his contract. With the average Premier League player’s annual salary at £1.5m, the signing of such unsellable nobodies in the past two or three years does much to explain why Sunderland, despite bagging a reported £67m for finishing 15th, might not have much cash this summer either.

But we’re not finished blaming yet. The SAFC Academy has not produced an established Premier League player since Colback and Jordan Henderson, who is 25 next month.

And it goes without saying that the players themselves have much to answer for. They finally found a work ethic at the end of the season and not a second too soon. It turned out that a scruffy goal in an even scruffier game at Hull in March was arguably what saved them.

About the only people at the club without culpability for the gradual slump are Dick Advocaat, the ticket office, the everyday staff and, as always, the supporters; an average home gate of 43,157 with only four victories to watch. Take a bow.

Everyone else, try not to do it again.