Sunderland is officially the first casualty of the 2016-17 Premier League season. The Black Cats were sentenced to relegation Saturday after conceding a late winner to Bournemouth. And although a gloomy season had been building toward the moment for some time, the final condemnation prompted more question than answers. How had the season gone so terribly wrong? What does this mean for the future of the club? And, perhaps most importantly, who is to blame for this disaster?
The blame game is underway, and the popular scapegoat is David Moyes. Moyes, after all, is the captain of the ship that sunk. And Moyes, of course, shares at least a sliver of the responsibility, if not more. There was something he could have done to salvage Sunderland’s Premier League voyage. Whatever it was, he didn’t do it. Regardless of any circumstances that affected the difficulty of his task, Moyes failed.
But Sunderland is going down because Moyes took charge of a sinking ship, just as Sam Allardyce had done before him, and Dick Advocaat had before him, and Gus Poyet had before him, and Paolo Di Canio had before him.
Sunderland is going down not because of one pitiful season, but because of an accumulation of pitiful games, weeks and months over the past four years, because of the panic they caused, and because the need to compensate for past mistakes precluded the building of a foundation that would allow the club to permanently escape the shadow of its own failures.
That’s the broad, vague explanation.
The detailed story begins in late March, 2013, when Sunderland appointed Di Canio, one of the most volatile human beings in soccer, as its manager just one day after sacking Martin O’Neill. The Black Cats were hovering just above the relegation zone. Di Canio kept them there.
Then he flamed out the following autumn, and set off a cycle of destruction and reclamation, of demise and restoration. The club became a fire hazard, liable to burst into flames at any moment. When it did, it hired damn good firefighters. But, so consumed with the firefighting, it never thought to address the hazard itself.
Poyet was hired to replace Di Canio with Sunderland propping up the early-season table in 20th place. Poyet conjured up four-straight wins in April and May of 2014 that took Sunderland from 20th to 14th over the season’s final month.
Poyet started what should have been his first full season well, and under his watch, Sunderland never slipped into the bottom three in 2014-15. But after a 4-0 loss to Aston Villa in March, owner Ellis Short and executives dropped the axe on Poyet and tabbed Advocaat as his successor.
Advocaat kept Sunderland in the top flight with a five-game unbeaten run in April and May of 2015, and retained his role heading into 2015-16 despite being initially viewed as a short-term placeholder for a long-term successor. But after a winless first two months, he, too, was sacked.
Advocaat’s replacement was Allardyce, the one man who put out a fire and didn’t subsequently start one with his own hands. Allardyce engineered yet another escape with just one loss in March, April and May. But he bolted for the England job after the Euros. Moyes was brought in to replace him less than a month before the season, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The instability was stunning. Five managers in four years. It was also crippling. Each new hire required a restart. Each new Sunderland boss gutted the old manager’s squad, only to have his remodeling torn down by the next boss roughly a year later. Investments were made, and the return on many of them diminished with each sacking. Money was wasted.
(Sidebar: The idea that a new manager needs his players and has no use for those already under contract at a club is somewhat logical, but the extent to which it informs squad-building, recruitment and spending is ludicrous. Every player has value. If a new manager can’t find that value in players that aren’t his, he shouldn’t be hired in the first place.)
Anyway, money was wasted time and time again. Short, however, felt the need to continue to fork up cash time and time again because of the dire situations the club continued to find itself in. The need to strengthen was unceasing. And, crucially, that need was to strengthen for the immediate future. Sunderland had to get bang for its buck in the short term; it had to bring in players that could contribute right away and keep the club in the Premier League. That led to a bevy of loan signings and middle-aged stopgaps.
But because of the instability and constant flirtation with relegation, the stopgaps were merely stopgaps for more stopgaps. Between January 2014 and February 2016, Sunderland made 26 meaningful signings — some on loan, some permanent, some loans with purchase options, some free transfers, and some in between. Of those 26 players, only seven are currently on the club’s senior roster. The 19 no longer at the club — or, in some cases, out on loan and seemingly not in the club’s future plans — had an average tenure of 1.13 seasons on Wearside. The squad turnover has been mindboggling, and the few mainstays that have survived aren’t, to use an American term, franchise players. For the most part, they’re retreads or role players like John O’Shea and Lee Cattermole.
So while the short-term solutions worked, the long-term problem festered, and was exacerbated by the lack of foresight. It wasn’t just the signings. The club couldn’t afford to implement progressive, forward-thinking ideas because, in critical moments, it couldn’t afford failure — even if the failure was temporary, and necessary for future benefit. When it did buy and play youngsters, it scrapped the plan in January. But when it didn’t, it again couldn’t afford to the following year because retooling for a relegation battle was the imperative. And when a manager did try to implement new, complex systems, he was sacked before the implementation could be completed, and Sunderland went back to square one.
In other words, Sunderland’s issues snowballed. Every season brought an increased chance of relegation. Every desperate attempt to lessen the odds for a given season increased the odds of relegation in the next. At long last, in 2016/17, the burden of the past became too heavy.
Sunderland’s relegation shouldn’t be a surprise. In many ways, it wasn’t. So let’s not forget the reasons it wasn’t a surprise; the reasons for its inevitability; the reasons the club’s decade-long run in the top flight is now over.