There’s a darkness over the Stadium of Light. Seasons riddled with the misery of desperate relegation scraps, undignified managerial sackings, abject administration and reckless recruitment have seen this darkness fester and grow. Now, following a fifth consecutive year battling the drop, it has finally consumed the club.
Next season Sunderland will once again be a second-tier club and - even without the departed David Moyes - those now in charge of leading a path back to the top flight would rather be anywhere else. Apathy has replaced anger among the loyal Sunderland following. The passion is gone. Wearside is weary. So how did it get to be so bleak?
In a recent interview, former boss Gus Poyet hinted at a sinister underbelly: “there’s something inside Sunderland, something at its very core. If I knew what it was I’d say but I don’t. But it’s there and needs to be changed at the root.”
But the man who provided one of the few rays of light in recent seasons by leading Sunderland to a cup final is wrong to suggest that the club’s persistent failure lies at the heart of something hidden and undiagnosed. This oversimplification, echoed by Sunderland managers before him and since, only serves to absolve the many at fault for the club’s current malaise.
Despite the narrative of successive managers looking for an excuse, there is no demon hiding on the banks of the Wear, carrying the ills of SAFC on its back. Instead there are simply too many within its walls guilty of a litany of catastrophic errors and misjudgments that sees the club plummeting towards its latest nadir.
Together, they are responsible for the Seven Deadly Sins of Sunderland AFC.
“the desire for material wealth or gain”
It was Sunday 16th January 2011, and a full-house at the Stadium of Light had just celebrated Asamoah Gyan’s injury-time equaliser in the north-east derby against Newcastle. It was his seventh goal in a Sunderland shirt since his much-heralded £13m summer arrival. His strike made up for several chances missed by the unusually profligate Darren Bent, the only man in Steve Bruce’s squad to have scored more than the Ghanaian by the season’s mid-point.
Encouragingly for Sunderland fans, the hard-fought point against their rivals left them in sixth place, daring to dream of a European spot. The ambition was justified: Bruce’s squad was the most-talented ever assembled on Wearside in the Premier League era.
On-loan Danny Welbeck was showing signs of his future class, while Frazier Campbell, Stephane Sessegnon and Steed Malbranque further bolstered a group brimming with attacking guile. The fresh legs of Jordan Henderson and the bite of Lee Cattermole meant there was no shortage of midfield running, while John Mensah and Boudewijn Zenden brought valued international experience. In goal, Craig Gordon and Simon Mignolet vied for the number 1 shirt. Yet despite this impressive depth, Bruce’s side lived or died by the form of its charismatic frontmen, Bent and Gyan.
Within months, they’d both be gone.
The reason for Bent’s flustered finishing in the derby became apparent within hours of the result. Despite forcing his way back into the England fold with 32 goals in 58 appearances for Sunderland, his representatives had been engineering a move.
The player Sunderland had rejuvenated from a career low at Spurs was repaying Bruce’s faith with a shock move to a club one place above the relegation zone. When his next Premier League goal came just six days later, Bent was wearing the claret and blue of Aston Villa following a £24m deal.
Sunderland managed only four more wins before the end of the season, slipping well out of contention for Europe and even flirting with a relegation scrap before a late rally saw them consolidate in tenth.
By September, the man whose goals promised to soften the blow of Bent’s departure had also forced a move. Despite being only 25-years-old, Gyan had decided that his future lay in the footballing hotbed of Abu Dhabi, as he secured a lucrative season-long loan move to Al-Ain. With Welbeck having returned to his parent club, Sunderland’s goal supply had dried up. Bruce cut a frustrated figure saying,
“Do you think we wanted to lose Bent and Gyan? For all the greatness of the Premier League, money and greed now spirals out of control.
“I can understand anyone who wants to better themselves. Ambition is what makes the great players great players. That’s normal. That’s what makes the best. The rest? They’re driven by something else, which I can never come to terms with.
“If we’re not careful, we’re going to alienate the man in the street.”
“the desire for others' traits, status, abilities, or situation”
The following season, Sunderland had registered only two wins from their first 13 matches. The fans were not happy, and owner Ellis Short agreed, “sadly results this season have simply not been good enough and I feel the time is right to make a change.” That change arrived at Bruce’s door.
Short may not have been impressed with Bruce’s on-field results, but there was something that had pleased him that would shape his future decisions. The sales of Bent and Gyan, along with Kenwyne Jones before them (£8m to Stoke) and Jordan Henderson after (£20m to Liverpool) ensured that, under Bruce, the club had recorded a net transfer profit.
Martin O’Neill arrived quickly amid much fanfare, but failed to improve performances in the long-term. Not only were Sunderland slipping towards the drop the following season, but Bruce’s successor had failed to display similar savvy in the market. Big clubs were no longer coveting their players. And no one felt that more keenly than Short.
“Because we’re not producing profits, every time we buy a player, Ellis is virtually buying that player for the club himself. We’re really lucky to have his backing and support. Of course you could be a profitable club and sell your best players, but it’s a relegation model.”
Three weeks after Chief Executive Margaret Byrne gave the above interview to local press, Martin O’Neill was sacked. Short had a new plan, recommended to him by an Italian football agent by the name of Roberto De Fanti.
Installing the controversial Paolo Di Canio as “head coach” was the first step. When the fiery Italian kept Sunderland in the league, it allowed Short to advance with his intention to adopt a continental approach. The summer of 2013 saw a complete overhaul of Sunderland’s hierarchy. Long-standing chief scout Pop Robson was axed, but not before leaving with a plea to his former employer,
“I fear it might happen that Sunderland will concentrate solely on the overseas market. They might go for cheaper options, younger players, European players, Croatians, Italians – but they still have to be good enough to play in the Premier League.”
De Fanti was appointed Sunderland’s first ever Director of Football, bringing with him new chief scout Valentino Angeloni. The two had worked together at Udinese, a club that had become famed over the years for recruiting young talent from overseas, and recouping big bucks on the same players just seasons later. Alexis Sanchez was their most famous graduate, brought over from Chile for a nominal fee in 2006 before being sold to Barcelona five years later for £23m.
The “Udinese model” became the buzzword of the summer, as Short dreamed of his new Italian bargain-spotters finding the next Sanchez. As an additional coincidence, Angeloni was the scout credited with unearthing former Sunderland striker Gyan, another who had come through the churn-and-earn Udinese system.
But there was another team playing in black and white whose methods Short had also taken a keen interest in, and it was one much closer to home. Under the often-divisive ownership of Mike Ashley, Newcastle were rarely in the news for the right reasons. But as a fellow businessman first and foremost, Short looked past the headlines and spotted plenty he liked about his rival’s book-keeping.
Utilising the talents of revered scout Graham Carr, Ashley implemented a strict policy of buying players aged 25 and under, providing the best potential for a high re-sale value.
While the restrictions didn’t always go down well with managers keen to bring in experience, the low-cost signings of Hatem Ben Arfa, Cheik Tiote, Papiss Cisse, Yohan Cabaye and Moussa Sissoko proved - initially at least - as popular with the fans as they did with the accountants. It was a model that Short desperately wanted to emulate.
“an inordinate desire to consume more than that which one requires”
De Fanti and Angeloni immediately got to work, and by the time the September transfer window had closed, 14 players had arrived at a cost of £30m. To fund their spree, they’d sanctioned the sale of Simon Mignolet to Liverpool for £9m, and Stephane Sessegnon to West Brom for £6m.
Mignolet was the club’s player of the year, an award Sessegnon had held the season before. Given Byrne’s comments about not selling Sunderland’s best players, the drastic U-turn demonstrated just how much faith was being placed in this new recruitment team.
The players came from far and wide; Italy, Holland, Greece, Sweden, Turkey, Switzerland, France and Portugal. At £6m each, Emanuele Giaccherini and Jozy Altidore were the only players to cost more than £3m, while arrivals from Premier League clubs numbered just three: Vito Mannone from Arsenal along with loanees Ki Sung-Yong (Swansea) and Fabio Borini (Liverpool). The average age of the signings was 23-years-old.
Di Canio named five of them in his team for the opening day defeat to Fulham. After five games, nine of the arrivals had started at least one game, though only one – Czech defender Ondrej Celustka – had started all five. Still without a win, Di Canio’s jittery selection not only betrayed a clear mistrust in the players that had been bought for him but caused disillusionment among the existing squad, who escalated their concerns to the board in a bid to get him out.
Following Sunderland’s 3-0 defeat to West Brom, Di Canio was sacked. The opening goal in that game was scored by a Baggies debutant by the name of Stephane Sessegnon. It was the first sign that Ellis Short’s Italian Job had blown more than just the doors off Sunderland’s squad.
Their latest head coach, Gus Poyet, made no effort to hide his disdain for De Fanti and co. When Sunderland meted out revenge over Fulham with a 4-1 thumping at Craven Cottage in January 2014, Poyet’s starting XI featured only three of the summer influx: Mannone, Borini and Ki – the very three signed from Premier League clubs.
Short got the message. Barely seven months after they were appointed, Di Fanti and Angeloni were cast aside, along with their insatiable appetite for the cheap and mediocre imports Pop Robson had warned about.
“the avoidance or disinterest in work, or the failure to act and utilise one’s talents.”
Short was unwilling to give up on his Director of Football experiment. In came Lee Congerton, arriving from a similar role in Hamburg with the unenviable task of shifting De Fanti’s clutter while simultaneously strengthening a desperately imbalanced squad. Having worked under the tutelage of Frank Arnesen at Chelsea and in Germany, the club portrayed Congerton’s arrival as something of a coup.
In a clear response to his predecessors’ flawed methodology, Congerton not only prioritised players with experience of the Premier League, but favoured marquee signings to excite the fans. Given the tight budget he was operating on, it was a brave move.
Had they all proven as successful as the deal to swap a misfiring Jozy Altidore for Jermain Defoe in January 2015, Congerton would not only still be at the club, but Sunderland would still be in the Premier League. As it was, his other big-money signings not only proved as poorly judged as De Fanti’s, but three times as expensive.
The hapless duo of Jack Rodwell and Jeremain Lens never suggested they had either the attitude or talent to handle the pressure of being a £10m plus player at Sunderland, a figure neither are likely to command again with the club keen to offload.
Then there was Congerton’s haphazard use of the loan market, which saw Sunderland fail to retain players who had impressed, while bizarrely being forced to purchase players who hadn’t.
So while the club saw fit to refuse to pay an agreed £5.5m fee for the impressive Marcus Alonso (now a £24m Premier League winner with Chelsea), an inconsistent Santiago Vergini was purchased for £3m the following summer, before being shipped out on loan to Getafe just weeks later.
While another change in manager (from Poyet to Dick Advocaat) can in some part explain the strange situation with Vergini, no such excuse can be found for the horror show that could yet see Sunderland forced to pay upwards of £8m for Ricky Alvarez, a player who made just five Premier League starts during a loan spell from Inter Milan before Sunderland contested their liability on a mandatory transfer. The case is still being disputed by both clubs, while Alvarez now plies his trade for neither, finding himself rather more cherished at Sampdoria.
Congerton’s neglect of the minutiae has revealed itself in other ways in recent weeks. A perplexing failure to insert a standard relegation clause in Rodwell’s contract means he is the only member of Sunderland’s squad not to suffer a pay cut following the drop, meaning he will rank among the Championship’s highest earners next season on a reported £60k per week. Meanwhile a generous clause that was inserted in Defoe’s contract meant Sunderland’s best player would leave for nothing.
The club’s continued transfer failings led even the usually-reserved Advocaat to become exasperated. It meant, for the fifth season in a row, Sunderland would be changing their manager just months into a new season. It was now Sam Allardyce’s turn to take the increasingly maligned top job on Wearside.
He agreed only on the proviso that he could mould the club as he saw fit, which included the final say on all transfers. Congerton was placed on gardening leave, taking the shambolic Director of Football structure with him.
Despite the reputation he brought with him Congerton’s mistakes left a legacy as poor as his predecessors. Like those before him, Allardyce would inherit an idle yet highly-rewarded squad who seemed only willing to produce their best form in the final months of a campaign.
In the four seasons that followed Steve Bruce’s sacking, no team had secured safety in quite the same dizzyingly desperate ways that Sunderland had managed. During this time, the fans saw their side lose a miserable 68 times in the league, yet 59 of those losses came in the first three quarters of the campaign. Discounting the final game dead rubbers once safety was assured, Sunderland had lost only six times from April onwards during that time. That’s a period spanning 27 games.
Jamie Carragher reflected the wider view within football on this apathetic and listless squad,
“I have a problem with Sunderland because it winds me up to see them do a lap of honour every year after they stay up. They are awful for most of the season, then the Houdini act comes out. I don't know how they do it.”
Ultimately, Short’s attempt to introduce a European recruitment model had served only to flood the club with those looking for an easy buck for minimal effort. Under Allardyce, it was time to go back to basics.
“an uncontrollable passion or longing”
Sam Allardyce had never sought to hide his deep-rooted yearning for the biggest job in English football. The man who once claimed that he’d win the league every year as boss of Real Madrid or Inter Milan, who also believed that he’d only get a top job if his name was “Allardici”, was always desperate to prove that he had what it took to be the most high-profile manager in the country.
But when he celebrated Sunderland’s latest survival by beating his chest following a 3-0 home win over Everton, England was a long way from his mind. He had become the fourth manager in consecutive seasons to lead Sunderland to unlikely safety with a game to go, and his focus was on ending the cycle of despair on Wearside.
There had been false dawns in the past of course, but for once Sunderland fans had genuine reason to believe that Allardyce was the man to bring them the stability they so craved. Not only did his past record with Bolton, Blackburn and West Ham suggest that with a full season in charge he could get the side playing above and beyond their capabilities, but the proof was there on the pitch.
It may have taken him a few months, but Allardyce had managed to tighten up Sunderland’s defence, get the best from Defoe, and ensure the Stadium of Light was once again a tough place to come to. Sunderland’s form in the second half of the season was equivalent to that of a steady mid-table team. The cornerstones were in place to provide the club with a real identity once again.
Just as significantly, Allardyce’s first transfer window in charge had been Sunderland’s most successful in years, as Jan Kirchhoff, Lamine Kone and Whabi Khazri arrived in January to be thrust straight into the first team. The three immediately became key to Sunderland’s survival, at the cost of less than £15m. It boded well for a summer of strengthening.
Instead, on 27th June, Iceland humiliated England at the European Championships in France. From the moment Joe Hart allowed Kolbeinn Sigthorsson’s tame shot to squirm past him in Nice, the wheels were in motion for Big Sam to get his big wish.
Allardyce became the favourite for the job just minutes after Roy Hodgson resigned following Iceland’s shock win, meaning that just 43 days after securing safety, Sunderland were once again mired in managerial uncertainty. Even for the Black Cats, that was impressively premature for a season to be curtailed.
When the FA eventually came calling they did so at such lacklustre pace that, for much of pre-season, Sunderland were without their boss on the training pitch or at warm-up matches.
Instead of working on tactics or writing up transfer shortlists, Allardyce was perfecting FA-headed Powerpoint slides. With such indecision in the air, it was no surprise that the club failed to attract a single new player to their ranks before Allardyce was officially appointed as the England manager on 22nd July, just three weeks before the season was to commence.
“strong vengeful anger or indignation”
As disappointed as they were to lose Allardyce at such a critical juncture in pre-season, Sunderland could not wait to show off their new manager. Ellis Short was so giddy at the appointment that he revealed that Moyes was his “number one managerial target for the last five appointments”.
Short added that only Moyes’ “desire to honour existing contracts meant we were not able to bring him to Sunderland previously.” While intended as a compliment to his new man, the dig at Allardyce was hardly subtle.
Yet when the question was put to Moyes as to why he had not taken up Short’s offers in the past, there was no mention of contracts. Instead, his answer revealed a foreboding insight into his mindset: "the main reason was because I didn't think they could stay up, so what Sam did was amazing.”
Just three years after being given the top job at the biggest club in the world, Moyes was now in charge of a team he openly didn’t think were good enough for the top flight.
Sunderland wanted to portray their appointment as the steely and confident manager who’d spent an impressive 11 seasons and 513 games at Everton. But, even at his grand unveiling, the hints were there that this was no longer that man. Instead, this was an altogether more chastened and deflated character. This was a manager who’d lasted only 10 months at Manchester United and just under a year at Real Sociedad. A manager who’d been unemployed for six months. A manager who was angry, bitter, and desperate to mend his battered reputation.
After a narrow and unlucky defeat at Manchester City, Sunderland proceeded to lose 2-1 at home to Middlesbrough in their second game of the season. Despite the disappointment, fans appreciated that Moyes’ side were down to the bare bones due to several injuries to key players, and with a couple weeks left in the transfer market, there was no sense of panic in the stands.
Yet the post-match press coverage concerned not Sunderland’s injuries, nor even the details of the match itself. Instead, the headlines focused on Moyes’ admission, two games into the season, that fans should expect another relegation battle, "that's where they've been every other year for the last four years, so why would it suddenly change?".
It was another glimpse of the “open and honest” approach that he would employ throughout the season. But if it was meant to endear him to the fans and the media, it failed on both fronts. Instead, his lack of savvy while the cameras were rolling made him an easy target for probing reporters, while coming across to supporters as dour, negative and doom-laden.
Ahead of Sunderland’s trip to Old Trafford on Boxing Day, Moyes was only too happy to speak to journalists about his time as Sir Alex Ferguson’s successor, seemingly oblivious to the possibility of opening old wounds.
He spoke of wanting to sign Gareth Bale, Cesc Fabregas and Cristiano Ronaldo. He referred to himself in the third person while comparing himself to the likes of Carlo Ancelotti, Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola. He said Manchester United’s “great traditions” had “gone”. As cathartic as it might have been for Moyes to have his say, it did Sunderland, the side he was now meant to be representing, no favours. They were brushed aside 3-1.
Just weeks later, Sunderland headed to West Brom knowing that a win could lift them out of the bottom three for the first time all season. Yet rather than discuss such a possibility, Moyes decided to reveal that his January transfer budget was “limited with a big L” while adding “to suggest the players we bring in would be making a big difference, wouldn't be correct."
Coming exactly a year after Allardyce had made all the difference with three key signings, it was a particularly ill-timed and downbeat message to be sending out to supporters. Especially as they were now forced to witness the galling sight of Big Sam spending as smartly as ever at relegation rivals Crystal Palace.
The comparisons became inevitable on Wearside, and it was never going to reflect well on Moyes. Allardyce was big, brash and full of self-belief. It was an arrogance that had bred confidence among his Sunderland squad, as did his steadfast refusal to ever utter the ‘R-word’. Meanwhile his successor blurted out relegation just two games in and repeated it often through a torrid campaign, with the only sign of arrogance from Moyes being the sense that he felt he was doing the club a favour merely by being there.
By January, Moyes’ pessimistic statements were proving to be a poisonous mix that belittled the playing squad, discouraged potential signings, and sapped all belief from the supporters who, while rock bottom of the table, had continued to follow the side in large numbers home and away.
The fans were beginning to sense that Moyes’ brand of soul-sapping realism was less about being transparent with the supporters and more about self-preservation. Especially when it concerned the failings of a starting XI that now contained a majority of players signed by him.
In welcoming Steven Pienaar, Victor Anichebe, Bryan Oviedo, Darron Gibson and Joleon Lescott, Moyes only strengthened the case against him that he was yesterday’s man by putting the ‘Everton band’ back together. Then there was Adnan Januzaj on loan from Man Utd, a player who appeared to believe he deserved to be somewhere so much better despite a string of recent failures. He proved to be the perfect embodiment of Moyes’ time on Wearside.
On 26th April, Moyes was charged by the FA for his remarks to a BBC reporter. It represented the latest low for a club and a manager now beginning to specialise in negative press. His exchange with Vicky Sparks gave the outside world an unseemly sight of the anger that lay inside Moyes. It was an anger that had consumed him all season and manifested itself in crippling negativity. And it was this negativity that became a self-fulfilling prophecy when Sunderland were finally relegated, three days later.
“an excessive belief in one's own abilities. The sin from which all others arise.”
Niall Quinn scored 71 goals during a six-year spell that remains for several generations of Sunderland fans the most fondly remembered of their lifetime. Bravely ignoring the adage of never going back, Quinn returned when the club needed him most, bringing with him a multi-million consortium in 2006 following the side’s pitiful 15-point relegation from the Premier League.
The former striker, who once memorably scored a match-winning goal before donning the gloves and keeping a clean sheet in a crucial promotion clash at Bradford, would prove that he was just as much a selfless team player off the pitch too.
Reluctantly taking on the job of manager during the short time it required for him to attract Roy Keane to the role, he would then go on to excel as the type of affable, honest and trustworthy chairman that for all but a few clubs now represents something from a bygone era.
Ellis Short became majority shareholder on the Sunderland board in September 2008 after stealthily acquiring a controlling interest over the Quinn-led consortium the previous year. Quinn had coveted the Texan when the two met at the Ryder Cup in Dublin in 2006, but despite taking a controlling interest in the club, it was said that Short was happy to remain behind the scenes and leave the day-to-day management of the club to Quinn and manager Keane.
It didn’t quite work out that way. Within three months, Keane had resigned, upset that Short had questioned his commitment to the club and demanded that he move permanently to the north-east, “He spoke to me like I was something on the bottom of his shoe,” revealed a typically forthright Keane in his autobiography.
By May 2009, Short had taken complete ownership of the club, buying out the remaining shares from the board. Then in October 2011, Quinn stepped down as chairman, to be replaced by Short. Quinn was to remain in an “international development” role but the message was clear; Short was now in charge.
As if to affirm this point, the American’s first big call came within two months, when he sacked the man Quinn had headhunted to replace Keane, Steve Bruce. Quinn would remain at the club only another four months. He left with Sunderland 9th in the Premier League.
Quinn’s departure left a vacuum that Short, for all his good intentions and significant investment, has been unable to fill since. Without Quinn, Short didn’t just lose a bridge into the dressing room and a voice on football matters, where De Fanti and Congerton failed spectacularly to live up to the rigours of the job. But just as crucially, a well-trodden pathway to the fans was also eroded. Some might argue irrevocably so, following the way in which the club handled Adam Johnson’s court case and prosecution in 2016.
Casting a squalid shame upon the club never before experienced on Wearside, the case saw Margaret Byrne resign as Sunderland CEO after admitting to a ‘serious error of judgement’ in allowing Johnson to continue representing the club despite some of the details she knew about the case. Once again, Short was tasked with finding a replacement for a key figure at the club who proved not up to the task.
Martin Bain is now in the post but the jury remains out. In his debut season the club have once again bought poorly, lost their manager and been relegated. The constraints Bain is working under cannot be underestimated and have been documented above, but the bad PR that followed an announcement of mass staff redundancies at the time the underperforming players were being treated to a trip to New York suggests that Bain is not the man to bring a light touch back to the club.
Warmth and transparency came naturally with Niall Quinn at the helm. A self-effacing Quinn would be the first to admit he didn’t possess the sharpest business mind, but what he did offer was a human touch to the all-too-corporate world of football. His regular roadshows encouraged supporters to ask questions about the club’s direction, engendering a closeness that reached its most touching when he paid £8,000 on taxi fares for away fans stranded in Bristol following a cancelled flight.
Positive PR came easy with ‘Quinny’. The club’s communications department must rue the day he left. It’s certainly not a stretch to think both the Johnson case and the news of redundancies would have been handled more sensitively and professionally had Quinn still been around. Yet undoubtedly, it is the supporters who have suffered the most without him. For many, this is the most alienated and detached from the club they’ve ever felt.
Back when Di Canio was sacked in 2013, Quinn was doing media work when he was asked what type of manager he thought Sunderland needed to see an upturn in fortunes.
"They need someone for the senior players to really buy into and show the younger players how it's done. They need someone charismatic to do that, someone who gives them a lift.
"They don't need someone who is going to go out and say, 'I'm in a hopeless situation here, these players are no good'. Sometimes managers try and buy themselves a bit of time by saying they have got a really tough job.
"They need a manager who believes in them. Someone who's going to roll their sleeves up, be charismatic and say, 'We're still fighting'.”
Nearly four years on, and his advice remains as relevant now as it was then. But Quinn is no longer in charge of making the appointment. That task is down to the man who replaced him in the belief that he could do a better job. Five years, six managers and seven sins later, it might just be time for Ellis Short to swallow some pride and admit he was wrong.