Peter Reid may be the light at end of tunnel for Sunderland
Turnstile 46, Stadium of Light, Sunderland, 7.40pm Tuesday: above the dual entrance a red sign says £30. There is a queue each side, a dozen deep and growing. Admittedly most shuffling through hold pre-paid stubs from the office across the car park where a “walk-up” ticket costs a fiver less.
Still, this is a scene: this shows there are people in Wearside prepared to pay £25 or £30 to see Sunderland, 23rd in the Championship, against Bolton, 24th. They are prepared to pay a serious sum to watch a team that is yet to win on the pitch on the other side of the turnstile in 2017. This is a scene that, simultaneously, bemuses and intrigues.
The first half has been painful for those who passed through, Bolton taking the lead through a former Newcastle player, Sammy Ameobi, while Sunderland are slow and lack structure and confidence. The mood sours.
There is an improvement in the second half and Paddy McNair leaves the bench to bring energy and an equaliser. The young man from Antrim has been out for a year. He wants to get going again.
At 9.40 the final whistle blows on a 3-3 draw. McNair’s goal means a point for Sunderland and it lifts them up a place to 22nd. But when manager Simon Grayson swivels to walk down the red tunnel, it is for the last time. He has been in charge for only 18 matches but before 10 o’clock, he is told he is no longer Sunderland manager. It is a brutal termination.
An old football joke about failing teams in Sunderland colours is that the players could not find a red shirt in an abattoir. That is what the club has become for managers, seven signed and gone in under six years.
Grayson, a decent football man who played alongside Gary Speed in the Leeds United youth team and under Martin O’Neill at Leicester, who took Leeds out of League One as a manager and who was doing a fine job at Preston until Sunderland lured him with promises of what-might-be, deserved better. No matter how callous an industry, no one deserves this abrupt treatment.
It would be nice to think the non-football men who organised it, Ellis Short, the owner and his chief executive Martin Bain, would reflect and accept responsibility. Unfortunately that tends not to be the way with boardroom men. Boardroom men point, football men leave.
Short has put money into Sunderland but he has presided over chaotic mediocrity. He has seen off Roy Keane, Steve Bruce, Niall Quinn and Martin O’Neill; he has appointed Paolo Di Canio, Roberto De Fanti, Lee Congerton and Dick Advocaat. Ultimately he sanctioned the signing of Jozy Altidore and Ricky Alvarez.
The one real success, Sam Allardyce, left for England. But that relieved Short of a row with Allardyce, who was considering walking away.
Of all the many bad misses of the Short era, this was a turning point. As England hovered, Allardyce was at Hartlepool for a pre-season friendly already muttering about transfer recommendations that were not arriving. Had they been, he might have paused for thought.
Momentum was lost. This was only 16 months ago. Sunderland had just finished the season under Allardyce with three wins and three draws. They beat Chelsea and Manchester United and lost just two of their last 14 Premier League matches.
The idea that Sunderland as a club is unmanageable is exposed by this run. This was a moment when Short and his advisers should have remembered a club is built around the team on the pitch and in the dugout.
Go back to the turn of the century when Peter Reid was in charge. Sunderland finished seventh twice in a row with a back four of Chris Makin, Jody Craddock, Emerson Thome and Michael Gray. What Reid did was manage. He organised and inspired. He wanted to be manager of Sunderland and an average attendance of 45,000 was the response.
David Moyes, Allardyce’s successor, never gave the impression he was delighted to be Sunderland manager. He still had the same players as Allardyce but there was a collective wilting that was embarrassing.
Long before then, Short was using the word “gruelling” to describe season after season scratching for Premier League survival. But the joylessness stems from the top, from his decision-making, or decision-lurching.
On Tuesday, Sunderland’s failure to win means they equalled the English record of 19 home League games without a win. If they do not beat Millwall at the Stadium of Light in a fortnight, the record will be Sunderland’s alone.
Some will blame the home fans, say the team cannot function in front of such demanding supporters. Those voices were not at turnstile 46 on Tuesday seeing fans hand over hard-earned notes, nor were they saying that when Lewis Grabban made it 2-1 and the noise was good.
‘Come on, Ten Pints’
Of course Sunderland supporters criticise, as all fans do – the man a few seats along shouted “Come on, Ten Pints” whenever Darron Gibson was given the ball – but the club’s support is a positive, not a negative.
The fans’ attitude, however, as well as their numbers, has become an issue to some, including themselves. No one likes being conned and when the club announces attendances that do not correspond with the view inside the stadium, they feel just as Arsenal fans do.
It adds to an irritation, stoked already by the obvious fact that Sunderland’s squad contains players who are under-performing. Aiden McGeady and McNair were the exceptions on Tuesday. There is talent here, but it is, like the club overall, in freefall.
When the final whistle blows, there is a smattering of boos, but not uproar. There has been effort shown.
But it does not prevent Grayson’s dismissal. There has been one win in the Championship so far. League One is over the shoulder.
The dismal run has not stopped every ticket being sold for the away end at Middlesbrough on Sunday. What they could do with is hope to validate faith. These fans go as the support of a dispirited team, representing a failing club, placed on the market by a want-away owner. They are not the problem.
Reid would be proud to be manager of Sunderland again, which is a start, an important one.
As for Quinn, he is not busy in Ireland preparing a buy-out as happened before; Drumaville feels a long time ago. But he has not given up on football and is relishing playing for a local over-35s team. And he has not given up on Sunderland.
The idea that Sunderland as a club is unmanageable is exposed by this run. This was a moment when Short and his advisors should have remembered a club is built around the team on the pitch and in the dugout.
Sunderland’s Stadium of Light: Last Tuesday Sunderland’s failure to beat Bolton means they equalled the English record of 19 home League games without a win and ultimately cost Simon Grayson his job after only 18 matches in charge.