A month that has exposed the gaping wounds that remain at Sunderland

A last gasp draw at Wycombe Wanderers in January set the ball rolling on a complete dismantling of Sunderland's season, believes Graeme Atkinson

As the full time whistle blew at Adams Park on a Saturday in early January, Sunderland supporters were still blissfully unaware of what would shortly unfold. True there was disappointment in the manner of the three points lost, but the full ramifications had yet to develop.

Wycombe Wanderers had just snatched a late point from Lee Johnson’s Black Cats.

It need not have spiralled out of control from there. That it has is a sad indictment on the football club. The blame, if blame is being apportioned, can be spread widely. But, we will come back to that.

Wycombe was a game that perhaps should not have been played at all due to the number of Covid cases in the squad.

Some may argue there was enough on the day to beat the lowly Chairboys. Clearly there was not, and that should have been recognised by those responsible at the time. If that result was merely a graze, what has since followed has become somewhat of a self-inflicted fatal wound.

Yes, unfortunately, since that point gained on 8th January 2022, Sunderland AFC has again careered off the rails in spectacular fashion – an implosion akin to a supernova.

In retrospect it feels like that single match – a micro event in the much bigger picture of a campaign – has snowballed to once again reveal much larger, seismic issues within the club. The butterfly effect to Sunderland’s seemingly endless chaos theory.

Although, within the club’s canon of significant events, these last few weeks feel unprecedented.

Even for a side sadly renowned for crumbling, the recent results on the pitch (one win in eight and conceding 18 goals in the process all within the third tier) sadly, serve only tell half of the story.

Of significant alarm remain the concerns around the broader ownership/running of the club. It feels more important now than ever that this is resolved, and soon. These issues began to surface shortly after Louis-Dreyfus’ arrival in February 2021 with at best only a fudged response since then, despite pleas from supporters directly to the ownership group, asking them for answers.

The worrying lack of transparency here serves to now only muddy the waters of every decision the club make both on and off the pitch. Charlie Methven’s regular appearance at away matches also continues to fuel debate of his continued involvement behind closed doors. This is not sustainable. Indeed, against this backdrop it feels like it will be nigh on impossible to move forward.

Questions have and will continue to be asked of the ownership group until answers are provided.

Accountability is important in football and, although it should not be the case, failure brings this into sharper focus for many. Surely, at times like these, it is important to know where the blame lies.

Speaking of which, let us look at some of the big decisions taken by the club in recent times.

If the Sporting Director model is to be successful here on Wearside it relies upon a swift and seamless transition from one head coach to the next. The fact that the search for Lee Johnson’s replacement has developed into a protracted saga, leading in part to the potential collapse of another season, is tantamount to negligence.

As a result, supporters are left with several big questions;

• Just what is happening behind the scenes?

• Why, when the club’s Sporting Director, Kristjaan Speakman talks of ‘succession planning’ has it taken so long to find a  successor?

• How many are involved in the recruitment process and specifically who are they?

• Has the boardroom machinations within the ownership group led to the delay?

In fairness, perhaps some concerns around ‘the recruitment process’ stem from rumour and conjecture. But what we do know for certain is that it should have been resolved 24-48hrs after Johnson was given his P45, such was the precarious nature of our season.

Certainly if the club sought to allay any fears supporters may have around this, Speakman’s pre match interview on Saturday failed to read the room in any way shape or form. Far from giving fans the assurances they so desperately wanted, it highlighted Sunderland were lagging far behind in a recruitment process that should have long since been concluded.

The right appointment needs to be made absolutely, but respecting the urgency with which it is required is surely paramount.

Another point of interest here is the divergence in the profile of the candidates themselves – Roy Keane, Grant McCann, Neil Warnock, Jonathan Woodgate, Sabri Lamouchi, Neil Lennon and Patrick Kisnorbo, to name a few.

In all honesty we do not know with any certainty that all were interviewed for the job. Yet, several respected news outlets have reported the majority of these names met club officials. Based on their varying ages, experience and successes (or otherwise) it suggests that, if the fabled new data driven philosophy embedded at the club has not been thrown out with the bath water, it has perhaps seen some spillage.

Much has also been made of a long-term plan now in place at Sunderland. Reportedly the playing staff loyal to Johnson confronted Speakman about this in the aftermath of his dismissal.

Long term plans are important, of course. But, not when they are at the detriment of the here and now. You will surely lose your focus on the present if you constantly are looking off into the future. The short-term aim is to gain promotion from League One. It is really that simple. After four seasons and amidst an apparently new operating model, Sunderland AFC do not appear to be any closer to reaching this goal.

To compound matters, the recruitment model appears to have relied too heavily on youth. This writer wrote last summer, “…With all of the positives around the younger look, we cannot escape the fact that it brings a lack of experience and guile”.

Once the challenges of the season revealed themselves, the inexperienced Black Cats began playing like an U23 side against supposedly weaker opponents in the early rounds of a cup competition – technically decent but lacking strength, physicality and sound game management.

Unfortunately, even accounting for a romantic return for Jermain Defoe, nothing from the January transfer window helped solidify the existing weaknesses. It only added to them.

Perhaps the disappointment we are now feeling stems from knowing despite the early promise of a new dawn under Louis-Dreyfus, nothing much has materially changed. The fanbase is bereft of positivity. The results against Bolton and Cheltenham (eight goals conceded in two matches) felt worse than the play-off final defeat under Jack Ross. Collectively they were a reminder that the club’s journey forwards has taken a step backwards.

In fact, the last fortnight has confirmed what many have suspected for some time, that our football club’s custodians do not appear to be running things as well some claim.

As such the club has lost its way. One year on from Louis-Dreyfus’ arrival and it is difficult to see how many of the initial objectives set by the club are actually being met. Certainly those that translate to the results on the pitch are not. No one expects changes over night of course but the trajectory should always be upwards, not backwards.

If, as expected, Roy Keane is appointed shortly he must surely need to be a miracle worker to succeed in this mess of our own creation. 

However, the club is at its lowest in history having also just endured some of its worst ever results. Who knows what will happen next. But, if we need a representation of ourselves within Sunderland AFC to remind them of standards and expectations, is there anyone better than Roy Keane?