One week in the life of Sunderland AFC – just a completely barmy football club

Sunderland AFC were trying to be a more normal, sober football club. But it's never, ever going to happen. Chris Weatherspoon assesses a bonkers few weeks on Wearside

If you thought the last two years on this spinning ball of doom were surreal, well, ladies and gentlemen, we might have just topped it. Quite what any of us were expecting as Monday sped towards midnight I’m not exactly sure, but I think it’s safe to say we weren’t expecting that. If Salvador Dali was here to rehash his best work – you know the one, that painting with the melting clocks which represent the collapse of everything we thought we knew – he’d be replacing the background cliffs of Catalonia with the cool red brickwork of the Academy of Light.

Another transfer window has, almost mercifully, bolted itself shut, though not before Wee Phillie had given the glazing a thorough inspection. The sight of a 50-something-year-old man bobbing across a car park, selfie stick in hand, perplexed onlookers in the middle distance, probably wasn’t high on most critics’ must-watch lists for 2022. It should be now. Sorry all, the competition’s over before it ever really began: give SAFC Fan TV the BAFTA and we’ll see you next year.

Just as we got to thinking Monday evening was the finale of the latest series of Wearside Chaos, Wednesday gave us the bonus footage. Reports came out that the club have offered Roy Keane a second stint as manager and, for the second time in 48 hours, we all lost our minds. Some claim no such offer has been made yet, but what is clear is that Keane is very much an option the club are entertaining.

A little over a month ago we’d hammered Sheffield Wednesday 5-0 and sat smugly atop League One. Since then we’ve sabotaged our own pitch, dropped ten points out of 15, conceded 14 goals, suffered the worst result in our club’s history, sacked the manager, binned off arguably our best defender this season and signed a 39-year-old club darling to mass acclaim. Oh, and the Roy Keane thing. It’s never quiet here, but fucking hell.

Signing a man little over ten years shy of being entitled to prostate checks on the NHS might not scream forward-thinking on the surface, but when that man is Jermain Defoe and the club is ours it’s very difficult not to welcome him back with a smile. Defoe was a glimmer of light in the wallowing darkness that was his first spell here and if he can contribute even just a handful of goals during the run-in his short-term signing will have been worth it.

He has 17 games in which to make an impact, or 1,530 minutes. That is more than the combined amount of league football he’s played since the summer of 2019 (1,413 minutes), but then no one is particularly expecting him to be a mainstay in the first XI. Instead the likelihood is he’ll be the bench option of all bench options in this league, while the auxiliary benefits to Ross Stewart of having a former England international around the place won’t hurt either.

Defoe stole the fanfare and the attention on deadline day, including from Wee Phillie who, like any good stalker, found his target eventually. Yet the most promising deal of the day involved the man at the heart of an unfortunate case of mistaken identity.

It’s Defoe, it’s Defoe…it’s not Defoe, or Jay Matete, as we should probably stick to calling him from hereon, arrived from Fleetwood Town for around half a million pounds, a deal which has positive connotations both on and off the field.

On it, we’ve signed a player many lower league observers rave about, who fits the new mould of being young and energetic, with good potential to either grow with us or be sold to a top club for decent money in the future. Better still, he’s already been playing (well) regularly, which is more than could be said for most of the youngsters we’ve brought in this season. He also fills what had become a gaping hole at the base of our midfield.

Off it, the spending of a decent fee on a player that was being touted for a Championship move is perhaps indicative of a shift in thinking at the top of the club.

A year ago, Kyril Louis-Dreyfus arrived and immediately funded the signings of Stewart and Carl Winchester, invested in the club’s recruitment team and streaming service and, at least according to reports, had grand ambitions elsewhere too.

Something changed thereafter, and we won’t get into it again here, but there have been not entirely unfounded fears the club might view promotion this season as supplementary to the long-term plan rather than a primary focus. Spending on Matete now, the short-term Defoe punt and, principally, sacking the manager all point to a realisation that going up this season is imperative and that the requisite funding needs to be readily available.

On the topic of Lee Johnson, you can do worse than borrow from Ernest Hemingway’s famous rumination on bankruptcy to try and explain his demise. How did you lose the plot at Sunderland, Lee? Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.

That 6-0 loss at Bolton Wanderers (which, and I cannot believe this is true, was still only a few days ago) should have put paid to any manager of our club. Sure enough, it did. But Johnson’s missteps weren’t confined to a bad day in Lancashire.

That was the fourth time this season his side had imploded on the road, and from topping the table at New Year we’ve ceded significant ground to Rotherham United and Wigan Athletic. The word that best comes to mind when described Johnson’s time here is ‘erratic’. Even within games we’ve witnessed wild fluctuations in fortune. Under him we’ve invariably started games like a raging house fire before fizzling out, and his streaky reputation looks pretty understandable given how much his management appears to rely on momentum.

Even for Sunderland it would seem bonkers to suggest all is rosy in the garden a few days after the club’s worst ever result. Correspondingly, it isn’t. Sacking Johnson was the right move given he was not going to take us up but doing so without a replacement ready to go screams of those in charge not really having in place the robust plans they’ve been at pains to talk up.

Louis-Dreyfus told TalkSport on Tuesday that the decision resulted from “an accumulation of factors” rather than a knee-jerk response to the Bolton tonking. That was likely said to avoid the accusation he and Kristjaan Speakman had acted out of shock, though of course it can be true that Johnson was walking on thin ice already but also that the hierarchy were jolted into action by the manner of the weekend’s collapse.

Speaking of jolts, re-hiring Roy Keane would constitute a pretty big one. Keane is, it hardly needs saying, quite a long time out of management. Appointing him seems unlikely to be data-led given I’m not entirely sure xG was even a thing the last time he took charge of a side. It would, instead, be a move predicated on personality, on him giving this young team a sharp boost towards promotion. It would also, a bit like Defoe, be the populist’s choice.

Should Keane get the job, it might work. Or it might not. Anyone claiming it’ll be a definite success/failure does so without much to back it up because, truthfully, it’s a punt. A gambit. Far from promotion not being a priority, it now appears to be the club’s overriding goal: up or bust (not literally, we hope).

Hiring someone like him is laden with as much upside risk as downside. Get it right and the ride will be magical, a team and fan base melded as one. The runaway freight train that was his first season at the helm remains a favourite of many, this author included. Get it wrong and the fallout could be devastating, and good luck to anyone thinking he won’t lay bare any mess he uncovers along the way.

Most have been buoyed by the Keane links, just as the Defoe signing tugged at the heartstrings and the emotional side of fans that is never too far from the surface. Whether it is wise for a club to be ran in that vein is another matter entirely.

Going after Keane but not doing it before sacking his predecessor; letting Tom Flanagan go without a replacement; not really prioritising shoring up a shaky backline (though the thinking may be that Matete will contribute some much needed steel in front of them); all of it feels a little chaotic, and a movement away from the sober and evidence-based decision-making this regime have sought to project prior to the last month. Yet where we are right now presents us with an inescapable truth: whatever we opt for feels like a step into the unknown.

Some have highlighted that January has shown Louis-Dreyfus to be in absolute control of all things Sunderland. Certainly, it seems the unfolding events are being heavily driven by his desires. Yet the ownership question – and again, we’ll keep it light here – was never centred on the daft notion that Louis-Dreyfus was Stewart Donald’s “puppet” or whatever else.

Rather the fear is that our former-but-not-quite-former-enough owners will act as a restraint on the club’s ambitions and progression. If Louis-Dreyfus is funding fees and managerial changes in this division then it’s a positive indication of his commitment to the club, but it’s a world away from the costs incurred trying to get out of the Championship. Over the last five years, clubs promoted to the Premier League have averaged operating losses in their promotion seasons, inclusive of player sales, of over £30m.

In any case, the Championship remains an elusive destination. Whether we get there this summer or not rests heavily on what has suddenly become a decision of huge importance. The idea behind the club’s new model was that managers, or head coaches, can be pretty interchangeable. Yet so overwhelming is our need to be promoted, and so clearly has the club signposted as much this last week, that whomever takes the reins simply has to take us up this season.

January’s transfer activity doesn’t suggest we are quite willing to rip up the new strategy just yet, but the last week suggests it could begin to buckle under the strain. Even many of us who have been on board with the long-term goals are so desperate to get out of League One that a short-term lift seems like the best strategy from here. Sacking Johnson has opened up a scenario that will make or break the season, and perhaps even more than that too.

Dependent on when you read this, we might well have a new manager. And it might be Roy Keane. Or he might have turned us down. To be honest I’ve given up guessing. When Louis-Dreyfus, Speakman and co arrived a year so ago the expectation was that this would become a more sombre football club, one that was a little more normal.

None of this is normal. None of it is easy to form an opinion on either. This is a football club that seems forever destined to be round the bend, over the top, a mess of chaos and excitement and God knows what else. Probably best we all just embrace the madness.