Here’s ITV Tyne Tees sports reporter Simon O’Rourke with a progress report on Sunderland’s season so far
Does it matter how you get there if you end up where you want to be?
Sunderland AFC is never simple, the fans know that, but what is the right response at this time? Worry about what might have gone wrong, or just go with it and enjoy the ride? And what if there’s no right or wrong answer? As has so often been the case with this confusing football club, Sunderland is everything, everywhere, all at once.
Most importantly, it’s going really well in the Championship and there are encouraging signs the team is adapting quickly to the demands of playing at a higher level. The young players (and there are a lot of them) have been good and it looks like there’s a lot more to come from them. The older players, in particular Evans and Batth, have been everything you’d want them to be – calm, consistent and strong leaders. The squad is obviously in a fairly good place as a group and the evidence of that is their mature response to the change of Head Coach.
So that’s nice.
But, when you think about how the club got there, you can lose yourself down rabbit holes.
It’s mostly to do with the “plan” – young players, more young players and sustainable growth. There are a few things to say here: First, Sunderland AFC has a plan? That in itself is something new. After years of mostly wasting Irish and American money, then years of throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks, the idea of an actual plan is refreshing.
And the plan itself is attractive.
The idea of building through youth is just a thoroughly good and wholesome concept. But, then you worry whether the plan will work, especially after Ross Stewart got injured.
That leads to concerns about the people implementing the plan and whether they know what they’re doing and THAT leads to concerns about how much of a factor the plan was in Alex Neil’s decision to leave for Stoke. Then, if you are so inclined, you can choose to go deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole and start wondering about the financial health of the club, the infrastructure, the ticketing, the retail and you can end up still very uncertain about the direction in which the club is going.
Here’s the thing though. I’ve covered Sunderland since the 20th century and there’s always stuff to worry about, even in the good times. It’s just the sort of football club where chaos and calm exist side by side.
So right now, my glass is half full. To address the rabbit holes: the plan IS working – at the moment. The plan helped get Sunderland promoted and many of the young players are shining in the Championship. So Kristjaan Speakman and his recruitment team can be happy with their work – for the moment.
But, you must accept that by its very nature, the plan won’t always work. Not every young player they sign will be a success and there will be more games like Middlesbrough, in which the young team gets a bit bullied and just seems to lose itself (I fully recognise the Ross Stewart pre-match injury was a massive factor in that game, but what happened on the pitch will happen again).
As for Alex Neil? Well, his lack of comfort in the plan was definitely part of the problem. But there was so much more that went into that situation on both sides: The idea of long-term strategy vs short-term career goals, ego, self-worth, carelessness, a lack of proper communication and, yes, money. It’s done now and relitigating it doesn’t help.
But Speakman and Sunderland do at least learn their lessons and this time there was no post-Lee Johnson time lag. The situation was quickly resolved, Tony Mowbray took over and he’s done as well, or better than could’ve reasonably been expected. He’s a good man, a good manager and his track record with developing young players aligns him with what the club wants to do.
The deeper cuts are harder to quantify, but as long as the club listens to fans over issues such as ticketing and retail, then at least there’s a feeling that things are moving forward.
So, here they are, going along nicely in the Championship and feeling optimistic for the future. Not everything is perfect, but it never is. They might have taken the scenic route to get here, but when has Sunderland Association Football Club ever followed the path of least resistance?