Sunderland Expects – But How Much?

Chris Weatherspoon looks at Sunderland's return to the Championship - and a shift in what was thought possible.

Anyone who has dipped their toe in the murky waters of financial audit will be aware of the expectation gap. A simple concept, it outlines the potential disparity between what the general public thinks auditors of a business have been hired to do (find each and every incidence of fraud, turn the company into a profit-making behemoth, solve world hunger) and what the auditors are actually hired to do (confirm that, within a certain margin of error, the company’s accounts accurately reflect reality).

Closing the gap is of paramount importance. The repercussions for not doing so range in severity, from mere disappointment at one end of the scale to professional dishonour at the other.

While not known by the same name elsewhere, expectation gaps proliferate in all walks of life, across all industries. Football is no exception. For an easy example, take a look at the message boards of any number of clubs right after the latest transfer window has clanged shut.

Wearside has been no stranger to differences in opinion on where Sunderland AFC should be but this summer past, for the first time since, I think, the Jurassic Period, no such disparity existed between fan base and club. After four years in the Siberian outpost that is League One, the on-field aim for the current season was succinct and universally agreed: survival.

Seven months and 34 games in, that aim looks nearly accomplished. Barring a collapse Gillian McKeith would be proud of, it will be. Sunderland have amassed 49 league points; only three times in the last decade has a Championship club been relegated with more.

Measured against the yardstick we all looked to in July, it is difficult to label this year anything other than a success. That Sunderland sit in this position with a quarter of the season still to be played is an achievement. Take into consideration that the club has manoeuvred itself there without the manager who brought the team to this division in the first place and, for most of the season, the only permanent first-team striker on the club’s books, and this near-feat looks all the more impressive.

Impressive too is the manner in which this unexpected position has been achieved. Exaggeration and knee-jerking continue to increase their hold on football discourse with each passing week, but it is an act of neither to suggest the current Sunderland side have played some of the best football supporters have witnessed in years.

Jack Clarke’s goal away to Reading in September is the obvious example but far from an outlier. A similarly pleasing team goal arrived at Wigan Athletic last month, while some of the interplay on show has been borderline telepathic. Rumours Amad Diallo and Patrick Roberts share a toothbrush are unconfirmed.

Listening to this team through radio commentary is an especially confounding experience. Where past broadcasts have been littered with sighs and groans, now the team’s possession-based approach adorns the airwaves with dizzying speed, names spooling out in rapid-fire as if under the looming presence of an auctioneer’s gavel.

It might seem unfair, then, for anyone to want more. Expectations for the season appear to have been not just met but surpassed, done so even in the face of hurdles few could have predicted. Yet expectations can shift. Just as mid-table obscurity can morph into hoping to avoid relegation, so can mere survival transform into a desire for something greater as the season progresses.

To say an expectation gap has re-opened between supporters and club would be a sweeping statement. Plenty remain more than pleased with how things are going, even allowing for recent disappointments. But for others there is an undeniable sense a door has opened this year which few expected Sunderland to be knocking on.

The reasons for the shift are both internal (this team has fared better than anyone envisioned) and external (this division does not burst with the substantial uptick in quality we foresaw from the third tier). Save for a second-half battering at the hands of a Burnley side that are walking back into the Premier League, Sunderland have not looked out of their depth this term. That game is also the only one this season where we have lost by more than a single goal with 11 men on the pitch.

The close proximity a majority of Championship clubs operate within has only served to heighten the feeling that merely surviving relegation this season might be doing ourselves down a tad. As recently as a month ago, just 11 points separated third and eighteenth. The gap has grown to 18 as teams gradually fall into their rightful places, but a maxim which has threaded the Championship for years remains true: put together a run of results and anything is possible.

Less than eight days ago, a run of results was within reach. An injury-time penalty halted Sunderland’s pursuit of three successive wins for the first time this season. In an unnerving return to past type, two defeats have swiftly followed.

That has left plenty ruing what may come to be an opportunity missed. Finishing in a play-off spot few had eyes on in the summer has become a tantalising vision over recent months, but a feeling the club hasn’t done as much as it could to grasp an unexpected chance is increasingly hard to dislodge.

The failure to sufficiently stock the squad up front is the most obvious, but not only, example to call upon. Even before Ross Stewart suffered his second long-term injury of the season, Tony Mowbray’s striking options looked thin on the ground. The club knew this and, for whatever reason, were unable to find a solution. The result is an on-loan youngster who has played minimal professional football and is being asked to emulate one of the best forwards in the division. Joe Gelhardt possesses undoubted promise but it is a lot of pressure to heap on young shoulders.

It is not the only place where an otherwise stellar recruitment policy has fallen short recently. The loss of Corry Evans to injury for the rest of the season was a clear blow but one where the impact has probably been underestimated.

Mowbray’s squad boasts central midfielders in abundance but most are raw and none, it is becoming increasingly apparent, have the ability of Evans to set the tempo of a game in this division, particularly when up against the better sides. Dan Neil and Eduoard Michut are talented technical footballers but have recently found themselves imposed upon in a manner you suspect Evans would have more successfully resisted.

At the beginning of January, the club found itself with a surprising decision to make. Presented with a more enviable league position than expected, those in charge could put a marker down and set out immediate promotion as the revised aim, or continue in the same vein as before. The month that followed pointed firmly towards the latter.

Suggestions the club hierarchy doesn’t actually want to be promoted this season are unfounded and more than likely too narrow a description to hold any weight. What does seem more agreeable, at least to this writer, is that promotion this term is viewed much more as a nice-to-have, a matter which provoked relative indifference rather than an impassioned shift in expectations within the club. Kyril Louis-Dreyfus’ comment in December that the club remains ‘very, very far off’ where it should and needs to be was instructive.

That is certainly true off the field, where valid criticisms of the club have largely been muted due to the fun playing out on it. But if promotion is to go untouched this season, there is a risk it may not be quite so close to our grasp next year. For one, that plan is reliant on the team improving year-on-year. That is easier said than done, particularly when the time will surely soon arrive where clubs take an active interest in purchasing our better players. One of those, Amad, will be gone this summer regardless of what the next couple of months bring.

Moreover, the relative weakness and/or equanimity of quality (delete as you see fit) within the Championship this year may not continue. A good recent thread on Twitter outlined a factor few have noticed but which is of great salience here. The division is currently littered with clubs that have hamstrung themselves with hefty player contracts, plenty of which were entered into before the arrival of a balance sheet-busting pandemic. This summer will see lots of those contracts come to an end and with it an opportunity for clubs to reset, rebuild and strengthen.

Assuming a majority of clubs will definitely do so would be foolish, not least because the Championship was a financial hellscape long before Covid-19 entered the worldwide vernacular. But it takes only a handful to be better than they are now for future promotion tussles to become even harder to win. The positive here is that, with a couple of exceptions, Sunderland’s recruitment model has been overwhelmingly successful. Maintaining that success won’t be easy, but those in charge of the strategy deserve the optimistic view that the team and squad will continue to improve.

In many ways, this season comprised a free hit for Sunderland AFC. Provided relegation was avoided, anything beyond that would be a bonus. For most, that remains the overriding feeling, even if missing out on a play-off berth would now induce a smidge of disappointment. For the first time in a long while this season has brought little anxiety or angst.

The big challenge will come next year, when few will desire another season of consolidation. Promotion and ending the club’s longest stint outside of the top division in our history will be the order of the day, and fans will hope the club’s aims align accordingly. That pressure from the stands, absent this season, will have its impact on the team too.

Whether the club agrees with that future goal remains to be seen. This season, whatever the remainder brings, has to date been beyond what anyone expected, especially after Alex Neil upped sticks for the Potteries just five games in. The club, Mowbray and the players deserve great credit for that.

Outside of the here and now this remains Sunderland AFC and a club which bears a great weight of expectation, and one which will never be deemed a success if it remains in the second tier of English football. Remaining there this year will be accepted, even if an expectation gap has started to appear since the season began. The trick in the summer will be to ensure any such gap closes once more – the club has shown too much potential and spurred too much enjoyment this year to risk going backwards.