Every month we welcome a special guest to Wise Men Say to provide their opinions and insight. Today, it’s the turn of ITV Tyne Tees sports correspondent and the voice of a thousand end of season videos, it’s Simon O’Rourke, who has penned an open letter to new Sunderland manager Alex Neil.
Welcome, Alex Neil!
You are a brave man to take on this job because Sunderland AFC is never easy at the best of times and these are far from the best of times.
But you are also a lucky man because Sunderland can be wonderful and it’s not an impossible job.
That phrase is a rotten football cliché. It’s used for dysfunctional mega-clubs, perennial underachievers and fallen giants alike. But, it’s not true. There are no impossible coaching and management jobs in professional football, but there are thousands of bad appointments and hundreds of badly run football clubs. You get a pass on the first part because you’re new. But the part about badly-run football clubs, well, that might be a problem for you.
But before the problem, let’s talk about the opportunity.
This is a club that’s put its supporters through hell in recent years yet still they come in incredible numbers. You’re getting history, pride and resilience here. They’ll tell you when they’re not happy, but when they are happy, they’re magnificent. You also get a top-flight infrastructure and an unusual, but interesting squad (Lots of young players, not enough central defenders and a 39-year old) which is certainly among the best, if not the best, in the division.
So yes, Sunderland AFC is definitely not an impossible job. But nobody ever said it was going to be easy. Especially at this low point in its history.
And the history weighs heavily. Even now, nearly four seasons in, Sunderland in League 1 is still incongruous. It’s both right and wrong at the same time. To be clear: in football terms, there’s no argument and no complaint. This is the level at which the organisation currently deserves to be. It’s painful but true. But still, Sunderland feels too big, too noisy, too much for this.
That tends to mean every setback feels heavy and painful beyond proportion and you have to understand this. When you put this club upon your shoulders, you also bear the weight of history.
Then there’s the part about badly-run football clubs and, right now at Sunderland, the question of exactly who is running the football club. Alex, this is your problem, whether you like it or not. The recent revelations about the division of ownership were shocking on the one hand, but not at all surprising on the other hand. The previous owners had no relationship with the fans when they moved out. They burnt it down. All benefit of the doubt had been used up. All goodwill was gone.
So to find out they’re still a significant part of the club, even if only on paper, is profoundly depressing for Black Cats supporters. That needs to change. All ties should be cut.
There’s still too much Madrox and too much Methven.
It’s not your job to sort out ownership, but to repeat what I wrote earlier, it is your problem. The bond of trust with supporters has been strained, if not broken by this, when what you could really do with is unity, focus and the sense that everyone is pulling in the same direction.
It doesn’t necessarily mean the club is being badly-run now though. Kyril Louis Dreyfus and Kristjaan Speakman at least seem to be making the decisions and they seem to have a plan. There’s more of a sense of direction on the pitch and more of an effort to repair relationships and structures off the pitch. Of course, one way or another, it hasn’t been a great few weeks for KLD and KS, but we all make mistakes. The trick is to learn from them.
So welcome to the Stadium of Light, Alex. If I could give you advice, I’d offer this: Embrace the potential. See what Sunderland could be, not what it is now. Don’t be afraid of it and don’t be overwhelmed by it (you don’t look the type to scare easily). Oh, and don’t trust men in red chinos.