With Sam Allardyce, Sean Dyche and Nigel Pearson in the frame to replace Dick Advocaat at Sunderland, Michael Graham outlines the job the chosen manager will have on his hands.
There are very few sure things in the crazy world of Premier League football. At the start of any given season, you can probably be certain that Chelsea’s Jose Mourinho will be charged for something he has said, or that Arsene Wenger will not see a controversial incident, but there isn’t much else.
Now we can add that an outwardly appearing panic-stricken Sunderland, presuming they haven’t gone down, will be looking for a new manager at some point during the course of the campaign.
This time it is a little different, but only in the sense that Dick Advocaat chose to walk away as opposed to being sacked.
Frustratingly for Sunderland, Advocaat’s position was never in danger. Even after a wretched start to the season that has seen eight Premier League games pass without a win for the Black Cats, the feeling at the club was they had the right man at the helm to turn it around.
It wasn’t a case of the same old turmoil engulfing the club and the manager being the one to pay the price, although the end result is ultimately the same – Sunderland are looking for a manager to stave off a looming threat of relegation and save their season.
In many ways it’s a difficult situation to analyse. It’s all too tempting to just dismiss it as lessons still not being learned on Wearside and mistakes continuing to be repeated. Had Advocaat been sacked, it would have been a difficult assertion with which to disagree.
However, the waters have been muddied a little by Advocaat’s conclusion that, at 68 years old, he simply didn’t consider the stresses and frustrations of a scrap for survival to be something he needed in his life. To paraphrase the man himself, ‘a relegation struggle wasn’t his cup of tea’.
Perhaps it could be argued, with hindsight of course, that it highlights he was the wrong man to appoint in the first place, but there were not many saying so at the time.
Advocaat is irrelevant now in any case, a mere symptom of an overriding cause that, for years, Sunderland have struggled to isolate.
The question that remains is the same as it was after Steve Bruce or Martin O’Neill, or Paolo Di Canio, or Gus Poyet. Of all the accusations you could lay at the feet of the club, failing to attempt diverse solutions is certainly not one of them.
That in itself is surely the crux of the problem, though.
There is a word that has been missing from Sunderland for an awful long time in a footballing sense – ‘identity’. What is the personality of club?
Sunderland are a club constantly searching for a new identity. It has almost become a footballing in-house competition. The first man to instil an identity at Sunderland gets to keep the job. ‘Roll-up, roll-up, please direct your entries to c/o Stadium of Light reception, Sunderland.’
That is something that doesn’t sit well with me at all.
Sunderland is not a club that needs a new identity. It is a club that has forgotten an old one, an ancient one, one that exists now almost as a suppressed instinct in the stands, beaten and battered out of the supporters amid a whirlwind of confusion and failure rather than a palpable, conscious thought in itself.
Sunderland has started to look like a desperately tough nut to crack. In fact, it’s started to look like the Sudoku at the very end of the book that is labelled ‘Inter-galactically fiendish, DO NOT ATTEMPT’, yet we all stupidly think we’ve got what it takes anyway before tying ourselves in knots as we over-think ourselves into quiet disconsolation.
But the reality is that Sunderland is not a complicated beast at all. It’s actually a deceptively – international super-spy level of deception, apparently – simple club to understand.
It’s really all about the raw passions of the Sunderland crowd – and forget what you read about there no longer being any. Win your tackles, contest for the ball, be aggressive, be hostile, be the club that everyone hates to face. Be everything, in fact, that modern football cons us into thinking is abhorrent.
Show the crowd something raw that they can identify with, and they will back their team with a fervour few could ever dream of matching – and it will make a difference.
Whoever is next in line for the Sunderland hot-seat will succeed or fail, not by whether or not he can instil a new identity to the club, but by whether or not he can ignite the one that simmers frustratingly unfulfilled beneath the surface.
It’s a big job, and it has broken many a manager before, but it certainly doesn’t have to be a complicated one.
By Michael Graham
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