For the past three or four seasons, it’s become commonplace to expect Sunderland to be battling relegation. The good work of Martin O’Neill several seasons ago is now a distant memory for modern football fans with his efforts to help The Black Cats progress up the Premier League nowadays eclipsed by the fire fighting heroics of the club’s many managers to secure top flight survival. There was Di Canio, Poyet, Advocaat and of course Big Sam who seemingly defied all odds with impressive end of season runs to rescue Sunderland from a return to the second tier and even in spite of what looked like a much more assured, well considered and perhaps more reliable managerial appointment of David Moyes following Allardyce’s abrupt departure in what was the busiest two months of his career, you did always suspect that Sunderland could well be in the thick of a relegation scrap once again.
A new manager, especially one that was once deemed good enough and capable of managing one of the biggest clubs in World Football with a proven track record of managing a club successfully at Everton with limited resources yet to some degree of success, may have helped create some much needed optimism amongst the club’s supporters. Yet with the benefit of hindsight and with Sunderland staring firmly down the barrel of the gun with only a mere eight games remaining, Moyes’ incoming most definitely helped paper over the cracks with regards to the instability both on and even off the pitch.
By many in the world of football or at least admirers of the English top flight, Moyes’ move to Sunderland was regarded as a positive one; the right one even given recent difficult periods spent in Spain with Real Sociedad as well as his well documented struggles at Manchester United. Moyes had always gone on record to say that when the right club appeared, he would be looking to get back into English football at the nearest opportunity. Therefore inevitably as the Sunderland post came available once Big Sam had swapped The Black Cats for The Three Lions before a swift exit out of the back door before heading to The Eagles, all roads led to David Moyes and it wasn’t long before the Scotsman had signed on the dotted line with only a matter of weeks before the 2016/17 season got underway.
At a club with limited resources and one that has severely underperformed in recent years, you almost got the feeling that Moyes was back where he felt most comfortable – working with young players, navigating himself around transfer windows with scarce financial resources and attempting to win points, progressively make their way up the table and in the process building a club for the future. A perfect fit, a match made in heaven, whatever you want to call it, everything suggested that this season could well be the one where both Moyes and Sunderland at long last return to their former glory or at least have much brighter days ahead in unison.
Yet without even needing to fully fast forward to the present day, around eight months go before the Premier League season had even properly got underway, Moyes’ comments appeared to then set the gone for the rest of the 2016/17 season. Symbolic of the club as a whole from its employees, backroom staff and its supporters both at home and further afield, the manager embodies his team. Therefore when Moyes both willingly and publicly declared that Sunderland fans should be realistic and in essence prepare themselves for another relegation battle even before half a dozen Premier League games, you can almost see why many doubted Sunderland from the off. Negativity in football can come in many different shapes and forms and once it’s there it can be very difficult to shake off.
Therefore given such a negative tone came from the club’s manager, a new one of that at the very start of his managerial reign at a club desperate to at last look ahead rather than backwards, to question ‘why things would suddenly change’ and that critics ‘would probably be right because that’s where they’ve (Sunderland) been every other year for the last four years’ is not only the first of several but perhaps the greatest error which David Moyes has committed this season. As the manager, Moyes with the backing of his board and accord with his players is the only one capable of changing things and too seemingly write off his side so prematurely was criminal.
Adding that it would be difficult to ‘hide the facts’ alongside suggesting that something simply ‘can’t dramatically change’ before repeating that ‘it can’t’, Moyes therefore got off to a bad start in the North East. Likewise if the club’s supporters were flat before, they’ll have certainly felt much flatter after Moyes’ musings which seemingly reflected onto the club on the pitch as Sunderland started the season just as they left off with a mixture of draws and several defeats consigning the club to the bottom three from the very start of the season. In fact at the time of writing with eight games remaining, apart from five league victories over Watford, Crystal Palace, Bournemouth and both Hull and Leicester City, Sunderland have had little to cheer about with the same number of draws and a staggering twenty league defeats this season. Likewise had it not been for the heroics of Jordan Pickford on a weekly basis and the often game-saving goals courtesy of model professional Jermain Defoe, you dread to think where Sunderland might have been thus far.
Of course there are ongoing issues which David Moyes has alluded to throughout the season with regards to the ownership of the club and a potential deal in the pipline to sell Sunderland FC in the near future. These clearly won’t have helped David Moyes in his day to day job away from the touchline but on the pitch too, a severe lack of ambition is evident through the club’s lack of investment when it comes to recruitment in both transfer windows. Aside from just under thirty five million pounds spent on the likes of Papy Djilobodji, Didier N’Dong and Everton duo Darron Gibson and Bryon Oviedo, Moyes has relied heavily on free transfers and loans – often from his former clubs, to help bolster the squad for season ahead.
Alongside both Gibson and Oviedo, two players that performed consistently under Moyes during his time upon Merseyside, similarly Steven Pienaar, Joleon Lescott and Victor Anichebe (all formerly of Everton too) have joined Moyes, as have Donald Love and Paddy McNair from Manchester United. Clearly Moyes knows what they are capable of but given that many are either past their peak or simply perhaps not good enough to cut it on a weekly basis in the English Premier League, it is therefore unsurprising that Moyes has often been so downhearted when it comes to transfer talk.
Only in January, Moyes painted an incredibly bleak forecast for the rest of the season, alluding to players who he had signed in the winter window as players that ‘won’t make a big difference’ to the clubs chances of survival. Not exactly what Sunderland supporters would have wanted to hear heading into a notoriously difficult period of the season with zero expectation, little confidence and no optimism whatsoever coming from Moyes himself. Not only that when you take one look at some of Sunderland’s outgoings, with players such as Giaccherini shining after an impressive 2016 European Championship, Liam Bridcutt and Steven Fletcher in the thick of Championship play-off chasing sides Leeds United and Sheffield Wednesday respectively alongside the departures of both Patrick van Aanholt and Sebastian Coates, you do wonder just how better off Sunderland would have been had they kept of hold of players who are no strangers to a relegation dogfight with the Black Cats in the past.
Moyes despite his reluctance to look ahead and in many ways ignore the obvious threat of relegation has on occasions ilustrated his attitude towards managing Sunderland, indicating a willingness to stick to an approach which has always proved productive in the past. Yet whilst Moyes is right to highlight ‘450, 500 games in the Premier League’, given his sides form this season alongside the latter days of his tenure at Manchester United, you do question whether as he says is right to ‘keep doing what you’ve always done… keep doing what you think is right’. Both in the league as well as the EFL and FA Cup competitions which Sunderland crashed out of very early on, Moyes meanwhile told Sky Sports back in October that ‘every game is a big game for us, we’re nearly in a must-win situation in every game we go into now… an individual cup final in every game’. And whilst there has been some grit and determination from a select few, a wider quality throughout the Sunderland squad doesn’t appear to be there however leaving Sunderland in a precarious position, slipping closer and closer into the English second tier.
Sunderland’s underwhelming performances on the pitch have therefore only been in matched, at least terms of the dissapointment amongst the clubs supporters, by their reactions to Moyes’ misplaced, misjudged and often pessimistic remarks about the clubs chances of survival. With this mind, a season of blunders was further compounded in recent days after Moyes was at first reported to have made comments to which the Scotsman has later retracted and deeply regrets, telling BBC reporter Vicki Sparks she might “get a slap”, after he was asked by Sparks if the presence of owner Ellis Short put extra pressure on him following his side’s 0-0 draw with Burnley. Perhaps meant in jest, the public outcry following such comments is testament to the balanced, equal and respectful attitude found in all tiers of English football.
Therefore just when it couldn’t get worse for Sunderland with less and less games remaining to maintain their Premier League status, this weeks events has simply been another moment which the club will want to forget about sooner rather than later. And whilst anything is always possible in the English Premier League, it does however to be too little too late for David Moyes’ side to survive with relegation looming. Moyes meanwhile continues to fight another day and if he is the man the club decide to guide the club next season to an instant promotion, a little less conversation and a lot more action is certainly needed.