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18th Aug 2015

Mark Chapman column: Sunderland fans deserve better than this

Mark Chapman

At 3.26 on the opening Saturday of the season, a Sunderland supporting friend of mine tweeted ‘Can the season end now?’.

They had just conceded a third at Leicester and his mood was not improved by my reply that if the season were to end when he wanted, his side would be relegated. That mood has darkened further after another miserable weekend.

I would imagine all Sunderland fans are feeling the same, but are the players? Lee Cattermole looked shell-shocked in his post match interview on Saturday.


He spoke of Sunderland teams of the past always fighting for each other but the fight wasn’t there with this group, adding that “We need to show each other the respect we deserve”.

His manager is bemused, suggesting some players “don’t know what to do” and that there were ‘”eleven players but they were not a team”.

In an attempt to turn things around, Dick Advocaat called a crisis meeting on Sunday, but it will surely take more than that. In any case, Younes Kaboul looks so disorientated at the moment that he probably went into the wrong room.


Sunderland fans deserve better than crisis meetings, fire-fighting and mid-season appointments to rescue them at the death. So much media focus and criticism over the past few seasons has been aimed at Mike Ashley and Newcastle that in some ways the operation at Sunderland has got off lightly.

Yes, the joke is that they start badly, sack the manager, bring in a ‘big personality’ to motivate flat players, win the derby, surprise a top four side away from home in April or May and survive. It is no joke to long-suffering supporters and surely it can’t work every season.

A turnover of managers (13 in 13 seasons including caretakers) leads to a turnover of players. There is no common theme between the appointments, bar the big personality trait of the last few, and they will have knowledge of different markets.

Paolo Di Canio even had an agent, Roberto De Fanti, as his sporting director. The squad ends up with no continuity.

Charlie Adam told me over the weekend on Match of the Day 2 Extra that the key to the success of the evolution of Stoke City under Mark Hughes was to keep a nucleus in the dressing room. A nucleus that keeps new players in check, educates them on the club procedures, keeps the Stoke ethos alive. Can there even be a nucleus at Sunderland?

According to the club’s website, only Cattermole, Seb Larsson, Wes Brown, John O’Shea and keeper Jordan Pickford have been there for more than four years, and Brown and O’Shea have lost their places to Kaboul and Seb Coates.


Cash has been splashed. According to the last set of Premier League accounts, Sunderland’s wage bill was £70m for the year to July 2014. That’s the 8th highest in the division. Some will tell you they have to pay over the odds to get players to the North East, but if that is the case then you would immediately question the mentality of the player, wouldn’t you?

This is a Premier League club, with a big ground, close to some of the most beautiful coastline in the country. Although, at the risk of sounding like Roy Keane, maybe beautiful coastlines are near the top of the agenda for the modern footballer.

There is hope though; Sunderland have a director of football now in Lee Congerton. Once on the books of Crewe, a club who have always tried to do things properly, he has worked with Jose Mourinho, Brendan Rodgers, Andre Villas-Boas and Frank Arnesen and has European experience through fulfilling a similar role with Hamburg. Could he provide the continuity? The chance to build a nucleus?

Also lost in the furore of the shambles on Saturday was the story around the Sunderland goalscorer: Duncan Watmore. He’s 21 and joined the club straight from non-league Altrincham. He’s young, talented and intelligent. He’s a winger who has played for England Under 20s while still studying for an economics degree (note in the mind of older readers, this immediately makes him the new Steve Coppell).

He is not the finished article. He is not the saviour of Sunderland, but he doesn’t give the impression of just being at the club because they pay well. If the club could develop him and a few more like him they might end up with a nucleus and not a fan wanting a season to end after just 26 minutes.


Match of the Day 2 is live. It means my day starts in the studios around 10am and finishes around midnight and that means there is a lot of time to put the world to rights. We watch the games in a production office with several screens. This week as well as the football, dressage was on one of the screens, and it led to quite a heated debate with Ruud Gullit about whether dressage is a sport or a skill.

The rights and wrongs of that debate are for another time but if you had told my 14-year old-self in 1988 whether nearly 30 years later he would be discussing the art of making a horse dance with the captain of the European Champions and one of the greatest footballers of his generation, I don’t think he would have believed you.