Stadium of plight: Sunderland at risk of their most shattering relegation

Louise Taylor on 22 February 2018

When Chris Coleman walks in, one question invariably seems to echo around the room. “Why?” the former Wales manager is asked. “Why Sunderland?” The moment at a Christmas drinks party when someone put it rather more bluntly and inquired what the hell he was doing there was not an isolated cameo.

Coleman typically responds with grace and humour but, just lately, his talk of “sleepless nights” and “soul destroying afternoons” in the technical area, allied to the sense he is “in the middle of a tornado” and “staring into an abyss”, reflects inner doubts.

When the 47-year-old led Wales to the semi-finals of Euro 2016 he surely could not have envisaged his next job would involve attempting to prevent deeply-in-debt Sunderland from dropping into English football’s third tier for only the second time in an often illustrious 139-year history.

Tuesday’s 1-0 defeat at Bolton left Coleman’s side bottom of the Championship and apparently heading for a second successive relegation. The six-times English champions have won only four of 16 league games since the Welshman succeeded Simon Grayson in November.

On Saturday angry protests against the absentee owner Ellis Short’s stewardship are expected at the Stadium of Light before the derby with play-off chasing Middlesbrough.

Already thousands of fans have signed a petition demanding Short sells up; the only problem is the American financier has been trying to do that for the past 18 months and the price has been slashed to £50m – which would pay off part of the debt the club owes him – but still there are no credible buyers.

Bolton v Sunderland
Sunderland players dispute Bolton’s winner on Tuesday, which left them bottom of the table and seemingly heading for a second successive relegation. Photograph: Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Domiciled in Florida, Short, who remarkably has never spoken with Coleman, has seen the club accumulate staggering debts standing at around £110m during his decade of ownership. In previous years he poured tens of millions of his fortune into keeping what was once his favourite toy afloat but he has apparently had enough and the cash injections are much reduced. In his absence Martin Bain, the chief executive, is taking considerable flak as he wrestles with the £35m annual wage bill that is swallowing much of this season’s £47m parachute payment.

Accordingly Grayson was allowed to spend only £1.25m on 10 players last summer and, contrary to expectation, Coleman was merely permitted four loan signings – Chelsea’s Jake Clarke-Salter, Liverpool’s Ovie Ejaria, Middlesbrough’s Ashley Fletcher and Lee Camp of Cardiff – in January. So far that quartet have all struggled in a squad containing seven loanees.

To add to the dysfunctional atmosphere, the £70,000-a-week erstwhile England midfielder Jack Rodwell is not in Coleman’s plans while L’Equipe reports that Sunderland are sending a collective £30,000 a week to France to subsidise the wages of Wahbi Khazri and Papy Djilobodji, the winger and defender they have loaned to Rennes and Dijon respectively.

Poor, sometimes appalling, player recruitment over several years largely provoked Sunderland’s plight and explains why the 49,000 capacity Stadium of Light is under half full on match days. Those who still attend frequently vent their frustration at the players, some of whom freeze under the attendant pressure.

As Sunderland’s ninth manager in six years Coleman has inherited some professionals who perhaps do not care as much as they should. It is perhaps no coincidence the club’s treatment room has been particularly full lately or that the manager has named an unchanged side on only one occasion. Coleman has alternated between a back five and a back four while pressing assorted tactical buttons but the problems seem more about mindsets than formations.

“Sunderland have arguably the best stadium in this division, it’s certainly the biggest, but that’s no advantage because our players can’t play in it,” says Gary Rowell, once the club’s star striker and still a cult figure on Wearside. “They aren’t handling the pressure.

“They’ve had nine home defeats this season, a horrifying statistic that says everything about the players’ lack of confidence and belief. They’ve been abysmal, lethargic and low-energy.”

Coleman, who has fully committed himself to “this massive club” by relocating his family from Winchester to Newcastle, says he “understands the supporters’ frustration”. Until recently he talked enthusiastically of rebuilding Sunderland but now seems less certain. “If we’re serious about making progress, we need to spend money,” he said. “But I don’t know what will happen in the summer.”

He has risked angering Short by stating nothing will change until a new owner is found. “Ellis wants to sell and supporters recognise that maybe his love for the club was yesterday,” he said. “They need people here who care about the club as much as them.”

On Wednesday the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were in town to inspect construction work at the £117m Northern Spire Bridge. A magnificent structure arcing imperiously over the Wear, it is intended to facilitate the regeneration of miles of post-industrial river bank and serve as a symbol of renewed hope for a city struggling to reinvent itself.

The only cloud on the horizon is the fear that its grand opening, scheduled for late spring, could coincide with the most shattering relegation of Sunderland AFC’s history.

Sign up for The Fiver and get our daily email on the world of football

Latest Football News