Sunderland's start to life back in the Championship has been a massive disappointment for the Wearside faithful, and the 2014 EFL Cup finalists are now floundering perilously close to the drop zone.
In a recent home defeat to Sheffield United, it was impossible to tell which side had spent the last decade in the Premier League, and which was just emerging from six years in the third tier of English football. A drastic improvement is needed if Sunderland AFC is to avoid the unthinkable. Though the club has never stayed down for long after relegations in the Premier League era, there is one stat that most Wearsiders will find disquieting.
Bouncing back not a given for Sunderland
Forebodingly, in the past twenty-five years, only eight teams finishing bottom of the Premier League have bounced back immediately. One of those clubs, represented by the bottom-placed Nottingham Forest team of 1998/99, has never since returned to the Premier League. After finishing bottom in 2015/16, Aston Villa also look unlikely to threaten the automatic promotion spots next May and could be in for a long stay in the Championship – if they are lucky. Furthermore, it has been seven years since a bottom-placed Premier League team bounced back via one of the automatic promotion spots, with West Brom doing so in 2010.
Sunderland fans that place their faith in the size of the club, and its history of recovery from relegation, can take some solace in the fact that instant promotion was gained after the club’s last relegation in 2006. However, the evolution of the ‘parachute payments’ protocol over the past eleven years has evened the playing field somewhat. So too has the monetary value of promotion from League One, and as such, Sunderland’s plight should come as little surprise. A lack of familiarity between squad and manager always nullifies whatever perceived 'invincibility' a club of Sunderland's size has against relegation, and that unfamiliarity is undoubtedly one of the primary reasons for the club’s present situation.
At the very top of the table, where Sunderland expected to be at this point of the season, Cardiff are proving dominant with Neil Warnock in charge. Warnock is well-known for shaping teams up in the Championship, and after a recent near-brush with relegation, the Bluebirds look once more capable of mounting a genuine promotion challenge. In the upper reaches, supposedly ‘lesser’ teams than Sunderland – such as Ipswich, Wolves and Sheffield United – are playing as close-knit units to good effect.
Mediocre summer business spells further struggles
The latest football spread betting markets indicate that Sunderland are exactly mid-way in the long list for the EFL Championship. Boasting neither a particularly high nor low buy/sell integer, and being given odds of around 40/1 to win the league, a season of mere ’consolidation’ would be no disgrace for Sunderland. It should also be noted that Sunderland also have intimidating company at the bottom of the table. Birmingham City, for instance, are newly rejuvenated after the appointment of Harry Redknapp, and Burton Albion have already defied the odds once by surviving in 2016/17. With nothing assured in the Championship, as evidenced by Wolves’ all-too-recent double relegation, the current state of the Sunderland squad would make season of mere ‘consolidation’ seem like a minor achievement in itself.
The effect of Jermain Defoe’s absence is, of course, already well-documented. Without his divine interventions as a focal point for an otherwise disjointed team, Sunderland would have been relegated long before May 2017. Fans are still split as to whether or not his designated replacement Lewis Grabban can cut the mustard at a club of Sunderland’s magnitude. After hitting an average of one goal every three games for Norwich in the 2014/15 EFL Championship season, his poor form for Bournemouth reduced his stock drastically in the years after the Cherries’ promotion. Now approaching his thirties, Grabban offers a wealth of experience, and has already netted a few goals for Sunderland to keep the Black Cats out of the relegation zone. Any injury to him would, however, spell big trouble for Sunderland.
‘Easy’ October to be crucial juncture
Depending on the personnel that arrive, and the manager that motivates them (or otherwise), a great influx of loan signings and free transfers can either prove a masterstroke or a disaster. For teams like Sunderland, which are still regrouping after Premier League relegation, there is no middle ground when being forced to take such a pragmatic option. Looking ahead, October – the month in which the table begins to take meaningful form – is the month in which Sunderland AFC simply must ‘do or die’.
The month of October includes consecutive home games against Bolton and Bristol City, with both of those clubs still commanding much shorter odds for relegation than Sunderland. A trip to a Brentford side in apparent freefall will also be a true test of Sunderland’s credentials. Quite simply, the results must come – and soon.